Why Pray?

If you don’t believe in a traditional God why pray? What is the purpose of prayer?

As a kid the whole concept of prayer was foreign to me. This is what I understood: You get dressed for bed at night, then kneel by your bed and thank God for things in your life. I also understood that I could ask God for things and talk to God when I was in trouble. As a child I would often visit churches and I would see people deep in prayer and it seemed to me, that people strongly believed that if they have enough faith  they could ask God for things and if your faith was strong enough God would deliver. But I didn’t get it

So what is the purpose of prayer? Abraham Joshual Heshel  in an interview stated that people misunderstand the purpose of prayer and the primary purpose of prayer, at least in the Jewish tradition is “not to make requests. The primary purpose is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song.” In the Jewish tradition we pray in community with singing. Rabbi Jacob Staub wrote that “for many of us, group singing transports us beyond ourselves. I may be awash in gratitude for a life cycle passage, or for the blossoming of flowers in my yard, but without my minyan (quorum) where would I sing out?”

In Mordecai’s Kaplan’s book The Meaning of God, Kaplan lays out the purpose of praying in community. He explains that whenever we pray in a minyan the Shekinah is with us. God’s presence can be with us in a smaller group and God can even be with us as individuals but the more people that are gathered together to pray, to sing and to chant the more likely we will experience “a manifestation of the Shekinah.”

I have always liked praying in community. There is something very powerful about having a large group of people singing and chanting in rythmn from prayers in the siddur (prayer book). I also cannot help but think of slaves in the United States. Singing and chanting passages from the Torah allowed creative ways to escape slavery, both mentally and physically. I also think about  the civil rights movement, and the singing of spirituals and protest songs. I cannot even imagine what the movement would have been like without the singing. Someone told me the other day that one reason we are so messed up today is because “We ain’t doing enough singing.” This is probably why chanting is so popular right now in Jewish communities. Hebrew is complicated and not everyone understands Hebrew or can read it fluently but if we just take a few lines from prayers and sing them as a group then we can “be transported beyond ourselves,” or as Kaplan says feel God’s presence.

Kaplan explains “to fully appreciate God’s presence, one must actually experience the influence of public worship…Praying in public makes one feel at home…The presence of others participating with us in articulating our common ideals assures us that we are not separate drops of water, but parts of the mighty current of human life.” Kaplan also explains that we are better off and better at surviving life’s challenges with others than we are alone.  Praying in community “Liberates our personality from the confining walls of our individual ego,” in other words we brood, but praying in community breaks us free of this prison, lets in the light and we are able to enjoy life and life becomes more meaningful.

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