It is a question that every religious person has been confronted with and confounded by. Even those of us who are not theologically inclined have struggled with this question: Why are my prayers not answered? After all, we do believe in the efficacy of prayer. Why, then, is it so often a frustrating experience?
Every rabbi (myself included) has found himself challenged by very sincere individuals who ask them to explain the point of prayers if they are so seldom answered. I especially remember one such challenge.
It was on a motza'ei Shabbat some years ago, when I was still with my former synagogue in Baltimore. A group of women would meet every week after Shabbat to recite Tehillim and pray for the sick in that community. Over the months, they had accumulated a long list of individuals who were seriously ill and for whose recovery they fervently prayed.
One week they asked me if I would join them, offer them some words of inspiration, and answer some of their questions. Of course, I complied, delivered a short homily, and opened the floor for questions. Although the question took a variety of forms, they were best expressed by the individual who said, "We cry our hearts out in prayer every week, and we feel compassion for every person on our list. But hardly anyone becomes cured, and names come off the list only when the person has died. So what is the point of prayer?"
I do not remember my exact response, but I do remember that it was inadequate.
Later that week I received a hand-written note in my office mailbox. It began,
"Dear Rabbi Weinreb,
In a recent talk you said that many people complain to you about having said Tehillim for a friend who was ill, but that the prayers didn't help and the person died. They asked if you could explain the point of their prayers."
The woman who wrote the letter was a nurse in the intensive care unit of a local hospital. She obviously spoke from profound personal experience. She went on to say that the reason people find praying frustrating is because they expect a total cure, and that they need to realize that there is much more to pray for with regard to a seriously ill individual than his or her complete recovery.
Here are some of the things she suggested people pray for: that the sick person not suffer too much pain, anxiety, depression, or loneliness; that the sick person be treated gently and with dignity by the medical staff; that the veins of the sick person be easy to find for intravenous injections; that the family have the strength to hold up under the strain and to not abandon the patient; that the correct decisions, medical and ethical, be taken by the family, patient, doctor, and rabbi.
"If you pray for all of the above for a sick person, you will find that many of your prayers will be answered."
Words of wisdom, for sure. And words that are especially timely in this week’s Torah portion of Va’etchanan, which contains the story of Moses' prayer, and how that prayer was not heeded by the Almighty.
Moses asked that he be permitted to enter the Promised Land of Israel. His prayers were deep and numerous. Indeed, the sages suggest that he offered no less than 515 prayers. But, as Moses himself tells us, God did not regard his prayers. On the contrary; God told him not to bring the matter up again.
Were the prayers of Moses indeed not heard at all? If we pay careful attention to the text, as I hope you will this week, dear reader, we come to realize that God did respond with at least two pieces of good news for Moses. Number one, He granted him the ability to see the land. Not a total fulfillment of Moses prayer, surely, but a gift nonetheless. And number two, and perhaps more importantly, He told him that his successor, Joshua, would lead the people into the land and would help them settle there. A leader who is assured of a competent and successful successor has surely had his prayers answered.
We have, then, an entirely new perspective on prayer. We must pray for a greater range of outcomes and not limit ourselves to asking for total success. We must be satisfied in our prayers for what the Lord has chosen for us. The outcomes may be modest, or even insufficient, from our mortal points of view, but they are substantial if we could but open our minds to them.
A wise man once said, "Be careful what you pray for, because you might just get it!" The truth of that humorous piece of advice is that we are ignorant as to what is good for us. We don't know what we should pray for. How consistent this message is with the lessons I learned from that scribbled note written by a wise congregant many years ago.
We must consider carefully what we pray for and expand our list of requests to cover the entire range of human needs. Only then we will find that it is not that God listens to prayers or ignores them. Rather, in His wisdom, He responds to them selectively. He says "no" to some of our entreaties, but He pronounces "yes" resoundingly to a great deal of what we ask for.