Prayer has been a baffling issue to me as of late. If I pray to ask G-d for something, is that not arrogant of me to assume I understand my needs better than G-d Himself does? Of course He knows and is giving me what is best for me already. But of course, you still do pray and then your prayers do get answered – so what does this mean, are we really capable of changing G-d’s mind? How does He decide whose prayers He wants to grant, especially when there are people who pray for conflicting things? Thankfully, I was able to find some answers and most of what I will be sharing here are taken from classes of Rebbetzin Esther Baila Schwartz and Rabbi Zev Leff.
First of all, G-d is always listening. And there is technically no such thing as an unanswered prayer – our prayers are just sometimes answered differently than we anticipate and we therefore miss what G-d actually did for us keeping our eyes focused instead on what we expect and are waiting for G-d to do for us. But perhaps here lies the first problem – the fact that we expect G-d to “answer” each of our prayers exactly as we ask them from Him, as if He were some kind of blessing vending machine. Perhaps it would be nicer to remember that when we pray, we are talking and connecting with G-d, like a phone call to our parents. We can tell Him what is bothering us, what we hope for, what we dream, if He could please help us with this and that … but just as our parents will never give us anything that will be bad for us, neither will our Heavenly Father do such a thing. Prayer is a form of talking and connecting with G-d. If our prayers get answered exactly how we want them to be, then that is a bonus! But if not, it is more than enough to have been able to connect with G-d and nurture our relationship with Him, and have the reassurance that He is taking care of our every need. This should perhaps be the primary goal of prayer.
However, when your prayers do get answered, that does not mean you were able to change G-d’s mind. Rather, it means you managed to change yourself. Imagine this scenario: A doctor comes up to his patient and tells him, “You are desperately ill and need to undergo a surgery if you want to stay alive. However, if you get your strength up within the next week, we can forego the surgery and it will be enough for you to take a bitter medicine. If your strength improves even more, we can switch you to a sweeter medicine.”
Praying strengthens our faith and trust in G-d. There is a beautiful saying that goes along the lines of, “Prayer is not to get you out of difficulties – rather, difficulties are to get you into prayer.” G-d often puts us in difficulties to give us opportunities to grow. He is our Life Coach, constantly pushing us and adding more weights to our spiritual training regimen to keep us growing. When we pray, we are strengthening our spiritual selves and when G-d notices we are learning what we are supposed to be from a certain difficulty, He begins to get us out of it. When we are strong enough, we no longer need to go through the surgery. And when we are even stronger, we can move on to taking sweeter medicine as opposed to the bitter medicine. G-d’s conditions and lessons He wants us to learn are always the same – it is we who grow and become spiritually stronger whenever we pray, and that leads to our prayers being “answered.”
This raises a question: how is it then possible to pray for other people if the point of prayer is to strengthen our own faith and spirituality? In fact the sages say that the best way to get your prayers answered is to pray for somebody else. Perhaps then our prayers don’t get answered first because G-d is rewarding us for being thoughtful and considerate of others but rather, following what was said in the previous paragraph, because of the fact that we prayed – regardless of whether for ourselves or for someone else – we grew spiritually. And indirectly, because we were able to bring a little more spirituality into the world, the person you are praying for also feels the effects of it. In the end though, you still gained the most benefits because it was you who put in the work of connecting with G-d and growing.
One final thought – we pray with our lips, and therefore should be careful with what else we do with it. When we speak ill of others or even of ourselves, or speak meanly or sarcastically to others, we are dirtying the vessels we similarly use for holy purposes. I do not think anyone would use the same plate to pile on garbage and also food for eating, even with a washing in between. May we all be careful with watching what we say in order to keep our lips spiritually clean, and also continue praying with the more specific intent of strengthening our faith and relationship with G-d.