Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Prayers of the Heart – Kol Nidrei 5772-2011

This summer, the educational curriculum at Goldman Union Camp focused on prayer. In the first educational program of the session for the older students, the students were asked the following question. “Why do you pray?” And given four possible answers, hoping to elicit from them discussions including other possible answers—and there are many. So to the question, “Why do you pray?” The students were offered the following four answers:

-Because it makes me feel closer to the people I am with.

-Because it makes me feel closer to God.

-Because I feel obligated as a Jew.

-Because it is tradition.

The kids had to choose the one of these four with which they most agreed and then go on to discuss it. Think about your answer for a moment. With these four choices, which would you choose? What questions and concerns would you have about the choice itself? I will repeat the question and answers.

Why do you pray?

And here are your options:

-Because it makes me feel closer to the people I am with.

-Because it makes me feel closer to God.

-Because I feel obligated as a Jew.

-Because it is tradition.

Right off the bat, it was clear that this was going to be a challenge. First, many of the students told us that they prayed because they were told to do so by people in authority, their parents, their rabbi, their camp counselors, etc… None of the choices fit that response, so this group of students had to consider why they would pray IF they had a choice.

Another large group of kids considered themselves to be agnostics or atheists and wanted to choose, “I do not pray” as a response to the question, “Why do you pray?” The absence of this option ended up creating a substantial amount of discussion among the kids, some on the point, “Do you have to believe in God to pray?” The answer, which may be surprising to some, is “no” and for a number of reasons, some of which I will discuss in the next few minutes.

One of the most important things that became clear to the kids in discussing prayer this Summer is that the concept of prayer as simply saying traditional blessings or offering some sort of plea to a greater being is not inclusive of many forms of prayer, nor of many of the most important reasons to pray. Many of the kids who believed that they only prayed when forced to do so by those in authority found out that they actually pray at other times, some of them quite often, and do so when not forced at all.

First off, think about what happens when you find yourself amid a community at prayer, even if you do not yourself offer prayers.

In being with a community and hearing others pray, we become more aware of our obligations to others and our ability to help others, by seeing and hearing the words of prayers. Hearing their prayers seeking healing of a loved one, for example, we may realize that our joining in the prayer may make the person whose loved one is ill feel better, more cared for, even if we do not believe that our prayer may have any effect upon the person who is ill.

If our thought may offer support and comfort to those in need, so too may the thoughts of others offer support and comfort to us. As our prayers may be directed toward them, so may their prayers be directed toward us. And if you have ever been in a time of real need and found yourself engaged in prayer, you know just how powerful it can be to know that others are praying with you and even on your behalf.

In that vein, Debbie Friedman said that:

We can never know what happens to the prayers we utter. We do not know what happens to the words we speak with one another. The words we pray might feel useless, and we may feel that they simply dissipate into thin air, gone forever. Once we let them go, they are airborne, out of our control. It is the same with every step and every breath and every movement we make. But we never know. They may be the very thing that is life-giving and healing to another person.

And our prayers need not have words!

Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery, said, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of his participation in the 1965 Civil Rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that:

For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.

Those who have participated in efforts to feed the hungry, who have taken hammer to nail building a home for someone without one, who have tended a garden, who have cared for those who are ill, who have worked with those in pain, who have helped to bring new life into the world, who have sat for long hours holding a hand… You know that actions may be like prayers, that an offering of our hands and feet may be no less powerful, and often will be much more powerful, than any words that we might offer.

The phrase in the pastoral care community is, “Don’t just say something, stand there.” Sometimes just being there is more powerful than any words we might say, more appreciated than any prayers that we might offer. If you have ever given or received a hug from a loved one or a friend at a really difficult moment, you have experienced perhaps the most powerful kind of a prayer, a caring embrace, which often allows tears and emotions to flow forth.

How far beyond the four options for why we pray are we now?

Remember them?

-Because it makes me feel closer to the people I am with.

-Because it makes me feel closer to God.

-Because I feel obligated as a Jew.

-Because it is tradition.

Yet, the act of praying is not just about offering of ourselves or for those with whom we happen to be praying.

Prayer helps us to be more aware of things in our world. When we recite fixed prayers, such as Shalom Rav, the song for peace that we sing during an evening service or the G’vurot – the prayer that notes that God helps those who are in need, our thoughts are focused on the needs of others who may not be in our midst. We may realize that our thoughts had been too focused, or perhaps only focused, on ourselves or our immediate circle. Thus, the act of praying may result in our being more mindful of our actions in relation to the broader world and thereby altering our behavior toward others.

But while the repair of the world and the betterment of the lives of others is certainly a big part of our regular prayers, prayer may help us understand and improve ourselves.

When we take a few moments to focus our thoughts on our feelings, our hopes, and our desires, we become more aware of ourselves, more mindful of what is going on within us, as well as perhaps seeing more clearly what is around us. This can result in our desiring to change ourselves. Kierkegaard said, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”

In many ways, prayer is a kind of conversation with us sometimes speaking, offering our hopes and desires and sometimes listening, not just to others’ prayers uttered aloud, but to those words passing through our lips or even to the murmurs of our hearts uttered in silence.

Some of you may know that I have spent four weeks over the past two years attending the Institute of Jewish Spirituality’s program with rabbinical colleagues from around the country. The primary focus of the Institute’s program is a mindfulness curriculum that includes meditation and yoga in addition to text study and regular daily prayer services. All of these are actually forms of prayer.

Mindfulness meditation is, as I described prayer to be a few moments ago, a kind of conversation with us sometimes speaking, consciously creating thoughts, and sometimes listening, being mindful of the thoughts running through our minds.

Yoga is also a kind of conversation, an interaction of body and mind. Some consider yoga practice to be a kind of offering, a kind of prayer. But even if one only considers it to be exercise, it is exercise that requires the mind to pay attention to what is going on with the body. In doing that, one becomes more aware of the needs of the self. If you have ever found yourself in the midst of a more intense yoga practice, you could easily have found yourself at prayer. “Let me be able to do that today. Maybe today it will work for me.” To whom are you speaking? For those who are saying to themselves that this happens when I run, bike, climb mountains or even just climb the stairs as part of rehabilitation, you are absolutely right. This is a form of prayer.

Prayer is not just a way to communicate with something beyond the self, but is a way to commune with our own spirits, to be mindful of our thoughts, and even to converse with ourselves, perhaps sorting through our own thoughts and feelings. Let me feel better, let me do better, let me be better. It does not take, an “O God in heaven” before these statements for them to be forms of prayer.

And how many of us, have stood in awe of a wonder of nature? How many of us have felt connected to creation when we’ve walked upon a beautiful forest trail or looked out from upon a high vista and looked down upon the valleys? Perhaps we saw ourselves in the context of human existence of one generation leading to the next, of our ephemeral nature compared with mountains, our smallness compared with the vastness of the ocean. Perhaps, just perhaps, we thought to praise creation and perhaps a creator.

Prayer, ultimately, may then indeed help us to understand ourselves better, to connect ourselves to something greater than ourselves alone, to bind ourselves with the traditions of our ancestors, to connect us with others in our community, to elevate our spirits unto God or even to help us feel at one with the whole of creation.

If you had asked the campers at the beginning of camp this past Summer about their feelings concerning prayer—and we did—many would surely have told you that they found prayer awkward, difficult, strange, foreign or any number of other adjectives implying a level of discomfort with or even outright rejection of the practice of prayer. I do not suppose for a moment that this is substantially different from how many of their parents and grandparents view it. In fact, I would say that a substantial majority of the world’s Jews feel this way.

Over the course of the two weeks that I was at camp, and I am certain over the following two weeks as well, many of the students came to understand prayer differently and felt much more comfortable engaging in it. It was not because they became Baalei T’shuva, suddenly turned piously religious, nor because their beliefs about God changed radically. This change occurred because they came to understand what prayer could be about, especially in a modern Reform Jewish context.

I hope that I have opened up for you pathways of prayer that you may have never explored or perhaps, having explored them and currently practicing them, never thought of them as ways of praying. To the question “Why do we pray?” then, the answers are as manifold as the ways.

It is told of the Baal Shem Tov that one Yom Kippur day a poor Jewish boy, an illiterate shepherd, entered the synagogue where the Baal Shem Tov was praying. The boy was deeply moved by the service, but frustrated that he could not read the prayers.

So he started to whistle, the one thing he knew he could do beautifully. The boy wanted to offer his whistling as a gift to God.

The congregation was horrified at the desecration of their service. Some people yelled at the boy, and others wanted to throw him out.

The Ba'al Shem Tov immediately stopped them. "Until now," he said, "I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court. This young shepherd's whistling was so pure, however, that it broke through the blockage and brought all of our prayers straight up to God."

May all our prayers reach their home.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah. May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a Good Year.

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