Birkat haTefillah II — Why Do We Pray?

20/02/2011 at 12:04 Leave a comment

“Why Do We Pray?”

Parashat Ki Tissa

19 February 2011

Neil F. Blumofe

 

So, as we go this morning, I ask you to take a moment and think about any verse or few words or prayer which resonate for you and with which you personally connect.

 

Many years ago, I was speaking to a Religious School class about prayer – and one of the students shared this experience, when they were younger – one day a mom and her five year old son were headed over to Amy’s ice cream.  As they were on the road, they passed a car accident, which was blocking a lane of traffic and was slowing them down.  The mom said to her son that they should both pray for those who might be hurt in the wreck – the mom whispered something and then asked her son to say something – and from the back seat, she heard him say, “please God, don’t let these cars block the entrance to Amy’s.”

 

Why do we pray?  What do we hope to accomplish or think that we are doing when we enter into the state of prayer?  Is this something we even think about – or do we consider prayer to be just an enigmatic mechanism of a larger expression, a side effect that is compulsory as we pursue other, perhaps more rewarding realsm of being Jewish?  What do we think that prayer can accomplish?  Do we expect an answer?

 

When we have a dear one on the Mi Sheberach list – do we believe that our words are like talismans – and that the person will recover, because of our heartfelt prayers and efforts?  Do we think that we can affect the outcome of a test, or a meeting, the results of a contest, our financial situation, or even world peace, based on our prayer?

 

Let me suggest that we pray for a variety of reasons – some to bring blessings into the world and some to draw attention to various aspects of who we are and to make efforts to refine our soul – if we say things, beautiful concepts of acknowledgement and gratitude and begin to internalize them, we can perceptibly and meaningfully change our life.  Prayer allows us to develop faith and trust – in Hebrew it is called bitachon, and by letting go of the illusion that we have some control in our life, we can develop a calm outlook in all things equanimity, and we can find our way through the most vexing and thorny issues of our lives.

 

Although there are different types of prayer – prayers of thanks, petition, praise and confession – and there are different ways to express prayer – reading something from the Torah – like the Shema; spontaneous prayer – offered from the heart in the depths of the Amidah, for example, or utilizing music or nusach to interpret a prayer that is written down; prayer can be a running conversation with God, which our mystics called hitbodedut – this would be akin to talking to God, one on one, uncovering our deepest and most privately held thoughts and fears; – and too, one may pray in action – by using one’s feet or hands to express oneself or to accomplish something – all different forms and expressions of prayer are interconnected together.

 

We may move gracefully from one type of prayer to another and we may move seamlessly from one expression of prayer to another – standing up, sitting down, and bowing – for each way is not mutually exclusive with another – and to develop more familiarity or even ease with this world of prayer is a delightful discipline that can bring us strength, confidence, and support in knowing that we really don’t know.

 

We pray too, to remind ourselves that we are not alone.  For us to cultivate what Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement, brings us closer to appreciating our place in the world – past all of our self-importance, through a practice of prayer, we can glimpse that even in a strong community, we are a small piece of infinity a brushstroke of eternity – this outlook can give us valuable perspective in reminding us of what is truly important and the many ways that we squander our time and our relationships in the quick lives that we lead.

 

There is nothing specific that we are driving at when we open a siddur, a machzor, or even our hearts – as Heschel writes, “staggered, embarrassed, we stammer and say: God, who is more than all there is, who speaks through the ineffable, whose question is more than our minds can answer; [it is] God to whom our life can the spelling of an answer.”  We long for a connection beyond ourselves – and the community minyan is just a starting point for us to get past our isolation and loneliness.  We are not looking to change the world with our spells and chants – rather, we are looking to change ourselves and acknowledge our imperfections and ultimately to break the patterns of our unkind speech and our dishonorable behavior.  As a theologian writes, “every time I pray, I cooperate just a little bit more.”

 

Although our tradition suggests this in part, I maintain that prayer is not just an updated version of worship in the ancient Beit haMikdash – we do not pray because we no longer make sacrifices.  One may speak about korbanot, sacrifices, in the same breath as tefillah, prayer.  They can and did coexist at the same time – although we have shades of meaning preserved from our Temple rituals – like certain names of the some of our prayer services, for example – Mincha and Musaf – these services are not interchangeable replacements for what our tradition tells our that our ancestors used to do.

 

To take seriously and grapple with the commandment for us to engage in prayer three times a day is to reorder our life and pay attention to smaller, more subtle things that shape our day – it is not the grand gesture that sustains us – rather it is the sacred moment apprehended in an instant – the gratitude of tasting that incredible cup of coffee, that one kiss long ago that we will always remember, or that moment singing Etz Chaim together in this congregation, before we shut the doors of the ark.  It is not the gigantic canvas that we remember – rather, it is the small shift of color, or the one note of our chanting or the one face that we cherishing in seeing in this sacred space.

 

So may we give ourselves permission that we don’t have to master all of the words in our life time.  And at the same time, let us endeavor to take prayer seriously and begin to meditate on a couple of verses or words of prayer that  can transform us, that can bring us past our boundaries and that can deliver us to new unexplored realms of discovery, bitachon, and regard, inspiring us and leaving a valuable treasure for our children and our grandchildren.

 

Why do we pray?  How can we not pray?  As Nachmanides teaches, the worship of God should have a beneficial impact on us, leading us to exemplify virtues in our lives.

 

So, let’s try something this morning – a prayer-experiment, if you will.  We will concentrate on our breathing and our experience together, creating a holy moment and hopefully, opening ourselves us to further opportunities to explore prayer together and on our own.  Earlier, I asked that you find some of our liturgy that moves you – who has a few words or a verse?…

 

(Kadesheinu Bemitzvotecha — “Kirtan” Chant)

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

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