Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action. -Mahatma Gandhi
There is a not-uncommon phenomenon in Hebrew prayer, of people not understanding what they are saying. This goes so far as to the trend of some people, trying to be particularly devout, of reciting Psalms throughout the day, though they may not understand the words. Some go so far as to recite the entire Book of Psalms in one sitting or even multiple times a day, leaving time for little else in their days.
The source for the power of prayer in general and Psalms in particular is an ancient tradition. The Talmud affirms that “whoever says the Praise of David (referring to Psalm 145) every day is guaranteed the World to Come.”
However, Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 7:37 (Tzav) adds a caveat to the above. The prayers are mainly effective when we understand what we’re saying. While there is some value to saying it even if we don’t fully understand, the power of the prayers is when we are able to internalize the concepts we’re saying, when we are able to delve into the meaning within our communications with God.
There is a related principle from this week’s Torah reading regarding the sacrifices. The Sages explain that even just reading about the sacrifices, especially in our day and age, while the Temple is yet to be rebuilt, is akin to actually bringing the real flesh-and-blood sacrifices. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that here too, it’s not just reading the words, but really contemplating the significance of the words, the profound messages and the divine imperative which underlines the holy texts.
A related challenge is that for those who pray on a daily basis, and recite the same text all the time, the act of praying can become monotonous. It can become a burden. People may speed through the text just to get it over with. Their mouths may be saying the words, but their hearts and minds are most likely elsewhere. The truth however, and a response to the challenge, is that the words of the prayer are rich and complex. They are filled with nuance and significance which can take a lifetime to discover. They can lead to greater insights as to our history and our tradition. That is part of Rabbeinu Bechaye’s suggestion. He guides us to delve into the interpretations of prayer. There are mystical hints. One can find the keyhole to wonders. It should lead to a growing faith in God and indeed the World to Come.
May we rediscover the meaning, usefulness, sublimity and power of prayer.
Shabbat Shalom & Chag Kasher Ve’Sameach,
To the members of The Westside Shul in LA for a warm welcome and a meaningful prayer service.