According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18a), the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the 10 days of penitence, is the time period when God is considered to be both “found” and “close.” And it’s not uncommon for Jews to feel during the month of Elul and then the High Holiday period an itch to connect with the Jewish community and with God.
To some, prayer may seem an obvious. Prayer, according to United Synagogue CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick, is a mechanism by which one can create “habits of holiness and recognize holiness in one’s life.”
So why don’t Jews like to pray?
Perhaps it is because we struggle with a belief in God; a 2006 Harris Poll Survey of Religion found that 12 percent of Jewish respondents claim they don’t believe in God. Another 24 percent weren’t sure (the highest statistic of all identified religious groups).
“In Western liberal society, where so many Jews are educated in the fields of science and reasoning and so forth … if you can’t prove it them it must not exist,” said Rabbi Wernick, noting that this perspective is juxtaposed with “Republican religious images of God, which are really simplistic — God is this great puppet master in the sky. … The starting point becomes difficult.”
Maybe we think our prayers don’t do any good.
As modern Americans, we likely view our appeals to God in parallel to the way young children approach Santa Claus. We ask for something, God checks if we have been naughty or nice, and determines if we can have what we asked for. We are praying to God and asking God to intervene in our lives somehow. When that doesn’t happen, we question whether He exists — or are angered because He said, “No.”
There is a language barrier; prayers, even in liberal synagogues, are often sung in Hebrew. And even if in English, the translation is not exact — and can be misleading.
Plus, prayer takes times.
“How many people want to sit through five hours of something they don’t understand?” asked Rabbi Wernick.
But the rabbis interviewed for this article — Isralight’s Rabbi David Aaron, Temple Oheb Shalom’s Rabbi Steven Fink, Soveya’s Rabbi Eli Glase, and Rabbi Wernick — turn commonly held beliefs about God and prayer on their heads. Prayer is not begging and pleading with God for help — that is a Christian idea, they say.
The English word prayer comes from the Latin word precaria, which means “obtained by entreaty.” In this translation, to pray is to ask for something. But Jewish prayer, said Rabbi David Aaron is “an act of personal transformation.”
“Of course God listens to our prayers and answers them,” Rabbi Aaron explained. “But we are not trying to change God’s mind. We are trying to change ourselves.”
The word tefilah comes from the reflexive verb hitpalel, said Rabbi Fink, which means to judge oneself.
“When you are praying … you should ask yourself, ‘Am I listening to my prayers? Does what I say impact me? Have I changed?’” Rabbi Aaron said.
We see the word palel in the Torah, in the story of Jacob and Joseph. When Joseph learns that his father Jacob is nearing death, he goes to his father for a blessing for his two children. Jacobs says, “I never palel-ti that I would ever see your face again, and God has granted me to even see the face of your children.”
“What does the term mean here?” asked Rabbi Aaron. “I never hoped? I never imagined? I never dreamed? I never anticipated? The great 11th-century Torah commentator Rashi explains the verse to mean, ‘I never would have filled my heart to think the thought that I would ever see your face again.’ Therefore, when we l’hitpalel, we are actively, intentionally trying to fill our hearts, to think the thoughts, to dream the dreams of what it is we want to see and do in the world and then change ourselves in order to make these things happen.”
Prayer, therefore, can happen, even when there is doubt in God; doubt is an important part of being Jewish. (The name of our people, Israel, literally means one who struggles with God. According to the abovementioned Harris poll, only 30 percent of Jewish respondents said they are absolutely certain there is a God.) Using tefilah as a process of self-reflection goes a long way toward helping us act even in the face of doubt.
“When we pray, we are actually judging ourselves against the standards we should be observing for our conduct and behavior and values. Are we as righteous as can be? Are we as merciful as we can be? Are we engaging in creating a better world? … Are we measuring up to what God wants — and that is to be the best individual we can be,” said Rabbi Fink. “A lot of Jews have trouble with God-centered theology. I don’t have a problem with that whatsoever. We can view God however we want when we read the liturgy. … Our own individual concepts of God can come into play when we repeat the prayers.”
Rabbi Aaron equates this to iTunes. You look at the computer screen and there are five songs to choose from. You download one. When we pray, he said, we are not changing God’s mind, the reality is not expected to change because we cried or we begged enough.
“We are not trying to move God, but ourselves. When something [a block] in us moves out of the way, we are allowing for bracha [blessing] to move into our lives. It is not Hashem that changed His mind. We were able to set in place the conditions that allowed a different scenario to download,” Rabbi Aaron said.
“God is in control of everything that happens to us — we have to exert our effort,” said Rabbi Glaser. “There is an idea that God determines one’s money for the coming year. Do I have to have a fantastic, inspiring service on the High Holidays or can I know that God determines my income and go to the beach in Tahiti and drink coladas, and God will send down a parachute with my income? Can God do that? He can. Will he? Probably not. He does not want me relying on miracles. I have to put in my effort.”
Pray To Build
That does not mean that God does not listen to our prayers. In fact, we learn from the Amidah, the central Jewish liturgy, that he does. In the first blessing, we read, “Elokeinu, our God, who cares and responds to our choices and deeds … the God of our father, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak and the God of Yaakov.”
Rabbi Aaron, in his new book “Tefilah Training,” explains that from this we know that even if we are unworthy, He hears our prayers in the merit of our forefathers and gives us individual attention, as He did for them.
Rabbi Aaron goes on to explain that blessing 16 of 18 of the Amidah ends, “Blessed are You, Hashem, who hears our prayers.”
But we are not asking God to gives us a direct ans-wer, we are praying to build a relationship with God.
“We pray for … a return to God, as well as God’s return to us,” said Rabbi Aaron. “Although we pray to God, we also pray with God.”
In her 2007 sermon, Rabbi Tracee Rosen, now of Temple Gan Elohim, said that tefilah is a two-way street.
“We pray, we demand, we complain, we praise, we promise, and we allow ourselves to receive the guidance, the comfort and the assurances that come from our tradition in return,” she said in her talk, which was reprinted on Utah’s Congregation Kol Ami’s website.
In order for the relationship to work, we have to believe we are worthy of the conversation. This, said Rabbi Aaron, is once again apparent in the Amidah. In his book, Rabbi Aaaron explains that rather than stating, “Listen to our words,” we assert, “Listen to our voice.”
“In other words, ‘Regardless of what we say, listen to us. Just our voice should be enough to get Your attention.’ This is indeed a bold statement. It is difficult to imagine that our little voice holds any significance to God, and yet it does — because God loves us,” wrote Rabbi Aaron.
Through prayer we are bringing God more into our lives. And the more one believes in this, the more it will be true, said several of those interviewed. To feel God’s blessings, however, we have to be willing and ready to receive them.
Rabbi Aaron provides the following example: “Imagine you want to surprise your friend with a gourmet dinner, so you tell him to come over at 7 p.m. He thinks, ‘Hmm, 7, that’s dinnertime. But I guess he wants to speak to me about something important.’
“On his way over, he thinks that to really be able to focus on what you want to talk about, he will need to eat something. He stops off on his way to eat a hamburger and some fries, so he will not be hungry. When he gets to your house, you yell, ‘Surprise!’ and point to the incredible gourmet meal in the dining room. What will your friend do? He will eat the meal so as not to hurt your feelings, but he will not enjoy it because he is not hungry.”
In the same way, Rabbi Aaron said, God does not give us something unless we truly want it.
“God orchestrates our life so that we will thirst for His blessings,” he said.
Preparing To Pray
Transitioning from rehearsed or rote prayer to contemplative relationship-building prayer is challenging. As Americans, we have been socialized to think of public prayer as a performance. But prayer is not an opera or musical theater. It is not about the star, but about the audience.
“Jewish leaders are disturbed by people talking in shul and want to somehow fear them into not speaking in shul. If we want Jews not to speak in shul, we have to inspire them to want to speak [to each other] to Hashem in shul,” said Rabbi Aaaron.
And that means providing a comfortable environment and an education — and this is for everyone, said Rabbi Wernick.
“How does the music we choose amplify the sense of theology and the emotional mood of the prayers we are reciting,” said Rabbi Wernick. “How do we create multiple portals to meet people where they are and to help overcome the obstacles to prayer?”
Rabbi Wernick said there is a difference between davening, the skill of being able to navigate the siddur, and prayer, “having the skills to really connect spiritually with some of the themes that are accomplished in the davening. Sometimes we are in such a rush to get through the siddur, to daven, that we forget about praying.”
Rabbi Fink noted that it is important not to be deterred by one bad experience.
“Every synagogue service is different. While the Hebrew may be similar, all of the melodies are different. I think one has to find what is most comfortable for that person within a particular synagogue,” he said, noting that Oheb offers multiple services with different styles and feels so that each member can find what is comfortable for him or her.
“We have more than 60 synagogues in Baltimore,” said Rabbi Fink. “Just because you don’t feel right in one synagogue, doesn’t mean you won’t feel right in another.”
And being in a community, while not essential, is an important part of prayer.
“Prayer is not limited to community, although prayer is best in a community,” said Rabbi Fink, “as community helps upholds our standards and values. As part of a community, we are not alone.”
Elul and the High Holidays are a good time to get started with prayer, said Rabbi Wernick. He recommended looking first at Unitaneh Tokef, the climax of the High Holiday liturgy.
“The prayer asks the question, ‘Who will live and who will die?’ The answer it gives is teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah can take the sting out of the decree,” said Rabbi Wernick. “We don’t know who will live and who will die. But the values of retuning to God, cultivating a relationship and applying it in the world through tzedakah help individuals and communities deal with what is put before us. That is what it is all about.”