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Does Prayer Work?

If many people pray for someone to get better and the person partially recovers, did God answer the prayer?  Was the prayer lacking because not enough people joined in?  Would the person have completely recovered if twice as many people had prayed?
The thought of this age old question came to me, along with so many other thoughts, contemplating the tragic story that unfolded in our largery community this week leading to the tragic death of John Wile, a man with cognitive impairment who had been missing after going for a jog earlier this week.  My heart goes out to his family.
I was moved how so many people joined in the effort to attempt to locate him, but without success.  So did all our prayers not work?  Did we not offer enough?  Do enough?
This is the wrong way to imagine how prayer works.  Rabbi David Wolpe refers to such bargaining prayer – make my loved one better and I’ll be good as “hardly the highest spirit of faith.”
Would that it were so, and certainly, every so often, it does seem as if it is, and I dare not to put limits on what God might do, but in my experience, prayers aren’t answered with rewards sprinkled down on us from heaven. 
Prayer does, however, move us to be godly, to be the agents of God, if not God’s answer, in a world in need of prayer.  Prayer is the challenge of love and of hope given voice, given life.  It is the recognition, when we use the prayers of the past, that our challenges are universal experiences of humanity.  And when we often our own prayers, it is linking our own experiences with the universal and, I believe, the Universal. 
In our community this week, a life came to an end, hearts were broken and hopes sank.  Our prayers were neither answered nor ignored.  I’d like to think they opened windows through which all the necessary responses to such a moment in life entered – sadness, love, advocacy, futility of purpose, the presence of God, the demand to do more even as one individual.  
Just as the urge to find God present in the world motivates us to continually strive to be just a little closer better than we have been every day, the need for our prayers hasn’t ended, if anything it is one of the best ways to make progress along that path of discovering God. 


Rabbi Aaron Benson serves at the North Shore Jewish Center.  

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