“Why pray? And what is prayer, to you?” Rabbi Don Goor asked me as I sat in front of the crowd at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem last week. It was the evening of the Israel launch of my new CCAR Press book, This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, and I was talking about my own recovery from trauma by writing prayers.
I began writing new prayers as an act of self-preservation. It was an effort to understand and to redirect my pain and grief after my wife passed away from traumatic brain injury eight years ago. I was looking for a way to climb out of a pit of sorrow into vitality. Prayer has been a doorway back to the love of life and the love of God. Each prayer I write strengthens my sense of God in the world. Writing brings me closer and closer to myself, our people and our God.
To pray is to be spiritually brave; to have faith in a power that operates beyond our basic senses. A force is created when the energy of words and emotions are combined with the intention of reaching out to God. We participate in this remarkably daring and courageous act because we believe prayer matters.
To continue to pray even when one doubts the connection between heaven and our prayers is prayer heroism. I’ve been in that place. Thankfully, by writing prayers I reconnected with my love of t’filah. For some, this place of struggle can last a lifetime.
Once, after teaching at a Limmud event, an elderly woman approached me. She explained that once she loved to pray, until her son died. She was in her mid-20s at the time. “I’ve been mad at God for the last 55 years,” she said. “Can you help me?”
“Perhaps only with an observation,” I replied. “You’ve been mad at God for a long time, yet you just attended a session on finding meaning in prayer. You might be mad at God but, apparently, you haven’t given up. You haven’t abandoned God or prayer, have you?”
“No,” she said. “But I’m not sure why.”
“And here you are, hoping to reclaim that joy,” I continued.
“Yes, but I’m not sure why.”
“Maybe,” I said, “That young woman who once loved to pray still has a voice left inside you.”
When one falls in love with prayer, that love often survives, somewhere inside, but the pain of loss can block the way. We pray side-by-side with these prayer heroes all of the time, those who keep praying in spite of their losses and their doubts.
To pray is a brazen spiritual act; to pray is to suggest that God desires our prayers, perhaps even needs them. It is to have faith that our words have an impact on worlds, the world of heaven and the world of earth. To pray is to declare that our words can ascend to reach divine realms and that they will be heard. Nothing short of sheer audacity.
This yearning for God to hear our prayers is echoed in Psalms: “When I call, answer me… be gracious to me and hear my prayer” (Psalms 4:2); “Hear my words, Adonai… Hearken to the sound of my outcry… at dawn hear my voice…” (Psalms 5:2-4); “Oh God, hear my prayer, give ear to the utterances of my mouth” (Psalms 54:4). The Psalmist prays to be heard.
This is the only promise of Jewish prayer: that God hears us. Perhaps, at first, it seems like a narrow promise. Simply that we will be heard.
God witnesses our lives. God witnesses our joys and sorrows. The eternal divine Soul of the universe bears witness to our brief time on earth. Even our suffering. This is a spot where it is easy to fall into a trap. ‘Hearing’ and ‘answering’ are not the same.
When we share our deepest desires with God, we offer a kind a praise. It’s the praise of desire to be in relationship. It’s the praise of knowing – or at least wanting – God’s loving presence. When we share our heartbreaks with God, God offers us a profound blessing: the blessing of being heard.
Perhaps this is the only reason to pray through a wall of grief.
Pray bravely. To be heard.
Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. He has written more than 600 pieces of new liturgy, offering a fresh new Jewish voice, challenging the boundaries between poetry, meditation, personal growth, and prayer. His writing was transformed by multiple tragedies, marked in 2009 by the sudden death of his wife from catastrophic brain injury. Solovy’s teaching spans from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem to Limmud, UK, and synagogues throughout the U.S. The Jerusalem Post called his writing “soulful, meticulously crafted.” Huffington Post Religion said “…the prayers reflect age-old yearnings in modern-day situations.” Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, from CCAR Press, now available as an eBook.
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