At the center of this word is one of the most familiar Hebrew terms there is: "chai." Whether you know the word from the tradition of contributing multiples of "chai" to tzedakah (the numerical values of the two Hebrew letters add up to 18), or you are familiar with the pendant some Jews wear (which, if reversed, spells "yich"), or you toast happy occasions with the plural form of the word, l'chayyim, the meaning of the word is well-known: Life.
But what is life?
I ask the question not so much in the existential sense – I don't claim to have the meaning of life resolved – as much as in the descriptive sense. What makes for life?
Some of the answer can be derived from other uses of the word. "Chaya," for example, means "animal." Life in its rawest, most undifferentiated form, governed by instinct and physical need, is at the heart of the term. It is a primal force, animating flesh, but without intention or purpose beyond self-preservation.
We are human beings who are blessed not only with the raw life force but the consciousness to shape and guide it. In those moments when we capitulate to the organic impulse of all life to tend to our immediate needs, we can lose attention to that which sets us apart from other life. Whether we are feeding our basic appetites or giving into greed and insecurity by hoarding resources, life as its own justification can replace the uniqueness of our self-awareness.
Prayer is one of the ways we redirect those energies. The words themselves recognize the source and purpose of human life. "M'chayei" is in the causative construct of Hebrew; God, subject of our prayers, causes life, imbues the raw force of existence.
Why? That's the topic of much more reflection.
What? That's the context of the next word of prayer.