January 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
I have not always been able to pray.
As a young adult, I had deep problems with the concept of God and the concept of prayer. I would call myself an atheist because I simply could not conceive of a God worthy of genuine prayer. Even when I found my way to Judaism, I was still not immediately able to pray.
What changed my life, however – what put me on this path first as a Jewish seeker and ultimately as a rabbi – was a book of Jewish theology. One evening, in a discussion at the Temple, I was explaining my views on God and advocating a very rationalist point of view. In response, my rabbi observed that I agreed with Maimonides. So, during a business trip, I saw a book about Maimonides, written by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I picked it up to read on the airplane.
I really liked the book; so, when I saw another one of Heschel’s books, I bought that one too. I believe that the second book I picked up was God in Search of Man – but I am not entirely certain, for I devoured several of his theological works in rapid succession. It could have been Man’s Quest for God or Man is Not Alone.
What I found so persuasive was the idea that the path to God is through wonder. Heschel points to our sense of awe at the everyday, such as the sight of scarlet and orange leaves during in the fall, or the sound of a small child’s giggle, or the delicate taste of a fresh peach. And he describes our feeling of radical amazement, such as those moments when we stand before the ocean or see the valleys stretch out below us from the mountaintop. These are the first steps toward appreciation of the divine, because they point to a realm beyond our understanding, a realm in which we feel a kinship with the world around us.
The purpose of prayer is to become aware of these moments, those moments in which we are no longer locked within the confines of our own needs and desires but rather united with the whole of life. In prayer, we are attempting to rise above ourselves, to transcend what we are capable of doing alone, to seek that which is more meaningful than our passing existence. Prayer also allows us to voice that feeling of sheer gratitude we feel just to be alive.
Of course, sometimes we feel more grateful than at other times. One year, I was invited to speak at a Jewish day school about prayer. At that time I was recovering from ankle surgery and – thinking that the kids might be curious about my bright purple cast – I decided to speak about the prayer asher yatzar, the prayer thanking God for our ability to stand before God and pray. As the prayer explains, if one of our tiny openings were to shut — or one of our closed places were to open — we would not be able to stand.
As I explained to the assembled students, I find that I now understand more precisely what that prayer means, being as a small set of ligaments maybe a centimeter long were able to sweep me off of my feet. After that ordeal, I now have a much greater appreciation for the ability to walk on uneven ground without falling – and I am still afraid of high heels.
But, as the prayer reminds us, we tend to take our health for granted – at least until something slows us down and causes us to reflect on how vulnerable we really are.
The cycle of the High Holiday services is when we pause to reflect on that vulnerability: as the liturgy intones, this is the time of judgment, when our deeds are weighed in the balance and our fate is determined for the coming year: who shall live and who shall perish, who shall see ripe old age and who shall be cut down in the prime of their youth.
I cannot read the lines in the unetaneh tokef prayer without a shiver of fear: perhaps, I wonder, it might be possible to cut some sort of deal with God that will allow me to live forever – or at least until I see my great grandchildren? “Dear God, I promise I will only do good deeds from here on out.” Though I must admit a more accurate prayer would be: “I promise I will only do what seems like a good idea at the time.”
The liturgy of that season also urges us to reaffirm the sovereignty of God. But what exactly are we trying to accomplish with this kind of prayer? To make some kind of theological statement seems to be simple enough: “God – if you are there and can hear me – know that I accept that you are God and there is none else.”
But is that really enough?
Affirming the sovereignty of God means something more than saying, “Hear, O Israel, the God-concept about whom you are deeply, deeply ambivalent, that God-concept is one.” Affirming the sovereignty of God means something more than saying, “Dear Adonai, I have no other God-concept but You.”
Affirming the sovereignty of God means accepting that your life is not your own possession, but rather a loan. We have ownership this life temporarily, but we will have to return it with interest. As with all loans, there is something demanded of us.
In the days leading up to my ankle surgery I fretted a lot; I was worried about it. My husband mused on the fact that I believe that God created the whole world and everything in it, and yet it would appear that I am deeply concerned that God is not sufficiently involved in the details. I giggled at the thought of such a contradiction and then said, yes exactly; evidently there is some chaos built into the system. The outcome is, at least at some level, wholly unpredictable. Who knows whether the surgery will go well or not?
I do get the sense, however, that built into the structure of the cosmos is a kind of delight in our endless surprise, our ability to create whole new possibilities out of the materials we have been given. Otherwise, I would think that being all-knowing would get to be rather dull after a while, sort of like playing tic-tac-toe against yourself.
But then again, who can say whether God has emotions?
If God does have emotions, then also there would also be surprises that would be much less welcome to God.
What happens when we choose badly? In judgment, before whom do we stand?
We know that there is something demanded of us; we are to be just, to act uprightly. We are commanded: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds. If you see your enemy struggling to keep a load from falling, help him. Do not put a stumbling block before the blind. Keep honest weights and measures. Do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, the widow – or anyone else who is vulnerable, for that matter.
It would seem to me then that the act of affirming the sovereignty of God means affirming that there is justice demanded of us, even in the face of a chaotic world. The fact that we cannot be certain in advance of the outcome of a surgery does not mean that there is no God, or that God has no concern for us, or that God is not all-powerful—or that we are free to behave as we please, consequences be damned.
There are indeed consequences. Do not ask me to explain them to you, however, in some kind of neat phrase which sums up why bad things happen to good people. Chaos is built into the system and sometimes truly hideous things happen to perfectly good people. And, as far as I am concerned, any theology that can confidently explain why children should get cancer is a monstrosity. Affirming that there is moral coherence in the world is not the same thing as affirming that all of the loose ends will tie up neatly.
What I am trying to say is this: I can pray intently for healing, but I cannot make a deal with the Divinity to live to see my great-grandchildren, nor can I make an arrangement on behalf of my own children that they should see no harm. The fact of the matter is, our material world is just so much more changeable than that. The chaos in the system makes it impossible to predict the outcome, particularly from our vantage point, and sometimes things go horribly wrong. But even so, the actions we take matter in ways that are fundamentally important because they directly affect the quality of the world around us.
In fact, it is Heschel who argues that each of our actions has the potential to disclose the holy, to transform the world in small steps. In Heschel’s view, even the smallest religious rituals matter to God; it is in these kinds of small acts that we invoke the Divine and bring God into our lives. In that sense, God is in need of humanity so as to put this process into motion, to allow this transformation to happen. Prayer is profoundly important precisely because we are God’s much-needed partners in the redemption of the world.
What was so profoundly moving for me in reading Heschel all those years ago was the exposure to a deeply religious person who was also spiritually honest. In the place of neat answers and tidy constructs, Heschel asked searching questions and demanded honest answers. In the context of his prose, I encountered a genuinely pious Jew who could pray, really pray, even in the wake of tragedy, even in the wake of great pain, even as a refugee who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. And so I imitated him, as best I could, in little steps.
I did not start out knowing how to pray. At that time I did not yet know Hebrew or the mechanics of prayer. I was still deeply alienated from God. But the attempt to imitate Heschel, to imitate his life and his way of prayer, was what lead me to this life, where I am now, a rabbi and a profoundly committed Jew.
And, in that sense, prayer has changed my life, in the most radical way.