At first glance prayer seems to be about whining and begging G-d, “Please heal this person … please bring me my soul-mate … please help my business, etc.” One could mistakenly think that G-d is holding out on us and gets pleasure watching us grovel.
When we are faced with some very serious problems, it is customary to ask others to join together in our prayers. What is that all about? It seems as if we hope to move G-d through force: “G-d, if you don’t respond to my prayers, then I will recruit through the e-mail thousands of others to pray.”
Do we think these strategies really work? What are we actually doing here? If G-d is all knowing then why am I telling Him my problems? He already knows them. If G-d is good then why am I asking for Him to change my situation? Obviously whatever happens to me is for my best and I should just trust G-d.
To appreciate what we are actually doing when we pray, we have to examine what prayer really means. First, we have to understand that according to Torah we do not pray. Prayer is an English word. What we do is l’hispallel.
L’hispallel is a unique experience, but as with most Torah things today, this holy word has been changed into an English word with a western connotation. The word “prayer” actually comes from the Latin word meaning “to beg” — exactly what most people feel prayer is. They imagine a big king in the sky who is getting a big ego boost from watching his subjects beg. This is a terrible image of ourselves and of G-d.
L’hispallel has nothing to do with begging G-d to change His mind. L’hitpallel is a reflexive verb and it means to do something to yourself, not to G-d. When you are praying, your question should not be, “Is G-d listening to my prayers?” Rather, you should ask yourself, “Am I listening to my prayers? Does what I say impact me? Have I changed?”
If you are under the impression that praying is communicating to G-d information that He does not already know, then the whole prayer experience becomes ridiculous. G-d knows that your business is falling apart. G-d knows that you desperately want your soul-mate. G-d knows exactly what is going on in your life. L’hispallel is not about G-d hearing your prayer, although He surely does. It is about you hearing your prayers. You need to say these things to G-d because you need to hear yourself saying them.
L’hispallel means to do something to yourself. Exactly what you are doing is palleling yourself. And what exactly is that? We see the word palel in the story of Jacob and Joseph. When Joseph learns that his father Jacob is nearing his death, he goes to his father for a blessing for his two children. Jacob says, “I never palel-ti that I would ever see your face again, and G-d has granted me to even see the face of your children.” What do you think the term means here? I never hoped…? I never imagined…? I never dreamed…? I never anticipated?
The great 11th century Torah commentator Rashi explains the verse to mean, “I never would have filled my heart to think the thought that I would ever see your face again.” Therefore, when we l’hispallel, we are actively, intentionally filling our hearts, to think the thoughts, to dream the dreams of what it is that we want to see and do in this world and then change ourselves in order to make these things happen. It is not G-d whom we are trying to change. It is ourselves and our relationship to G-d we are trying to change through prayer. If we change ourselves, we change our whole situation.
G-d is waiting to give us only blessing but we need to want it and want it for the right reasons. G-d answers prayer that we ourselves try to answer as best as we can.