In the field of psychology, prayer is one of the most commonly cited connections between religion/spirituality and mental health. When discussing how religion and spirituality can help people cope with difficulties in their lives, almost everyone assumes – and rightfully so – that to speak of religious coping is to speak of prayer. Research shows that prayer is one of the most formidable weapons we human beings possess to protect against all kinds of struggles, and that prayer can help to alleviate stress and protect against anxiety and depression. Furthermore, prayer has actually made its way to the clinical area: the serenity prayer at the core of Alcoholics Anonymous, mindfulness and meditation, at the core of multiple therapeutic modalities – in fact, prayer, and specifically the Shema, is mentioned explicitly in the manual for Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) as a viable mindfulness practice (in case you needed the DBT stamp of approval on your daily act of being Mekabel Ol Malchus Shamayim).
In Judaism, prayer is a huge percentage of our faith and practice. And at the same time, it can be one of the most challenging aspects of religious Jewish life. There are so many prayers, so many laws governing prayer, that it is sometimes difficult not to get caught up in the details.
Rav Shimshon Pincus, in the introduction to his Sefer Shearim B’Tefillah, notes that prayer is going to be the primary challenge and merit of our generation. In the past, the Jewish people have amassed Zechuyos through Chesed, through Torah learning, and through giving up their lives for Judaism. In this generation preceding Mashiach, prayer is going to be our most important tool – and therefore one of the hardest to master.
What is the secret to the powerful impact of prayer, and how can we acquire it?
In this week’s parsha, the pasuk tells us that as he awaits the arrival of his soon-to-be-wife, Rivka, “Vayetzei Yitzchak LaSuach BaSadeah Lifnos Erev,” and Yitzchak went Lasuach in the field as it became evening. (24:63). Rashi explains the word “lasuach” as a “lashon tefilah,” meaning that Yizchak went to the field to pray. Rashi derives his explanation from the words of Tehillim (102:1), “Tefillah L’ani Ki Yaatof, V’lifnei Hashem Yishpoch Sicho.” Prayer, then, is a conversation. It is a discussion, a discourse, a dialogue. Of course, this may seem a strange idea, considering that God does not speak directly back to us. And yet, it is no accident that the word “Sicha,” which means conversation in Modern Hebrew as well, is used to describe Yitzchak’s prayer.
Prayer is multi-faceted. There are times that we pray, as Eliezer does earlier in our Parsha, for something specific. We approach God, and we make requests, just as we might call a friend and ask for a favor. For this reason, prayer becomes a testament to our trust and faith in God- it forces us to consider, do I truly believe God can grant me this request? In fact, the Ramban in Sefer HaMitzvos notes that included within the Mitzvah to pray is the mitzvah to believe that Hashem can answer our prayers. Even so, as a teacher of mine once said, prayer is not a vending machine. It is not a transaction, through which we say some magic words and receive the blessing we seek. At times, the work of prayer is to be self-reflective, as is seen in the root of the world Lihitpallel, to think about oneself. Prayer forces us to consider, why do I want this? Is this truly what is best for me? And moreover, there are times when prayer is not about the outcome, but about the experience.
As we know, Yitzchak’s Tefillah at this time is setting the precedent for the Tefillah of Mincha, which we say as the afternoon turns to evening. What is the significance of the timing of Yitzchak’s prayer and its description as being a conversation?
Mincha is said in the middle of our busy day. Especially at this time of year, when Shkiyah is getting earlier and earlier, most of us, if we are davening Mincha, are stopping in the middle of our work or school day to touch base with God. Inherent in this prayer is the power of a check-in; it is the time at which we can tell God about how our day is going, collect our thoughts about how we want it to continue to go, reconnect with our true values and goals and reflect on whether we are meeting them, and reaffirm our dedication to those ends.
The pasuk in Mishlei (12:25) says, “De’aga B’lev Ish Yasichena.” Rashi notes that literally, this means “quash the anxiety – get rid of it!” How? The commentaries provide several ways, but one, Rashi notes, is to speak about it with others, as in “yasichena,” from the same root as “lasuach;” when you are worried, talk it out! As a therapist, this is one of my favorite Pesukim due to its clear plug for psychotherapy at most and verbal expression of emotions at the least, and yet, I wonder if we can consider applying this to our Tefillos. Do we ever simply “talk it out” to God? Many of us text or call friends or loved ones at different points during the day; we provide updates, we vent, we say, “you won’t believe what just happened – can’t wait to fill you in later.”
How many of us have this kind of dialogue with God? Perhaps Yitzchak’s Mincha prayer not only set the precedent for its daily recitation, but for the kind of prayer that Mincha has the potential to be, as well. This week, choose one day, and take a moment to talk it out with God. Have a conversation, tell Him about your day, your worries, your triumphs, your to-do list. He is ready and waiting to listen.