To Pray or Not to Pray
by Rabbi Benjamin H. Englander
"To pray or not to pray" is purely a rhetorical question as far as I am concerned.
Prayer is a universal phenomenon in the soul-life of man. "The reason why we pray," says William James, the renowned behaviorist and psychologist, "is simply that we cannot help praying." It is an instinct that springs eternally from the heart of man. The late Chief Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz writes: "Prayer ranges from man's halfhearted articulate petition for help in distress to highest adoration, from confession of sin to a jubilant expression of joyful fellowship with God, from thanksgiving to solemn resolve to do His will as if were our will. Prayer is Jacob's ladder joining earth and heaven."
True prayer is an emotional experience, and not an intellectual exercise.
A Hassid complained to his Rebbe that he oftentimes was affected with severe headaches after praying. "What has worship to do with the head?" exclaimed the Rebbe. "Worship is service from the heart, not a labor of the head!"
It is a service of the heart. It requires devotion, concentration, and ecstasy. It is not merely the word formed by the lips, but the submerged feeling which cannot be expressed in language. That emotion may be of joy or sorrow - "a troubled heart is most amenable to be a praying heart."
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was one of the most revered of the Hassidic teachers. No one has ever succeeded him. Wherever his Hassidim worship, one chair is left vacant for the deceased "rebbe." He taught: "Make every effort to pray from the heart. Even if you do not succeed, the effort is precious in the eyes of the Lord."
Prayer is a work of art -- few of us are so gifted as to produce a masterpiece, but even a child in nursery school can finger-paint and produce some design -- so everyone can make the effort.
"To pray or not to pray" is a real question to some people. A member of our choir once left the service -- he thought the choir was to participate, but since they were not -- why stay? Some count to ten -- since he is the eleventh, he leaves -- he is not needed, nor does he feel the need for prayer! Still others are of the opinion that the only purpose for a public worship is to recite the kaddish -- if there are no mourners or if they complete the term, the need is not there.
Rabbis and concerned laymen ask: "Why is there such a break between the individual and prayer?
At one time, Jews would flock to the synagogue to pray for any and all purposes -- for sickness or for a simcha. Now, it is not the last, but after the last thing we think of. "Why?" we ask. It is said that our prayers are not relevant to our modern times -- they do not reflect the problems and do not give expression to our anxieties.
What are these anxieties and problems? Peace, racial tensions, health, sustenance. Are these not the sum and substance, the warp and the woof of our traditional prayers? Must we have a loose-leaf prayer book to insert or discard? I have yet to hear a composition that will move me as deeply as the Alenu, or be more meaningful than the Nishmat.
Do we substitute the cacophony of music produced in Tin Pan Alley for a Bah or a Beethoven? What loftier prayer for peace than Sim Shalom? (Grant peace) What more meaningful prayer than the second paragraph of the Alenu: "Let all the inhabitants of the world perceive and know that unto Thee every knee must bend"? What more expressive prayer for health and sustenance than the Refa'einu and the Barech Aleinu in the daily amidah -- "Send healing, o Lord" -- "Bless this year, and grant Thy benediction upon every kind of produce"?
The uniqueness of the Siddur is that it is relevant to all times -- even more important, it relates every present with the past. The old prayer book is saturated with the tears of the persecuted. It rings with the joy of the celebrants. It reflects the unquenchable national aspirations of our people. It offers continuity in the very thought that "These are the words spoken by ancestors in Spain, Babylon, and ancient Israel. We, too, speak them in their language."
"But Rabbi, 'these words are unintelligible to us.'" To our sorrow, they are, but are notes and themes in the symphony we hear or the opera we enjoy intelligible to us? The obvious answer is: "become conversant! study! know! We can use the vernacular we know, but there is one reservation:
Translation never rings true -- try to recite the kaddish or chant the Kol Nidre in English. Even though not understood, there is a mystic quality that stirs and inspires. Prayers are not immutable. They are the products of man's ingenuity; but if in every generation a new prayer book were produced, even assuming the quality would equal the psalms or a later composition, the Unsane Tokef, the chain of continuity would be broken. Our association with our forbears would be destroyed. How much more so, when liturgical poems cannot compare in quality, in depth of meaning or beauty of poetic expression?
There are some compositions of pious individuals which vibrate the heart strings, but even these prayers cannot be put in the same category with a 23rd psalm or the 90th psalm.
Finally, do we really have to know the meaning of the words? Granted, it is preferable -- but is it absolute? Furthermore, is the spirit of the prayer found in the literal translation of the word or in the unspoken emotions that course through our heart as we recite these words which may be completely different from the content of the prayer?
Thus, the primary purpose of worship is to establish a relationship with the Divine by engaging in a dialogue with Him. Through that relationship and dialogue, we make His presence manifest in our midst. That is the mystic in prayer which makes for relevance to any particular time or situation. Its translation to the vernacular is incidental. The mode, call it "psychological environment" if you will, creates the mood for communing with God through prayer.
That is the difference between "davening" and "praying.": the Jew who "davens" feels a closeness to God. Prayer (a conducted service) is an artificial version of the real thing.
One more item: To pray is to study -- study elements have been introduced into the liturgy, yet they are not to be learned as lessons, but recited with the emotion of prayer. Although study is more important than prayer in the system of Jewish values, prayer should not be discarded. Note that I discussed only worship -- this does not include the reading of the Torah -- which is definitely study as part of the session devoted to holy purpose.
To sum up: The purpose of prayer, I submit, is twofold, and both are equally important.
1. To establish a relationship with the Creator which in turn would make the individual humble -- the Baa Shem Tov called it "The bridge to God."
2. To relate the individual to our people, its past and future -- for the present is only a passing moment.
A Hassidic rebbe once said: "The Baal Shem Tov, master of the good name, knew the place and he knew the words. You did answer him, O God. His successors no longer remembered the place, but they knew the words -- and You did answer them, too. We know neither the place nor do we recall the words, but our heart goes out to You, our God, our protector -- do Thou answer us, too!"