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Giving Voice: Prayer During Difficult Times

Every holiday we have marked over this last half year has been on an inevitable collision course with the emotional rollercoaster we have been on since October 7th and the ongoing war. Our holidays and rituals may normally create a space for multifaceted feelings and help give meaning to what we are experiencing. But what about this year?

At our Seder, a particular line from the Haggadah stood out. “Even if all of us were wise, all of us deeply understanding, all of us knowledgeable in the Torah, we would still be obligated to tell of the Exodus from Egypt.” There may be no story better known than the story of Israelite freedom from ancient Egypt. Why devote a night (or two) every year to discuss the story if we are all familiar with it? Of course, reflecting on its central messages holds inherent value – though the story may be the same, we are decidedly not.

Our understanding is refreshed and enriched by our new experiences and insights and the people around us. Moreover, the Seder deals with recounting past events but also directs us toward the future, perhaps calling us to envision it and bring it forth.

Similar questions often surface in other areas of Jewish life, prayer being a notable example. For instance, why pray if God already knows our minds and what is best for us? Or if we are unsure how to pray given our circumstances?

These questions are particularly poignant when considering October 7th and its aftermath. My aim is not to delve into theology but to share reflections on prayer during tough times, drawing on scientific research.

Thomas Coex / AFP – Getty Images

People are often drawn to prayer as a refuge during times of hardship. Scientific studies have reported mixed findings as to whether prayer is helpful or unhelpful for wellbeing. Further research has examined specific types of prayer, such as making requests or expressing gratitude, and has found that these subtypes may be linked to different psychological outcomes. For example, prayer may help us cope in a manner similar to meditation, which can soothe anxiety, though some types of prayer may, at least in the short term, intensify emotional difficulties.

For many of us, this challenging period has brought on feelings that are varied and oscillating as they are intense and overwhelming, including multiple discordant emotions simultaneously – among others, the incessant anguish, angst, and grief, the waves of rage, the rare moments of hope and gratitude. Prayers often cannot fit neatly into defined categories without cutting off other parts of our experience. Some feel that the scripted traditional prayers do not allow them to adequately express what they feel or allow space for messy, contradictory emotions.

But personal prayer can also present obstacles. Any one of our feelings can bring with it any manner of judgment, which can complicate our ability to process these emotions. Knowing that others may be enduring more painful circumstances than we are, we may question the legitimacy of our feelings or our license to express them. Alternatively, the nature of the situation can engender helplessness that bars us from putting our feelings into words or makes us see little value in discussing them. These judgments are highly relevant to whether we experience prayer as a useful coping strategy or a painfully vain exercise.

Notably, most research is limited to personal prayer in times of personal struggles instead of national crises and, even when it does look at communal prayer, researchers focus on the function of regular service attendance on feelings of social support. This approach misses what we are currently experiencing as a collective. To a certain degree, Jewish personal prayer is intertwined with the broader experience of the Jewish people and the world. A sense of belonging shapes the emotions that we feel, influences the types of prayer we engage in, and can also help us cope.

It may seem obvious that prayer is part of the experience of a relationship with God, but this aspect has not been fully integrated into prayer research. I am hoping to fill this gap in my current project with generous funding from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

So how might we practice personal prayer in times like these?

Jewish tradition provides many an example of individuals wrestling with God in personal prayer, as it were. However, it can be challenging to find actionable guidelines within our forebearers’ example, perhaps because it is daunting or seems inappropriate at times to compare their experiences with ours.

Personally, I find the example of Tevye the Milkman, of Fiddler on the Roof fame, instructive (say nothing of the similarity between the pogroms of the shtetls and the October 7th attack). Tevye’s prayers do not consist of poetic liturgy or powerful prose. He is not necessarily a moral exemplar or sophisticated theologian. But his prayers are relatable, deeply personal, honest, and intimate, and have a somewhat irreverent yet endearing conversational quality. Because he expresses these prayers out loud, as is encouraged in the Jewish meditative traditions, he seems to experience a personal bond with God that can withstand ambivalence and oscillating emotions. Tevye appears as if he has an audience with God where he can share any manner of feelings without needing any specific response.

In our moment, we have been revisited by swirls of emotions that we thought only relevant vicariously on memorial days, Yemei Zikaron, or Shoah remembrance days. We are reminded of stories we know all too well (as in the Haggadah’s “Even if we were all wise…”). Hearing our own voices in conversation with God may create a sacred space that allows us to give voice and bear witness to our feelings and our collective experience in a way that gives us comfort, resilience, and guidance that we can extend to others as well.

May we soon see the return of all our captive brothers and sisters, may all our soldiers come home safely, and may we not fear in our land.

References:

Cherniak, A. D., Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., & Granqvist, P. (2021). Attachment theory and religion. Current Opinion in Psychology, 40, 126-130. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.08.020

Kross, E. (2021). Chatter: The voice in our head, why it matters, and how to harness it. Crown.

Persico, T. (2019). Judaism and Meditation. In M. Farias, D. Brazier and M. Lalljee (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Meditation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Porat, R., Halperin, E., Mannheim, I., & Tamir, M. (2016). Together we cry: Social motives and preferences for group-based sadness. Cognition and Emotion, 30(1), 66-79. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2015.1039495

Spilka, B., & Ladd, K. L. (2012). The psychology of prayer: A scientific approach. Guilford Press.

This project was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc funder DOI 501100011730) through grant https://doi.org/10.54224/30292. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc.

About the Author
Aaron D. Cherniak is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Jerusalem Mental Health Center, a researcher affiliated with Stockholm University, and a rabbi. He studies the intersection of religion/spirituality, close relationships, and mental health, including psychedelics.
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