November 19, 2019

Why pray? Answers to our annual conundrum

As a congregational rabbi, I dreaded High Holy Day services. The regular attendees who join in the singing, know their way around a service and like to pray, are suddenly a minority. Why do “once-a-year Jews” find their way to Rosh Hashanah services? My guess is a sense of loyalty to the Jewish people, which I admire and applaud. But I doubt that they are there because of the prayers; they are there despite them.

The reasons are well known: a lack of Hebrew fluency, a culture that prefers TV to poetry, a failure of theology. God, if God exists, doesn’t answer prayer, so why bother?

But I believe that there is much more to the story. For starters, people have misguided expectations about prayer. For my new book, “Making Prayer Real” (Jewish Lights), I interviewed 50 soulful Jews on the difficulties and joys of prayer. Almost no one expected God to answer “yes” or “no” to a specific request, including those who believed it possible and desirable. 

If the primary goal, then, isn’t to change a Divine Mind, what is it?

One purpose of prayer is to directly experience transcendence.

When my voice is joining with 20 other people’s voices, chanting the Amidah, I experience God through that moment. I’m not praying to God for something to happen.

— Rabbi Jamie Korngold

Another goal is to change our selves.

I like the Leona Medina image. If you saw somebody pulling a boat to the shore and were mistaken about mechanics and motion, you might think that he was pulling the shore to the boat. And that’s what prayer is like. You think that you’re pulling God to you, but, in fact, if you pray well, you pull yourself to God.

— Rabbi David J. Wolpe

The reason for drawing close to God is to attune or align oneself with the Divine intent.  Prayer becomes a means for affecting the heart.

I’m not trying to understand the words. I’m trying to be the words.

— Rabbi Shefa Gold

According to this understanding, a prayer for peace, for example, is prayed well when it first instills peace within us. From there, our prayers to God for peace in the world are more likely to be sincere and heartfelt.

I discovered that those who feel successful at prayer do not confuse the means with the end.  Specifically, they do not identify a prayer book with prayer. The interviewees repeated this point over and over. The prayer book is meant to be a launching pad, not a prison. Anytime we are moved to do so, we should feel free to take a break from the communal prayers to reflect or meditate on a striking phrase or take a moment for personal prayer.

For many, just the thought of personal prayer pushes a multitude of theological buttons.  Here we would be wise to remember words attributed to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: “I never let theology get in the way of my spiritual life.” He continues, “Theology is the afterthought of the believer.” 

I find this insight critical.  I have never met anyone who got God by reading a book in a library. Rather, if we experience a transcendent moment or find a spiritual practice that works, we’ll figure out the theology afterward. If we have no “God moments,” what does theology matter?

Spontaneous prayer can be the bridge to transcendence, whether we think of God in traditional terms or not. The key is honesty.

Prayer brought me back to reality. Prayer brought me back to myself, to the inner chamber of my soul. Prayer introduced me to the life that I was actually leading, rather than the life I thought I was supposed to lead.

— Rabbi Aryeh Ben David

We are all psychologically aware these days. We know that we subconsciously adopt various defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from emotional pain and heartache. While there may have been good reason for them at some stage of life, our habitual responses may well be holding us back today. We know we should change. This is exactly what we are meant to do on Yom Kippur. But so often we would rather live in denial than take the risk of leaving our comfort zone and exposing ourselves to the unknown. For Rabbi Ben David, prayer is the antidote to denial.

Why do I cry out (to God)? … Will I receive answers? …

Maybe, maybe not.

But this is not really the goal. I call out because I need to call out.  I need to encounter and express my vulnerabilities, my failures, my shortcomings, my worries. I do not want to lead a fake life. …

With whom can I express the fragility of my life? With my friends? When they ask, “How are you doing?” can I reply, “I think I have failed one of my children, my body is showing worrisome signs, my wife and I seem to be missing each other, and I have an overall feeling of dread”? Will my friends ever ask me again?

With my wife? I have been married for almost 30 years. My wife is one of the world’s great listeners, nonjudgmental and loving. Yet when and how can I bare my soul without qualification or second thought? How often? Is she ready to hear me at precisely the moment I need to unburden myself?…

I have a relationship with God, a personal relationship. God knows where I am…

There is no embarrassment — God already knows. There is no shame — God already knows.

Whether we address our wishes to the universe, to the Mystery or to the God of Israel as traditionally understood, a few words of genuine prayer can transform one’s very being —during High Holy Day services, and after.

Excerpts quoted here are from Rabbi Comins’ book “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” (2010). Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing (

Rabbi Mike Comins is the founder of TorahTrek: The Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality ( and the MPR Distance Learning Program (