Gemara Brachot 26b records a debate concerning the origins of our three daily prayers and according to R’ Yossi the son of R’ Chanina, “the prayers were instituted by the Avot (Patriarchs)”.
Concerning Avraham we are told that he got up early to stand in his place, which is understood to refer to prayer since ‘Pinchas stood up and prayed’. Yitzchak ‘went out to speak (lasu-ach) in the fields’ to which our Rabbis explained, ‘ein sichah elah tefillah – speech refers to prayer’ as Tehillim states, ‘before God we pour out our speech’. While Yaakov ‘encountered (vayifga) the place’ which we are taught refers to prayer from the verse ‘do not entreat (tifga) Me’.
Clearly each of these drashot are of interest. However, I would like to share an exquisite and truly profound reading of one of these drashot offered by Rabbi Sacks (1).
Commenting on the words ‘ein sichah elah tefillah’, he notes that though this phrase could be translated as ‘speech refers to prayer’, it can also be translated as ‘conversation is a form of prayer’. True, prayer is a conversation between heaven and earth, but ‘conversation is also a prayer – for in true conversation, I open myself up to the reality of another person. I enter his or her world. I begin to see things from a perspective not my own. In the touch of two selves, both are changed’.
Today there is much talking but too little listening, and while many people exchange words, few engage in the art of conversation. Yet true conversations can be transformative; they can be profoundly spiritual encounters, and they can be extraordinary expressions of prayer. All too often when we hear that someone is having difficulties our natural reaction is to take a moment to pray for them. Yet far more often than not, the greater act of kindness that we can do for them is to pray with them. Sometimes this may take the form of formal prayer, but most often it should take the form of reaching out to them and engaging with them, because ‘ein sichah elah tefillah’ – conversation is a form of prayer.
(1) While Rabbi Sacks mentions this idea in his essay ‘The Jewish Conversation’ in ‘Future Tense’ p. 187, he expands on the idea in his ‘Covenant and Conversation’ essay on Parshat Chayei Sarah titled ‘Isaac and Prayer’ from where the above excerpt was taken.