Since antiquity, the man of Israel has prayed. He is every day invigorated by the pulse of prayer. This spiritual task of the people of Israel has been best preserved by the Psalms. But prayer has surged beyond the borders of Israel, springing forth in all the world’s religions, the inspiration even of the modern poet whose sensitivity echoes that of the psalmist in his songs and in his outcries.
Prayer being essential to the ancient Israelite, it emanates just as naturally from every man. According to the Bible, man was created to pray. Therein lies his vocation. The proof is that he breathes.This unexpected connection between praying and breathing is suggested already in the first pages of the Bible. To create man, God came down, came near to man, and sighed in him the air enabling him to breathe (Gen. 2:7). Ever since, the biological act of breathing has been sensed by the Israelite mind as a divine and human embrace. The Hebrew word ruah, or “spirit,” alludes to the spiritual dimension of man, it also signifies the air which he breathes and which makes him alive. Only those who breathe can enjoy a spiritual life. Only those who have a spiritual life, truly breathe. The spiritual life and the biological life are inseparable.
It is this acute insight which prompts the Jew, waking up in the morning, to utter: “I thank you, living and eternal king, that you gave me back, in your compassion, my breath; for great is your goodness.”
Then after the washing of the hands, the believer blesses his creator: “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the Universe, who created man.” The prayer of Israel is corollary to the principle that God created man; it implies that God exists, hears, and answers (Ps. 65:3; 115:3-7). Before being an encounter or a request, prayer is an answer.
Prayer as an Answer
Contrary to popular belief, prayer is not an attempt to approach God, it is not the soaring of one’s soul to His throne, but as pointed out by Abraham Heschel, it is “a humble response to the inconceivable surprise of life, [prayer] is all that we can offer in return to the mystery of life.”1 Created by God, we can only answer to God who spoke first. Prayer is hence primarily an answer of man to God. The idol or image preconceived by man can therefore not be prayed to. Because it is an answer, prayer implies necessarily the spiritual effort to address oneself to a God who is invisible and inconceivable.
Prayer is an answer in that it recognizes with gratefulness what one has already received. Most of the prayers in the Bible and in the Jewish tradition begin with Barukh atah Adonai “Blessed are you, Lord God.”2 The psalmist, in awe before nature’s prodigies, can only praise God (Ps. 19:1-3).
Prayer is also an answer in that it is a silence where the believer, sensing the infinite, sees his words confined to the Unutterable, to render what he discovers and only remotely senses. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands . . . no discourses, no words” (Ps. 19:1-4).
The Psalms are punctuated by this silence (selah) during which one can hear between the cries of gratefulness and praise, the profound meditation of the universe. The most beautiful prayers are born of this limitation of man, oppressed by that which transcends him and by that which he cannot express. In the light of the biblical experiences, the facile gushing out of words is suspect, betraying rather sentiments of vanity than the presence of the divine. At the heart of his prayer, David beckons us to silence: “Tremble and do not sin, commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still! selah!” (Ps. 4:5). In the same flow of thought is Jeshuah’s recommendation: “But when you pray, do not use vain repetitions, as the heathen do who think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”
Finally the prayer is an answer because it implies remembrance of what preceded it. It is the past actions of God which compel the Hebrew to pray.3 Prayer does not surge out of the void but comes to life through the covenant initiated by God (Deut. 4:23).
If in his prayer man answers God, it is because God calls him. The prayer of God precedes the prayer of man. God calls Adam out of the bushes (Gen. 3:9). He calls Moses out of his cozy desert (Ex. 3:4). He calls to repentance and to prayer (Eze. 33:11). Untiringly, God seeks man, engulfed in his worries and duties, forsaking the essential and drowning in his pride. God prays to man and suffers only too often from his silence: “Why did I come to find no one? Why did I call to receive no answer?” (Is. 5:2; 65:12). In the New Testament we encounter the same desperate God imploring Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37). The Jewish tradition has preserved the same ardent and paradoxical image of a supplicant God. And the rabbis of the Talmud even imagined the divine prayer: “So prays the Saint: May I will that my mercy gain victory over my anger and let my grace prevail over my judgments, so as to deal with my children according to the attributes of mercy and so as to come to them in indulgence” (Ber. 7a).
Prayer as a Request
It is the discovery of God’s inclination to give that prompts the man in need to call out to God. Prayer is also a request to God because it proceeds from our recognition that we owe Him everything. One does not request of him who cannot or will not give. The prayer “request” is nourished by the prayer’s “answer.” Because God gives, we find the courage to ask Him. One can pray for bread (Gen. 28:20; Matt. 6:11), for success (Gen. 24:12-14), for the salvation of Israel (Ex. 32:32; Josh. 7:6-9) or for one’s own salvation (Ps. 144:10). The prayer resonates then as a cry of despair (Ps. 4:2), as a question (Is. 45:11) or simply as a spontaneous outcry to God. Prayer can even encompass the Universal, concerning itself with the destiny of the world and the coming of the Messiah (Dan. 9). The believer is described here as being always in need, always in a position of supplication. One can perceive, behind this beggar mentality, a whole new philosophy of existence. Through prayer, the Hebrew expressed not only his gratitude, but his faith. Through prayer he learns to say “thank you,” the act of civility par excellence. Unlike the brute who devours his steak without a second thought, the man who prays marks a pause, where he masters his appetites and recognizes the gift of God. Prayer distinguishes man from beast. Through prayer, man learns to depend on God. The man who prays does not despair, because he knows that God will answer (Gen. 19:17-23). Finally, through prayer, man participates in divine action and goes even as far as to reverse the course of events in a new direction, one willed by God. Prayer is the believer’s politic. Through her, the pauper becomes prince. The miracles which mark the history of Israel and the existence of the believer are a vivid proof of God’s willingness to share His responsibility with man. Whether the sun changes its course (Is. 38:8; Josh. 10:12) or the king his decree (Dan. 6), it is in answer to a man’s simple request. This sounds unusual to the modern man’s mind-set, accustomed to the tortuous complications of human manipulations. God consented to this amputation of His powers by love and by respect for the person He created in His image. Prayer makes the weak one strong through God’s power. “The tefillah is more powerful than weapons” says the Talmud (Mekhilah 14,10).
But for a prayer to be accepted by God, it must spring up from a certain state of mind: “And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness for whosoever repents of the evil” (Joel 2:13). The prayer cannot breeze through the lips without involving a contrite spirit (Ps. 51:17) and a pure heart (Ps. 51:10). And even then, one cannot be sure of God’s answer. “Who knows?” asks Joel. The Talmudic rabbis used to break down and cry when encountering these “maybes” of the prophets. Whatever we do, there is no absolute guarantee of the divine response.
Actually, the Bible testifies also of unanswered prayers, yet emanating from sincere hearts (Gen. 18:17). In spite of this, the believer must remain faithful and trusting (Dan. 6:22). The Hebrew concept of prayer is not a magical one. It is not enough to utter the prayer for God to automatically answer. God’s answer does not depend on the quality of the prayer or on the worth of the person praying. The answer to prayer depends only on the grace of God (Dan. 9:18)
Sometimes God answers before He even received the request (Is. 65:24; Dan. 9:20). Paradoxically, it is because God’s answer depends on God only, that the Hebrew has the audacity to pray.
Prayer as an Encounter
It is not the prayer which ensures a successful outcome–it is God. Prayer is not a psychological technique to attain happiness, balance, or wisdom. It is no “transcendental meditation.” It is an encounter with another Living Being outside of oneself–with God. Hence, the emphasis is put on the sacrifices which are, in the Bible, linked with prayer (Gen. 13:4; 26:25). The Hebrew word “to sacrifice”– haqrib–means, literally, to “draw near.” Through the sacrifice, God draws near to man. That it takes the simple death of an animal to permit the proximity of God can be shocking to some. It was, however, only through the sacrifice that the Israelite could obtain forgiveness for his sins (Ex. 29:14; Lev. 4) and reconcile himself with God (Num. 6:13-21).
The sacrifice represented symbolically the act of forgiveness which reestablished the relationship between God and the believer. The sacrifice joined with prayer was to remind the Israelite of people’s fundamental incapacity to approach God through their own efforts.
Jews are reminded of this truth as they enter the synagogue, reciting “And I, through the abundance of your grace, come into your dwelling (through the merit of Abraham called the man of grace), I shall kneel before your holy palace (through the merit of Isaac bound to the gate of your holy place) . . . and my prayer will soar to you, Lord . . . God, by the abundance of your grace, answer me.” Only the grace of God which comes down to man permits the encounter. “The path to God is a path of God.”4
In this sense, the Bible, which tells of this movement of God, is essentially prayer. In fact, the whole book is read and chanted like a prayer. Prayer occupies a place of prime importance in the Bible. There are hundreds of different prayers without mentioning the Psalms and numerous other passages where prayer is alluded to without being pronounced. According to the rabbis there are no less than 10 gestures related to prayer. One can pray standing (1 Sam. 1:26), prostrated (Josh. 7:6), with bowed head (Gen. 24:26), with open outstretched hands (1 Kings 8:22; Ps. 28:2), with the face to one’s knees (1 Kings 8:42). The most diverse aspects of human life are reflected in prayer. The emotion, the thought, or the event which inspires prayer is as diverse as the form, the words, the gestures which express it. Prayer resonates with the anguishes and most intimate aspirations of man. But it vibrates also in unison, bursting forth from the community in music and liturgy. The people are thus united in the same sentiments and the same words. Prayer then takes on cosmic proportions. Surging from the human soul, it is heard everywhere in a panoply of voices and tongues. On the horizon of the prayerful experience of the community, one can envision this “House of Prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:7). This is why the Midrash Rabbah can say: “The doors of prayer are never closed” (Dt. Rabbah 11,12). Prayer is the most simple act, for God willed Himself attainable and near to all. Yet it is also the most complex and the most extraordinary act, for it puts one in contact with Eternity, with the Creator.
Simultaneously answer, request, and encounter, prayer evokes the essence of Israel itself. These three dimensions intermingle beautifully in the extraordinary story of Jacob’s fight with the Angel. To the grasp of God, Jacob responds by an insolent request: “I will not let you go until you have blessed me” (Gen. 32:26). This leads to the encounter with God, a strange and violent duel, from which Jacob emerges wounded, yet victorious. It is to prayer that Israel owes her name.
1Abraham Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, p.5.
2Gen. 9:26; Ex. 18:10; Ruth 4:14; 1 Sam. 25:32; 2 Sam. 18:28; 1 Kings 1:48; Ps. 28:6; 31:22; etc.
3Deut. 49:32-39; 7:18,19; 1 Kings 18:23-27; etc.
4Abraham Heschel, God in Quest of Man, p.151.
Image: Praying Hands by Albrecht Dürer. Public Domain