By: Rabbi Steve Schwartz
Funny what people remember, what catches their attention. It was virtually a throwaway line in a Friday night sermonette. I was talking about the importance of having faith in prayer. My point was that faith in prayer and faith in God are not the same thing. Faith in prayer, at least to me, means that when we pray we believe the experience can be transformative. In other words, we believe engaging in prayer can make a difference in our lives, in how we relate to one another, and in how we understand who we should be. That is faith in prayer – believing in prayer’s potential power.
This is not to be confused with faith in God. Those ideas – faith in prayer, and faith in God do not necessarily have to be connected. They might be, in fact, they often are, but they don’t have to be. And one of the things I worry about today is that we’ve lost faith in prayer. That is to say, fewer and fewer people today believe that engaging in prayer can make a difference in their lives. I believe prayer can be transformative – I have faith in prayer! – and that was the point of my remarks.
But in the context of what I was saying I mentioned that I am not sure if God ‘hears’ our prayers. By way of illustrating that I briefly talked about the concept in Judaism of God’s incorporeality. Incorporeality is a big word which means ‘lacking physical substance.’ According to Jewish tradition, God is incorporeal – in other words, God does not have any physical qualities. Maimonides made this quite clear, and in fact, codified the idea as one of his 13 Principles of Faith. Those principles were incorporated into the siddur in the form of the Yigdal, a beloved song often sung at the conclusion of Friday night services, or on the holidays. Here is the germane line in Yigdal – אין לו דמות הגוף ואינו גוף – God has neither bodily form nor physical substance.
And now we come to the crux of the matter: if God has no physical body, God has no ears. This means, by definition, that when we ask the question ‘does God hear our prayers?’ we are asking a question that doesn’t really make sense. If God has no ears, God can’t hear, at least in the conventional way we understand hearing. This does not mean that our prayers can’t in some way be received by God. I think they can, and if you engage in prayer on a regular basis, and if you have faith in prayer, you’ve probably experienced the sense that your prayers have in some mystical way connected with God.
But how that works is a mystery, at least to me. Minimally it is not a normal, human, conversational process, where one party speaks, and the other hears the words and then responds. Prayer to me is more of a reaching out into the infinitely deep mystery that is at the heart of the universe and reaching into the infinitely deep mystery that lies at the heart of each of us. Sometimes in the course of our prayers, in those moments of reaching, we are granted an insight. It might be a moment of connection, of feeling with surety God’s presence in our lives and our world. It might be a profound and overwhelming sense of gratitude for the blessings in our lives. It might be a deeper understanding of ourselves, of who we are and who we should be.
Of course, regular prayer has many other potential benefits. It clears the mind, focuses the spirit, and helps us live in the world more positively and productively. It is true, we are hoping for those ‘ah ha’ moments when something suddenly becomes clear when we are truly and deeply touched by God’s presence. In my experience, those moments are few and far between. But they are worth seeking, day in and day out.
From the beautiful poem written by Solomon ibn Gabirol in the 11th century, often chanted as part of the Shabbat morning service:
“At dawn, I seek You, Refuge, Rock sublime; My morning prayers I offer, and those at evening time. I tremble in Your awesome Presence, contrite, for my deepest secrets lie stripped before Your sight. My tongue, what can it say? My heart, what can it do? What is my strength, what is my spirit too? But should music be sweet to You in mortal key, Your praises will I sing so long as breath’s in me.”