R’ Aharon’s point is very true if one adopts the view of the Ramban that tefilah, at least on a d’orasya level, is a response to tzarah. “There are no atheists in a foxhole,” goes the saying. According to Rav Soloveitchik, even the Rambam, who holds that m’doraysa tefilah is obligatory every day, agrees in principle, philosophically, with the Ramban. Rambam differs only in that he holds that man is existentially in a perpetual state of need and tzarah, and hence must daven every day.
There is another approach to tefilah that both the Sefas Emes and Shem m’Shmuel touch on and which is borne out by the following Midrash (Shmos 21:5):
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי למה הדבר דומה למלך שהיה בא בדרך והיתה בת מלכים צועקת לו בבקשה ממך הצילני מיד הלסטים שמע המלך והצילה לאחר ימים ביקש לישא אותה לאשה היה מתאוה שתדבר עמו ולא היתה רוצה מה עשה המלך גירה בה הלסטים כדי שתצעוק וישמע המלך כיון שבאו עליה הלסטים התחילה צועקת למלך אמר לה המלך לכך הייתי מתאוה לשמוע קולך
The Midrash speaks of a princess who is ambushed by thieves and cries out for help in distress. She is rescued by her prince charming, who then decides to marry her. Much to the prince’s chagrin, the incident was soon forgotten and the princess no longer communicated with her savior. What did the prince do? He arranged for the thieves to come back so that he would once again hear the voice of his beloved princess.
It may sound like a fairy tale, but there is an important point here. When we are ambushed by thieves, when we are in physical, spiritual, or even existential crisis, we cry out, just as the princess did in the story. That is the tefilah of the Ramban, the tefilah that R’ Aharon thought was innate to man’s nature, the tefilah the Rav saw even in the Rambam. However, the Midrash points us to another dimension of tefilah – the communication between the princess and her prince even not in times of crisis. Tefilah in those times shows that the bond between parties goes beyond the needs of the moment. It redefines the relationship between the prince and princess from savior and saved, master and servant, to that of partners in marriage, a relationship of sharing between equals.
I haven’t looked at it in awhile, but if I am not mistaken this basic theme is developed by R’ David Hartman in his discussion of prayer in his Living Covenant. (As problematic as much of his philosophy is, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.) R’ Aharon’s point regarding prayer being innate seems less compelling if one understands prayer as part of a process of relationship building. Indeed, we see from the Midrash that once rescued, the princess forgets all about her rescuer – communication is not second-nature when there are no pressing needs that elicit it. I would argue that perhaps this is the model of prayer that the Rambam had in mind when he formulated the mitzvah of tefilah as one that must be undertaken daily. A relationship requires constant care and maintenance, constant renewal and nourishment.
What’s the difference between prayer as a response to distress and prayer as a means of deepening a relationship? The former is marked by emotional outburst, a torrent of words and feelings that heighten in proportion to the degree of crisis. The latter comes at moments of calm and is the result of reflection and appreciation. The Shem m’Shmuel speaks of tefilah of the lev and tefilah of the moach, prayer of the heart and prayer of the intellect. Perhaps these two models overlap with his categories.