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If Hashem is perfect and unchanging, how can we pray to Him to have mercy on us? Doesn't that imply a change?

I've heard it implied that the way this works is that the prayer itself has the effect of attracting the Midah of mercy to ourselves, but that would not seem to be the poshut pshat in so much of our prayers, which are of a variation of "Please see the bad situation we're in, we're in total trouble, therefore, please have mercy on us and save us".

EDIT: several contributors have suggested that praying changes oneself, and it is this change which makes one deserving of what he's asking for. My problem with that is that the prayers I mention above seem to indicate otherwise.

  • Maybe you are the one who changes. – Double AA May 30 '13 at 13:12
  • How is "attracting the Midah of mercy" not a change? – Double AA May 30 '13 at 13:13
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    Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/10203/3 – WAF May 30 '13 at 13:20
  • AA, see my comment to Menachem's answer. – Shraga May 30 '13 at 14:46
  • @Shraga I don't see the problem. Reminding ourselves three times a day who's the boss is a good way of making yourself a better person. Moreover, if it makes you reassess your actions, then articulating them through prayer is part of you having a healthy relationship. God might wait to give something until you ask for it (cf Adam and rain). Then it just comes down to the free will question and if infinite beings can 'want' which are old discussions. – Double AA May 30 '13 at 19:14
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It depends on whose perspective is taken.

From the perspective of HaShem (whose true essence is infinite, unchangeable, and unknowable) "looking down upon us", there is indeed no change whatsover. As is written in Malachi 3:6,

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה לֹא שָׁנִיתִי

However, from our apparent perspective, "looking up at Him" from within our world of time and space, our ability to grasp HaShem is limited by how He reveals himself, via limited and quantized channels known in Kabalah as Sfirot. From this perspective, it appears to us that He (Chas VeShalom) "changes", as sometimes -- for example -- the attribute of Chesed might be more dominant, while at other times the attribute of Gvura might be more dominant.

In our relationship with HaShem, our actions down here can effect a change in the way He reveals himself to us. As is written in Proverbs 27:19,

כַּמַּיִם הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים

It is within this basic framework that Torah and Mitzvot in general, and Tfilah and Tshuvah in particular, can effect apparent "changes" in what we see relative to our perspective "from down here." But this is not at all a contradiction from HaShem's absolute perspective.

  • Thanks for your answer. But it still doesn't answer the question as to our nusach hatefilah, which clearly addresses HAshem Himself. – Shraga May 30 '13 at 15:22
  • Which exact Nusach are you referring to? Many Nuschaot today include "Patach Eliyahu", from Tikunei Zohar, where it is clearly stated that "לית מחשבה תפיסא בך כלל". So, while it is true that, for example, all Brachot use the word "אתה" -- which seems to imply HaSham "himself" -- it should be clear that there are different levels of how close to HaShem's true essence one is referring to. – Yosi Mor May 30 '13 at 15:28
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    BarSamcha, I'll admit I didn't understand your comment. When we daven, we daven to Hashem, the Master of the world, Himself, no? – Shraga May 30 '13 at 17:01
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    Yes indeed, directly to Himself alone (to his infinite, unchangeable, and unknowable true essence), and not to his attributes. As is written in Sifri, on Deuteronomy 4:7, "אליו ולא למידותיו". From our limited perspective, unable to grasp Him (his essence) as He truly is, and constrained by notions of "time and space," we can only see Him through his attributes; and it falsely appears to us that He (Chas VeShalom) "changes." Within this context, we ask him to "change" the way he appears to us -- for the "better." Listen: I'm a computer geek, not a professional philosopher/theologian! ;-) – Yosi Mor May 30 '13 at 17:47
  • So here we are, two computer geeks talking philosophy :-). What's bothering me is that we're told that it's chas veshalom to think that He changes, yet our prayers are written in such a way as to make it sound like He does. So what gives...? – Shraga May 30 '13 at 19:45
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Here is a short 5 minute answer to the question by Rabbi Immanuel Schochet. It is a summary of a longer talk here.

In short, prayer is about introspection and changing oneself. Through prayer we become a new person. The decree that G-d made applies to that old person, not the new one we've become.

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    Menachem, thanks for your answer. Butif that is the case, than a lot of our nusach doesn't make sense. As I mentioned in my question, a lot of our prayers plainly ask Hashem to have mercy on us because of the situation we're in, not because praying changes us. – Shraga May 30 '13 at 14:46
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    Also, in that case there would be no point praying for someone else, no? – Shraga May 30 '13 at 14:56
  • @Shraga: From the page on the first link: Note: Rabbi Schochet’s remarks are brief address a particular question by a member of the audience. For a more detailed explanation of this topic, please watch Rabbi Schochet's full class on this topic: The Dynamics of Prayer. The words "yehi ratson", "May it be Your will", clearly assume that we are able to evoke a new Divine will through our prayers. – Menachem May 30 '13 at 15:47
  • Menachem, I'm sure there are many shiurim on the topic, but the reason I asked it here was to hopefully get an answer in less time than a full shiur takes :-) – Shraga May 30 '13 at 17:00
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I heard another answer, quoted by R' Matisyahu Salomon in the name of the Saba miKelm. The way I understood it, he mentioned that prayer is an exercise in concentration on the proper things, which involves diverting attention from that which is our natural tendency to think and forcing focus that which we are currently trying/wanting to think and its implications on the depth of our relationship.

Measure for measure, G-d's judgement, which is perfect and naturally correct to be executed, is pushed away by Mercy, the measure of the true depth of our relationship.

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here is a quote which answers this from the Manoach Halevavos commentary on chovos halevavos ch.3 by Rabbi Manoach Hendel (1540-1611)

If we were not commanded in prayer by the torah and the Rabbinical decrees, we would not know through our understanding what would be the order of the tefila, shacharit (morning), mincha (afternoon), and arvit (evening), and the other times. And even prayer itself, the understanding does not dictate that we should pray to G-d, because the understanding obligates that G-d gives to each creature and each thing in the world the portion fitting for it. And if it is not fitting for it, prayer should not help in this. Furthermore, according to the divine wisdom (Kabala), and the Moray Nevuchim wrote on this (Part 1 ch.5), that G-d does not "change". Hence, the whole matter of prayer seems to the understanding as if there is "change" in G-d, similar to a request which a man begs before a flesh and blood king, to arouse favor and pity in the heart of the king. All this does not apply by G-d. Therefore, he wrote that if the torah did not command this, and that we did not see from the torah that prayer does help, regarding the prayer of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, and others, and that our Sages did not institute its order, we would not know at all through the understanding neither its order not its matter. The reason we have been commanded in it is hidden, it is among the hidden precepts of the torah. It has great benefits to arouse a person to awareness of G-d's existence, and His almighty power, and that it is proper to serve Him, and many other fundamentals and good traits which are aroused through prayer. Furthermore, In kabala it is known that by a hitorerut (stimulus) from below, one causes a hitorerut (stimulus) above

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According to the Rambam, G-d does not change. This means that G-d never spoke to anyone. The Rambam writes in the first chapter of his Mishneh Torah that G-d created nature, a divine creation, and Moshe copied the governing rules of nature and produced the Torah, which is certainly divine. Now that we understand that G-d is immutable, we can try to comprehend how He responds to prayer. Philosophers like the Greek pagan Aristotle felt that prayers help improve people and are a time of self-reflection. The Hebrew word for prayer is lehitpaleil. The root is p-l-l, which means “judge.” Prayer means to "judge one’s self."

Maimonides, Aristotle's philosophical successor, felt that G-d does not listen to prayer. The world functions according to the laws of nature. Nothing we do will alter or change natural law. G-d is transcendent and it is impossible for us to describe Him. Any description we put will only remove our understanding of what G-d is. At best we can say that G-d has no body and is one. Rambam says that G-d's uniqueness and oneness are so One, that we cannot compare anything else to Him. G-d is One but not in the unity of one. For instance, if I take a chair and say, "Surely this is one chair," it is not really one since it is made up of many components, that make up the chair. G-d is unlike this chair which if disassembled, will have legs, cushions, seats, etc.

Since G-d is One, it follows that G-d cannot change. If G-d cannot change, G-d cannot become angry when you sin and be happy the next when you make teshuva by making a prayer. Thus, G-d does not have emotions and He does not listen to prayer. This is, to my humble understanding, the Rambam's view on prayer (but it is by no means all of Judaism's view on prayer).

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I don’t have the sources in front of me, so I hope I am accurate. To my understanding there are basically two approaches. That of the Kabbalists and that of the rationalists. The Kabbalist (see Nefesh Hachaim most of shaar bes) looks at tefila not as a mechanism for “changing G-d’s Mind”, but rather as more of an act that sets certain machinery and mechanisms in motion. G-d decrees that things should be a certain way, when a person prays using various formulaic texts that person draws down shefa and more blessing into the world which causes real changes in the world and outcome of events. It is not as though if on eprays really hard than G-d is moved by the sincerity, but rather by saying certain words and having various intentions (kavanos) it causes metaphysical changes in reality.

The rationalist approach is what you allluded to in your question, that man changes himself. (My answer is primarily based on the approach of the Sefer Hachinuch on the Mitzvah of birchas hamazon and the tefila for Bikurim.) When man prays he is not influencing G-d, but rather influencing himself. As the Chinuch often states mans internal state of mind and beliefs are influenced by his external actions. To the extent that man turns to G-d in his hour of need and expresses and recognizes G-d as the source of all blessing and the only true power to that extent he will also feel it in his heart and truly believe that which he is saying. When one fully comes to the recognition of his utter dependency on G-d he is now a new individual worthy of a different judgement. Based on this, the actual text of the prayer is not as relevant as much as the effect it has on his internal beliefs and devotion.

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