On the first day of Rosh Hashana, one of the things we read about is how Hagar was sent away with Yishmael. They get lost in the desert, and run out of water. Yishmael dehydrates, and Hagar, like any mother, could not bear to watch her son slowly die. She cries in despair, looking at her hopeless situation, and prays.
And Yishmael is saved. Hagar has a vision, and she sees an oasis, and is able to save her son.
But this is not what it means to pray. That is not the model of prayer to take from this story. Look closer.
וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים | אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – The angel says to her that Hashem listened. But not to her! Hashem heard the voice of the dying boy!
Unlike with his mother, the story never says he cried, or prayed. He was dying, and perhaps let out a moan.
It is this moan that God listens to.
What it means to “pray” isn’t a formal kind of prayer. It’s that feeling of confronting a reality truthfully. It’s a feeling.
We believe that הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים – Hashem loves righteous prayers. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that is not תפילת צדיקים, prayers of the righteous, just righteous prayers. Everyone is capable on a one off, pure prayer.
Every day we repeat that קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת – Hashem is close to the people who call on Him in truth.
Think you’re not worth it?
Yishmael was dying. The Midrash says that the angels didn’t want him saved, for all the atrocities his descendants would commit. Yet they are wrong. Hashem looks בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – where is he now, under these circumstance?
That one off moan, against all odds. That moan. That feeling. That’s truth.