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Prayer: It's Not What You Think

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Most spiritual traditions have a structured methodology through which they strive to make personal or collective contact with the Divine. This practice is commonly referred to as prayer or meditation, and while many might not agree with a particular practice or the enterprise in general, very large swaths of humanity looks upon it as valuable and purposeful.

There are two problems with the common perception of prayer. One is that if you believe that God answers prayers, then why is it that we so often fail to receive what we have requested? And if you believe that God will always do what's best for us regardless of what we choose to ask for, then what is the purpose of the petition in the first place?

In truth, the notion that focused communication with the Infinite would find its fullest expression in solicitations for "stuff" misses the point by a country mile.

In classical Judaism, though we may have expected it, there does not always appear to be a natural correlation between righteousness and Divine wish fulfillment. For instance, in the book of Genesis, three out of the four Matriarchs -- Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel -- have a very hard time conceiving children. Commenting on this, the Talmud notes that "God desires the prayers of the righteous." But why? It certainly can't be for His sake. The Jewish conception of God is of an infinite, loving, creating and sustaining force that needs nothing. The collective beseechings of all of humanity, cannot, by definition, help Him one iota -- after all, infinite plus 10 is still infinite.

The obvious alternative conclusion is that He desires these prayers not for Himself but for the one praying, and that the lack that we all experience (health issues, financial hardship, failing relationships, et al) has been presented to the supplicant simply as a vehicle to initiate the dialogue. What then, could be so important in this communication that would prompt the Almighty to send these wake-up messages and cause us to contend with so many unwanted and painful challenges?

In the Hebrew language, the word "to pray" is lehitpalel. Interestingly, it is a reflexive verb -- something that you do to yourself. The root of the word, palal, means "to judge," rendering the actual translation of prayer as something more akin to self-evaluation. Therefore, when a person stands before God to communicate, she is taking stock of her capabilities, current level of spiritual consciousness and willingness to accept reality for what it truly is. The deeper notion is that we are willfully trying to integrate the inescapable fact that we are utterly dependent on the Creator.

For instance, we can intend to get up and go to work, but there are countless external factors (which are beyond our control) that could easily conspire to thwart that intention. Our own lack, and the realization that the smartest, bravest and most capable people on Earth are essentially powerless to alter their circumstances without outside assistance, forces the one praying to grasp the greatness of the Provider and the great chasm that yawns between where (and Who) He is and what we and our capabilities really are. As the Talmud also teaches, "all is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven." Fear in this context means a fear of loosing the connection with Heaven. It's explaining that, try as we might and though it may seem counter-intuitive, we have precisely zero control over what occurs around us. In actuality, the only thing that we can control is how we react to what is occurring to us.

This is an exceedingly valuable lesson to learn. Our illusion of control causes us untold amounts of pain and confusion. How many individuals have helplessly wondered, "Why is this happening to me?" How many people seethe in anger when spoken to in the wrong tone, or when they lose a job, or even when it rains at an inconvenient time? One who has fully integrated his or her true dependent status is humble, is emotionally unaffected by these difficulties, and grasps a firm rudder to navigate through life's unceasing vicissitudes. True joy comes from being anchored to what is certain. Unfortunately, virtually all that we experience in this short plane of our existence does not fall into that category. This is well understood -- "here today, gone tomorrow," as the saying goes -- and along with the loss, change or departure of that which we love, goes the equanimity of most people. Tefilah, the noun form of this process of self-evaluation, helps us come to terms with this reality -- and then transcend it.

This transcendence, and the pleasure that comes along with it, is commensurate with the extent to which one is able to integrate the truth of the one unchanging Force of reality that some of us choose to call God. There are myriad benefits embedded in this realization, including: peace of mind, patience, lack of the need to judge, calmness and optimism. The natural alternative is what Freud described in a letter to Marie Bonaparte: "The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence." That is how the clear-thinking individual feels when he or she fully accepts the void -- sans the God anchor. Without that rooting, life is intrinsically chaotic, unpredictable and upsetting. With it, those same challenging experiences are just hurdles to be scaled for the sake of an underlying good.

Crosby, Stills and Nash once sang that "confusion has its costs." And it does. As the Talmud understands matters, "there is no joy like the resolution of doubt." Our version of prayer is a key vehicle to promote that resolution, and the joy that follows in its wake.