For those who deign not to pray

For those who deign not to pray

FROM: TO PRAY AS A JEW (or anyone else)

By Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin
Library of Congress 1980

(Some used copies may still be available at  Well worth the study.)

Page 4    We live in an age when it is not fashionable to pray. Even among those who join synagogues, only a small percentage pray daily or even weekly. Those who do not worship regularly put on an air that they are somehow beyond that stage, that they do not need to pray. Their reason for affiliating with a synagogue is to identify with the Jewish people and the Jewish community, and perhaps even with the Jewish faith. But not for the purpose of prayer.

Some consider the spiritual arrogance of contemporary man to be a stumbling block to prayer. Since prayer requires the capacity to be in awe and to feel thankful, the immodest and arrogant personality simply cannot pray because he has no sense of awe or gratitude. He puts too much faith in his own ability to do wonders and ascribes all achievements to his own powers. He lacks the necessary measure of humility.

While this may be true for some individuals, it is perhaps skepticism and doubt that make it difficult for other people to engage God in conversation. It is not that they are atheists or even agnostics; it is simply that they waver between faith and doubt. Even of Noah, who is described in the Bible as a “righteous man” who “walked with God,” it is said that “he believed and didn’t believe,” for he lacked the faith to move immediately into the ark that he was commanded to build, and did not move in until the very last moment (Rashi, Gen. 7:7).

Our generation, too, often appears to be precariously balanced between believing and not believing, sometimes leaning in one direction, sometimes in the other. Or perhaps the reason for the unfashionability of prayer is simply that most people don’t know how to pray. They were never properly taught. Yet prayer is more commonplace than most people realize if  we do not think of it as taking place only within a structured religious service and only through the medium of prescribed and sanctioned words.

“Dear God, Please make her well” is as simple and classic a prayer as there can be. Moses said this prayer for his sister Miriam when she was stricken with Leprosy  (Numbers 12:13. In one form or another this prayer is recited by countless mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, children, friends, and lovers.

Or consider the sigh of relief, “Thank God!” that comes after going through a period of intense anxiety in the wake of a serious accident or a dangerous illness or a fateful mission, or when loved ones seem suspended between life and death or between success and ruin. This, too, is a prayer and is just as likely to be said by people who think that they never pray as by those who pray with deliberate and conscious regularity.

Or consider the feeling of awe and admiration that wells up in one’s heart when coming upon great natural scenes: vast oceans, breathtaking mountains, stunning deserts. King David summed it up saying, “Oh Lord, how great are Thy works!” Is this not a prayer, even though it may come out simply as “Magnificent!” by those with less poetic talent than the author of the Book of Psalms? But if they believe these phenomena to be God’s handiwork and mean to praise Him, then this word, too, constitutes a prayer.

Or consider the person who has qualms of conscience about some wrongdoing and in the privacy of his own thoughts says, “How truly sorry I am!” This, too, is a prayer, especially if the words “forgive me” are added.

These examples are universal and herein  lies a clue to the real purpose for engaging in prayer. Whether we petition God to give us what we need, or thank Him for whatever good was granted, or extol Him for His awesome attributes, all prayer is intended to help  make us into better human beings.




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