Everyone has their own conception of what prayer is, and with good reason considering how personal it is.
While there are diverse philosophical schools of thought about precisely how prayer works and what it does, the Torah makes it emphatically clear that – at least on the surface level – when we pray, God listens.
What kind of prayers does God listen to?
The story of Yitzchak’s childhood recounts how Sarah saw Yishmael as a bad influence on Yitzchak and sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away.
They eventually got lost in the desert and ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. No mother could bear to watch her child slowly die, and she cries in despair, looking at her hopeless situation, and prays – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.
And Hagar had a vision of a nearby oasis and was able to save her son.
This probably seems to conform with a conventional understanding of prayer, yet the story does not credit her prayer as the reason Yishmael was saved:
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 angel says that Hashem listened – but not to her. What moved Hashem was the voice of the dying boy – קוֹל הַנַּעַר.
The story never attributes an action to Yishmael; his suffering is entirely passive. Perhaps he cried or groaned in anguish, but whatever he did is not significant enough for the story to record as an action he took.
Yet that invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the story, and probably ought to 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 the Torah tells us that God sees the world differently. God judges circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם. The story of Yonah in Nineveh reaffirms this.
Our daily prayers affirm that Hashem is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת.
Hashem loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we specify righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילת צדיקים / תפילתן של 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 formal rote. Maybe that’s why we read this story on Rosh Hashana.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; or whether you know how to pray or even understand the words.
Because Hagar’s “proper” prayers weren’t enough; just a single real moment of pain from a sad boy mattered a whole lot more.