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The Answer to Our Prayers

Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

The Jewish festival season now coming to a close is a time of year in which there is more prayer, per day, than any other time of year in the Jewish calendar. We have prayed for life, for peace and prosperity, for a sweet new year for ourselves and the world. Yet, who has not come away from these days of prayer wondering if, indeed, they have had any effect? When violence broke out between Arabs and Israelis on Rosh HaShana and continued into Sukkos, who can deny that, at least for the moment, our prayers for peace have gone unanswered? We have saturated the heavens with our supplications; but is there anybody up there listening? And is there any way to really know?

Some think that there may indeed be a way to ascertain whether or not our prayers have effect. To determine just that, a study was conducted some years ago by cardiologist Dr. Randolph Byrd of San Francisco General Hospital. In this study involving 393 cardiac patients over a ten-month period, Dr. Byrd found prayer to be strong medicine. The patients were divided into two groups, those who were prayed for and those who were not. Protestants and Catholics from local churches were assigned the names and medical conditions of patients, and asked to pray for them. It was a double-blind study; neither the patients, doctors or nurses knew who was being prayer for and who was not. The prayed-for patients fared much better than the others, insofar as they required less antibiotics, had less pulmonary edema, and were less likely to need ventilatory support. Also, fewer of the prayed-for died (although the number was not statistically significant).

Although more and larger studies would have to be conducted before one could say definitively that anything had been "proved" about the efficacy of prayer, we can, however, make an observation or two in the light of such a study:

For one thing, it is most revealing that the study is not well known. That the world media did not immediately pick up on it with banner headlines and special reports is indicative of the widespread disbelief in prayer---at least in the media. One would have thought that the Byrd study, however inconclusive, would be of intense interest to other seriously ill patients and their families, as well as society at large. The likely existence of a free, effective and universally accessible treatment for disease should have been very big news. Somehow, though, the cataloging of the human genome is news; but the quantification of G-d's response to Man is not.

But even if we were to accept such a study as persuasive evidence of the efficacy of prayer, it should be noted that not all of those prayed for did any better because of it. Some of them also died. Which means that, even if prayer is a powerful healing agent, it is not always successful. No matter how impressed one may be by the study, one has to acknowledge that it also shows that prayer does not always work. Does this mean that G-d only listens to some of our prayers, and not others?

There is a story told about a young man who was praying to find a marriage partner. He had been dating for quite some time, though, and, despite his many fervent prayers, he had still not found the young woman who was right for him. Finally, feeling discouraged, he complained to his rabbi that "G-d is not answering my prayers." The rabbi replied that he was mistaken. "G-d is answering your prayers. It's just that right now the answer is 'No.' "

Quite often, that is the answer to our prayers that we must also be prepared to hear. G-d hears our prayers; but for whatever reason, He has decided that a positive response to our request for marriage, money, health or peace, must be withheld. Perhaps we are not worthy of G-d's favor at this time. Perhaps the object of our desire would be bad for us. Perhaps He wants us to develop our relationship with Him in prayer, and by denying our present requests we will be forced to continue praying and drawing closer to Him. In any given case, we do not know why. We are finite beings, and cannot know everything.

The Jewish belief in the efficacy of prayer is not, in any case, based on any scientific studies; nor do we require them. We know from tradition, from our own national experience, that prayer is a powerful tool. The prayers of the Patriarchs merited them children; the prayers of the Jews in Egypt helped to bring about their redemption; the prayers of the Sages brought rain and healing. In addition, many of us can testify to the value of prayer from our own personal experience.

At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, many of us circled the bimah and sang, "Next Year in Jerusalem!" In the midst of the fire, smoke and blood of these first days of the new year, the almost 2,000-year-old dream of the restoration of the Jewish homeland in peace and harmony seems as far away as ever. Yet, it is in the midst of such darkness that prayer is most needed.

When we begin the Shmonei Esrei prayer, we take three steps forward. This is to remind us of the three levels of darkness into which Moses entered in order to speak with G-d. Rabbi Abraham Twerski explains that this is intended to remind us that "when we pray for relief from our distress, we should remember that the Divine presence can be felt more in darkness than in light."

Next year in Jerusalem!

This article was provided by, publisher: Rabbi Yechezkel Fox. Please visit their website,

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