I recently decided to restart going through Rabbi Joseph Teluskin’s The Book of Jewish Values. It's a "short lesson a day" kind of book — certainly not one of the deepest books you'll ever read, but one with some good insights (and good fodder for sermons and blog posts, to boot). Lo and behold, the very first teaching is one I've loved for a long time, but had completely forgotten where I got it from. I'm pretty sure this book was the first place I saw it.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l) had a practice wherein whenever he heard the siren of an ambulance, police car, or fire truck, he would stop and offer a prayer, praying that they arrive in time to help whoever was in need, and that none of them would get hurt in the process. He suggested that we all do this, too.
Why should we do this? It doesn't seem that Reb Zalman (as he was always known) thought that our prayer would be efficacious, as that's normally understood; my stopping to ask God to speed them along and protect them does not make it any more likely that they will get there in time, successfully help anyone, or stay safe. My prayer doesn't affect them. But, my prayer affects me. My prayer for them will change my own state of being, at least momentarily.
It's easy to get annoyed by sirens. They're loud and annoying (on purpose!), and when we're driving, they often represent an annoyance, as everything has to stop for them. This practice of offering a prayer when we hear sirens is an exercise in sympathy. It shifts our attention away from ourselves and our own needs, trivial as they usually are. Instead, it focuses our attention on others who are obviously in much greater need than we are right now.
Most people "out there," at least in the Jewish world, seem to believe that the point of prayer is supposed to be to change God — that if we ask for something in the right way, it makes it more likely that we'll get that thing from God (many reject this notion of prayer, but they still assume that this is what prayer is, or is supposed to be; they just don’t believe in it). The truth is that, for hundreds, and maybe thousands of years, Jewish thinkers have often rejected this idea of prayer (not universally, of course. And, I imagine but don't know that non-Jewish thinkers are exactly the same way in this). Prayer doesn't change God — how could it? There are so many logical and theological problems with that idea, starting with the very notion that we have to ask for something at all — doesn't God know what we want already?
No — prayer can't change God, and prayer can't (by itself) change the objective facts of the reality in which we live (I don't care how hard you pray — you're just not changing the weather for this weekend or the outcome of the game you’re watching). But, prayer can most certainly change us. Prayer can change what we think about, prayer can change what we value, and prayer can help to change how openhearted and caring we are. And, much more.
Give it a shot. The next time you hear a siren, stop and offer a prayer for their safety and success. You might be surprised to find that, when you understand what a prayer is really meant to do, it almost always works.