Prayer is one of Judaism’s essential and fundamental practices.
Through prayer, we commune with the Creator, affirming our connection, dependency, and gratitude to the Source of all life.
The theurgy of prayer – the metaphysics of how prayer works and what it does – is complex, and in all likelihood, fundamentally unknowable. It’s not obvious how you’d test whether or not prayer works, because the universe is self-evidently a much bigger place than your personal wish list.
What we do know is that at all times and all places throughout our history, the Jewish People have always turned to God in prayer for health, success, and salvation. It is almost universally understood that prayer plays a prominent role in the efforts and energy we must expend to get the outcomes we want – as well as the ones we don’t.
The crescendo of the Exodus came with the decisive miracle at the Red Sea. The ocean parted, giving the desperate Jewish People safe passage, while simultaneously obliterating their great tormentors in one fell swoop. The Splitting of the Red Sea is one of the most captivating and magical moments in the entire Torah, and prayer plays a prominent role in the build-up:
וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־ה – As Pharaoh drew near, the Jewish People caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Jewish People cried out to the Lord. (14:10)
But surprisingly, and quite unlike how we might expect, this prayer is not well received:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מַה־תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ – Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Why are you crying out to Me!? Tell the Jewish People to get going!!” (14:15)
With righteous outrage, we might wonder why God gets annoyed that the people cry out. The Jewish People have made it to the beaches with their children and everything they own. They have no boats and cannot swim to safety; just over the horizon, there is a hostile force in hot pursuit. By any reasonable standards, they are out of time and out of options. They are desperate, so they cry out to God for help; we can have no doubt that their fears and tears were deeply real.
What’s more, our sages imagine Heavenly gateways for prayers, suggesting that prayers are accepted or denied based on factors like circumstances, quality, and timing. The Neila prayer on Yom Kippur extensively utilizes this imagery to evoke a sense of urgency – quickly squeeze in your final prayers, because the gates are closing! The Gemara concludes that regardless, the gate of tears is always open; presumably, because tears are heartfelt and sincere, and the pain that generates tearful prayers loads them with a potency that Heaven cannot refuse.
If crying to God for help is what you are supposed to do, why did God get annoyed at their prayer?
The imagery of gates in Heaven is powerful and compelling, but it appears to have a fatal flaw. The metaphor doesn’t work for a gate of tears because a gate that never closes is no gate at all!
The Kotzker Rebbe sharply teaches that the gate of tears is still a gate, because not all tears are equal; some tears are indeed turned away. The gate is shut to crocodile tears – superficial sorrow that is insincere, like when people attempt to use grief to excuse inaction.
In the story of Pinchas, Balak and Bilam successfully schemed to compromise the Jewish People by sending the young women of Midian into the Jewish camp to seduce the men; most young men found the temptation impossible to resist, sparking a devastating plague.
But the Midianite women were not successful at drawing in everyone; some of them were strong enough to resist, and, unsure what to do, they went to the holiest man, their leader Moshe, at the most sacred spot they knew, the Mishkan, to cry and pray – וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
These people of moral fiber cried and prayed for help, but that didn’t save the day.
R’ Moshe Sherer highlights how the Torah explicitly credits Pinchas’s assassination of the provocateurs for stopping the plague, and not anyone’s prayers – וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה / הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי.
When something is wrong and we respond only with thoughts and prayers, they are crocodile tears, lip service, pearl-clutching, and window dressing. The pain and tears may be real, but prayers don’t help if your approach to problem-solving is fundamentally broken.
As much as there may be stories of people praying for magical solutions that materialize out of thin air with no human input, the Torah dismisses the notion of thoughts and prayers as a substitute for action.
At the Red Sea, God urges Moshe to have his people quickly get a move on. The Midrash expands this discussion; God rebuked Moshe that it was an inappropriate moment for lengthy prayers – there was danger close, and it was time for decisive action.
Rashi suggests that God was annoyed at the people’s prayer at the sea because they seized their ancestral craft – תָּפְשׂוּ אֻמָּנוּת אֲבוֹתָם. The Maharal explains that prayer isn’t craftsmanship, like carpentry or plumbing. Prayer is supposed to be heartfelt and soulful! But they cried out to God as the last resort of their ancestors; a weak effort that betrayed deep fear and insecurity and the cynical despair of helplessness, that all was lost. It was an inferior, or at least suboptimal prayer, an immature prayer that betrayed a lack of belief, both in God and in themselves, that there was nothing they could do!
Only they were wrong to think that there was nothing else they could do, and we’d be equally wrong for thinking prayer could ever work in a vacuum.
As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, they should have believed enough in their prayer to stop praying and get moving, but they were frozen and paralyzed.
In sharp contrast, our ancestor Yakov prepared to reunite with Esau years after wronging him and meticulously prepared for their meeting. He prepared for peace by sending waves of lavish gifts to Esau; prepared for battle and victory, arming his young family and training them; prepared for defeat and death, dividing his family in two, in the hope that the second camp might escape without Esau ever knowing they existed; and then finally, he prays that God be with him and that his family survives.
As R’ Noach Weinberg highlights, Yakov prepares for peace, victory, and death; which is to say that he did no less than everything possible to prepare for all eventualities before prayer, even though God had already promised to be with him and that his children would inherit the land and his legacy.
Maybe that’s what our efforts have to look like to give our prayers a hook to latch on to – even when God promises.
God didn’t want their prayers at the Red Sea, because it wasn’t time to pray; it was time to act! But they couldn’t, because they had given up, and were totally consumed with fear. Perhaps that lends enduring power to the legacy of Nachson ben Aminadav, whom the Midrash heralds for clambering into the water when he could not yet know what would happen, because just maybe there was one last thing to try before giving up, finding room for a ray of hope amid the clouds of despair – a hope that drove action.
R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that the biggest challenge to our faith and belief is time; that we give up prematurely.
By wading into the water, Nachshon showed people who thought they had reached the outer limit of what they could do and revealed to them that the boundary was just a little further than they’d thought. They’d stopped at the shore, but he boldly and bravely stepped into the impossible and waded up to his neck, without waiting for instructions, leading by example in the face of uncertainty, the quality of his tribe, Yehuda. And when he did that, he sparked salvation, upending the entire natural order, and the ocean split for all.
Perhaps that underpins God’s irritation at why they cry out – they are parked on the beach, crying; but what exactly do they expect God to do with that?! We can almost hear God begging for something to work with – tell them to get up and get going!
To be sure, we should not judge our ancestors too harshly for being afraid. The fight, flight, or freeze response is hardcoded into our DNA and predates human consciousness; people do tend to freeze when their families are about to get massacred.
But God speaks through them to us, and we should ask ourselves if our own prayers are corrupted by fear or despair and yet still wonder why our prayers go unanswered. We need to audit our lives, soul searching about whether we truly mean our prayers. Does the way you spend your life align with what you claim to want? Does what you pay attention to and devote time to reflect that? We should wonder if God might give us a similarly terrifying answer about what we’re asking God to work with.
If you’re crying crocodile tears, you shouldn’t be surprised that your prayers don’t seem to be working; you may need to confront the reality that your prayers are wildly mediocre.
You won’t get the dream job you don’t apply to. You won’t get healthy if you don’t diet and exercise. You won’t pass the test if you don’t study the material. You won’t get rich if you don’t invest. Your relationship won’t be meaningful if you don’t give your partner attention. That’s the way the world works; if you expect your prayer to change that fundamental reality, you will likely continue to be disappointed.
You need to animate your life with action and hope, like our ancestor Yakov, like our hero Pinchas, and invoke the incredible bravery of Nachshon. God desperately wants to shower us with blessings, but we need to build the vessels that will contain those blessings or they have no place to land.
The future is concealed and uncertain; what lies ahead is shrouded in the darkness of the unknowable. But we can illuminate it with bold and decisive actions that brighten each step along the way. And with each step, certainly pray to meet with good fortune and success.
If there’s something you’ve been praying on for a while, stop being a soldier and think like a general – strategize for a moment. Every person who wants something different from their performance than what they’re getting is doing something to perpetuate poor outcomes. Bluntly consider what you could be doing better to make it happen, and do those things.
Miracles do happen, but they start with your level of effort and dedication toward your dreams. Thoughts and prayers are not a substitute for action.
You must believe in a positive outcome enough to invest real effort into making it a reality.