All religious people and even those not theologically inclined have been confounded by this question: Why are my prayers not answered?
I especially remember one individual asking me to explain the point of prayers if they are so seldom answered.
When I was with my former synagogue in Baltimore, a group of women met every week after Shabbat to recite Tehillim and pray for the ailing in the community. Over the months, they had accumulated a long list of individuals who were seriously ill and they fervently prayed for their recovery.
One week, I joined the group. I delivered a short homily and opened the floor for questions. One woman said, “We cry our hearts out in prayer every week, and we feel compassion for every person on our list. But hardly anyone is cured, and names come off the list only when the person has died. So what is the point of prayer?”
I do not remember my exact response, but I do remember it was inadequate.
Later I received a note from a nurse in the intensive care unit of a local hospital. “In a recent talk,” she wrote, “you said that people complain to you about having said Tehillim for an ill friend, but that the prayers didn’t help, and the person died. They asked if you could explain the point of their prayers.”
Obviously speaking from profound experience, she went on to say that people find prayer frustrating because they expect a total cure. They need to realize, she said, there is much more to pray for with regard to the seriously ill than a complete recovery.
Here are some of the things she suggested people pray for: that the sick person not suffer too much pain, anxiety, depression, or loneliness; that the sick person be treated gently and with dignity by the medical staff; that the veins of the sick person be easy to find for intravenous injections; that family members have the strength to hold up under the strain and not abandon the patient; that the correct decisions, medical and ethical, be taken by the family, patient, doctor, and rabbi.
“If you pray for all of the above for a sick person, you will find that many of your prayers will be answered,” the nurse said.
Words of wisdom — especially timely in this week’s portion, Va’et’hanan, which contains the story of Moses’ prayer and how that prayer was not heeded by the Almighty.
Moses asked through deep and numerous prayers to be permitted to enter the Promised Land. But, as Moses himself tells us, God did not regard his prayers. On the contrary, God told him not to bring the matter up again.
Were Moses’ prayers indeed not heard? Careful attention to the text reveals that God did respond with at least two pieces of good news for Moses. God granted him the ability to see the Land — not a total fulfillment of Moses’ prayer, but a gift nonetheless. And, perhaps more importantly, He told him that his successor, Joshua, would lead the people into the Land and help them settle there. A leader who is assured of a competent successor has surely had his prayers answered.
We have, then, an entirely new perspective on prayer. We must pray for a greater range of outcomes covering the entire range of human needs and not limit ourselves to asking for total success. We must be satisfied with what the Lord has chosen for us. The outcomes may be modest, or even insufficient, from our mortal points of view, but they are substantial if we could but open our minds to them. We will find not that God listens to or ignores prayers. Rather, He responds to them selectively. He says “no” to some of our entreaties, but He pronounces “yes” resoundingly to a great deal of what we ask for.