What is prayer?
The first time I walked into a traditional house of worship I was close to 40 years old. I remember watching in fascination as women seemed to be mumbling just under their breath; standing upright in silence with only the barely audible sounds filling the air around me. Naturally, I thought that this was something I could not partake in. I didn’t speak Hebrew and clearly that was the only language that God spoke. So then prayer was cut off to me by extension of my illiteracy.
And then they were doing this peculiar thing. Every few moments it seemed they were doing this peculiar bowing thing; first bending their knees then bowing forward then standing upright. It was a kind of practiced movement that was smooth and rhythmic looking! At the best of times, I have two left feet and so I watched carefully until I could replicate their movement. I would mumble under my breath like them then count backward from 5 (didn’t want them to think I was copying them) then do that movement somewhat less gracefully so I fit in.
This wasn’t so hard either since I come from the world of television and in the old days when you were throwing to commercial, the host and guest would sit together while the shows music or credits rolled and we would do that which was famous in show biz as replicating the appearance of conversation. We would say “watermelon, watermelon, strawberry, strawberry, rhubarb, watermelon, watermelon” and that would look like conversation until the screen went to commercial.
And so that was me; saying watermelon, watermelon, strawberry, strawberry, blueberry, just below my breath and occasionally approximating that weird bow. I wanted to fit in. And it never occurred to me that God not only spoke and understood English; but that God could also read the yearnings of my heart. Which apparently He can. Which is truly the definition of prayer; it is the yearning of the heart. It is the unbosoming of our longings and fears and needs and praises and it is the ‘work’ of the heart. In fact, the Hebrew word for prayer can also mean exactly that.
And today my friends, we are sitting at the epicenter of all of those prayers and yearnings. We are sitting here where heaven and earth kiss; at the portal between heaven and earth, where all things were created and all things go. Where every prayer ever uttered gathers and ascends. We are sitting here on holy ground; the ground zero of the metaphysical world and it is here that we can unburden our hearts. Prayer can be like meditation. It can be the acknowledgment that we are not in control; and the awe and relief that goes along with that.
Years later I learned a brilliant analogy about the bowing we say when we say in the Hebrew prayer: “Baruch Ata Adoshem…” Rabbi Dessler; a brilliant mind of the last century explained it like this: Where are our Hebrew speakers? The word Baruch has what root? Barech. Knee! Or barech; spring or source! We bend our knees to the source of all things! Blessed is this source.
In effect, we diminish our egos and make room for a power greater than ourselves. A relinquishing of our delusion of control and our humility to diminish our egos. In the 12 step programs, they have a sign on the walls that says EGO: Edging God Out! So I bend my knees to this higher power and in doing so make space for something greater and infinitely more reality-based than my vision of how the world should be! Then I bend over to it! Ata! Are YOU! Which means I am bending my ego to this power. And even if I am ambivalent or uncertain about what this G-d thing is; whether I ‘believe or not’ at least I know that I am not God! So I lower and diminish my ego (edging God out; the ego edges out Godly clarity) and bend to Something greater than my will, my machinations, my determinations, and recognize that my delusion of control is exactly that; a delusion.
And then I straighten at Adoshem! GOD. Because when I diminish my ego and bow to something greater than myself (even if I am not sure what that God piece means exactly) it is THEN that I can be upright. Connected on the earth and in the heavens. A being that is both physical and spiritual.
If the only thing you ever do is internalize that YOU ARE NOT GOD — this is a life-changer. Then there is a formula and it works in English, in Hebrew, in French, in Russian, in any language. Now, mind you the prayers are written in the holy language where not just every word, but every letter, has its own metaphysical power and meaning. So yes, praying in Hebrew is the best way to access full connection. It’s like buying your groceries and forgetting to swipe your Air Miles card! You still get the groceries but maybe not the bonus points. But that option was not open to me without Hebrew. And so I get my groceries nevertheless!
So the formula you can use if you don’t feel like using the words in the Siddur goes like this: Praise. Ask. Praise. “God you who runs the world and decides all and knows all; Please help my child get into the college that they chose so they can have the life they want and desire: Because You can do all things in Your greatness and benevolence! ” Or Praise. Ask. Awe. You can create the formula. You will notice that the request is sandwiched between two heavy layers of acknowledgement that this is in His hands not yours. Which brings me to the next point. Many women have said to me “I prayed and I prayed and they still died; lost the job; failed; left me: You chose the disappointment or loss. And here the jagged little pill you need to swallow my friends. NO is also an answer in life. It’s not that your prayers are not answered. It is just that sometimes the answers to you your prayer is NO. Or NOT YET. Or not at this time. Or KEEP ASKING PERHAPS LATER. Not getting the answer you want and assuming there is no G-d is spiritual immaturity. Because it is in the asking; in the meditative letting go of control that we actually open pathways to peace in our lives.
At the end of the same silent standing prayer where we say Baruch Ata Adoshem, we end with the famous words “Osei Shalom Bim Roma oo Yasei Shalom”- “May the one who creates peace on high bring peace to us”. And while doing so we take three steps backward; we bend to the left and to the right and forward (do the action for them). In essence, our Sages teach us that when searching for peace; for SHALOM we must step back from our entrenched positions. We bend a bit this way. We bend a bit that way. We bow this way. That is the formula for making peace. Our sages teach us “Don’t be rigid like a cedar. Be flexible like a reed”. It is in this flexibility that we can create peace in our homes, our communities, and the world. Once there was a huge storm in Toronto where I live. My 100-year-old maple tree came down all over my house and the cars on the street. But my columbines (reed-thin stems with delicate blossoms) were COMPLETELY intact! Because they have deep roots and great flexibility. And the maple looks grand but can’t bend. It just breaks. Be like a reed. Prayer connects us to our deep roots. It helps us ‘let go and let God.’ It helps us find the humility that makes us able to receive blessings.