Standing in shul this morning, I noticed the placard with the name of this week’s Torah portion: VaEtchanan (Deutoronomy 3) which translated comes out as ‘and I beseeched’. This refers to the many, many prayers that Moses offered to God to be allowed to enter the Promised Land with the Children Of Israel.
But what did all that praying get him?
Gornisht. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing.
God unmoved, Moses was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Jordanian mountains.
On first reflection it seems an ironic story to tell us would-be believers. If prayer is supposed to be so great then why tell us a story in which prayer is so useless. Why devote an entire weekly portion of the Torah to unanswered prayer?
With a bit of reflection however an idea came to me: maybe the beauty of prayer has nothing to do with getting what we want. Maybe I had it all wrong: maybe prayer is not about getting what I want. Maybe the answers that we get are the ones that we cannot see with our hands. Maybe the answers to our prayers are the inner changes that come about through the act of prayer.
What are those inner changes?
Here’s one change that I’ve noticed for years: I, for one, find prayer to be a winnowing process which helps me sort through the innumerable distractions and attractions that eat up my mental and spiritual bandwidth. After prayer I’m much more focused and calmer. That effect has little connection with what I’ve prayed for; but there’s no question that the process of prayer brought that inner focus to emerge.
Yet I think that prayer offers much more than meditation and mental exercise. Prayer blows my cover: as much as I fancy myself as king s*&t, I’m nothing more than a broken down beggar trying not to lose what I’ve got. And you’re in the same boat. I don’t care how much money and fame you think that you’ve got. Prayer reminds me that with the (maybe) exception of thought I’m an owner of nothing.
It could be all taken away.
Prayer whether answered or unanswered returns me to my humanity. It plucks me out of the delusion of ownership, ushering me into the community of beggars otherwise known as the rest of us.
And it’s nice to have a little company.
As much as I like it when my prayers are answered, coming back to myself is the best answer anyone can get.
And that is answer enough to any prayer.