When I was a newly divorced single mom I prayed all the time. Every day, twice a day, in Hebrew and English, morning and evening. I said conventional prayers and then more personal ones, I said the Shema, the Amidah, hallels and hallelujahs. I promised God that if he helped me find a job and better life I’d pay it forward. I can’t prove that it happened, but I feel like it did. And then things got better – I found a job, met a great guy, got married, and found myself praying less and less – except at stressful times or when I made it to synagogue.
At Yom Kippur services one year, I brought a friend to shul. She was from Panama and had always felt Jewish growing up, but could never prove it. She converted formally later and—maybe naturally—was more excited about things Jewish than most of us. As on every Yom Kippur, the prayers went on for quite a while. At a certain point I looked over at my friend and said, “A lot of prayers today, huh?” She looked back at me, smiling. “He deserves it,” was her reply.
Hearing her say that made me think. What is really happening when we pray? When I open the siddur and look at the Hebrew letters, I feel like they’re sort of an anchor. I learned these letters and words as a first-grader in day school, and they will always be a part of me.
What I love about the ancient prayers is they’ve been recited and chanted for generations. What I don’t like about the prayers is they’ve been recited and chanted for generations.
Who knows what we are saying, anyway? They may be beautiful, (and the ones by King David usually are). But when he was writing them, they meant something to him. But try as I might, I can find no passion and no song, in short, nothing that moves me and makes me want to do much of anything—let alone continue praying.
When I was little I learned all the morning prayers by heart at my Jewish day school. The ashrei, shema and aleinu were like second nature and second skin. On weekends though, I rarely prayed – unless something bad happened. One night I watched Chiller Theater with my older sister and saw a movie about a Cyclops that scared me so badly I couldn’t sleep. My parents were surprised to see me davening the next morning bright and early at 7 a.m. – even as an eight year old I tended to be a night owl. But I was just too frightened not to pray.
But I don’t want to pray because I’m frightened. I want something more out of praying—something that will take me to a stronger way of seeing or enduring or being. But where do I start?
There’s a story that the Baal Shem Tov went to a large synagogue in a strange town with some of his followers. He was a Hasidic Rabbi in Poland in the 1700s and was trying to put more joy and feeling into prayer. He looked inside the synagogue, which was very big and fancy, and said, “There is no space for me in there.” His followers looked inside and said, “Master, there are plenty of empty seats and it’s time to pray. Please! Let’s go in.” But the Baal Shem Tov said, “The people in this synagogue don’t really care about praying, so the prayers can’t take wing and fly to HaShem. They’re just empty words and they fall to the floor, which is full of them. They’re everywhere, so I can’t go in there. There isn’t room for me.”
I’m not Hasidic and I probably wouldn’t follow the Baal Shem Tov even if he was here with me. But I get his point. Those empty words are lining the walls and floor of our synagogues, and until we really start praying, there won’t be much room for us.
But if we could pray, I mean, really care about praying and pray like we care, what would those prayers look like?
I have had friends—and I know you have too—ask for prayer chains on behalf of people who are seriously ill or in terrible accidents. Once or twice I’ve been involved in those chains and heard the prayers worked and the people recovered. If prayers have power for occasions like these, what about for the rest of our lives?
When I think of prayers that really reach me, I think of music and songwriters that make me stop whatever it is I’m doing and listen. Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Baaba Maal, Johnny Clegg, Sinead O’Connor, Alison Krauss, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and Rachmaninoff. Honestly, though, the music doesn’t make me think at all—it just brings me out of myself, out of the wide yawning canyon I fall into now and again when fear and fatigue take over. It tells me there’s a way out and a way in, and I don’t have to be afraid if I don’t want to. It tells me there are things inside us that need to be articulated, alive and waiting to be recognized.
Send them to me. I want to hear them. I want to say them—and I want them to be ours. Our words. Our thoughts. Our music. What prayers do you want to say and want your children to say? If you were in charge of sending prayers to God, what would you want to hear? If you had only one prayer you could say and it was the last thing you could ever say, what would it be?
I want to hear it. Send it to me here and now and let’s start compiling them. Singing them and dancing with them. My friend from Panama was right, I think. He deserves it.
So do we.