Does God answer prayer?

February 10, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the Rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


I still recall how annoyed I was at David Frost.

Sitting at the recording of his program about God, I was unimpressed to hear him ask, “Do you remember a prayer in your life that was answered?”

Questions like this indicate a very limited attitude to prayer.

Yes, there is petitionary prayer, but there is much more to the prayer experience than this.

There are:

– Prayers of praise, which celebrate the greatness of God, the wonder of creation, the miracle of life.

– Prayers of thanksgiving, which express our appreciation of God’s bounties, the gifts of life, beauty, nature, the human mind, Divine and human love.

– Prayers of penitence, in which, conscious of our failings, we seek to correct ourselves and return to God.

– Prayers of faith, like Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd”) or Psalm 12 (“I lift up my eyes to the hills”).

Are such prayers heard?

Rav Kook said, “By prayer, we lift ourselves to a world of perfection”.

By turning our thoughts to high ideals and great truths, we become inspired and encouraged and, as Heschel puts it, we expand the presence of God in the world.

What about petitionary prayer?

Jewish tradition tells us to avoid:

– Selfish prayer which begs God for special consideration or personal favours. The rabbis ask, “How can one ask God for blessings which he does not want others to have?”

– Useless prayer which hopes that a fact will not be a fact: in the rabbinic example, this is where a man prays when his wife is already pregnant that God will make it a boy.

– Vulgarised prayer in which an athlete prays to win or a student to pass an examination; one should rather ask to do justice to his or her abilities, whatever the result.

– Immoral prayer that intensifies hatreds or asks for something to befall another person. Judah the Pious said, “In time of war, the prayer should not be for victory for one side over the other, but that the Holy One, blessed be He, may influence the hearts of all of them to make peace.”

Sometimes the answer to a petitionary prayer is “no”.

Bachya used to say to God, ‘You know what is for my good. If I recite my wants, it is not to remind You of them, but that I may understand how great is my dependence upon You. If then I ask for things that make not for my well-being, it is because I am ignorant; Your choice is better than mine, and I submit myself to Your decree and Your direction”.

Whatever we pray, we must never leave it all to God. He will help us to find the solutions, but to think that we can stand by and let God do all the work is to abdicate the human dignity He has implanted within us.

Pray then, that we and God in partnership may be fruitful and effective and that between us we may fill each day with blessing and success.


Q. How did our ancient ancestors derive their medical knowledge?

A. The Bible is aware of other people’s cultural and scientific findings. Moses, for instance, picked up Egyptian culture as a child in Pharaoh’s court.

Though there is much to criticise in ancient Egyptian civilisation, there were areas such as medicine where the Egyptians were experts.

To what extent the public health measures of the Torah reflected the usages of other peoples we are not certain. But the great axiom of the Torah, that there is one only God, enabled Israelite medicine to become sophisticated and manageable.

Other nations had many deities, each of which was thought of as capable of causing disease; placating one deity would offend another, and one never knew how to weave a safe path between them.

The Torah, on the other hand, attributed everything, both pleasant and less pleasant, to the one God (e.g. Deut. 32:29), and one knew that all that was needed was to follow His prescriptions.

These included a range of public health measures that promoted a hygienic life-style and made disease much less rampant.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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