There is a cycle in this country. A tragedy strikes a community and after an increasingly short grieving period, both sides of the political divide make some sort of comment. Whether those comments are self serving or an attempt to address the problem can be debated. But whatever the comment, the political right tends to end their message with, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” While the left has grown tired of that sentiment as a meaningless tagline and the inaction that follows.
It is understandable that someone who was not religious would find the offering of prayers in the time of tragedy meaningless. Given that mass shootings in recent decades have skyrocketed, it would seem that these prayers are not only ineffective, once might even (satirically) say that added prayers correlate to the increased gun violence. So as a religious person who prays at my synagogue three times a day, how am I supposed to view the worth of my own prayers? Are they simply a positive way to orient and center myself? Or do they literally have an affect on the world around me?
What Prayer Is and What Prayer Isn’t
It has been said that prayer is not a coin for a God’s vending machine. Meaning that the function of prayer isn’t about praying hard enough or how many times to get something that you want. In fact, if you were to go through the standardized prayer service (aka Amidah or Shemoneh Esrei) you would have a list of requests, but many of them aren’t for things you would probably desire. Perhaps you’d like it some of these things, such as healing for the sick, a return to holiness, or the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple. But those aren’t things you are going to get passionately fired up about. You’re more likely to want love, a family, a better job, or whatever. Things that aren’t explicitly in the prayers. Though there are places to pray for your personal desires, they’re not the primary aspect of the service. Why?
The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is rooted in the same word to judge and to clarify. What does a court do but view evidence and make a decision? Tefillah is also grammatically reflexive. So tefillah’s true purpose is about clarifying aspects about yourself. It is inherently introspective. Though that process is done through praise, requesting for our needs, and gratitude, those are means but not the ends. The end goal really is a proper alignment, aka inner peace, aka shalom. And what is the final prayer of the Amidah? Shalom.
Is Prayer Enough
In May of 2022, Rabbi Mark Goodman compared praying without action to the sinful act of a bracha levatla, a blessing in vain. Though Rabbi Goodman’s spirit was in the right place, he demonstrated a misunderstanding between blessing and prayer. When one makes a blessing it starts with the phrase, Baruch Ata Hashem… and afterwards usually is then followed by an action. If one makes a blessing, say on bread, and doesn’t immediately eat the bread it is considered a desecration of God’s name. And though the prayers in the Amidah are all phrased as blessings (they all end with Baruch Ata Hashem…) they don’t require actions the way a blessing over food does. A blessing, in essence, is an invocation to God to actualize something’s potential.
So if you pray to God for success in your work, technically you don’t have to do anything after that. And you certainly wouldn’t be committing a bracha levatala. But make no mistake, it would be good to get down to business and capitalize on the blessing. This effort is known as hishtadlus.
In most cases, some sort of hishtadlus is required for a prayer to be successful. If someone is sick, you may see calls for people to read a chapter of Tehillim/Psalms. Some may learn Torah in the merit of the ill. Donations can be made in the honor of the struggling. But is an immediate physical action demanded? No one is expected to start trying to find the cure for cancer or write to congress to implore them to divert funds to oncology research.
Despite the hishtaduls requirement, Judaism regards an honest and sincere pleading to God as immensely powerful. Through we may not see the immediate answer, every prayer is answered in some way.
Wrong Time For Prayer
Given all I have said, there are actually times where prayer isn’t appropriate. We learn this from parsha Beshalach. The Jewish people have left Egypt and find themselves trapped before the Reed Sea with the Egyptians chasing after them. Some of the Jews start to freak out declaring, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the desert?” Moses tries to calm them down and then beseeches God. What is God’s response?
Hashem then said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Children of Israel that they shall travel forward.” (Shemos 14:15) Rashi clarifies the verse noting, “This teaches us that at that moment Moses was standing in prayer, the Holy One, the Source of Blessing, said to him, ‘”‘Now is not the time to be praying at length, for Israelites are in distress!'”
From this it is clear that in a time of distress, physical actions must be taken. This concept is mentioned even earlier in the Torah, in parshas Vayishlach. When Jacob prepares to reunite with his older brother Esav where he is afraid that Esav will attack him and his family. So first he sends him gifts of appeasement. Then he splits up his family in case they are attacked. Only after those actions does he pray to God. (Bersishis 32:4-13)
Prayer is a powerful tool for self growth, inner peace, and, I do believe, impacting the world. In fact, prayer is so important to the human experience that the Talmud even defines mankind as, “the creature that prays.” But with the understanding that prayer is essentially about self reflection, one must assess whether they really want what they are praying for. There comes a point where if the same prayer is yielding the same results, something has got to change. Are those thoughts and prayers a dedicated conviction to right a horrible wrong in the world? Or are they a platitude made to appear relevant in a social/political moment which will be as quickly forgotten until the next tragedy.