“Ohmygod! That man, over there—is he praying? That man is praying!”

“I think so. He said ‘G‑d’! I distinctly heard him say ‘G‑d’!”

It’s a sign of the times that the sight of a person praying is cause for alarm. The expectation being that he is about to launch a terrorist attack or, at best, commit suicide.

Religious people have long protested this prejudice, and rightly so. People who make it a habit to speak to G‑d are not, on the whole, more violent than the general population.

Interestingly enough, however, in Jewish tradition, prayer is an activity with distinctly violent connotations. Our sages point out that the Hebrew verb vayigash (“and he approached”) is employed by the Torah to describe a person entering into battle, as well as one engaging in prayer. Indeed, the use of this word often implies a combination of the two—an approach that is both a plea and a confrontation (as in the case of Judah’s approach to Joseph, which gives the Torah reading of Vayigash its name).

We are speaking, of course, not of the type of violence that is perpetrated with bombs or fists, but of a deeper, more spiritual violence. Prayer, in its truest form, is a confrontation—a confrontation between man and G‑d, and a confrontation between the pure, unsullied self we cherish in the depth of our souls and the self we’ve made of ourselves in our daily lives.

How many times do we say to ourselves in the course of our day, “This isn’t who I am! This isn’t me!” We sense that we are in possession of a better self, a self that does not succumb to the countless compromises, great and small, we make to the “realities” of an imperfect world. But where is this inner self? When do we get to see it? Is it doomed to remain forever locked in some inner chamber of our soul, its voice muted and its influence negligible in our daily lives?

Prayer is when we open the gate that shuts in this inner self, and release it, together with our regular self, into the arena of our heart to confront each other face to face. The battle that ensues is always difficult, often indecisive, sometimes disappointing. But as long as it takes place on a regular basis, we know that that the “spark of G‑dliness” at the core of our soul is alive and well.