Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Prayer and Despair

Rabbi Cohen in her study, Dec. 2019

Gd is near to all who all who cry out to Gd, to all who cry out to Gd in truth.

קרוב ה׳ לכל קראיו לכל אשר יקראהו באמת

Prayer, they say, is when we talk to Gd; Torah study is, as it were, when Gd talks to us.  Or, perhaps more clearly, learning Torah, in its multitude of forms, is our attempt, my attempt, to hear Gd speak to me.  It is a striving to understand my world, to figure out what Gd wants me to do, and to how to achieve those goals.  Torah study is my effort to make meaning out of the life Gd has given me, out of the world around me.

Prayer, on the other hand, is reaching out to Gd.  It is telling Gd my story, my needs, my joy and my despair – all this using both my words and, perhaps both more importantly and more confusingly, the texts and forms of Sages.  The rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud crafted the Siddur, the prayerbook, and have thus told me (all of us, really) what topics, as it were, are appropriate to broach when one enters conversation with the Holy One of Blessing.  Our daily prayer is filled with בקשות, requests, but not just any appeals:  the Sages have crafted 13 topics of regular entreaties.  Of course, there is a place for individual pleas during silent prayer at the end of the Amidah, but for me, at any rate, praying the prayerbook of old (with all of the medieval and modern edits and insertions!) has taught me how to pray.  It has given me words, and often serves as a sort of mantra, with the text and the nusach carrying me through the service as my mind and soul reach out to Ribono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe.

And this verse, Psalm 145:18, from Ashrei (said 3 times every day), reminds us that prayer, calling out to Gd, is always appropriate.  Gd is always there, as long as out appeal is honest, heartfelt, with kavannah.  Our experience of the Divine, or at least mine, may vary, sometimes Gd feels very close and present and sometimes Gd may feel more distant and unreachable,  but the Psalmist reassures us that Gd is always at hand.  Speak your truth and Gd will be close.

So, what is my truth?  My reality right now is that I am unable to cry out to Gd. I have bipolar disorder, and right now, as, frankly, usually happens at this time of year, I am falling, falling, falling off a cliff into deep despair.  That is to say, I am experiencing treatment-resistant biologically-based depression.  No one can say why my treatment regime suddenly fails, but it has.  No one is to blame, but it is terrible.

And I am unable to pray.  It is not that Gd feels distant at this time.  Rather, I fear that if I reach my hand out to pray, towards the Holy One, I will get sucked into the black hole of the abyss and be pulled further down.  It is not a rational thought, I know.  But there it is.  My prayer life is on hold. I am too frightened and to desperate to call out.

But I am still learning and teaching.  I learn Talmud with 3 different people each week, study the parsha with yet another friend, and teach Rambam to one class and Pirkei Avot to another.  It feels desperately hard to pull myself together for these things; it is tempting to cancel each session, to call in sick.  And yet, when I do show up, which I most do, Talmud Torah is life giving.  The give and take of ideas, the playfulness of the text itself, the important ideas, and the companionship of learning with people I care about – these are sacred moments, and I feel blessed to have them.

And so, this is also my truth.  Torah is a form of “emet,” of truth.  It is where I am able to dwell at the moment.  And the hevruta with whom I learn help bring me life. It is there that I pray, the blessing for Torah study, because it is there that I am able to be vulnerable.

On the other hand, just because I cannot pray does not mean I do not want others to pray – not just for me – but with me.  Of all my rabbi friends, and I am blessed with many, only one has offered to pray with me in the moment of my depression.  I appreciate everyone’s prayers, the MiSheBerach and so on, but the intimacy and caring of a prayer right there, in the moment of the visit – on the phone, over  Zoom, whatever – is a gift.  And for me, when Gd feels not just absent, but permanently gone, when it feels outright dangerous to consider reaching out to Gd – having a friend/rabbi pray with me reminds me that the Ribono Shel Olam is there, within reach, waiting for me with love and compassion.  That, too, might be a truth.  Take the risk and offer a prayer with someone in distress (well, ask first and be ready to accept a “no” as well!).  We can create Torah between people, reaching to hear the voice of the Divine, and raising our voices as well.

So may it be.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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