Prayer is Poetry Believed In

May our prayers be like deeply-felt poetry.

When we see ourselves as active participants, we can see prayer as a two-sided relationship where we are co-sanctifiers and co-creators with God.

The Rebbe of Tsanz was once asked, “What does the Rabbi do before praying?”

“I pray,” he replied, “that I may be able to pray properly.” The Rebbe meant that it isn’t easy to pray. Sure, it’s easy to utter words, but to engage in meaningful prayer with lasting effects is much more difficult. It was George Santayana who wrote that prayer is poetry believed in. To achieve the level of poetry takes artistry and discipline.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, z”l

Why is it so hard to pray meaningfully? One answer is that we confuse prayer with magic. We often pray that God will grant us things. If we get what want, our prayer has been answered. If not, then God has rejected our prayer. But this type of prayer calls upon God to be a cosmic genie who magically grants our wishes. In a wonderful book titled For Those Who Can’t Believe, Rabbi Harold Schulweis explained that we must distinguish magic from prayer. We use magic when we say a special combination of words that we hope will influence the outcome of something. And the goal of magic is to change the external world and produce results.

This concept of prayer as magic, which comes so naturally to us, flies in the face of traditional Jewish prayer. According to Rabbi Schulweis, prayer is not wishing for results. “In authentic prayer, as understood by the Jewish tradition,” he wrote, “there are no shortcuts to results. Prayer is concerned with energizing the means so as to achieve ends of worth.” Traditional teaching battles against magical thinking, because it leads to disillusionment with the self and the world. “Magical thinking invites false hope and false means to achieve its ends,” Rabbi Schulweis warned. In the end, this type of prayer runs counter to human knowledge and does nothing to achieve the desired results.

Rabbi Schulweis suggested we substitute magical prayer with intelligent prayer, the type that the Rebbe of Tsanz prayed he would achieve. The Rebbe knew, as did Rabbi Schulweis, that thinking is a prologue to prayer. Prayer is based on a knowledge of what is real and a vision of what is possible. In this way, prayer leads to decision and therefore has consequences. It’s no coincidence that the first petitionary prayer in the daily prayerbook is a prayer for understanding: “You favor us with knowledge and teach mortals insight.” Prayer calls upon our cognitive skills, as the renowned Orthodox scholar Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik expressed: “To pray means to discriminate, to evaluate, to understand, in other words, to ask intelligently.”

So, when we pray, our prayers must respect the world that God has created.

For example, our tradition insists that it is a “vain prayer” to pray to reverse the past. An illustration in the Talmud is that of a prayer in which the petitioner asks that the embryo of a pregnant woman be a male. That sort of prayer violates the reality principle of Judaism: “Nature pursues its own course.” To pray for God to alter events which have already occurred is regarded as a prayer in vain. As an alternative, we could refocus our prayer. Instead of praying that our collapsed house should rise from the dirt, we could pray for the strength and hope to rebuild our future. We also might give thanks to God for sending God’s messengers, our friends and loved ones, who offer their comfort and help. This type of prayer acknowledges the reality which God has created.

It is easy to view prayer as a passive activity — we do the talking, and God, perhaps, does the acting. Naturally, this approach leads to difficult theological questions, such as: Does God hear our prayers? Does God answer? Does God intervene in the world?

While these are all important questions, they focus on God at the expense of the petitioner. What would happen if, as Rabbi Schulweis suggested, we turned the questions around? Do I hear my own prayers? Can I answer any part of my prayers? Am I moved to act by my own prayers? What energy and power can I use to affect the desired outcome of the prayers I utter? When I praise God for Creation, do I take a moment to reflect on the majesty and wonder of God’s creative power? When I recite the prayer for peace, do I ask myself what I have done to promote peace in my family, friendships, community, and the world at large? When we see ourselves as active participants, we can see prayer as a two-sided relationship where we are co-sanctifiers and co-creators with God.

The Hebrew verb, l’hitpalel, to pray, tells us a lot about the Jewish nature of worship. L’hitpalel means to judge oneself, thus prayer is a form of self-reflection and examination, and the aim is to correct one’s ways. Ultimately, it’s the self who is the target of the prayer. We pray to God as the ideal who is the model for our spiritual character, and out of this comes the inspiration for our poetry, the prayers that convey the innermost beliefs of our heart. May our prayers be like deeply-felt poetry.

Cain yehi ratzon, so may this be God’s will.