From the Rabbi - May 2013 Print

Dear Friends:

    For the last several months, I have dedicated on Friday evening sermon each month to a discussion of a prayer that we say or sing all the time, but which we usually do not understand.   I have tried to bring out the historical background of the prayer and then point to some of the spiritual implications it might have in our lives today.  We’ve talked about the Kiddush, the Aleinu, and the Avot veImahot (the one about the patriarchs and matriarchs).  This month, we’re taking a break because we have three wonderful Shabbat evening events, and we want to focus specifically on the young people involved in those ceremonies.  On June 7, however, I’ll continue this series with a discussion of the Gevurot (God’s Mighty Power), which is the prayer right after the Avot veImahot.

    There is an underlying issue that I’d like to raise with you in this note.  The issue is: “What are we really doing when we pray?  What is the exercise of prayer all about, anyway?”

    We ought to agree on at least a first premise: when we pray, we are attempting some kind of communication.  Fine, but then what?  To whom are we communicating and is there any reciprocity?

    I’d like to suggest to you that the communication of prayer can be directed in three different directions, sometimes all at once, sometimes only toward one.

    Classically, of course, we think of prayer as communicating with God.  Some prayers praise or thank God, while others ask for something in return.  In the traditional tefillah (Some call it the amidah because we stand up.), one of the blessings that is said during the week, but not on Shabbat, includes the ending “We praise You, God, Who hears prayer.”  Notice that we say “hears,” but we don’t say “answers.”  In fact, if you think back on serious prayers that you have uttered, sometimes the divine response was positive and sometimes it was negative, and sometimes it was silent.  Judaism asserts that it would chutzpadik to think that, just because we voice a prayer, God has to answer it in the affirmative, as if God were some kind of cosmic light switch that would automatically turn on whenever we wanted something.  Mature religious people understand that God is like our parents who sometimes responded to our requests “Yes” and sometimes “No,” and sometimes “I’ll think about it” or “I’ll talk to Daddy when we have some time to discuss it together.”  It’s important when we pray to have fair and reasonable expectations.

    A second direction for our prayers is toward our neighbors.  When you speak the voice of your heart out loud, you communicate something about yourself to the people around you.  Consider just two examples.  First, the mishebeirach prayer when we speak the names of family and friends about whose welfare we are concerned.  How many times have you been in the sanctuary and heard the name of someone and said to yourself “I didn’t know he (or she) was ill.”  The other worshippers who spoke that name have not only shared a significant piece of information with you about that person, but they have also told you about a worry that weighs heavily on their minds and hearts.  Or, think about the Kaddish list that we read toward the end of services.  We always read the names of people who have died recently for an entire month of Sabbaths in addition to noting the anniversary of deaths, sometimes long past.  It is customary for the mourners to rise as the names are enunciated.  By that silent, prayerful act, they are telling you that they have suffered a loss and that they would be grateful if you would acknowledge their grief and the change that has come into their lives.

Finally, we communicate with ourselves.  Prayer is a way to help ourselves discover resources that are already implanted within ourselves.  A prayer in our typical Shabbat evening service tells us that “…when doubt troubles us, when anxiety makes us tremble and pain clouds the mind, we look inward for the answer to our prayers.  There may we find You, and there find courage, insight and endurance…..”  As the biblical prophet Elijah discovered, God can be the “still, small voice within us,” and we can hear that aspect of our own godliness in our prayers if we listen carefully enough.

    Prayer begins to make more sense when we stop thinking of God as some kind of supersized bellhop who races to attend our every whim whenever we raise our voice.  Mature religion suggests that we become more sophisticated in our understandings and expectations of prayer.  When we do, we are likely to find it far more satisfying.

    Prayerful regards for your spiritual welfare and a blessed summer.

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi