Dear Jew in the City,
You recently wrote about prayer and I was wondering: Do our prayers actually accomplish anything? Can my prayers make a difference in the world, or even in my own life?
Thanks for your question. As we discussed in that previous article, the purpose of prayer is for us to be able to connect with God; it’s not supposed to be like writing a letter to Santa. Sure, we ask God for things we want, but we trust that He ultimately gives us that which He determines to be best for us. If we don’t get exactly what we requested, that doesn’t mean the prayer “failed.”
I am reminded of the 1976 comedy The Big Bus, in which José Ferrer portrayed the villain, who is in an iron lung. His brother is jealous of what he perceives to be their father’s favoritism. “How come you got the iron lung?” he complains. “Because I’m the one who was sick!” Ferrer replies. It’s kind of like that (lehavdil); our Father gives us what He knows we need.
But do our prayers have any effect on outcomes? For this question, I always like to turn to the book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. (Fun fact: I’m not a Harry Potter fan. Not for religious reasons, it’s just not my genre.) Anyway, in Chamber of Secrets Hermione has a mishap with the polyjuice potion, giving herself the features of a cat. In other words, her spell didn’t get her the expected or desired result, but it also didn’t do nothing. Prayer is something like that (double lehavdil). For example, maybe you pray to win the lottery; God decides you don’t need that but He gives you a good week at work instead. Not getting what you asked for doesn’t mean you didn’t affect the outcome at all. (Unlike Hermione messing up a spell, you can rest assured that your prayers won’t make anything worse!)
The problem is that it’s hard to quantify what prayer actually does or doesn’t do, because we have no way of knowing how things would have worked out if we did or didn’t pray. The best indicators we have are scientific studies on the efficacy of prayer. In the majority of such studies, it was determined that patients who are prayed for have better recovery rates than those who are not prayed for. Now, you might chalk this up to psychology, i.e., knowing that people were praying for them gave those patients extra strength and motivation, etc. But here’s the thing: well-conducted studies are double-blind. Even when the patients didn’t know they were being prayed for, they still had better recovery rates. (See the studies by Duke University Medical Center, San Francisco General Hospital, et al. for more details. As an aside, I was hospitalized for six weeks in 2021 thanks to Covid. I can confirm that knowing you’re being prayed for definitely does give a person extra strength and motivation.)
Having cited medical studies, Harry Potter and one very obscure movie, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t bring in a Torah source or two. Accordingly, let us turn to Exodus 22:22. There it tells us that if someone oppresses widows or orphans, causing them to cry out to God, God will hear their cries. The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim I, 45) explains that it’s implicit in “hear” that He takes action. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense for the Torah to tell us that God heard them cry out and didn’t do anything about it, right? So every time the Torah tells us that God heard, hears or will hear something, we can take it for granted that it includes God taking action in response to what He hears. In Shemoneh Esrei we refer to God as Shomeiah tefillah – “the One Who hears prayer” – so it’s kind of inherent that He answers prayers. (As we have said, God answering prayers doesn’t automatically translate into you getting exactly what you thought you wanted.)
Finally, let’s take a look in the book Nefesh HaChaim by Rav Chaim of Volozhin (late 18th-early 19th century, Lithuania). In that work he tells us (I, 4) that a person shouldn’t think he’s so lowly that he can’t effect change in the world. Rather, one must know that everything he does, everything he says and everything he thinks makes a difference. Our thoughts, words and actions storm the Heavens. We must reinforce within ourselves the knowledge that we constantly have an influence on the good that Hashem performs in the world.
So if you ask me (which you did), I’d say that our prayers definitely accomplish things, both in the world and in our own lives. We can’t always quantify our prayers’ effects since we can’t see both a world where we prayed and a world where we didn’t, but God hears prayer and we know that when He hears, He acts.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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