The Efficacy of Prayer
Adapted by R.
When we ask ourselves about the efficacy of prayer, we are speaking, in the first sense, about the efficacy of bakkasha (petition): Are we granted what we request? Idealists ranging from the mystics to Kant have expressed opposition to the entire enterprise of bakkasha, claiming it is selfish and egocentric. This position, however, is not characteristic of Judaism. We neither countenance nor encourage a sense of human independence, the feeling that we could somehow manage on our own. Indeed, we do not think that there is anything idealistic or self-sacrificing in thinking we can fend for ourselves.
It is an open question whether or not the essence of religion relates to the sense of dependence, as Schleiermacher stated and the Maharal, lehavdil, suggested before him; perhaps other elements are the quintessence of Judaism. But the sense of dependence and the recognition of human need, and the subsequent turning to the Ribbono shel Olam for succor and sustenance, are certainly critical. According to Chazal (Berakhot 10a-b), this is the import of the verses that speak of Chizkiyahu’s illness (II Melakhim 20, Yeshayahu 38) – when one is in need, one should turn to the Ribbono shel Olam with bakkasha.
However, tefilla can be considered efficacious regardless of whether there is a positive response to the request presented. Tefilla is listed among the three elements that we declare on the Yamim Noraim as revoking the evil decree: teshuva, tefilla, and tzedaka. What is common to all three is that they can be effective by making one into a better person, a better oved or ovedet Hashem (servant of God), thereby nullifying the previously-issued decree. Accordingly, not only bakkasha, but also the prayer of shevach (praise) and the prayer of hoda’a (thanksgiving) are certainly part of avodat Hashem, and they too can lead to the desired result.
Thus, we confront the question of the efficacy on two planes. First, is our request answered? Second, are we worthy, or worthier, of its being answered by dint of the fact that we have turned to the Ribbono shel Olam and acknowledged His control “like a servant before his Master,” thereby giving expression to the quality of our relationship with Him? Every time one prays properly, whether one says so explicitly or not, implicit in the tefilla is the declaration, “Ana avda de-Kudsha berikh hu, I am a servant of the Holy One, blessed be He.” This is the essence of avodat Hashem, service of God. Maharal properly noted that this avoda is related to servitude, the sense of subservience to the Ribbono shel Olam that is the essence of religious life – “Avadai hem, They are My servants” (Vayikra 25:42, 55).
Thus, a ma’amin believes that his prayers are efficacious in some way even if the particular request he makes is not granted. The Rav z”l often emphasized that tefilla is essentially an experience of standing before the King. During shemoneh esrei in particular, one does not send a missive to the Ribbono shel Olam, but rather stands before Him, like a servant before his Master. Even the great mitzva of keri’at shema does not entail the awe and trembling that accompany the amida, when one stands before the King Himself. This is the reason, according to Rashi (Berakhot 25a), that while minimal clothing is sufficient for the recitation of shema, it does not suffice for shemoneh esrei. For shemoneh esrei, one must conduct himself as one standing before royalty, while for keri’at shema, one is not talking before the King, but rather making a statement about Him. There are numerous halakhot regarding how one must prepare oneself prior to tefilla to create the proper environment for one’s interaction with God based on the principle of “Hikkon likrat Elokekha Yisrael, Prepare to meet your God, Israel” (Amos 4:12; see Shabbat 10a).
Thus, tefilla is a stance, a position, a presentation, and a communication. It entails seeking and attaining some measure of contact with the Ribbono shel Olam. That contact is not simply an opportunity to present what we need. Rather, the very contact with the Ribbono shel Olam is itself meaningful and purgative; it brings one to heights of experience and of personality that are otherwise beyond one’s reach. Anyone who has had the experience of contact with a great person knows that a sense of greatness rubs off through that contact. That sense is infinitesimal compared to what is produced through contact with the Ribbono shel Olam!
Thus, a prayer for a particular response that fails to achieve that goal is not wasted or ineffective. There is merit and significance to the very turning to the Ribbono shel Olam, a deepening and intensification of one’s sense of His presence. Prayer can be effective by ennobling and uplifting the one praying, by making him or her a better person and a better oved Hashem. In that respect, tefilla is efficacious even when, for whatever reasons, the Ribbono shel Olam chooses not to respond to our prayers in the way we had hoped.
But there is another level of efficacy as well. The verse tells us, “Tov lachasot ba-Hashem, It is good to by sheltered by God” (Tehillim 118:8). In what sense is this good? From a certain perspective, it is tov because it produces results. We believe that the possibility that our prayers will produce results is indeed there, and we turn, humbly and with an outstretched hand, imploring that we be given what we need. There is also, as stated above, a sense of “tov lachasot” that is not simply prudential and pragmatic, but rather spiritual and ennobling. Finally, there is a third sense of “tov lachasot” that straddles the line between the pragmatic and the idealistic.
One of the seven haftarot of consolation begins with the prophet speaking in God’s name, “Anokhi, Anokhi Hu menachemkhem, I, even I, am your comforter” (Yeshayahu 51:12). The midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Yeshaya, 474) expands upon this verse, explaining that there are times when no human comfort is available, even that of a mother or father – only Anokhi, Anokhi Hu menachemkhem. That sense of comfort derives in part from the sheer presence of the Ribbono shel Olam; it need not be verbalized by Him or by the human. People in need of comfort can be consoled through an embrace; often, in fact, such a gesture is more significant, more genuine, and more profound to a mourner than any statement that could be articulated in words. A hug is an expression of commiseration, of participation in pain, of empathy at its deepest level.
“Tov lachasot ba-Hashem” – there is goodness that results from the sheer presence of the Ribbono shel Olam. In our moments of greatest trial and need, in our hours of greatest crisis, His presence is comforting, to the same extent that it is humbling. In times of pain, prayer reminds us that our tower of strength is there, the source of being, the source of all good and all value and all worth. Much has been lost, but we have yet the Ribbono shel Olam – and that in and of itself is a source of sustenance and comfort. There is efficacy to prayer on a psychological level, above and beyond its practical and spiritual effects.
We are comforted when we turn to the Ribbono shel Olam in times of crisis, but He also sometimes turns to us to offer comfort, as it were. The midrashim describe that when we cry when tragedy strikes, the Ribbono shel Olam cries with us, kivyachol. When we transcend the anthropomorphic component of this description, we are left with the sense that our pain is not only our own; it is shared at the ultimate level by Malkhut Shamayim, by God Himself. “Ke-ish asher imo tinachmenu, ken anokhi anachemkhem, As a man is comforted by his mother, so shall I comfort you” (Yeshayahu 66:13). When a mother comforts her child who has suffered a terrible tragedy, she does not stand there dispassionately; her presence is comforting because she cries along with her child. The Ribbono shel Olam similarly comforts us with His “tears.”
“Tov lachasot ba-Hashem” is a pillar of our faith and of our very existence. In that respect, tefilla is certainly efficacious – if we understand the ultimate purpose of prayer in all its fullness.
(This sicha was delivered in Kislev 5764 .)