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September 30 2013 09:00 | Hall of Dante’s House

The Power of Prayer in History

Avichai Apel

Rabbi of Frankfurt, Germany
Prayer captures a major place in religions. A religious person is engaged daily in set prayers and during the day integrates personal prayers at various points of time in order to be saved from dangers, to ask for help or to give thanks for acts of grace.
What does man wish to achieve by his prayer?
Our greatest desire is to make change. We see the current situation as undesirable, not ideal, and we wish to bring change to the world. A prayer for rain takes place as a rule at a time when there is a shortage of rain; a prayer for health when someone is sick; and a prayer for livelihood when we are short of money, heaven forbid. Man identifies certain deficiencies in the world and in his perception desires to make change - whether he believes in his personal ability to bring about change in the world or whether he sees the need for supreme intervention to improve the world.
Can we change G-d’s will by prayer?
One of the major questions in the field of prayer is what change do we create by the very action of our prayers. Seemingly it has been stated simply that to date it was G-d’s will because the world will evolve in one way and by our prayer we have changed His wishes and now He has changed His mind and decided to progress in another way. However Judaism does not consider the option of changing G-d’s will. G-d’s only wish is to have a beneficial effect on the world. The problem lies with Man. Man by his conduct in the world is the one who blocks the Lord from benefitting the world. Our damaging acts are those which diminish the appearance of good in the world.
Therefore what is the power of prayer?
The power of prayer is rooted in the ability to change Man! Man is the one who needs to change. Man needs to change his life and his conduct in order for G-d to benefit the world. As long as Man is intransigent in his inappropriate behaviour in the world’s evolvement, the world will not be able to progress towards the great Tikkun Olam (healing of the world).
What does Man learn during prayer which helps him to change his life and thereby improve his ways?
Firstly during prayer Man learns his place and status in the world. If we imagine that we are world leaders, world rulers and that we in our thoughts and acts are those that lead the world,  why are we, if so, praying at all?! A man who lives with the feeling that he is everything, diminishes any divine ability to influence the world. During prayer Man understands that his place in the world as a rule is solely and only by the power that G-d has granted him for this purpose. In any event all his actions in the world must be guided by the moral path that G-d grants him when he upholds the way of the Torah and Mitzvah (good deeds). “Know before whom you stand” - is the fundamental motif of Man who prays. The understanding that I am standing before the King of Kings puts me immediately in my place as regards my power and my strength.
Secondly, the connection to society is also a fundamental part of prayer. The ideal prayer as far as Judaism is concerned is prayer with a Minyan (quorum of ten men). Ten men who stand together in prayer. Indeed there is also the option of praying separately, independently, however the level of prayer when there is a Minyan is more powerful, as I am now part of the nation. In this way it becomes clear to me during prayer that I am required to also consider the needs of the other when I conduct my life, and heaven forbid  that I should place myself in the centre as such that everyone should change their wishes for me. However it is also necessary to continually consider the need of the other both from the aspect of the individual - family, neighbours, friends, and the public aspect - nations, states and religions.
There is a saying that says that one who prays for his friend is answered first. This is not a trick but rather education of Man. Do not think only about yourself bur rather understand that a) our problems are not the worst, take everything in proportion, b) know that your right to receive help starts when you understand that egoism has no place in prayer.
Thirdly, pray for the entire world. Prayer by definition is connection and contact. On the one hand connection and contact by one praying to G-d, the Creator, and later connection and contact with the entire world. Our prayer is always in the plural. We are constantly engaged in prayer for the entire world.
From all the aforementioned it transpires that prayer is in fact a time of change for Man. A time in which Man learns various values with which he changes his ways and improves them. Prayer is a time of learning and change for Man. A time in which he learns his place in the world and in society, a time in which he learns which values he needs to improve his actions.
One of the special prayers in Jewish and global history is Abraham’s prayer against the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When the Holy One blessed be He decides to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah He firstly turns to the man of justice and law, Abraham our Father, and tells him that as the social situation is so poor in Sodom, it is anticipated that there will undergo great destruction. Abraham immediately opens negotiations and prays for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. A prayer in which he tries in all ways to examine how nevertheless it would be possible to save the inhabitants of the town. Firstly Abraham asks - Will the righteous be killed with the wicked?! Are all human beings also equal in punishment. Is it appropriate that the righteous will die just because of the sins of the wicked. Or in other words what is level of responsibility of each of us towards the other? G-d’s answer is speedy and He answers that if there are fifty righteous men in a town, that is to say if in each of the five towns of Sodom there are ten righteous men, this is already sufficient reason not to destroy the town, as there is a chance that the righteous will help the people of the town to repair their ways. The argument continues until Abraham understands that there are not even ten righteous men in these towns.
Abraham’s prayer does not touch on his personal life but rather on the whole world. Abraham connects here with the situation of the inhabitants of the towns and tries to examine how to repair their ways. Even when he understands that the behaviour here is so negative he makes every effort because perhaps it would still be possible to repair it.
Abraham does not test G-d’s will but rather understands that certainly G-d’s will is to make things better for His creatures. Therefore Abraham examines whether human beings are ready to change and be changed in order that G-d’s will to improve us can take place in full.
The role of prayer first and foremost is to make an inner change for us in our thoughts and also in our behaviour. Prayer is not an easy assignment. It is not just time in which Man enters a house of prayer, comfortable, excited, crying, happy and then leaves. We call prayer - work of the heart. During prayer Man performs total work by his attributes, his conduct and his thought processes. Prayer is a time of change. A time in which Man changes himself for the better and as such G-d allows the influence of much more good in the world. Even if we do not feel this immediately and tangibly we must know that it is possible that a prayer that we have prayed here with full meaning, has an effect on another who is located on the other side of the world, who we have prayed for even unconsciously.
The Jewish Siddur (prayer book) is composed therefore of a prayer known as the Amidah (the standing prayer). The prayer has eighteen set blessings which were determined and composed by 120 rabbis, members of the Great Assembly. In this way Man is allowed to leave the egoistical circle and absolute independent thought and understand that his personal needs certainly have a place but the needs of the general public and the needs of the other are no less. Even if I, by the grace of G-d, am healthy today and I do not know anyone who is sick, I must deliver today the prayer for cure of the sick. Even if as far as I am concerned there is peace between myself and my family and friends, and even if there is peace in the country where I live, I must still pray every day for world peace.  

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