Not so long ago someone shared with me the thought that she had trouble with prayer. ‘I do not always know the right words. At times the words on the pages in the Siddur, the prayer book, work for me, but at other times they do not. Sometimes I wonder what prayer is all about, and if I really am praying. Sometimes I ask myself ‘Does God hear my prayers?’. I wonder. Someone else said ‘Is there a difference between praying in the congregation and praying by myself? Is there a benefit to praying in the congregation?’. A third person asked ‘Are there different kinds of prayers, and if so, why?’. Finally, someone queried ‘So what is prayer?’.
At its most basic, prayer is conversation, a conversation with God. Prayer is simply talking to God. There are both formal prayers, such as we find in the Siddur, the ‘prayer’ book. There are also spontaneous, off the cuff, non-rehearsed, extemporary prayers. Prayer can be structured, or it can be simply talking to God in a relaxed, informal way.
In broad terms we often speak of three categories of prayer: praise, petition and thanks. In the first category are words like ‘We praise you God, ruler of the universe,’ or ‘Praised is God’s name for ever and ever,’ or ‘Holy, holy, holy is God’. Praise of God addresses God’s majesty, God’s power, or matters like God’s attributes of justice and mercy.
A second, and more common form of prayer is petition: Please God, help me; please God, be with me; please God, bring healing to me, or to one whom I love. Prayers of petition are probably the prayers we pray most often.
Thirdly, we give thanks for the blessings we know, be it sufficient food, or shelter, or the loving care of those around us. All of these are, in a wide sense, godly gifts. If petitioning God is most frequent, thanking God, probably is, but surely should not be, most infrequent in our lives.
Are formal prayers, such as in the Siddur, more valuable than spontaneous prayers? Likewise, are prayers recited in the synagogue better than those we recite as we walk along the way, when we rise up and when we lie down to sleep? In my mind, it is not a question of more/less valuable. It is not either/or, but rather both/and. I recognise that there are prayers appropriate to different occasions. Unquestionably praying amongst others in the synagogue does have a special value. Indeed our very presence in the synagogue is a wonderful and generous gift we freely offer to others. The value comes from the fact that we need others – and they need us – to form a community. If we are among others who are praying, it is easier to pray. It may not be easy, but it is easier to pray in a community setting.
In the book of Psalms we find the phrase “May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, God.” Often we understand these words/meditations as synonyms for prayer. Does God hear our prayers, and how do we know? Yes, I believe God hears our prayers. That knowledge is a matter of intuition, it cannot be shown or proven like a mathematical formula or directions how to go from here to there.
Where we pray, how we pray, when we pray, what we say when we pray, these will be as diverse as the world around us. Prayers may be formal or informal, simple or complex, verbal or silent, yet at their most basic they are the words of our mouths, and the mediations of our hearts.
Rabbi David J. Zucker