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does prayer work?

09/30/2014 01:36:19 PM


Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

Let me tell you about the first time that I questioned my decision to become a rabbi.  It happened sixteen years ago, when I was a rabbinical student studying in Jerusalem.  I was taking a class on liturgy:  the language and order of prayers in a worship service.  During one session, something happened that made me question whether I was suited for the rabbinate. 

Our professor was showing us examples of prayer found in the Hebrew Bible.  One of the examples we looked at was from the story that we read earlier this morning:  the haftarah reading for Rosh Hashanah, the story of Hannah and her prayer for a son.[1]

The story begins with Hannah in misery.  Year after year she has been unable to bear a child.  In Hannah’s time, having children was much more than a lifestyle choice.  A woman’s worth was largely determined by the fact that she could bear children, and the ability to have children was thought to be determined by God.   The more children you had, the more God must love you.  If a woman remained childless, like Hannah, that meant she was not worthy of God’s favor.  Hence, Hannah’s misery.   Year after year she goes with her husband and his other wife, the fertile Penina, to worship God and offer sacrifices at the sanctuary in Shiloh.  But year after year, despite her devotion, Hannah remains barren. 

On one annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, Hannah prays from the depth of her misery, weeping all the while.    Hannah prays so fervently that the local priest, Eli, thinks she is drunk.  When he accuses her of drunkenness, Hannah denies having touched a drop of alcohol, and tells Eli that she has been pouring out her heart to God.  “Then go in peace,” Eli responds, “and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked.”  So Hannah left, and was no longer downcast.

In discussing this story with us, my professor in Jerusalem said: “Notice how when Hannah began to pray, she was in a state of wretched misery.  But at the conclusion of the prayer, her very face has changed, it has transformed.  This teaches us…” – here he paused for dramatic effect – “this teaches us that prayer is its own answer.” Then the professor paused as my classmates nodded knowingly and scribbled his words in their notebooks.  I concluded that our teacher’s words – Prayer is its own answer – must reflect my classmates’ experience with prayer.  

But his words did not reflect my experience with prayer.   Saying the prayers at services was my least favorite part of being Jewish.  At first I wondered if the reason that prayer didn’t work for me was because I didn’t fully understand the Hebrew as I recited it.   But when I learned enough Hebrew to know what the prayers actually meant, I realized that the English translations in many of our prayer books were nuanced in a way that the Hebrew is not, and it became even harder to say words that I didn’t believe.

 I could not believe in a God who was the Melech HaOlam, the “King of the Universe.”  Yet most of the prayers in our service address God in this way.   Nor did I take literally many of the ideas reflected in our prayer book:  that God controls the stars as they cross the sky, or that God gave the Torah to us through Moses, or that God determines who will be healed and who will not.  And what was the point in offering God heaps of praise if I wasn’t certain that God actually listened to that praise?  Nor was private prayer an answer for me. I rarely said any kind of prayer spontaneously.  (Saying “Oh God, help me find a parking spot!” while circling blocks in Manhattan doesn’t count.) 

So in those early days of my rabbinical education, I wondered if I would be a fraud if I were to continue with my rabbinical studies.  How could I get up in front of a congregation and read words that certainly didn’t reflect what I believe about God or the way the world works?  How could I tell you that I believe it matters whether or not you show up for worship services if I myself didn’t find prayer to be transformative?

I have since learned that I am not the only one to have felt this way.  Leon Wieseltier’s words about his experience with prayer[2] seem especially apt:  It is more than twenty years since I stopped living according to Jewish law….One of the reasons for my failure was my experience with prayer.  It was a disaster.  Thinkingly and unthinkingly, in shuls and in schools and in forests and in fields, I had been praying for decades, and not once in those decades, not once, did I ever have the confidence that the cosmos in which I prayed was like the cosmos that my prayer described….and so I came to consider my prayer a desolating and debasing form of utterance, and I stopped.  Based on the conversations I have had with many of you over the years, I know that Wieseltier’s words reflect more than just his experience with prayer.  For many of us, it often feels as if prayer just doesn’t work.

But I recently remembered an experience I had many years ago, an experience that has helped me understand prayer in a different way.  This happened long before my time in rabbinical school.  I was in college when a friend asked me to come with him to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.  It was an open meeting, meaning that people who are not addicts were allowed to attend.  My friend, struggling with his own addiction, wanted to check out a meeting, and he asked me to come with him for moral support. 

The group met in a youth lounge in the basement of a church.  I had never been to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and I haven’t been to one since, so I have no idea if this was a typical meeting.   There were several people there, sitting on worn couches and sipping coffee that smelled a little bitter, like it had been sitting on the heat too long.  I remember that a poster board with the “12 Steps of Narcotics Anonymous” sat in the corner of the room.    The first three of those 12 steps are:  “We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.  We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” 

People took turns telling their stories about how their addiction affected their lives and the lives of their loved ones.  I don’t remember any details about what they said.  But I do remember their tears, their misery.  And I remember the gestures of consolation offered by others:  a reassuring touch on the shoulder, a pat on the hand, a warm, emotional hug.   I remember looking at the faces of the people in the room:  the faces of those who spoke, and wept, the faces of those who gave comfort, and the faces of those who sat silently and watched – these faces were transformed by the hour we spent together.  Just as Hannah left the sanctuary in Shiloh transformed by her prayer, so did the recovering addicts leave that church basement lounge with renewed hope reflected in their eyes.

When I returned home I couldn’t stop thinking about that NA meeting, and especially about the language of the 12 Steps.   God seemed to be such an important part of those 12 Steps.  But what if someone didn’t believe in the “classical” idea of God?  

Suddenly I remembered something that I learned as a child.  Our Sunday School teachers often told us that “God is love.”  I thought about what that sentence, “God is Love,” actually means.  I reasoned that the verb “is” functions like an equal sign in an equation.  The equation 2+3 = 5 can also be expressed 5 = 2+3.  It doesn’t matter what side of the “equal sign” the numbers appear.  Both equations are true.

So if “God is Love,” is it just as true to say that “Love is God?”   When we pray, we look to God for comfort, reassurance, and faith in the future.   But maybe it’s not God we should look to, but other people and the love they can give us.   I was twenty years old when I thought of this, and it felt like a deep theological insight at the time.  And I still think there is something to it.

Let’s return to the story of Hannah for a moment. What gave Hannah her comfort?  Was it the words of her prayer?  Or was it the fact that Eli the priest showed compassion to her?  Eli said to Hannah, “May you receive what you have asked.”  He offered a simple reassurance that another human cared about ending her suffering.  Is his expression of care what made Hannah’s prayer transformative, what made her prayer “work” for her?

Maybe the point about prayer is not so much the words we say, but the fact that we have to come together to say those words.   In the Jewish tradition we don’t pray a complete service alone.  We need nine other adults with us – a minyan --  in order to pray a complete service.  That’s why we have a minyan at a house of mourning, so that the mourners do not have to leave their house during shiva in order to say kaddish.   It is very moving to see how the loving presence of others provides comfort during a time of loss, and that’s the real power behind the mitzvah of attending a minyan in a house of mourning.

Remember Weiseltier’s words about prayer that I read a few minutes ago?  How he stayed away from regular worship for twenty years, largely because of his negative experience with prayer?  After Weiseltier’s father died, Weiseltier wanted to fulfill the mitzvah of saying kaddish every day for eleven months.  In order to do that, he had to find a minyan.  Weiseltier writes:  The golden bricks of the shul in the light of the summer morning.  I arrived early and was filled with love for the sight.  The shul is losing its strangeness for me….now I’m coming to know my fellow petitioners.  They are no longer strangers, they are becoming friends.

 This is what makes prayer work for me.  To those who say they don’t want to come to worship services because they can’t believe the literal words of the prayer book, let me tell you that I don’t believe the words we say are the most important aspect of prayer.   The point of worship services is to come together, to be with each other. 

If during the course of a worship service, you don’t find the words “working” for you, lift your eyes from the prayer book.  Look at the faces of those around you.  Listen to the sounds of their voices as they sing.  Feel the warmth of their loving presence.  Know that you are a precious part of a community and a people; and know that we need your presence if we are to be complete.  And may you, like Hannah, rise from your prayer transformed. 

[1] 1 Samuel 1,

[2] From Kaddish

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779