Family Matters: Prayer: The Learning Curve
Jewish liturgy can help create a community, assist in holding onto tradition and forge spiritual connections, but it can also be a tool for self-discovery..
I have come to see that prayer goes well beyond please help meor give me. It also holds praise and gratitude—just consider Psalm 147, “How sweet to sing to you Lord, and to thank you for all your blessings….”
I daven daily, although sometimes this ritual feels rote, like brushing my teeth or emptying the dishwasher. But I keep at it and if I skip it in the early morning, I redeem myself by praying in my Toyota while traveling to work, to get my hair done or to shop, hopefully without driving off the road. I acknowledge the gift of a new day to help further the connection between the Divine and me and, as I age, to nurture the idea of death as a graceful passage, rather than an attack by Godzilla. But the path to this acceptance has not been simple.
I grew up in queens, with an Orthodox mom and an agnostic dad; we never talked about what God is or what He does, yet our house was kosher and my mother said the blessing over the Sabbath candles every Friday night. We also went to services on holidays at the local Orthodox synagogue, Beth Jacob (its building now houses a Greek community center).
My parents sent me to Hebrew school three afternoons a week. It was remarkably boring, sitting in a small, stuffy room learning the Hebrew letters and words on a dusty old blackboard. There were six children including me and we squirmed in our seats—we had already spent hours and hours sitting on our tushes at P.S. 2 and just wanted to run outside and play.
Yet I did find holiness at synagogue through Mr. Danziger, the sexton. He always greeted the Hebrew- school kids at the door after we shlepped up the concrete stairs to enter the classroom. Mr. Danziger had soft brown eyes. I loved looking into them as he patted me on my head. In some ways, in his kindness, he represented God to me. When I learned that he had lost his entire family in the Holocaust—a subject I was beginning to obsess about—I imagined myself as his daughter. As I muse about prayer now, I can easily summon up the caring and love he expressed to me.
My grandfather, on the other hand, seemed to represent spiritual secrets. He was a poet, as I intended to be; he was also a pharmacist and wore a high starched collar reminiscent of a minister.
In his late seventies, Grandpa would sit quietly with an old frayed black prayer book in his hands, his yarmulke on his head, his talit around his shoulders. Grandma’s humble quietude, her endless cooking, was, I see now, a tangible form of service, and the crown-like circle of braids on her head bespoke of something regal, holy and timeless.
As I grew, the holocaust grew larger, too, and came to represent my internal struggle with God, my own Jacob’s ladder—how could God allow such a tragedy to happen to his chosen people? God only knows how many Jews and non-Jews have pondered and verbally parried over this question.
For me, I believe that my obsession with it had to do with being born as the camps were still actively functioning. I had no idea what to make of them, particularly as I knew somehow that I was not allowed to speak of them in our house; instead, I read Holocaust literature maniacally.
Later, as an adult, I had repeated dreams of being shot as I held my mother’s hand and we fell backward onto a hill of bodies behind us. Years of these dreams led me to Rabbi Sheila Weinberg of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York who listened to me sympathetically and then told me that she had had the same experience; she offered that people who have had sudden, violent deaths are reborn immediately. There was even a book written about it. (With Jews, isn’t there always a book about it?)
After my meeting with the rabbi, the dreams stopped hammering at me and the Holocaust somehow receded a great deal, allowing bright energy into my spiritual search.
But it was not until I was an adult that I returned to prayer and the Jewish liturgy. First, however, I had tried meditation, but I did not take to it, perhaps because I had shpilkes in my arms and legs. After attending numerous Buddhist retreats led primarily by Jews, I had a private conference with one of the leaders.
She listened, eyes glued to mine, and simply announced, “Hey, it is not for everyone.”
Whew, I said to myself.
Cultivating voluntary prayer was the next obvious step toward God, the Infinite, whatever I have always craved, the spiritual need I was born with. I knew somehow that hidden behind the routines of life in my mid- to late-fifties was something precious.
I had left New York in my mid-twenties and live, like a good ’60s woman, in rural New England with my husband, Bill. This meant that Jews no longer surround me and that there was no temple nearby. But I needed a spiritual home and the woods adjacent our house slowly became holy.
I am not an experienced tree-hugger, but when things seem to be falling apart, either within me or in others I love (not to mention on this planet), I enter the sacred quiet of the woods. This desire has also led me to stand at my bedroom window each morning, looking out at the cleared land leading to the forest and trying to find personal prayers in words that befriended me, images that knew me. I needed to replace my childhood picture of that fierce, white-bearded God of the Hebrew Bible whom I often simply did not like one bit.
I decided to try to find words that felt right to me; I was helped by another rabbi, Nancy Flamm, also of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, whom I still visit monthly for spiritual direction, and I have found a way to prayer.
The first thing I say as I awaken is a version of the morning Modeh Ani prayer, which I initially read in the Reconstructionist Press Daily Prayerbook and then altered, like an ill-fitting dress, for my own use: “Thank you Oh Holy One for returning my soul to my body. Great is your faith in me.”
After I have arisen and accomplished a few essentials, I take my talit from one of the hooks on the rack on my bedroom wall, which also holds my bathrobe and my husband’s old T-shirt, which I wear to bed. What I love best about the shawl is a yellowed and slightly frayed panel I have sewn on it; it is from the talit that belonged to my now deceased grandfather, and it is sacred to me.
I go to the window where I lift the garment with both hands above my head, look up at the sky and say the prayer for putting on a talit, “Blessed art Thou, oh Holy One, for stretching out the sky like a garment, stretching out the heavens like a shawl.” I lower the talit onto my shoulders and then I prepare for the Shema.
Before reciting the prayer, I take a few deep breaths. I slowly chant the Hebrew words all the way to the end of the Ve’ahavta paragraph because I love the ancient sounds coming from my mouth, sounds I had learned 50 years ago at Hebrew school.
Then, using my own translation, I say, “Listen, you who struggle with God, God is everything, God is One and you shall love the One with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and these words that I command you this day shall be upon thy heart.”
Mah tovu ends my personal service, the translation similar to that in the Reconstructionist siddur. First the words in Hebrew, then my own: “How goodly are thy tents, Oh Jacob and Sarah, how lovely thy dwelling place, this earth. And as for me, drawn by Your love, I enter Your house for another day. Oh Holy One, how I adore Your glory’s dwelling place, love this earth. And as for me, I bow, I bless, I bend the knee before the One Who shelters me. And as for me, my prayer is for You, Oh Gentle One, may it be for You a time of desire. Oh Holy One, in the abundance of Your love, respond to me in truth with Your help….”
At this point, hands to my heart, palms facing out, I consider the day ahead and try to foresee what I may need help with: patience with my troubled 9-year-old goddaughter, refraining from criticizing others (a big one), teaching well and breathing as fully and as consciously as possible. Then I move on to the needs of others—a friend terribly depressed for two years, a brother-in-law bereft because the love of his life just said it is over by e-mail, starving children, Wendy, Jim and Charley with cancer, and more. The issues, of course, vary with the day.
I do not ask God to directly end all suffering. Instead, I ask the Holy One to reach down and touch those in need to help them endure, to lessen their pain by feeling the Divine Spirit.
As I have gotten older, i have reserved a final heartfelt prayer for myself, a woman of 65: “May I be gentle, patient and respectful with myself.” This invocation helps me skirt the inevitable self-criticism that arises in our culture for women “of a certain age” when we forget names, cannot find things or even remember what it was we were looking for.
I have struggled so hard and long on my relationship with the Divine that now, when I try to find God within myself, I most often do.
Thank God. H