The Challenge of Meaningful Prayer

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Sefer Shemot 25:1)

  1. The Tabernacle as a place of prayer

Parshat Terumah initiates the Torah’s account of the creation of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. This portable structure accompanied the Jewish people during their travels in the wilderness. The presence of Hashem was expressed most intensely in the Mishcan. The ark containing the tablets of the Decalogue was housed in the Mishcan. In the courtyard of the Mishcan was the altar upon which the nation offered its sacrifices to Hashem. Hashem addressed Moshe from between the cherubs of the ark cover.

After Bnai Yisrael conquered and settled the Land of Israel, the Mishcan continued to serve as the spiritual center of the nation. Eventually, the Mishcan was destroyed. King Shlomo replaced the Mishcan with the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple. The Bait HaMikdash became the permanent sanctuary of Bnai Yisrael and the center of national spiritual life.

With the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash, animal sacrifice was suspended and replaced by daily prayer. However, prayer did not first become a form of spiritual expression with the Temple’s destruction. The Mishcan and the Bait HaMikdash were places for prayer. Chanah prayed for a son in the Mishcan.[1] Her prayers were answered with the birth of a son who became the prophet Shemuel. When King Shlomo dedicated the Bait HaMikdash he described it as a place of prayer.[2]

  1. Negative attitudes toward prayer

Prayer and sacrificial service have much in common. Both are forms of service to Hashem or expressions of devotion. Also, both are highly structured by an extensive body of halachah. Halachah regulates the times for prayer; it orders its components; and even dictates much of the text of our prayers.

Prayer is one of the most basic and pervasive of Jewish practices. We are required to pray three times each day. Prayer and especially Shabbat prayers are the focal point of synagogue life. Yet, despite its ubiquitous nature, prayer is one of the least appreciated elements of Jewish practice. Many contemporary Jews are alienated from prayer. They do not find meaning in it. They regard it as a burden, and many individuals have abandoned seeking meaningful prayer experiences.

The characteristic of prayer that is perhaps most responsible for alienating the contemporary Jew is its highly structured and formalized design. There are at least two reasons that this design is responsible for so much estrangement.

And Moshe said unto G-d: Who am I, that I should go unto Paroh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? (Sefer Shemot 3:11)

  1. Jewish attitudes toward and responses to authority

First, our generation has developed a healthy skepticism toward authority that sometimes transmutes into a general discomfort and suspicion. In other words, the Torah expects us to question authority. In the above passages, we observe the most remarkable example of this proposition. Moshe is commanded by Hashem to return to Egypt and to lead the Jewish people out of bondage. Moshe questions Hashem. Our Sages explain that he questioned both his own fitness for this assignment and the worthiness of the Jewish people to be rescued.[3] The Torah expects us to seek understanding and knowledge. This imperative gives legitimacy even to questions like Moshe’s.

However, in contemporary times, questioning and scrutiny is often transformed into a fundamental distrust and suspicion of many or most expressions of authority. Jewish prayer imposes upon its performer structure and rules. These laws and the resulting structure are associated with authority. The individual’s experience is that the prayer activity is one of submission to authority. The very fact we perceive prayer as an attempt to impose upon us structure and regulation evokes the response of distrust and suspicion.

A simple example will help illustrate this phenomenon. As a high school student I resisted reading many of the literature assignments that were in the school’s curriculum. Not many years after completing high school, natural curiosity and a developing interest in literature lead me to read many of the same works that I had resisted reading just a few years earlier. When I allowed myself to discover these works, I found inspiration, intellectual stimulation, unanticipated beauty.

Obviously, my disparate experiences with the same works of literature were not evoked by the works themselves, but rather by the circumstances. Works of literature that I came to deeply value when read at my own initiative, I had resisted reading when they were imposed upon me by authority.

Similarly, for many of us, our attitude toward prayer is shaped not by its content but in response to our perception that prayer is imposed upon us, rather than willingly embraced.

A second factor that contributes to the negativity toward prayer is our contemporary emphasis on individuality. We champion the value of individual expression. The importance of individual expression and fulfillment is perhaps the most universal Western value. The structured format of Jewish prayer seems to us to suppress our prerogative to give expression to our personal feelings and yearnings. We must squeeze our thoughts and feelings into the highly structured format of Jewish prayer and the outcome seems impersonal and even cold.

And you shall serve Hashem your G-d, and He will bless your bread, and your water; and I will take sickness away from your midst. (Sefer Shemot 23:25)

  1. Confusion over the nature of prayer

To an extent, our negativity to prayer is an attempt to make it into something that it is not. We approach prayer as a means of personal expression. We want to address G-d and give expression to our own thoughts and feelings. However, fundamentally, prayer is an act of humble submission to Hashem. Maimonides derives the commandment of daily prayer from the above passage. The passage does not mention prayer. Instead, it directs us to serve Hashem with our hearts. Maimonides explains that prayer is the means through which we offer our heart’s service to G-d.

  1. Prayer as a reflective experience

This does not mean that we do not express our longings and petition Hashem in prayer. However, prayer is intended to be reflective as well as expressive. The amidah is the centerpiece of our daily prayers. It is composed primarily of petitions. In the blessings of the amidah we petition Hashem for health, wisdom, sustenance, justice, forgiveness, redemption and virtually every other human need. Our Sages recommend that we personalize these blessings. We do this by personalizing the amidah’s various blessings with our own petitions.[4] Why are we directed to incorporate our petitions into the blessings of the amidah? Why can we not simply focus on our own needs instead of reciting the amidah?

By integrating petition for our needs into the amidah two outcomes are hopefully achieved. First, the petitions of the amidah are all formulated as prayers for the Jewish people. We are encouraged to personalize the blessings with our own needs. But when we do this, we integrate our personal needs into a blessing that petitions Hashem on behalf of our entire people. Through this process, we recognize that others share our plight and may be experiencing the same even more terrible suffering. We pray for a dear friend or relative who is ill. We do this in the context of a blessing that is constructed as a petition for all those who are ill. In this process we are moved to see ourselves as part of a greater community that includes people who we may not know but who are also suffering and need our prayers.

Second, as noted, the amidah is composed of a set of blessings that encompass the breadth of human needs. Through reciting and meditating upon these blessings we place our personal needs in perspective. We may have a friend who is ill. We may be struggling to support our family. Perhaps, we are praying for a friend who needs wise guidance in choosing between the paths that stretch forth before him. But when we integrate these petitions into the blessings of the amidah, we include within our prayers our requests for Hashem’s forgiveness and mercy. We ask that Hashem help us find the courage and strength to repent and become better people. We also ask Him to redeem His people and restore us to our sacred homeland. If we consider our words, we recognize the enormous extent of our dependence upon Hashem. We realize that we need Him not only when we are desperate for the restoration of a friend’s health or feel oppressed by financial stresses. Every day and in every aspect of our lives we rely upon and we are blessed by His benevolence.

The incorporation of our individual prayers into the amidah transforms a personal, often selfish and shallow expression into a reflective and thoughtful encounter with G-d.

  1. The study of prayer enriches the activity of prayer

The “take away” from this exploration is that perhaps the greatest obstacle standing in the way of our appreciation of prayer is that we do not take the time or invest the energy into considering the beautiful contents of the our prayers. We are quick to reject or look askance at any imposed activity. But if we are willing to study and reflect upon the texts of our prayers, we can discover their eloquent expression of a passionate relationship with Hashem.


[1] Sefer Shemuel I 1:9-12.

[2] Sefer Melachim I 8:28-50.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 3:11.

[4] Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 119.