In the Torah section of VaYelekh, G-d offers some parting words to Moses before he hands over leadership of the nation to his trusted student Joshua (Devarim 31:14-18): “And G-d spoke to Moses, ‘Behold, your days are drawing near to die; summon Joshua, and both of you shall stand in the Tent of Meeting, and I shall instruct him.’ So Moses and Joshua went and stood in the Tent of Meeting. And G-d appeared in the Tent, in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood by the entrance of the Tent. And G-d said to Moses, ‘Behold, you will lie with your forefathers, but this people will rise up and stray after the gods of the foreigners of the land, in whose midst it is coming, and it will forsake Me and annul my covenant that I have sealed with it. My anger will flare against it on that day and I will forsake them; and I will conceal My face from them and they will become prey, and many evils and distresses will encounter it. It will say on that day, ‘Is it not because my G-d is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?’ But I will surely have concealed My face on that day because of all the evil that it did, for it had turned to gods of others.” We are warned that if we do not turn to G-d – if we turn away elsewhere – then G-d will turn away from us. We must turn to G-d in following his precepts, studying his words and turning our prayers to Him.
It is in this tradition of prayer, in which our forefathers engaged before us, that we now pray three times every day and on certain occasions four times during the day, and on Yom Kippur, five times.
Almost every day, we are involved in mundane physical and material activities and have many responsibilities and needs. Consequently, to extract our minds from the mundane for even a short period of time and to recognize our ultimate dependence upon G-d, we daily engage in various forms of prayer.
Jewish prayer is divided into three main categories: shevach, tachanunim and hoda’ah (praise, supplication and thanksgiving). We confront the grandeur of G-d’s handiwork, and, with a sense of awe and elation, express praise of G-d’s magnificent being. After this realization, we, then, engage in supplication – beseeching the all-powerful and benevolent G-d to lend His assistance in our daily needs. And, not even waiting for G-d’s response to our prayers, we immediately thank G-d for whatever help He, in his infinite wisdom, has decided or will decide to grant us.
To be sure, objections have been raised to the very concept of prayer. However, upon close examination, the bases for these objections fall away. Some have expressed their doubts that G-d can be expected to change His plans with the world in order to fulfill an individual’s personal wishes. The fallacy of this contention is its implicit assumption of the deistic philosophy of such thinkers as Voltaire who claimed that G-d created the world, established its laws in the light of universal reason and, then, completely cut himself off from his creation. However, deism is only one theory among a number of philosophical views of G-d’s relationship with the universe and has never been proven. Therefore, we must take seriously the theistic view that, even after creation, G-d has remained with the world and is continually involved in it. In fact, some of the very factors that point to the universe’s creation by G-d also point to G-d’s continual rejuvenation of His creation, namely the very complex structure of the universe which is very unlikely for its parts not to conflict with each other and, thus, would self-destruct if left to exist on its own. More to the point has been the criticism of the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant at the end of his work Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft. Kant claims that, in prayer, man attempts to deflect G-d from the plan of His wisdom for the sake of some personal benefit. But, Kant wonders, how can one hope that G-d might change His plans, conceived in His omniscience, and be guided by the wishes of a mere man? Even before Kant, the medieval Jewish thinker, R. Joseph Albo (ca. 1380–1444) queried in Sefer ha-Ikkarim: “Either G-d has determined that a given person shall receive a given benefit or He has not so determined. If he has so determined, there is no need of prayer; and if He has not so determined, how can prayer avail to change G-d’s will that He should now determine to benefit the person when He had not so determined before?” In solving this difficulty, Albo notes that prayer is not a mere recitation of words, but a deed. It manifests a process of transformation that is taking place within the individual. One who turns to G-d in prayer with sincerity in his heart is, as a result of this act, not the same person that he was before praying. A divine decree may hang over an individual, but it is conditional. If he changes his ways and turns to G-d, the decree may be annulled. This does not mean the decree has been changed. It is the individual who has changed. Thus, when one engages in the act of sincere prayer, he does not ingratiate himself with G-d, who grants him now what He refused to grant earlier. Rather, in the course of prayer, the individual has become a person to whom a different designation is due.
To further enhance our act of prayer, we are urged to pray as a group. When praying, we are advised to seek out a minyan, i.e. a group in which we would be one of ten individuals. In doing so, we forestall the tendency for self-centered prayer and egocentric thought. By needing to actively seek out association with others for one’s own prayer, the individual is reminded that he is not alone. He is part of a complex network of humanity each of whose parts effect and influence the whole. All of mankind is effected in some way by the fortunes or misfortunes of the many individuals who comprise it. And, it would appear, that this idea is what the custom of communal prayer helps to spark in our minds.
The requisite number for fulfilling this communal prayer is ten. This number, our Sages note, parallels that of the ten misguided spies who scouted out the land of Israel at the time of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and proceeded to speak evil of it (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 23b). In our gathering ten people to pray we are reminded of that group and expected to counteract the evil done and symbolized by this group. In praying, we must turn to G-d in praise, supplication and thanks, thereby recognizing our dependence on Him for our needs. And in communal praying, we must recognize our place in society and our need for others and their welfare.
Prayer, therefore, produces a new or intensified relationship with G-d as well as with the rest of society. But producing such a relationship requires concentration and an active quest for that goal. To sit in the synagogue in dumbfounded silence and not pay attention to the one leading the services nor recite the requisite prayers even in the vernacular or to sit in the synagogue and, instead of praying, engage in idle chatter is a mockery.
We have the choice. We can, in the process of prayer and heeding His word, turn to G-d now, or, by neglecting prayer and the heeding of His word, have to answer to G-d later.