September 13, 2015
Rabbi Batsheva Appel
Temple Emanu-El, Tucson Arizona
It was Erev Rosh Hashanah, in a small synagogue, in a small town, according to the Hasidic story. As the services proceeded, an illiterate shepherd entered the synagogue. He was moved by the words and the music, but was unable to join with the congregation because he could not read and he had never learned the prayers. Out of desperation, out of a desire to become part of the congregation and connect with God, he took out the flute that was in his pocket, and began to play the music that he always played when he was tending the sheep. Immediately there was an uproar as many of the worshippers were outraged. Who was this? How dare he desecrate services on one of the holiest days of the year? People yelled at the shepherd to stop and there were calls for him to be thrown out immediately. The rabbi ended the geschrei. He thanked the shepherd and explained why to the congregation, “As we were praying, I could feel our prayers being blocked from ascending to heaven. The shepherd’s prayer came from his heart and it was so pure that it helped our prayers ascend with his, straight to the Holy One.”
There are several variants of this story out there. In some versions, the shepherd just recites the alefbet, because he knows the letters, but not how to read the prayers. The story is to reassure us that what we most need to bring to our prayers at the High Holidays is our hearts, even if we do not know how to pray. I am ambivalent about the other message of the story, which says that our literacy, our learning is actually an impediment to prayer, which seems counter-productive when we want to increase Jewish learning rather than decrease it.
Be that as it may, when I think of this story, I do not put myself in the role of the shepherd who has the keys to making prayer from the heart work, without knowing it. I frequently do see myself in the congregation of people who are praying with great intent only to learn that their prayers are going nowhere. I sometimes do see myself as the rabbi of the story, seeing the challenges of prayer and looking for ways to make prayer from the heart work, knowing that for every person present in the synagogue struggling with prayer, there are many more who have given up. This evening I would like to speak about exactly those challenges.
Defining prayer is the first challenge, probably because it is so individual, it is based on our own unique connection with God. [Worship, on the other hand, is a group of people praying together.]
We tend to think of prayer as asking for things, along the lines of “please give me a pony”, but for many of us the theology behind that type of petition is unsettling. The idea of a God whose only function is to fulfill or deny our requests is not very inspiring to me at least. Petition is one form of prayer, but not the only form of prayer.
Thanksgiving is another form of prayer. We absorb the wonder of our world, the wonder of our lives, and want to share that wonder with each other, as well as connect with God.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great modern philosopher, sees prayer as a way of saying what we stand for. He said:
Prayer is our greatest privilege. To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth and on the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of God.
Even as we struggle to define prayer for ourselves, we wrestle with how to teach our children to pray. Children have a natural ability for prayer, in their sense of wonder, their ability to focus, and their desire for connection that we do not want to quash. We seek to integrate them into our tradition, integrate them into our community. We have services every Sunday and Tuesday as part of the Kurn Religious School as well as Shabbat Rocks! and Shabbat No’ar services so that the rhythms of the services, the rhythms of the year are familiar to them. And all of these services become hands-on experiences for our students in worship, as leaders and participants. We teach them the meanings of the prayers in the prayer book and encourage them to develop some of their own prayers.
No matter how we define it, prayer remains difficult.
Dr. Roberta C. Bondi, of Emory University, writes mostly about Church history, but her thoughts about why prayer is so difficult for us are very accurate.
Dr. Bondi sees the first problem as being that we do not talk about prayer. She says, “It is regarded as an embarrassing topic, and a private topic. People who are not intimidated in any other area of their lives are intimidated by the idea of prayer.” Because we do not speak about it, we become uncomfortable with what to say and how to stand and what to do. We do not know how to respond, how to proceed, what to expect.
Another story. A news crew came to interview a man who had spent an entire year praying eight hours a day at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. “What is it like?” they asked him. He said, “Like talking to a wall.” We too feel like we are talking to the wall and it feels awkward, but we are uncertain where to take it.
Bondi sees the second problem as “that we relate to God in terms of duty…The prevalence of ‘ought’ and ‘should’ language kills a lot of relationships with God. Nobody wants to be around someone whom you relate to only in terms of duty.”
For Bondi, “The third thing that gets in the way of prayer is the images of God that we carry around, and which govern our hearts. We can have an image of God as a terrifying or judgmental being…Our ideas of God often come from when we were little, and they are associated with authority figures.”
Our thoughts about God can be the biggest impediment to prayer. We are the ones who determine for ourselves how we envision God, what our personal theology is. Prayer is a relationship, not a forced marriage. If we do not like a predominant idea of God, seeing God as an old man in the clouds, then we do not have pray to the old man in the clouds. And conversely if we do think of God as an old man in the clouds, we can use that theology when we pray.
I would add to Dr. Bondi’s list: Our thoughts about what prayer is, and what it should be, get in the way. We think of prayer as only being formal, as only being recited in Hebrew, as occurring only in the Sanctuary, as limiting our ideas about God as well as our relationship with God. There is so much more to prayer than just that narrow definition. Prayer is available to us at all times, in a variety of settings, in whatever form and language speaks to us, to our relationship with God.
The prayers of joy when something in the world around us, a sunset, the moon, the rain; grab us and remind us of the wonder of creation. And in addition to taking a photo for Instagram, we pause, and consider the Creator.
The prayers of fear when either we or someone we love is sick or in trouble and we are scared of the possibilities. We might not be able to do much in that situation, but we can pray.
The prayers of loneliness when we miss someone or simply feel isolated and distant from everything around us.
The moments of prayer when the prayers in the prayer book take on new meaning. Before I went to rabbinical school, I briefly had problems with my eyes, and spent a painful week with one or both eyes patched. Friends helped me attend Erev Shabbat services, and the prayer book that I was so familiar with was like something brand new. Every time the prayers mentioned light or seeing, they resonated differently with me that Shabbat.
All of these prayers are prayers from the heart. They might consist only of a wordless pause, a sigh, an emotion-filled moment. There might be words, haltingly put together or gushing in a torrent. Sentences which seem too frail and fragile, unable to convey the weight, the breadth, and depth of what we are trying to say. Sentences which sound more like nonsense than a message to the Most High. Sentences when we are wondering if we should just recite the alefbet or play the flute.
Though these prayers might not have the flow, the rhythm, the cadences of the fixed prayers in the prayer book, they are prayers from the heart and prayers from the heart, as offerings of our true selves, are very powerful. In these offerings of our true selves, in these brief moments of prayer is contained the power of connection. Our prayers can persuade God to make atonement for us and to inscribe us in the Book of Life, not because we are smooth talkers, not because we are convincing, but because of how we connect and reconnect with God.
We are in a time of reflection and a time of reunion. After all, what is repentance, but a reconciliation and reconnection of bonds that have been strained or even broken? Prayers from the heart are part of our reconnecting with God as we move forward into the coming year.
Why pray? Because, we benefit from prayer. The Hebrew word for to pray L’hitpalleil – is a reflexive verb form that means to stand in judgment of ourselves. When we take time to pray, for introspection, for reflection, we can become better people.
And what about those who do not believe in God? Taking time from our lives for reflection, for introspection, for meditation, for balance, is a worthwhile investment with or without God. When we worship together, we can also connect with our family, our friends, and our community, even if we do not believe in God.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in an interview just weeks before his death in 1972, gave the following answer to the question: Why pray to God?
First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and men cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and men. God needs our help.
Prayer helps us to deepen our connection with God. The more frequently we pray, the more comfortable we are in the relationship. Think of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, speaking to God throughout his day, and being able to draw on that relationship with God when things are difficult. Do we really want to be the one in the relationship who only shows up when we need something?
Prayer also benefits us at this time of year. Tomorrow morning we will read about being judged for actions of this past year and how that affects our destiny. After we read how bad it can possibly go, we read:
U’teshuvah u’tefilah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag-zeira
Repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgments severe decree.
How can prayer have that much power? When we pray we reflect on who we are and how we might improve ourselves, what we might want to change. When we pray we renew our connection with God. Or maybe this sentence speaks of a prayer that God prays.
Rabbinic tradition holds prayer as so important, that there is the idea that God prays during the Days of Atonement. What does the Holy One of Blessing pray at Rosh Hashanah?
Rabbi Zutra ben Tobi teaches in the name of Rav: [God prays:] ‘May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, . . . so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.’ [Babylonian Talmud Tractate Berakhot 7a]
Whether our heartfelt prayers to God change the decree, or us to change ourselves for the better, or it is God’s own prayer that affect the outcome during these days of repentance, we cannot know. But at this season as the gates of prayer and the gates of repentance are open, we can add our prayers to those around the world on this first day of the year, for:
Prayers for peace
Prayers for healing
Prayers for forgiveness
Prayers for strength
Prayers for a sweet & good new year.
[i] Abraham Joshua Heschel, "A Prayer for Peace," 1971 from Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), p. 231-232.