Does Prayer Work?

Dear Rabbi

I have a deep theological question. We have all been praying that this virus goes away and yet here we are still in the midst of it in Israel. Simply put, does prayer work?


Dear Isadore

In a small town just outside Tel Aviv someone decided to open up a nightclub right opposite a Chassidic shteibel. You could imagine the uproar. The riffraff, the atmosphere in the neighbourhood – the shteibel and its congregation started a campaign to block the club from opening with petitions, government lobbying and even a daily vigil where they gathered for extra prayer, tehilim etc.. All to no avail. Work progressed. Three days before opening there was a huge storm, lightning struck and the club burnt to the ground. The club owner sued the Chassidim on the grounds that the shteibel through its praying was ultimately responsible for the ill fate of his dream project, either through direct or indirect actions or means. In its reply to the court, the shteibel vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection between their prayers and the club’s burning down. As the case made its way in to court, the judge looked over the paperwork at the hearing and commented: “I don’t know how I’m going to decide this case, but it appears from the paperwork, we have a nightclub owner who believes in the power of prayer and we have an entire congregation that doesn’t.”

We all utter prayers of sorts; sometimes personal ones, usually structured ones, but what’s it really all about? What are we hoping to achieve? What do we expect to accomplish? A child wants something, so he or she asks Mom or Dad for what they want or need. Is that what prayer is all about? Is it as basic as that?

Each of us has something that we need or want in our lives. There is something within that needs repair, a broken heart, a hurt over loss, possibly physical pain or emotional anguish. The beauty of prayer is the realisation that you are not alone. There is Someone you can talk to, you can confide in. Even with no one else around you, there is always G-d you can talk to! And you should never hesitate – never measure your words – never limit your outpouring, never question your right to ask for whatever it is you want.

However, bear in mind the following: Moses prayed 515 times to be allowed into the Land of Israel. Commentaries observe that had Moses gone on to pray one more time – 516 times – had he gone that extra mile – his request would have been granted. And in all likelihood he was aware of that as well. Which would have surely made him wonder why G-d didn’t yield sooner – if only because as much as one can evoke Divine compassion, the true believer appreciates that your prayers are always answered, albeit that sometimes the answer is “no.” We can never be sure what the answer will be, but we can find comfort in the ask, and confidence in the anticipation that like with every mother or father, our Supreme Parent knows what’s in the best interest of His children.

The bottom line is no prayer is ignored and no tears go unnoticed. But the response is not always in the form we expect it to be. In the finale of Yom Kippur, at that holiest

of moments, during the Neilah prayer we plead from G-d: “You who hears the sound of weeping, store our tears in Your flask, and save us from all cruel decrees.”

Why are we asking G-d to store our tears? Not always are our prayers answered in the way we want them to be. Sometimes G-d, in His infinite wisdom, for reasons known to Him which defy our comprehension, does not grant us our wishes at the time we demand them. But that doesn’t mean that they are in vein. Instead, those tears are stored away, those prayers are filed. They may be taken out and answered at another time, or will spill over to impact in different ways.

Though we are not privy to G-d’s mechanisms and we don’t get His system, every word, every prayer is accounted for, and makes an impact. In physics, the law of conservation of energy states that energy can never be destroyed, it just changes from one form to another. No prayer is ever lost; no tear is ever wasted. Your request will be granted; it just may be in an unexpected form. So keep praying and look for the blessings to roll in.

Here Comes The Judge!

Dear Rabbi

If there is one thing I have come to discover during this whole lockdown period it is how judgemental people can be. I find it sad that in our wider Jewish community everyone decides to judge others about the way they are dealing with the crisis. I was personally a victim of this and feel the need to vent my upset. Maybe you can inspire your audience to be a little less judgemental. We would all be better off for it.


Dear Anon

I’ve shared this before: A few years back when I was on a plane with my dear wife returning from a solidarity trip to Israel. This elderly woman sat next to my wife and myself. She proceeded to tell me which community she comes from and wonderful her rabbi is. I asked her if she knew the rabbi of Mill Hill Synagogue. “Oh yes. Sch…Sch…Schochet. I don’t like him!” My wife smiles and asks sweetly, ‘why not?’ “Oh he’s very opinionated and I don’t like his views at all!” She sees me smiling and says, “I’m sorry if you have anything to do with him, but I just don’t like him!” Later she’s standing with some friends at the back who clearly identified me and as I walked past with my wife she stops us: “What is your name?” My wife says, “Chani,” and quickly beats a hasty retreat. I said “Yitzchak.” “What is your surname?” “Schochet,” I said, sheepishly. “And so you are! Are you the rabbi?” Trying to make light of an otherwise embarrassing situation I reply, “Let’s just say I am very, very closely related to him!” “Oh good!” she says, “As long as you’re not him! I really don’t like him!”

It’s good therapy sometimes to forget yourself, drop the image and let others tell you like it is. We got along really well throughout the flight, this lady and I. She was very grateful for my help, putting her sweater up into the overhead compartment, taking it back down; Helping her with the remote control and even sharing a laugh or two with her.

It’s amazing how people are so quick to jump to conclusions and form preconceived notions, judging and passing verdict without ever really experiencing matters first hand. For the record I’m not suggesting she’s wrong. But aren’t we to one degree or another guilty of the same? We are quick to pass judgement on other people without ever really looking beneath the surface. Is there hope for the forlorn Jew if we just judge them then write him or her off as another statistic? Why are we so quick to criticise – to pounce – to see the bad in other people, rather than looking beneath the surface at the inherent goodness that exists within? A timely thought at this juncture in the Jewish calendar and thank you for bringing it to readers’ attention.