Sunday, January 24, 2010

896. Prayer

Here's another interesting link I've been meaning to post since October:

Why Jews Pray

Why does anyone pray? asks Rabbi Ben Greenberg, the author of the article:

"... Prayer is arguably the most fundamental, intimate, and unique element of a life of faith. ... Prayer is the vehicle by which sages of any religion put to words their deepest hopes and visions for all of humanity. "

There is, of course, a rabbinic debate as to why Jews in particular do this:

"... On the one hand, as expressed by Maimonides, praying daily is of fundamental importance. One can speculate a myriad of reasons why this would be so. On the other hand, however, prayer is only necessary when the community is faced with a tremendous difficulty and needs to turn to God and cry out for help in that very moment."

Heschel says it best (from Man in Search of God):

"As a tree is torn from the soil, as a river is separated from its source, the human soul wanes when detached from what is greater than itself. Without the holy, the good turns chaotic; without the good, beauty becomes accidental. ... Unless we aspire to the utmost, we shrink to inferiority. ...

Prayer is our attachment to the utmost."

"These goals are so awesome in scope," concludes Greenberg, "so radical in what they propose, that any adherent to Judaism could easily be left paralyzed into inaction at just pondering the aims of their faith."

I agree—prayer can seem like an overwhelming task. Not even he greatest sages of our tradition could agree on why we do it and Heschel's answer, although brilliant and true, lacks instructions. I think prayer is like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: you know it when you see it (or feel it in your bones or soul). But how exactly does reciting words over and over change into a connection to something great and undefinable?

The first time I really prayed accompanied a moment of great understanding. I'm not sure what came first, the praying or the opening of the door, but do know that I've had few, if any, grand revelations since then. Yet I'm still able to jump into that stream of prayer, the feeling of touching something like the root of a tree or the reason behind beauty. I've never surfed, but imagine that watching the approach of a wave and then diving in and flying above it must not be all that different from prayer. I leave the shore, the dry sand of ordinary life, and climb up until I reach the crest of something nourishing and endless like water. As with any kind of exertion, I need to warm up first; it's easier when I'm with others who have the same purpose. The familiar sounds of the prayers—not their meaning, but the repetitive rhythm and music of the words—give me energy to swim out to sea.

I pray, I jump into that water not knowing what awaits, because I'm afraid I'll die of thirst without it. Prayer is now essential in my life; I can't imagine feeling safe and at home in the universe without those moments of pause and connection.

Maybe prayer is just mediation, learning how to tune out noise and focus on what's essential. But I think that's God, too—what remains after everything else is gone.

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