Reflections on the Power of Prayer

by | in Inspiration


A collection of successes, and struggles, with prayer.

My Favorite Prayer
There were precious few things that I shared in common with my father, Velvel Herschkopf.

He was born at the turn of the twentieth century in a shtetl in Eastern Europe; I was born in the second half of the century in the most cosmopolitan city in the world.

His mother tongue was Yiddish, but he was fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, Polish, German and eventually English; my preferred tongue was English, because I was embarrassed when he spoke to me in Yiddish.

He had no use for TV, movies, sports or even books that weren’t limudei kodesh; I was passionate about all of them. On the other hand, he was a true talmid chacham who could recite from memory any pasuk from Tanach, any prayer from the siddur; I could not.

He was a simple, quiet man, preferring to sit in the back of the shul, at the end of the row; he chose to avoid both crowds and conversation and was content to immerse himself in a sefer; I was not.

The recreational pastimes that American fathers commonly partake with their sons—playing ball, going to movies, attending sports events—were of no interest to him. The only activity we shared was attending lectures given by the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The intellectual excitement of studying with this frail, brilliant icon was the sole interest that appealed to both of us.

I can still remember sitting with my father at one particular shiur of the Rav, as if it was yesterday. It seemed to me that the Rav looked me squarely in the eye and proclaimed authoritatively that we were forbidden from choosing a favorite prayer. He stated that all prayers had to be appreciated, objectively and equally. As he said it, my mouth suddenly became completely dry.

It was if he knew my dirty little secret: I had a favorite prayer. I chose it as soon as I had learned Hebrew in elementary school. It has become so hardwired into my psyche, that, I must confess, despite the Rav’s unequivocal admonition, it remains so to this day.

On the surface, my choice of prayer made no sense whatsoever. It was Birkat Kohanim, and neither my father, nor I obviously, were Kohanim. Nonetheless, the enigmatic closing paragraph of the prayer was one I recited with far greater kavanah and fervor than anything else in the machzor.

The reason was simple. It was the only prayer that allowed me to directly, explicitly and unabashedly beseech God to extend my parents’ lives.

Why was it so important to me? Was it because I loved my father more than any other child loves his?

I am ashamed to say that that was not even remotely the case.

I recognized my father’s virtues. He was honorable as well as honest, religious as well as observant, responsible as well as hard-working, modest as well as learned. He was the first person in shul and the first at work. He was respected and even revered by the few who were privileged to be in his inner circle, rabbis and laymen alike. Though I was hardly a neutral observer—by any objective parameter—my father was a great man, and an even greater Jew. He set a standard so high in both regards that I knew, even as I was growing up, I would never be his equal.

Despite that, my love for him was both compromised and conflicted by the fact that his nobility as a man and a Jew were not equaled in his performance as a father and a husband.

He was a provider and a role model, but not much more. He never offered affection, either physically or verbally. He was touchy-feely only in the sense that when I displeased him and he touched me, I felt it.

Why, then, was I so determined to implore God to reward him? For the same reason that I was able to accept his deficiencies as a father: My father was a Survivor.

My father had lost his parents, his siblings, his friends, his wife and his child in the Shoah. My mother and I were replacements and were, perhaps willy-nilly, treated accordingly.

My father never shared any of this with me. He didn’t have to. I saw the numbers on his arm. I heard him wake up screaming every night of his life.

It was only when he died that I understood more fully why Birkat Kohanim was my favorite prayer. I simultaneously came to realize that while being his son was not necessarily a pleasure, it was my greatest honor.

Because he died, deservedly, at an advanced age—as I had continually prayed for—on a Friday morning of the earliest Shabbat of the year, his funeral had to be postponed until Sunday. I had several days to gather my thoughts for his eulogy.

His hesped had to contain three elements:

It had to be completely truthful, as the Rav himself had explicitly instructed in his eulogy for the Talner Rebbe.

It had to do my father justice. He was not only a member of our holiest generation, but in starting his life over, he gave life to me and my children, and he displayed a courage I could not begin to comprehend.

Finally, it had to describe him in Lashon Kodesh, which, though not his mother tongue, was his most precious possession.

I searched for the right words, but they eluded me. In my desperate reverie, I found myself absent-mindedly mouthing my favorite prayer. As I did, its relevance struck me like a bolt of lightning.

The enigmatic repeated reference that I had been automatically reciting for four decades suddenly made sense: “Yaakov Avinu, hanikra ish tam. Our father, Jacob, who was referred to as tam.”

What does “tam” mean? As in the Haggadah, it means simple. My father was simple—unpretentious, unaffected, hewing to the verities of our faith. As in korban tamim, it means complete. He was complete, writing poetry with the same arm with which he lifted 100-pound bolts of fabric. As in tamid, eternal. Despite being tested inhumanely, he continued to believe and practice our ever-abiding truths.

As I hurriedly wrote down the words that so elegantly defined my father, I suddenly realized a more important truth. I felt foolish for never having understood it before. The words of my favorite prayer were not even remotely what had determined my choice.

The real reason I treasured Birkat Kohanim was because when I recited it, to prevent me from looking directly at the Kohanim, my father would take me under his tallit.

For those precious few moments, I felt like an eaglet—safe and secure under the wing of a strong, invulnerable eagle. Under his tallit, Auschwitz was very far away. Under his tallit, he didn’t cry out for his murdered wife and child. Under his tallit, I felt the love that otherwise he could never express.

We buried my father under his tallit. It was where he had always belonged.

And so had I.

My roommate in medical school, Sheldon Feldman, when asked why he had chosen breast cancer as his specialty, recounts how his sister had died of the disease. In reality, he confesses, he never chose the field; the field chose him.

The Rav was right. We don’t choose our favorite prayer. It chooses us.

Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf, a practicing psychiatrist, is the president of the NYU-Bellevue Psychiatric Alumni, a columnist for the Jewish Week and the author of Hello Darkness, My Old Friend—Embracing Anger to Heal Your Life (Bloomington, Indiana, 2003).

Preparing a lecture on prayer for NCSY’s annual Yarchei Kallah, a week of Jewish learning for public school students, presented me with a dilemma: How do I make tefillah exciting to kids who find the siddur obscure and irrelevant? I challenged them to speak to Hashem in English before taking the three steps back prior to the Amidah. Choose any three issues that are really on your mind, I told them, and ask Hashem to help you. Let one of the issues be trivial. Let me find my iPod! My friend is driving me crazy! May the guy sitting next to me on the plane be normal! If it stresses you, your Father in Heaven wants to hear about it. Then expect Hashem to say, “Yes.” As long as you are asking from the bottom of your heart, it’s unusual for Him to say, “No.”

The reaction was overwhelming.

I received a torrent of miracle stories, ranging from “my social issues have been solved” to “my mother’s cancer is in remission and the doctors can’t explain how it happened.” Mostly, I heard how talking to Hashem in plain English made the students feel His presence in their lives.

There was a time when talking informally to Hashem was part of the fabric of Torah society. The Chofetz Chaim would open his window and beseech his Creator as if he was talking to his neighbor. Women spoke freely to Hashem throughout the day about every little anxiety and hassle. My rebbi, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, testified that “if I reached something in Torah, it was in the merit of my mother. She would daven for me up to ten times a day.” The phrase “with God’s help” was a heartfelt prayer, not an exclamation. Hashem permeated our ancestors’ lives on every level.

Of course, the shul, the siddur and, in particular, the Shemoneh Esrei, remain the centerpiece of our relationship with Hashem. There is no substitute for the avodah in prayer that must be accompanied with studying the text and learning the intricate halachot. Nevertheless, talking to Hashem in our own words, about our own issues, is healthy—just as in a marriage the formal dimension is crucial while the informal adds warmth and sparkle.

What went wrong? Perhaps we have absorbed through osmosis a mentality that puts God into a Sunday morning box. Talking to Hashem outside of shul and beyond the siddur seems awkward and strange.

The best way to change this is by trying it. Next time you are looking for parking in Manhattan or washing dishes while thinking about your travails, implore Hashem in a dignified manner, and expect miracles.

And expect and enjoy the greatest miracle of all—the beauty of closeness to a loving God.

Rabbi Menachem Nissel is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women in Tefillah (Brooklyn, 2001). He teaches at yeshivot and seminaries in Jerusalem and is one of the rabbinic advisors of NCSY.

A Shepherd’s Prayer
A tzaddik was in the fields meditating, and he came across a shepherd whom he heard say, “Dear God, You have made such a wonderful, beautiful world, with the fragrant grass and trees. I want to thank You for it. I take care of people’s sheep for a fee, but if You give me Your sheep to tend, I will do so gratis.”

The tzaddik said to him, “That is a very foolish thing to say to God. Let me teach you the right thing,” and he taught him to say the Shema.

After the tzaddik left, the shepherd did not remember the Shema, and because he was told that his prayer was foolish, he was bewildered and could not say anything.

In a dream, an angel told the tzaddik to go back and tell the shepherd to say his own prayer. “You have deprived God of one of his most treasured prayers.”

Story submitted by Jewish Action columnist Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, the noted author, lecturer and psychiatrist.

Powerful Prayers
A man who had been childless for many years boasted that Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, known as the Steipler, had promised him a son and that this promise was fulfilled.

Rabbi Eliezer Shach visited the Steipler. “It is not our practice to perform miracles,” he said.

The Steipler responded, “Let me tell you what happened. This man pleaded with me for a child, and I gave him a berachah. He said he was not satisfied with a berachah and wanted a promise. I told him there was no way I could promise him anything. But he was insistent and would not leave. I was getting frustrated, because I wanted to get back to my learning, so to make him leave I said, ‘Alright, I promise you a child.’

“Afterward, I thought, ‘How could I have done such a thing, to make such a promise?’ So I said Tehillim for him.”

Rav Shach said, “Oh, so you said Tehillim? Then that’s not performing a miracle.”

Story submitted by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski.

Making Tefillah Relevant
There’s something for everyone in tefillah. The trick is to find the prayers that strike a responsive chord in you.

This is easier for some than it is for others. If one is praying for a loved one’s recovery, it’s obvious that the berachah “Rofei cholei amo Yisrael” (God heals His people) in the Shemoneh Esrei is an appropriate prayer to convey one’s deepest emotions. If one is having trouble overcoming certain temptations, he might focus on the berachot of “Hashiveinu” (help us return to You) and “Selach lanu” (forgive us).

But even parts of the tefillah that might not, at first glance, appear relevant can be meaningful. For example, I once advised a boy who was being bullied in school to pay extra attention to the words of the prayer “Elokai netzur leshoni me’ra” (God, guard my tongue from speaking evil). This paragraph includes the idea that God should disrupt the plans of those who conspire against us. The boy found great strength in this prayer; the very fact that there was a prayer that so perfectly addressed his needs was a source of comfort in and of itself!

However, one won’t find that perfect prayer if one doesn’t understand what he is saying! Just reading the words of a prayer isn’t sufficient. In order to truly appreciate the tefillot, we must actually study them. With the proper introspection and a review of the liturgy, each of us possesses the ability to make tefillah a more personal and meaningful experience.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is the associate director of the Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services at the OU and the author of The Nach Yomi Companion.

The Machzor—An Appreciation
The Rosh Hashanah machzor is somewhat akin to a fantastic art museum, brimming with content on each floor, in every room and on every wall. The sheer quantity of the content can cause one to miss out. The depth, beauty and nuances of each work of art can elude us precisely because of the massive scope of the museum and the limited time we have to experience it.

The same is true with the machzor. Each and every paragraph is replete with so much meaning and imagery that we cannot fully appreciate it in the short time in which we recite it. We are likely to gloss over the content and to miss out on much of its depth and beauty.

Take, for example, a prayer that is unique to the Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah: “U’vechein tzaddikim yiru veyismachu, And so, too, the righteous will see and be glad, the upright will exalt, and the devout will be mirthful with glad song.” Why will the righteous be in such a state of joy?

This paragraph immediately follows the plea for the arrival of the Mashiach, when gladness comes to the land and joy comes to Hashem’s city: “And it is during this time that those who have emulated God, those who have understood that Hashem’s stamp is truth and justice, will truly be happy.”

Clearly, righteous men and women have been waiting for the Mashiach. They have waited through the darkest times in human history, when corrupt, immoral deeds reigned supreme—deeds perpetrated both by evil empires and by the masses of greedy, depraved people.

And then comes the soothing imagery of the ultimate disappearance of evil.

“Iniquity will close its mouth . . . and all evil will disappear, just like smoke, when You remove empires of evil from the world.”

These words, of course, were written by the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah. One wonders about the pain that these Divinely inspired authors of the Shemoneh Esrei must have undergone in order to have constructed the poignant imagery in this heartfelt plea. Their words express an intense yearning to see the world rid of such perversion.

But it is not just the imagery and the depth of the words that impact us so. It is the also the extraordinarily moving niggunim (melodies). These, combined with the words of the machzor, can reach straight into our hearts and etch their mark on our neshamot. The combination of poignant prayers and soulful melodies, as well as a sincere ba’al tefillah, can melt even the most hardened soul. But all of this will not avail unless one focuses on the beauty, meaning and imagery of the tefillot.

Rabbi Yair Hoffman is a mechanech (educator), the author of several sefarim and the former morah d’atra of the Young Israel of Patchogue in New York.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2009.