Birkat haTefillah #1 — 5771 — Where Does Prayer Go?

21/12/2010 at 12:18 Leave a comment

“Where Does Prayer Go?”

Birkat haTefillah — 1

18 December 2010

This morning opens our explorations of prayer – its efficacy, its purpose, its history and its structure.  This initiative is called Birkat haTefillah and was lovingly thought about by Rowena Chodorow and a delightful group of folks who meet periodically to think together about our experiences on Shabbat.  It is from these conversations that we have proudly presented Birkat haTsibur and Shabbat Limud – weekly encounters of original prayer, authored by members of Agudas Achim and learnng of our sacred texts – in Shabbat Limud, we have begun a close reading of Bereshit, as guided by Rashi, the preeminent Torah sage.  I am grateful to help guide these meetings seeing folks who are possessed with interest and commitment to dream possibilities and to carefully explore Shabbat as a sacred public experience – and in turn, this work continually helps make me a better rabbi.


Today we will begin to think about the question, where does prayer go?  In later months we will explore questions like: what does prayer do, what does prayer mean, what is prayer, what is prayer made of?  If you have suggestions for other topics about prayer, please let me or Rowena or any member of the Shabbat Services Committee know – if y’all could now stand and be recognized.


So, to the question, where does prayer go?  Let’s get the jokes out of the way – maybe you have heard this one:


Every day, a Jew was seen praying in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  One day, someone came up to him and said, “I see you here every day, seven days a week.  Tell me what are you praying to God for?”  To this, the man replied, “I am telling God of all my tsuris – of my financial troubles, about finding meaning in life, expressing my concern about my kids as they start their lives out of the house – the challenges in my marriage – and I ask God to help me.”  “Well, said the other person, does God send you help?”  The man turned and said, “No, what do you expect?  It’s like talking to a wall.”

Our textual tradition thinks about this question as well – as part of a larger meditation imagining what God does all day, the Talmud imagines God sitting in a throne for part of the day deciding the fate of the world – prayers becoming like requests coming to God’s Facebook account – invitations to either respond to or quietly ignore.  So, our prayers then would ascend to God, for God to either say yes, I’ll help – or no, I won’t.  I have heard this before in our community – people come to me regarding this — usually concerning prayers for one who is sick – and perhaps rationalize that their loved one is not improving by saying sometimes God’s answer is no.  Although this could explain things, I am challenged by this – if our intention comes from the deepest places in our hearts – could God really dismiss our innermost, concentrated efforts – our most honest and our purest kavanah?


Contesting this idea, the great mystic, the Baal Shem Tov – the founder of Hasidic spirituality, teaches that God answers every prayer, just not in a time that is convenient for us – or in ways that we expect – we have a different understanding of time than God does and it is God’s time that is measurable in every instance, not ours.  As challenging as this may be for us – I think that this is the start of an answer.


Over the years, many in this community have spoken with me privately about their doubts about a God in the first place.  What about the Holocaust, or the suffering of children or the insidious sicknesses and disasters that seem omnipresent in our world?  For some, doubting God is an extension of rational Western belief: if it can’t be measured or quantified, how can it be real?  Is God really concerned with my issues?  How can God be like my invisible buddy – that doesn’t make sense – so by extension, prayer then seems foreign and uncomfortable.  Beyond the Hebrew language or different melodies, the real issue for people is that they are awkward with the notion of prayer because they are not convinced that it does anything.  You may be hearing my words this morning and thinking: so, I pray my prayer and then what – it goes to some giant clearing house of God’s like Wonka’s factory, where it may or may not be noticed or even thought about in my lifetime?  Do I really believe that my life is linked to history or future generations – are we really still involved in the receiving of Torah, or the Exodus from Egypt – or is one act or prayer from me going to effect my great-great grandchildren, let’s say, 80 years from now?


And I respond contemplative regard.  Prayer teaches us that we are not in control – again, we are not speaking at this moment about the mitzvah of the cycle of prayer services – Shacharit, Minchah, Ma’ariv and sometimes Musaf and we are not now speaking about the value of the minyan, which is considerable.  We are speaking about our efforts – where do our various prayers for help, guidance, and thanksgiving go?  Should we have the hutzpah to even expect an answer, or is prayer giving us a spiritual grounding, a discipline that makes it okay to live and even thrive in uncertainty.  Can we get out of our own way enough to realize that what we take for understanding can just be complacency and the principles that guide us and our lives are perhaps only an ultra-thin layer of protection – that what lies deeper is, like the deepest ocean, vast, scary and unfathomable?  This is beyond any Western rationalization of security.


The point of departure for prayer is where our scientific laws stop.  We pray into the void, first knowing that the void is there – simply acknowledging it and second, by drawing attention to it, we at once link our lives to immensity before and beyond us, stepping out past our GPS systems and own systems to guide our lives and by opening our hearts and our minds to something that is not evident, we connect with time and space beyond our life and even beyond our death – letting go of the furiousness with which we try to live in the shortness that is ours.  We will ourselves to ascend – to pursue shalom – to make peace with who we are at the moment that we pray.  I may call it connecting with God – you may call it something else – meditation, metaphysics – however, this is a moment beyond belief.  Where does prayer go?  Prayer goes to make us stronger in our vulnerability.  To appreciate all that we have and all that we are in this instant.


Prayer guides us out of our ruts and routinizations and it keeps our decisions fresh and our intentions muscular and lean.  Prayer sustains us with curiosity, and takes us out of sitting in judgment.  The Hebrew root of prayer is – pay, lamed, lamed – which can mean inspect and the word prayer is in the reflexive verb form – hitapallel – which means to inspect oneself – prayer can also come from nafal – nun, pay, lamed – which means to fall down, or to be wide open.


The purpose of prayer is not the answer – it’s more about hearing your prayer — words that cause thought and consideration.  Interestingly, the words of prayer echo so we can attune ourselves to listening – and it is through listening that we are engaged.  Listening to our words and our efforts can transform us – this is delicate work that may not have an instant result – this is work that runs almost counter to how we have been conditioned to live.  However, this ineffable effort taken seriously can penetrate the walls in front of us  — even the great Western Wall — and allow us to see the great expanse of time and space that lives where otherwise we may only see a blockade.  We are saying here I am to the infinite – we are calling on ourselves to be part of eternity, even though we are but a flash and gone.  Prayer, more than anything else recognizes the momentary presence that we have on this earth and celebrates it – doesn’t run from it — by asking us to asking nothing in our asking and too at the same time, encourages us to make the most heartfelt effort in that precise instant in time.  Like a subatomic reaction, our prayers flare, and in them is the kernel of all that sustains life.


Shabbat Shalom.


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