Prayer is, above all, a personal connection

Prayer is a broad but tricky subject. Some may view prayer solely as an opportune time to ask for things — a more mature version of a kid going through the aisles of a grocery store, pulling attractive items off the shelf. Another unrefined conception is the prayer is like pleading with a grand judge, trying to change God’s initial plans. But Jewish prayer is not only requesting or beseeching. In fact, if one examines the bulk of the passages in the formal prayer book, only a small portion contain requests.
The opposite extreme — equally wide of the mark — is the mistaken notion of prayer as a passive means of communicating, whether intuitive meditation, opening oneself up to receive messages or guidance; submitting information and seeing what comes back. Jewish prayer is anything but passive.
So what purpose does prayer serve?
The simple answer is that although God does not need our prayers, there is a created system wherein our words, our effort, can have a powerful effect — “Call out and I will answer you! I long for your handiwork” (Job 14:15).
More notably, prayer is meant to affect ourselves, used more for internal growth and benefit than to achieve desired results. We pray to remind ourselves that ultimately our existence is dependent on God. We reflect; we listen to what’s going on inside us. In this sense, when we experience a renewal, a change, we also tap into the heavenly source, alter our path and cause an adjustment in the current situation.
Tracing the grammatical root of the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is a subject of discussion. Some trace it to pileil, which can mean praise. In psalms, this word means “to struggle” or “battle.” Other scholars link it to tofel, which means to glue together. And both of these translations come closer to the essential concept of prayer in Judaism.
More than any request, the purpose of Jewish prayer is about connection. Connection comes through change, and any significant change comes through struggle. This is not to say the struggle has to be bitter, burdensome or unpleasant, only that there is a goodness that is a gift and other blessings that we must earn.
We find ourselves stuck within a physical body and an ever-evolving external world. The goal is to connect. There are two general modes of connecting. One starts from “below” — our standpoint — and we work to elevate. The other seeks to draw light into the world, and within us. These are prayer and Torah study, respectively.
Prayer is referred to Jacob’s ladder, “set on the earth and its top reaching to heaven.” It has many rungs. Each step upward is a movement from the confines of physical existence toward the expanses of heavenly realm.
The set order of the daily prayers in the siddur (from the word order) with select scriptural and lyrical passages, was carefully designed to incorporate all spiritual and material needs, as well as progressive stages of meditation. The mystical commentaries further explain how, climbing the rungs of prayer, the layers of the soul are lifted until the essential soul becomes unified with the source within the infinite luminary from which it was hewn (during the pinnacle of prayer, the Amidah).
For this reason, kabalistic texts describe the time of tefillah as an intense communion — “a marital union,” where the “children” are the internal changes, the renewed appreciation and resulting emotions.
The Talmud (Taanis 2a), explaining a scriptural verse, refers to prayer as “service of the heart” (avodah shebalev). The Hebrew word “avodah” means more than “service” or “work” — it suggests exertion in refining our character and the world around us. “The heart” refers to emotions. The main effort during prayer is to arrive at the feeling of love. Love is the fuel that brings us to connection. One may wonder: Can someone really increase love? While love is in the heart, it is the focused reflection within the mind that stimulates the feelings. For this reason, the line of “Shema Yisroel” — contemplating God’s unity — comes directly before the command “you shall love…” And when you love something enough — “with all your might” — you will do whatever it takes to maintain that connection. This pathway includes removing all obstacles to connection, which leads to the second facet of prayer — to weaken the natural “animalistic energy and impulses,” or self-absorption, that builds a barrier to transcendence, ranging from muddled fears to excessive pride and ego.
There are moments when we are struck with a sense of being so small within something much larger. During the daily routine, however, it’s rare, unless we are able to get quiet. Prayer is the time to implant awareness in our heart, to sort through emotions and align feelings with knowledge.
The prerequisite to approach God in prayer is a basic consciousness and humility. As the Talmud puts it, a phrase that is displayed over the ark containing Torah scrolls in many synagogues, is “Know Before Whom You Stand.” Then, during prayer, as we gaze at the words, there’s the pervading attitude of sincerity — remaining pure and simple in our approach. If the heart is not involved, if it’s just rote recitation, then there is no real tefillah.
Outside of periods of intense inspiration, or desperation provoking profound pleas, the process of prayer rarely flows smoothly. Our minds are oriented toward fleshly needs and pleasures, pressing tasks or enticing distractions. Prayer — aligning the mind, awakening a dull heart — is comparable to a spiritual workout; just as daily physical exercise increases the blood flow and promotes our biological systems, prayer causes the divine spark inside us to surface and expand — boosting the soul’s circulation. Just as workouts are meant to be hard — an athlete embraces the struggle and pain — likewise, with focused prayer.
To get going in tefillah requires channeling the body’s vitality, pushing through laziness, pulling the drifting mind back, gathering strength — from the depth — to remove internal blockage and resistance, until “wringing out the soul.” It’s a battle, a test of character. How hard we try during these installed periods of refuge is often a measure of what we accomplish.
Because prayer is such a staple of our religious sustenance, most of us are well aware of the personal challenges we face in this area. For some individuals, it’s simply a strain to follow the prayer service, or the need to get acquainted with the Hebrew language, or the structure of each service. Others know what to do, but struggle with follow through — staying mindful during the recitation, trusting that what should be happening during prayer is actually taking place. It is sometimes difficult to believe that we are reorienting ourselves toward God and spirituality, polishing or refining our minds and emotions with the formula that the sages set down. Or sometimes people are so rushed or robotic, they forget to try.
So, the primary purpose of prayer is to change ourselves, the joining with God. Transitioning from the period of tefillah to meet the workday, a person has increased confidence, as the soul is sturdy, less vulnerable to the chaotic vibrations of the surrounding environment. As one closes the prayer book, the mindset should be: “I just had a private connection and conversation with the Master of the Universe — what could possibly go wrong?”

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