A few weeks ago, David Arias, the rabbi of our synagogue, talked about how praise from an opponent had more power than the same from a friend. With that in mind, I want to say that I’m grateful to the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and happy they have political clout here in Israel, because it is they who forced our government to take prayer seriously and to allow people to congregate in their synagogues. If it weren’t for the zeal and the power of the Haredim, rest assured that communal prayer in these times of the coronavirus would be banned. After all, what use is prayer? Does it help the economy? No. Does it put food on the table? No. Is it a necessary part of democracy, like mass protests? No.
Yet, communal prayer is essential to my well being. It is not obvious that I would feel this way. I was raised without religion. Growing up, I was taught nothing of my Judaism. The first time I entered a synagogue, I was already in my mid 20s, when getting ready to marry my husband.
My parents had high regard for critical thought and logic. Intense “take no prisoners” debate, with the development of erudite arguments, was the foundation of my education at home. It is not surprising, therefore, that I grew up to be a rationalist and eventually a scientist. If someone had asked me as a young woman what prayer was, I would have answered something like, “Please God, help me.” In other words, the involuntary exclamation that a person makes when in extreme pain-like stomach cramps. No doubt that is a kind of prayer, but it is not the prayer I’m talking about.
It started with beauty.
When my sons were studying for their bar mitzvah ceremonies, I took them to synagogue weekly. During that time, I began to appreciate the music, and gradually the poetry, and, finally, as I became more familiar, I saw that, depending on who led prayers, our services were as uplifting as going to a high priced concert. So I continued to go to services, even after the bar mitzvah ceremonies of both my sons were finished.
Subsequently, I fell into a short discussion with one of my mother’s neighbors, who was a religious guy. He asked me how I was and I answered that I felt thankful to have so many good things in my life. He answered, “That is so Jewish.” I asked him what he meant, and he told me that the word “Jewish” in Hebrew (Yehudi) might have the same root as the word “to thank” does. And we Jews are “the people who give thanks.” His words resonated. I’d been worried about taking things for granted. I wanted to be aware of what I had. So I started a new routine. When I went to my “concert at the synagogue,” during the silent standing prayer called the “Amidah,” I would recite to myself everything I had to be thankful for. It turns out to be a long list. And it was almost a shock to find that the first thing on that list was gratitude towards my husband. It required an enforced period of introspection to recognize the obvious. Really? How weird is that!
In the fullness of years, my mother and then my father, of blessed memory, died. I was by then a regular at the synagogue and truly part of the community. With great difficulty, I learned how to say the mourner’s prayer (Kaddish). I found comfort in the learning of it and in the public recitation of it in front of a congregation of people who showered me with consideration. Once a person has died, you can’t help them, you can’t do anything for them anymore; they’re gone. But in that year of saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, first for my mother and then my father, irrational though it might be, I felt I was doing something for them. And, certainly, I was honoring their memory.
Maybe of most importance, I started studying. With the help of a patient and talented teacher, I began learning how to chant small portions of the Torah, learning both the melody and each word. And then I studied the siddur (the Jewish prayer book), and with greater understanding, I have found a deeper meaning to my life. Slowly, it has become apparent to me that the Jewish scriptures are the manual of how to live a righteous, meaningful life, sometimes written in such succinct language that a few lines can direct you. For example:
הגיד לך אדם מה טוב ומה יהוה דורש ממך כי אם עשות משפט ואהבת חסד והצנע לכת עם אלהיך
It has been told you, Man, what is good, and what God requires of you. Only to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
I hope I have shown that communal prayer is after all useful: it provides uplift, which is important in the terrible times we’re living through; it comforts us; and finally, it sculpts us into better people. And better people are helpful for the economy, for putting food on the table and, most assuredly, better people make a better Democracy.
What is missing from my personal way of praying is God. When I talked with my mother’s neighbor, what he meant was that we Jews are the people who give thanks to God, not just give thanks. I knew that even if he didn’t say it explicitly. I’m convinced that if I could believe in God, I’d pray better. And Lord knows I want to believe in God, and there are times I get close, really close, but I keep coming up with rational explanations. That is the way I was raised and it is difficult to leave your mother’s house. “Lech lecha!”