Tag Archives: Prayer

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The Beauty of The Unanswered Prayer

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.

Like that.

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.  

The Jewish Mind Five Reasons I Visit The Graves Of Holy People

Today, I had the opportunity to visit the grave of the Klausenberger Rebbe, Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, in Netanya. (You can read more about this amazing person here.) People often are a bit surprised by my visits to these graves. So friends and family, here are five reasons, that I, a fairly rational and well educated adult, schlep in the heat of the day, in the snow, rain, and once with an entire army escort to the graves of the righteous:

1. These visits connect me with the history of my people. In this connection, I forget about my own personal preoccupations and worries and am reminded of these big picture thinkers. The Klausenberger Rebbe lost everyone he loved to the hands of the Nazis. Yet he never faltered because he kept his eyes on the big picture: building and strengthening the Jewish people. His legacy is testimony that he had what it takes to get the job done. That’s the kind of power that I need to recharge myself with.

2. These holy sites bring me into contact with people who I might never see or meet otherwise. Let’s be honest here: those of us who go to grave sites are usually in a pretty raw state. We’re there because we’re in contact with life in it’s hard times. We want something special; perhaps God forbid, we’re up against a life threatening challenge. So when we speak with each other at the grave site, we really listen and speak from the heart. As someone whose profession requires me to be opaque, it’s nice to have a place where I can let it out and not be thought of as crazy or worse, ‘unprofessional’.

3. Call me crazy but I believe that there are special heavenly access points. Of course, prayer is heard wherever one utters it. There’s no need to schlep to Netanya or to Cambria Boulevard in Queens or to some way out village in Samaria to get one’s prayer heard. Yet I know unscientifically that there are places where prayer has greater power. A marriage ceremony is one such access point. A bris is another access point. The grave site of a holy person is another. Perhaps it’s my own strengthening of faith and commitment that ‘energizes’ the prayer; perhaps it’s some mystical dimension that is way beyond my comprehension; perhaps it’s a combination of things. Who knows? Yet I feel that, akin to hitting a baseball with an aluminum bat, there’s something special to praying at these grave sites.

4. It’s my way of sticking my thumb at the tyranny of rationalism. This isn’t meant as an endorsement of paganism but I’m a bit tired of the hyper rationality of contemporary orthodox Jewish life. We’ve gotten so cerebral and logical that aside from turning our intellects into supreme beings, we’ve gutted the rapture and joy of pure spirit. So I go to to these grave sites to disconnect from that. Do I pray to the dead? Of course not! But I do embrace the possibility so eloquently stated by the Arthur C. Clark (he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey among many other books), ‘the universe is stranger than we imagine; indeed it is stranger than we can imagine’.

5. Cemeteries are usually beautiful, quiet places. What’s not to love about a nice place to sit?

And here’s a bonus reason for visiting the graves of the righteous: Judaism recommends it. From Caleb’s visit to the tomb of the patriarchs all the way to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s a’h weekly visits to the grave of his ancestors, good old Judaism, the one which has endured all these years, puts great emphasis on visiting the graves of the righteous.

So in the merit of all the holy ones, both living and passed, may we all have a wonderful new year.

Davening With Fire 005 Santa Claus & Jewish Prayer

Cats Eye Nebula From Hubble

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It all seems so many years ago. Do you remember Bloomingdale’s? What a great store! Back in the day, before the malls and all those Amazon websites, there were department stores, huge edifices where you could find almost anything you were looking for.

In Stamford, Connecticut, Bloomingdale’s ruled supreme, with its escalators and bustle and row after row of stuff. The fun of the place almost made me forget how much I hated being schlepped around a store.

But towering over every awesome part of Bloomingdale’s was Santa Claus. Santa Claus! The god of everything a child could ever want. Santa, the guy who would take me on his lap, listen to my wish list as only Santa Claus could, and then give me a candy cane. 

In spite of my orthodox Jewish ways and the pretty much accepted consensus that Santa isn’t real, I still smile when I recall those days. In a way, that entire seasonal ritual teaches me two lessons about faith and prayer that guide me to this day. 

The first lesson is that faith that’s based on a Santa Claus kind of deity is bound to fail. In the decades which I’ve spent engrossed in faith, it seems that so many are holding out for a god that does everything they want. ‘If God existed then he (it’s always a ‘he’) would do such and such’ or ‘If God existed then how could he let the holocaust happen?’ It seems that these often highly sophisticated and educated people still believe in Santa. I don’t know much about God but I expect a lot more from humanity. 

The second lesson is about prayer and wishing. As great as it is to wish (and it really is) it’s so often expresses of my self-centered, power or comfort driven desires. Prayer however is about personal transformation. Prayer may begin with a wish but for me it’s a process that ends with a new me. Whether or not I get what I want is besides the point; the real part of prayer is the person I become through it. 

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Josh

Davening With Fire 003 Wild Within The Rules

Rock Bottom

 

The rules of prayer cover hundreds of chapters in the Shulchan Aruch, the most embraced code of Jewish law. It seems strange though that prayer should be so highly regulated and regimented. After all, prayer is all about heart felt expression, something that would be at odds with rules and structure.

Before apologizing and advocating for those rules however, I do want to recommend that by all means pray.

Whatever method suits you.

With the rules.

Without the rules.

Pray wherever you are.

Dressed.

Not dressed.

In a bar (or worse).

In a synagogue.

In jail.

In a meeting.

How Ever.

Whatever.

Wherever.

To whomever.

For whatever.

Just pray. 

We can worry about the details later.

Davening With Fire 002 The Real ‘Star Trek’ Transporter Machine

Mary Oliver I Go Down To The SeaAs a kid growing up in the 1960’s, Star Trek was a major fixture in life. That simple, elegant T.V. show opened so many avenues for thought and reflection. The characters and the story lines got me to think about life and morality and so much else

But it was those cool gadgets which ignited my fantasies. 

Chief among those gadgets was the transporter, a device which could beam a person or object to any destination at the speed of light. No waiting in lines. No security searches. No lost luggage. All that was needed was someone to operate the transporter. 

While such a transporter system is a long way off, I’ve discovered how the siddur, that simple book or prayers, can deliver me to other worlds and times and all in the speed of thought. To hold a siddur, whether it be ripped and worn or freshly purchased, is to hold Jewish destiny in my hands. To hold a siddur is to hold the same words that Maimonides and Rashi and all the holy ones of our people held. The paper and print may be different; many of the words themselves have been added or even changed (here and there) but the essence remains the same as it was thousands of years ago. 

So when life gets me down and worries pile high, high, high, I don’t say, ‘Beam me up, Scotty’. I pick up a siddur and suddenly I’m in the best of company: with those who’ve been there and done that in the best and worst of times and gave us all an eternal legacy which sustains and heals us. 

Shabbat Shalom everyone!

Davening With Fire 001 Natan Sharansky & The Power Of Tehillim

I believe in the person I want to become

 

 

A story about Natan Sharansky, the former prisoner of conscience and tireless fighter for the Jewish people, recently made the local rounds. Someone spotted him doing a bit of pre-Shabbat shopping. Thrilled by the opportunity to be in close proximity to one of our present day heroes, this overwhelmed gushing observer could think of only question to ask Sharansky, ‘do you still carry the book of Psalms that Avital gave you when you were sent to Siberia?!’ With that, Sharansky revealed a tiny well worn book, held together by string and tape, and replied, ‘I don’t carry it; it carries me!’

Now that’s something I can relate to! Our eyes and minds trick us into believing that the material world rules us; yet, it’s the ideas which we hold dear that give us life. Our aspirations and longings lift us. And when the ideas are drawn from the book of Psalms (Tehillim) or the Siddur (Jewish prayer book) then those ideas can sustain a life in the Gulag or Siberia or the Nazi death camps or in the great spiritual depression of our time.