When I was a child, I attended a (non-religious) Jewish day camp in Atlanta, Georgia. The days were filled with typical activities like sports and arts and crafts, but one morning, we participated in an odd activity.
The counselors gathered us in a circle and began teaching us about Native American tribes and their custom to summon rain from the gods. While we sat on our tree stumps, the counselor proceeded to jump up and down, his arms moving outward and inward, looking very silly.
I remember giggling, but then it was our turn to “pray.” We stood up and imitated the counselor’s movements. Then the counselor told us to sit down as quickly and quietly as we could. A moment later, we suddenly felt a raindrop – and then another, and then another.
The “prayer” worked!
As a seven-year-old, I was sold on this dance. I just knew it was my ticket to getting anything I wanted, and I couldn’t wait to use it. When I arrived home, I raced to my bedroom to “pray” – and was thoroughly disappointed when my prayer wasn’t immediately answered. Little did I know that the camp activity was merely a stratagem to keep us busy on what the staff knew would be a rainy day.
As I spiritually matured, I began realizing what prayer is all about. Prayer is not a gumball machine in which we place a quarter and out pops our request fulfilled. Prayer is about developing a relationship with Hashem – and that’s hard work. Anyone who tells you that praying to G-d – whom we cannot see, touch, or feel – is easy isn’t being honest with you.
Prayer, according to Rashi, means a bond or connection. It’s about communication. Communication is a two-way street, and although no one today can audibly hear the voice of G-d, He does, in fact, communicate with us.
Imagine you were to come over to my house for Shabbat dinner. I bring out the fish and announce, “I am now serving your fish.” Then, when it’s time for the next course, I declare, “Now, I will remove your appetizer plate.” As the meal proceeds, I announce each step. Naturally, you would feel uncomfortable. You would prefer I serve without narration.
G-d is constantly helping us, but – like a good host – does not announce Himself. When we move or think, G-d doesn’t proclaim which muscles He’s permitting us to move or which brain synapses He’s permitting us to connect. He stays in the background, communicating His love to us by allowing us to use such divine gifts as thought and mobility.
It’s difficult to connect with G-d. That’s why prayer is called work. It’s avodah shebalev (work of the heart). And to truly connect with G-d, many of us must “undo” years of lip service.
In high school, I was on the basketball team. When I left the school to attend a new one along with several other girls, we joined the new school’s team and thought of ourselves as “seasoned” players since several of the other girls had never played on a team before. Boy, were we in for a rude awakening! The coach made it clear that our shooting form was terrible and we needed to unlearn bad habits we had developed over time.
We spend years learning to pray, but at a certain point, our prayers become so routine that they mean nothing at all. To combat prayer-fatigue, we need to look at prayer through fresh eyes – as someone who has never prayed before – and really try to connect the way we are meant to.
Prayer is hard work. Yet, prayer works. It works not because G-d answers affirmatively every time we ask for something. It works because when we pray, we realize who G-d is, and all He has done for us. And we submit our will to G-d, giving up what we want for what He wants.
Regardless of the answer we receive, prayer enables us to deepen our love and respect for our Creator, and that is the greatest response we can hope for.