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What's the Point of Prayer?

"Oh G-d! I'm sorry to bother You, but You know I don't ask You for much. Could You do just this one thing for me? I'll never ask You for anything again."

Have you ever prayed these words, or heard someone praying these words?

It seems like a logical prayer. After all, Hashem is pretty great, and why should He spend his time bothering with little old me?

Well, you got that half right. Hashem is certainly great, but you and I are the reason He created the universe.

Huh? Me? You? That's ridiculous! Why would anyone create an entire universe just for you and me? It seems like a tremendous waste. Look at this beautiful and immense planet. Look at all those stars in space! Do you know how big the galaxy is? And how many galaxies there (probably) are? All that just for the human race; all that just for a few billion people?

Even a few billion people can't be that important. Certainly one person can't be that important!

Well, actually, that's not entirely true.

Have you ever been to a wedding?(1) One day visit a wedding hall a few hours before the wedding is scheduled to start, just to see what the place looks like. The bride and groom are not there yet, of course. The cleaning crew comes first, many hours before the wedding starts. Next come the cooks. A few hours later, a crew comes to set up and arrange the tables. Some time later the waiters arrive to set up their stations and get their work ready. After a long while, the photographer shows up with his crew and begins to set up. The orchestra arrives and sets up. An hour or so before the scheduled time the family will probably arrive. The bride and groom go their separate rooms to prepare. Eventually the guests arrive, and begin milling about, meeting the family and other guests. The wedding reception has, more or less, begun. The music is already playing, food has been laid out. Finally, the very last to enter the reception hall itself are the bride and groom.

Humanity, of course, were also the last to arrive on earth.

But wait, there is someone whose preparations we need to look at. Take a close look at the photographer at his work. He is usually already at work long before either the bride or groom show up at the hall. At some weddings I have seen photographers take elaborate pictures of the settings (i.e., the arrangements of the plates, for goodness sakes) on one of the tables. Afterwards, the photographer sets up a stage for the bride. There are hundreds of flowers, there are curtains, backdrops, maybe even pictures of scenery, all set up just to photograph the bride.

How many times have you seen the pictures, or the videos (or Super 8 mm movies, if you remember those) of your parents' wedding? Every once in a while, probably. You're probably not always itching to watch it again.

If you're married, how many times have you watched the videos of your own wedding? Not often enough, right? And if you're a woman, you probably often dream about doing the whole thing again, just to relive the beautiful emotions you felt at your wedding.

Why is all this done? For two people. A bride and a groom. At that event, they are the most important people. Every single flower is bought for that express purpose, and no one stops to think that maybe it is not worth buying so many flowers for a one-day event, especially when those flowers will all be thrown out after the wedding.

And is the wedding the most important part of your life? It is certainly the most glamorous, probably the most emotional. It is a whole new beginning, and therefore momentous in itself. It is a start to your new life.

But much more important is how you live your married life. We don't make great weddings because that will enhance our married life. We do it because it is an important day for the bride and the groom, and they must take to heart the fact that they are taking a big step, and it must be taken with joy and with care.

All this is a metaphor for our lives. We, humanity, are the bride. Our lifetime on this planet is like one long wedding. There's food, music, dancing, meeting of friends and family, and so forth. But at a Jewish wedding there are also commitments to make, documents to sign, ceremonies to perform, and some quality time spent between bride and groom.

The groom is Hashem (at least in this metaphor). Hashem has shown infinite kindness in creating a world so full of beautiful and enjoyable things. There is beauty to see, such as the stars, and many beautiful things on this planet. There is tasty food. There are many things to enjoy in this world, and Hashem permits a lot of it (even if there are also things that are forbidden).

And all that was created for us, for humanity. Each and every star is like a flower in a bridal arrangement. It is no more than element of a whole, part of the beautiful backdrop set in place for our benefit. (I am not saying that there is no life on other planets. If there is, they have a purpose too. And no, I do not know if that purpose is solely for our benefit or if they are considered part of humanity. Either of the two is theoretically possible.)

So yes, even with all the billions of galaxies, and stars and planets and who knows what else out there, we are the reason for Creation. Hashem created all that for only one purpose: so that there would be a creature with free will that can develop a relationship with Hashem

And that purpose extends to each and every one of us. Hashem's creation of the universe encompassed entire species, but His attention is also directed at individuals. Remember, Hashem created just two cows, two tigers, two ants, two humans, and so on. Each individual could be the start of a whole new species. Thus, each and every one of us counts. YOU are important.

YOU are the reason for Creation.

So, now, should you pray? Are you bothering Hashem when you pray to Him?

Let's say you're a father, and your eighteen-year-old son, whom you love very much, has been accepted to a prestigious college that's several hundred miles away. You send him off with clean clothes, money for his various needs, and you give him cell phone. You tell him that you're giving him the cell phone so he can call you every so often. You might even ask him to call you every week.

Now, you know he is also going to use that phone to call his girlfriend, his countless other friends, ad infinitum. You are paying the bill for that cell phone, but you're willing to overlook that, as long as your son calls you every so often.

Some sons are not so good about calling their fathers or mothers. They might call only once a month. One day you get a call from your son, "Hi, Dad. I'm sorry to bother you, but you know that I hardly ever call. Could you do this one thing for me? I'll never ask for anything again."

How would you feel about that? Does any part of that even make sense, if you love your son?

See, the thing is, the more your son calls you, the more you are likely to want to do things for him. You want to have a relationship with him. It's true that you want your son to learn to be self-sufficient, but you also want to find a way to have him call you every so often.

So if doing that one thing for him means he will never call you again, you won't do that thing for him! Because you want him to call you again. In fact, you want him to keep calling! That's how Hashem feels about us:  He wants us to call Him.

One person wrote me, "I'm not in the habit of requesting things in my prayers as I don't think that's the point of the exercise."

This rather surprised me. All through Tanach (the Jewish Bible) we find that people prayed when they wanted something, and often Hashem answered them.

Sometimes Hashem makes things difficult for us so that we will "call" Him, that we will pray to Him, and lovingly acknowledge that everything comes from Hashem. The Talmud tells us that Hashem made Abraham and Sarah infertile because Hashem wanted them to pray to Him (Chidushei Aggados I, page 142, Tractate Yevamos). By praying to Hashem, we grow closer to Hashem, and we benefit from this in many ways. This is why the Prophet Jonah was kept so long inside various fish without being let out - Hashem was waiting for him to pray to be let out (Otzar Hamidrashim, Jonah, 5).

In fact, when Avimelech, king of Grar, got sick, Hashem told him to ask Abraham to pray that he get healed (Gen. 20:7). (So here we see that sometimes in addition to our own prayers it is a good idea to get a very righteous person to pray for us also. One of the side benefits is that we develop a relationship with the righteous person as well, which is an opportunity to learn how to improve our own behavior, and thus get closer to Hashem.)

Praying to Hashem means establishing a relationship with Hashem. Hashem wants that, and will often deny someone something to get him to pray to Hashem and ask for it, so that the person can get close to Hashem. And when He grants us what we ask for, sometimes He doesn't grant it fully at first, because if He did, you'd stop praying! So Hashem might grant things to you a little bit at a time, until you develop a closer relationship with Hashem. At first, you might need to get into the habit of praying at all. Then you might need to learn to pray with more feeling. Then, perhaps with deeper concentration. At some point, Hashem wants you to learn to pray for others as well, every day. There is no end to how close we can get to Hashem, and how much we can continue growing in that relationship.

Remember, Hashem created us because He wants to do good things to someone. So He created beings that can get closer to Him, and can appreciate it. Hashem, basically, wants a relationship with us, and that's why He created us.

That's the point of prayer!

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1. This metaphor is from Awake My Glory, by Rabbi Avigdor Miller, obm., paragraphs 642-645. Published by Bais Yisroel of Rugby.

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