Commentary on Prayer

Haggadah Section: Commentary / Readings

Taken from an excerpt by Harold M Schulweis

The Purpose of Prayer

“He who extends his prayer and expects fulfillment will in the end suffer vexation of the heart” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachoth, 32b)

Prayer is not magical intervention that can bypass the ways of nature.  Prayer is concerned with energizing the means so as to achieve ends of worth.  There are limits to prayer: we may not pray for just anything we desire.  What can one properly ask for? One can pray for the means to achieve a desired goal. That is, one can pray for the patience and discipline to study. One can be taught to appreciate the knowledge, not grades; this is the goal of education and prayer.   

Prayer is about this word, and it must respect the world that G-d has created. When praying responsibly, convenantal prayer is deirected to G-d whose diving image informs the practitioner.  The reflexive character of prayer is not an invention of modernity.  Sampson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth-century neo-Orthodox author of Horeb, informs us, “To ask for something is only a minor section of prayer.” For Hirsch, the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah is derived from the verb,  pallel, which means “to judge.” Prayer is a form of self-examination and self-judgment to correct one’s ways. It is the self who is the target of prayer. Who is the self who is addressed through prayer? It is the divine image within.  Prayer is the constant search for the means of repair of the self and the world.

Does prayer move G-D? Prayer moves G-d only if we who pray are moved to respond.  If we pray and do not hear, or pray and do not attempt to act, we become ensnared in magical thinking.  One-sided, vertical prayer leads to placing the entire burden of petition on the Other.  The object of petition is to energize us to act outside of the threshold of the sanctuary.

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