Yakir Englander

Failing to Pray – the Power of Community

I tried to pray on both days of Rosh Hashana, an effort that, most of the time, was simply unsuccessful. This was not the first time I have had this experience. With time and maturity, I realize that belief in life is a choice that requires courage. So too with prayer, the purpose of which for me is to express that same belief that remains, inextricably trapped in my heart.

At some point, I left the synagogue, walked home to my garden, and put on my earphones. I listened to some Hassidic tunes I grew up with and that are an intrinsic part of my being, and wordlessly prayed the pain of my inability to recite the words of the prayers. After the holiday, in a telephone conversation with a relative – a Torah scholar and a man of faith who lives in an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Israel, I shared my difficulty with him. He reassured me: “Yakir, when you can’t pray, all you need to do is stand in silence, together with the congregation, without saying anything. Just remember that you are standing in prayer”.

He has so much belief – in life, in the community. Part of the community’s strength is in its ability to accommodate ad embrace those who are unable to pray and say: “I believe in life”. For those among us experiencing this, the community allows us to be silently present, with just the desire to believe, carried along by the congregation’s prayer. The silence of not praying is woven into the prayer of those who, at those same moments, succeed in doing so, and bonds them together.

The reply I received reminded me of the words of the Hassidic Rabbi of Vizhnitz, words that still reverberate within me the meaning of Jewish leadership. He used to say that if Jews find themselves alone on Shabbat, isolated in some remote place around the world and without the embrace of a community, all they need to do is to say aloud “Good Shabbos” and he promises to hear and answer them, wherever they are. This Tzaddik also used to say that anyone who fails to feel the pain of another Jew, alone at the end of the world, has not yet attained the spiritual level of “Ahavat Yisrael” (the love for a fellow Jew).

In recent years, these two stories have gained profound significance in my perception of leadership. We live at a time, of Covid, when many members of the Jewish community have been unable to attend synagogue and express their pain together with the congregation. Even now, when synagogues have re-opened, many of us have already lost our faith in the community and its ability to serve as a source of comfort and consolation.

As community leaders, regardless of our religious identity, we must devote ourselves to being more sensitive. Like the Rabbi of Vizhnitz, we must keep our words to a minimum. Rather, we must listen to the voices of those who have already lost their faith and no longer turn to the community to pour out their hearts, and we must embrace them wherever they are.

We live in a world in which an excess of information cripples our courage to go beyond the computer, to act, to touch others, and to ask for love and an embrace. A large degree of courage is required to pray and boldly declare “I believe in life”. Every prayer uttered in our generation, every tear shed, every cry issued, is an expression of the last remaining drops of courage to pray, in the face of existential fear, and even though such a belief sometimes seems devoid of logic or reason. As a community, we must embrace those who pray but, no less, enable those who try to pray and fail, to feel the community’s embrace, and promise that we will carry their non-prayer with us.

Dedicated to the memory of Ilan Witemberg, who was a teacher of Judaism and humanity in the Israeli-American community (IAC)

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US at the IAC. Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty, Englander earned a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Religion at Northwestern and Rutgers universities and Harvard Divinity School. In addition, he was a Shalom Hartman scholar in Jerusalem. Englander served as the Jerusalem director of Kids4Peace and later as the vice president of the organization. All of my blogs were translated by Dr. Henry R. Carse
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