|Ask Rabbi Simmons|
Please could you tell me the true meaning of prayer, how does it make you feel closer to God and that you know him intimately?
There's a legend in Jerusalem which says that if you go to the Western Wall for 40 consecutive days, and pray for one specific thing, it will be granted. There are so many stories of this working successfully, that the phenomenon is hard to deny. I'll share with you my own personal encounter:
Years ago, when the time was ripe to get married, I decided to make the commitment to go to the Western Wall for 40 consecutive days. At first I treated this as some kind of magical, metaphysical ploy to butter up G-d and score brownie points. But as the days passed, I began to understand the power of prayer as a means of self-transformation. Day in and day out, I was forced to examine the areas in which I needed to grow before I could truly be considered ready for marriage. Jewish prayer is always spoken aloud because the exercise of formulating words forces us to define and refine our goals. My daily trips to the Wall (which on Shabbos involved a 45-minute walk each way) solidified my commitment to confront these issues and resolve them.
Of course, while G-d answers all prayers, sometimes the answer is "No." We may be asking for the wrong thing without realizing it. A good parent will not lend the car keys to a teenager who is not yet responsible enough to handle it. All the begging in the world will not get a good parent to change his mind.
But prayer is our opportunity to move beyond these limitations. The Hebrew word for prayer, "li-heet-pallel," comes from the root "pallel," which means to inspect. The prefix "li-heet" is the reflexive form - denoting an action that one does to oneself. "Li-heet- pallel," therefore, is an act of personal introspection. When we pray, we look inside and ask, "What do I need to change about myself in order to get what I really want out of life?" This process of self-transformation means that today I may no longer be the same person who G-d said "no" to yesterday.
The end of my story? I completed my 40 days, and within one week was engaged to my wife Keren. (Since then, I have tried the 40 days on two other occasions - both with success, thank G-d. But I don't want to push my luck )
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If prayer is solely for our benefit, then why (you may ask) does Jewish prayer always begin with praise of G-d? The answer is not because G-d has a frail ego and needs our endorsement. Rather, the purpose of this praise is to sensitize us to G-d's awesome capacity to help. We have to take the time to recognize and appreciate all that He does for us. We know that our parents love us because of all they've given us, yet G-d has given us gifts that are infinitely more valuable! If a human being would restore your eyesight, imagine the gratitude you'd feel? Meanwhile, G-d has given us eyes, ears, intelligence - life itself. The knowledge that G-d can do anything is what ultimately gives us the strength and resolve to push beyond our limits.
That's why when a Jew prays in the morning, the service begins with blessings acknowledging our eyesight, mobility, consciousness and freedom. These awaken our appreciation for all the gifts G-d has bestowed upon us and remind us of how much G-d loves us. When we appreciate what we have, then G-d will want to give us more.
It's the same with a parent and child. If I give my daughter a new toy, and she grabs it without any appreciation, then I as a good parent should not give her any more toys until she appreciates what she already has! We can understand that the son of a billionaire would be spoiled if his parents gave him everything he needed without having to work for it.
The same is true of
our relationship with G-d. Certainly He can give us whatever we need; G-d is infinitely
more rich and more powerful than the biggest billionaire. But since G-d has our
best interests at heart, He wants us to grow, to earn it - and to become great.
With blessings from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons