Sunday September 21st 2014

How does prayer work?

When you ask how prayer works, that implies that you already believe that it works.

So allow me to turn the tables and ask a question back to you. What does it mean that “prayer works”? Does it mean that if we tell G-d what we want that He will always do it?

If that’s been your experience, please read no further. You don’t need to hear any of my advice. If, however, your understanding of prayer is that it does not always get you what you’re asking for, then you may appreciate figuring out with me what prayer really is.

The Hebrew word for prayer, the word used in the Bible. is tefillah. It is interesting that the English word prayer means that one makes requests and supplications before G-d. But the Hebrew word doesn’t have that connotation at all. Tefillah means prayer, but it also means “attachment.” Prayer doesn’t mean asking G-d for what we want. Prayer means connecting to G-d.

Okay, so why then do we mention our troubles and the things that we need when we pray to G-d if we’re only trying to connect?

Because one of the deepest ways of connecting to G-d is to talk to Him about what’s foremost on our minds. We open up to G-d and tell Him what it is that we are struggling with. We don’t keep secrets from G-d.

This idea changes the whole way that we look at prayer. When we tell G-d that we need help with our finances, family, health or whatever area is troubling us at the moment, the point is not to let Him know what He needs to do. (He already knows what to do!) The point is to connect to Him by bringing these issues into our conversation with Him. Once we have shared these things with G-d, we have already accomplished our goal. Whether He decides to answer us ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ or ‘Later,’ one thing is certain — we have already succeeded in deepening our bond with Him.

If that’s what you mean when you ask how prayer “works,” then you may already have figured out the answer. Prayer works when you are more interested in Who you’re talking to than what He’s going to do for you.

Photo credit: C Jill Reed

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About Rabbi Shais Taub

Rabbi Shais Taub is one of today's most respected young scholars of Jewish spirituality and practice. National Public Radio called him "an expert in Jewish mysticism and the Twelve Steps." He is the author of God of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction.