Prayer is deeply personal, and everyone prays in their own way.
While there are different approaches to precisely how prayer works or what it affects, we assume that the omnipresent and omniscient God is listening, and we know that not every prayer is answered in the way we might hope.
What kind of prayers does God listen to?
Some people expect that we need righteous men and saints to pray for us, and they might be surprised.
In the story of Yitzchak’s childhood, the Torah recounts how Sarah saw Yishmael as a bad influence on her son Yitzchak, and so she sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away from home.
The Torah tells how Hagar and Yishmael wandered, lost in the wilderness, until they ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. Knowing no-one was coming to the rescue, and with certainty that her son would die suffering, she cried out in utter despair – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ – she raised her voice and wept.
Miraculously, Hagar is given a vision of a nearby oasis and rushes to get the water she needs to save her son.
While this seems to conform with our conventional understanding of prayer, the mother crying for her child, the Torah does not credit Hagar with the prayer that saved Yishmael. The angel says that Hashem listened – but not to her:
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 – God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven, and said to her: “Don’t worry, Hagar; God has heard the voice of the boy in his state.” (21:16)
The Torah never ascribes an action or a word to Yishmael; he is entirely passive. He is the object in the story, the object of his mother’s prayers, the acted upon, and not the actor.
The mother’s tears for the dying son did not move the heavens. What the great prayer that moves the heavens was the voice of a dying boy – קוֹל הַנַּעַר – and he never says a word! Perhaps, in his suffering, he cried or sighed; but whatever it was, it is not significant enough for the Torah to record it as an action he took!
Yet that literally invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the entire story and goes on to shape all of history. Perhaps it can shape our understanding of prayer.
The Midrash imagines that the angels didn’t want Hashem to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit. But God sees the world differently. God judges circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם. The story of Yonah in Nineveh reaffirms this – it doesn’t matter how bad they are or might one day be – if they’re innocent and suffering, God cannot abide that.
We don’t have to be perfect to produce one perfect prayer. Our daily prayers affirm that God is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת. It is not beyond us to ask for help and really mean it – יקראוהו באמת.
From the stories of our ancestors, we know that God loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights that God loves righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילתן של צדיקים, as opposed to תפילת צדיקים.
Everyone is capable of a one-off, pure prayer.
The story of how Yishmael was saved teaches us that prayer isn’t confined to ritualized formalities. And maybe that’s why we read this story on Rosh Hashana. Because it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; or whether you know how to pray or even understand the words.
Just a single moment of pain from a suffering boy moved the heavens. It is not beyond us.