Prayer is deeply personal, and everyone prays in their own way.
While there are different approaches to precisely how prayer works or what it affects, we assume that the omnipresent and omniscient God is listening, and we know that not every prayer is answered in the way we might hope.
We intuitively understand that the Creator is the Source of all blessing, the final and only destination for all our hopes and dreams. The stakes couldn’t be higher – the Creator holds all the cards and pulls all the strings, with the power of life and death and everything in between.
So it’s important to pray properly so God will listen.
What are the requirements of a proper prayer that God will listen to?
If you think need righteous and holy saints to pray for you and bless you, you might be surprised because the Torah plainly states otherwise.
In the story of Yitzchak’s life, the Torah recounts how his mother Sarah identified the older Yishmael as a corruptive influence on the young Yitzchak, and she sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away from the family home.
The Torah tells how Hagar and Yishmael wandered, lost in the wilderness, until they ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. Knowing no one was coming to the rescue and with certainty that her son would die suffering, she cried out in complete and utter despair – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.
Completely and utterly miraculously, the Torah tells how Hagar received a vision of a nearby oasis, and she rushes to get the water she needs to save her son.
This seems to conform with our conventional understanding of prayer; the desperate mother crying for her suffering child.
But the Torah does not give credit to Hagar. An angel speaks with her and tells her that everything is going to be okay because the Creator has listened to the prayer – but not Hagar’s:
וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven, and said to her: “Don’t worry, Hagar; God has heard the voice of the boy in his state.” (21:16)
God listens to Yishmael’s prayer, not Hagar’s – כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר.
The story never ascribes an action or a word to Yishmael; he is a passive object in the story, the object of his mother’s prayers, the person acted upon, and not the actor.
A mother’s tears for her dying son did not move the heavens. But what moved the heavens was the voice of a dying boy, and he never even says a word! Perhaps, in his suffering, he cried or sighed; not even significant enough for the Torah to record it as an action he took.
That literally invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the entire story and goes on to shape history, and perhaps it should shape our understanding of prayer.
There are no requirements to pray properly; you just have to mean it, and you don’t have to be anyone or anything special. You can just be a kid, and you can just cry because it hurts.
The Midrash imagines the angels arguing against divine intervention to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit, but they lose the argument because God evaluates things differently. God answers the boy based on where he is and the facts and circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם.
The story of Yishmael teaches us that prayer isn’t confined to ritualized formalities, and maybe that’s partly why we read this story on Rosh Hashana.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. You don’t need to know how to pray or understand the words.
Our sages conclude from the stories of our ancestors that God loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights that God loves righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילתן של צדיקים / תפילת צדיקים.
You don’t have to be perfect to generate a perfect prayer. Our daily prayers affirm that God is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת. It is not beyond any of us to ask for help and truly mean it – יקראוהו באמת.
Everyone is capable of a one-off, pure prayer.
Just a single moment of pain from a suffering boy moved the heavens. It is not beyond us.