Does prayer work for non-spiritual situations? When someone says “my thoughts and prayers are with you” are they taking the easy way out rather than actually doing something productive?
These questions have been asked for millennia, but they have been brought to the fore again recently, with the October 7th terror attack in Israel and the continued threat against Jewish life around the world. There has been an outpouring of support for the worldwide Jewish community, and within the Jewish community itself there has been a tremendous reawakening of unity and solidarity.
In addition to the surge in material support for Israel and Jews, with money and supplies being contributed by the plane load to help the soldiers and first-responders fight the war against the terrorists, we have also been coming together spiritually. Prayer vigils and mitzvah commitments aimed at bringing light into the world, with the goal of eradicating the darkness with light, have been ever prevalent.
Fighting darkness with light is not a new thing, but the nagging question of what prayer and mitzvahs actually accomplish still needs to be addressed. Do we pray to make ourselves feel better? Is the increase of mitzvahs like laying tefillin and lighting Shabbat candles just so that we can feel some sort of solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world who are doing the same? Of course, the latter plays an important role, but to what end? Why not leave spirituality to spiritual situations, and focus instead primarily on winning militarily and in the most practical ways possible?
The answer lies in the fact that there is much more to the way G-d runs the world than we will ever know. But what we do know is that everything that occurs, even the most natural events around us, are all part of G-d’s master plan. And since G-d controls both the natural and the supranatural, this means that from His perspective both are one and the same. Thus, our contributions to world events should also not be limited to just one path. We have an equal obligation to act spiritually as we do to carry out the material requirements to succeed.
The Torah describes our patriarch Jacob’s instructions to his sons as they were embarking on their return trip to Egypt to face the person they assumed was merely the country’s viceroy, but who was in fact their brother Joseph. Because they weren’t aware of his true identity, they planned to bring him gifts of appeasement. Yet Jacob told them to pray as well. But what benefit would prayer have when facing an antagonistic individual who they believed cared only for materialism?
Jacob was also not aware that the man they were facing was his son. But he did have the wisdom to recognize that no matter what situation a Jew finds himself in, prayer should always play a role in how he manages it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a seemingly spiritual issue or merely a mundane concern, because from G-d’s perspective both the spiritual and the mundane are the same. Therefore, every situation requires a spiritual remedy too.
So he sent them with clear instructions to pray and to be sure to focus on their spiritual well being. His message was that because there is no difference in G-d’s eyes, there should be no difference for us either. We pray when we feel lost, we pray when we need material help, and we pray when things are going well too.
And we pray now too. Not because we have nothing else to do, but because prayer and mitzvahs are exactly what the world needs right now. It doesn’t take the place of doing what is necessary to win the physical battle, rather it is a fundamental component in winning. When Jews pray and do mitzvah, we invoke the most sublime blessings for the entire world, which is exactly what we need right now.
And G-d willing, our prayers will be answered in the most revealed and practical manner.