Orthomom and others have highlighted an "insurance program" that is out there called Shmira Bidirachim. The basic idea is that if you make a donation to Ashdod Mercaz Chinuch Project, children in the yeshivos will pray for your safety on the road.
I'm not going to rant over how this is, in fact, not an insurance program (the disclaimer on the page specifically says that you cannot claim monies from the Project), nor about how this smacks of hucksterism.
What I would like to discuss is the idea of praying for a large group of largely anonymous strangers and in what way (if any) it is beneficial.
As most of us are probably aware, God does not need our prayers. Our prayers do nothing for Him. He doesn't need us to ask him for anything -- whether it be for parnassah (livelihood) to put bread on the table, guidance on how to raise our children, recovery from an illness for ourselves or a loved one, or anything else.
So, then, why do we pray? After all, prayer is not, according to some authorities, a biblical commandment (with one exception). Certainly the forms of most of the prayers that we recite daily are not biblical in origin. So, why do we pray?
Many commentators have offered many answers for this. My personal favorite is that praying is done for *our* benefit. We pray to make us aware that there is an Omnipotent One from whom all of our blessings derive. We pray to make ourselves better people by acknowledging the good that is done for us. A good analogy for this is the example of when I give my children a present. When I do so, they should say "thank you." If they fail to do so, I remind them. It's not because I *need* the thanks. I do it because instilling a sense of hakaras hatov (being greatful for good done to you) is important to me and makes them better people. I want my children to acknowledge when someone does something good for them. Likewise, we should acknowledge all the good that God does for us. Not because He needs the acknowledgement... but because we become better people because of it. It's interesting to note that the words to pray "l'hispallel" in Hebrew are in the binyan of hispael -- a reflexive tense. It is something that is done to, or for oneself.
So, I pray to God for all the things I need in life. I need parnassah... and so I pray. I need help recovering from a fever... and so I pray. I need guidance in rearing my children, and so I pray, and pray and pray. And it benefits me because it helps me to realize what is important to me and helps me acknowledge the Source of my blessings. I see that God grants me parnassah, I see that God helped me overcome the fever I had last week, I see that God helps me to raise my children. I see God's hands (so to speak, of course) in my life.
But what happens when I'm removed from the events that I'm asking for? About a year and a half ago, I posted about a boy from my extended neighborhood who was fighting cancer. A friend of mine, who lives on the same block as the boy, asked me (and other people) to say tehillim (Psalms) for the boy... something I agreed to do. Now, I personally never met the boy. I had not seen him prior to his illness and, to the best of my knowledge, I have not laid eyes on this boy since. I have, however, asked my friend about the boy's progress. I have taken an interest (even if minimally) in his welfare and health. Does the fact that I do not know the boy personally make my prayer less effective than the prayer of, let's say, his parents? Well, I'll be the first to admit that I probably didn't pray with the fervor that his parents did. I probably didn't put in nearly the emotional commitment to the prayer and certainly not any of the heartache, tears and appeal for mercy that his parents must have put in. Since my prayers were not nearly of the "quality" that his parents put in, they certainly didn't have the effect on me that they must have had on his parents. I was certainly affected in my prayers, but not nearly to the extent that the boy's parents were by theirs.
Now this was a case of my praying for one person, who was a friend-of-a-friend. While the kid was a stranger to me personally, he wasn't all that removed from my sphere of life. I could have, if I so wished, asked my friend to introduce me to the boy. I could have befriended his parents. I could have offered my help in other ways. The fact that I didn't is a shame, but really beyond the scope of this essay. The main point is that while the "beneficiary" of my prayers was a stranger, he wasn't all that removed from my life.
But what about when it's someone who is removed from my life (to the point where I will not ever meet this person) and that this person is not "special" to anyone that I know. When I receive a chain email to daven for so-and-so and I'm in the eighth iteration of that email, I'm then even further removed from the person for whom I am requested to pray. My emotional involvement is lessened by quite a bit. I don't know the "beneficiary," nor do I even know the person who made the appeal to pray for so-and-so in the first place. Heck, I don't even know the person who asked the person who asked the person who asked the person who asked... well, you get the idea. To me, it's just a name - nothing more. Can it harm to recite a chapter of tehillim and recite a prayer for the person? Of course not. But I simply can't make the emotional investment for a stranger like that (especially when I literally have nothing more than a name -- no details, etc.). It's very difficult. Does that make my prayer less effective? Well, judging on the quality of my emotional investment, I'd say that it is less effective. If the purpose of prayer is to arouse feeling within me, to get me to pour out my heart to God, to effect a change in me and the way I perceive life, then I'd have to say that, yes, the prayer is less effective. Does that mean that God listens any less? For that, I have no answer. Nor do I think that anyone else does.
But now what happens when it's not just one name, but a list of thousands of names? Or worse a prayer "for all those who are on our list" without knowing who is on the list. I suppose that if it's a one time thing, or a special circumstance, that it could make a big difference. I wasn't alive forty years ago when the Six Day War was being fought, but I have little doubt that had I been, I could have made an emotional plea to God to protect Israel and all its inhabitants from harm. Even though the number of people I personally know in Israel is rather small, I could have found the emotion necessary because of the unusual circumstances involved. But what if it's something done every day, day in and day out for the long term? What if it does not entail some exceptional circumstance or unusual occurrence? The example of our "insurance program" comes to mind. In this example, I'm being given a list of names to pray for... to pray that people on our list who are traveling reach their destinations safely. The list must no doubt be hundreds, if not thousands of names long. Can I really make an emotional investment in such a list of strangers (heck, I may not even see the list... it may just sit in a computer somewhere and I might be asked to simply pray for those "on the list.")? Does such a prayer, when made day in and day out really affect me? Or do I become immune to it after the fourth day and begin reciting them in a mindless fashion? In all likelihood, the latter is what happens. I just can't make an emotional investment in a list of names... and, I suspect, most people can't. Look at how many of us simply rush through our Shmoneh Esrei or Birchas HaMazon every day -- and these are prayers that affect us personally and directly! That being said, if the purpose of prayer is to benefit the prayor (is that even a word?), then what is the benefit of this program? Does God need prayers droned on emotionlessly by children who, in all likelihood, don't understand the prayers being said for a group of strangers whom they will never meet nor have any real connection to in any meaningful way in their lives? Is this of any value to Him? Wouldn't He rather have heartfelt prayers?
Personally, I think that there are better ways to do this. I can think of one right now. For a while, things were not going well for eeees and I financially. We struggled and had difficulty paying the bills. Thank God, things are better now, but for a while, we were receiving food from an organization called Tomche Shabbos. This organization consists of people who voluntarily give of their time and distribute food for Shabbos and Yom Tov to people who are in need of it. I think that this organization could do something similar and have it be legitimate. Ask people to donate to the organization. With the food, include a flyer asking the person receiving the food to pray for all those who contributed their time and money to this worthy organization. Will you have 100% compliance? Of course not... but certainly there will be some who will pray. And why is this different than the Ashdod Mercaz Chinuch Project? Because the people doing the praying have a reason to be emotionally invested in their prayers. They (should) realize that the food doesn't magically pop up on their doorstep on Thursday night... it is because someone donated money, because a grocer donated food, because people donate their time and efforts to sort and box the food into packages, and others donate their cars, vans and muscle power to deliver them. Being the direct beneficiary of someone else's goodness, they have a reason to say "thank you" and wish goodness on the people who help provide them with food for Shabbos; and that emotional investment in the prayers is what makes the prayers all the more meaningful then a prayer some anonymous long list of names.
Does this mean that God rejects prayers that are recited endlessly by people who put minimal emotion into them and have no connection at all to the person for whom they are praying? I can't answer that question. Certainly reciting such prayers don't hurt. But to "sell" them as if they certainly work (and yet, refuse to offer a refund when they don't!!) just strikes me as utterly wrong.