Rav Benny Lau – appreciating the human element in prayer

Rabbi Benny Lau gave a thought provoking and insightful Shabbat Shuvah Drasha yesterday at Ramban Shul.

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Rather than try to summarize what exactly Rav Lau said which would be difficult due to the nature of the shiur and its delivery, I’m going to focus on the message I personally came away with. That is, the importance of being sensitive to the human element of prayer and I guess of serving G-d in general.

We are not robots, but human beings with feelings, emotions and needs which need to be answered and fed. If they aren’t, then we naturally feel despondent and alienated both from G-d and our community who may not appreciate what we are going through.

As I understood, the message of his drasha was that each individual person has their own inner thoughts, needs and wants and his or her prayer reflects them. Indeed, if one’s prayer means something to him or her, it must reflect the person’s inner feelings and desires. After all, in the words of the Rabbis, prayer is the,’service of the heart’.

Rav Benny gave 2 examples from his own experience as a community Rabbi, of how one’s own prayer are a reflection of one’s life situation and context.

One was of a 37 year old single woman who was about to marry for the first time and second was from a widower who has lost his wife after years of happy marriage. In both these cases, Rav Lau said by speaking to these 2 people, he was exposed to the world of darkness and loneliness that he himself had never experienced. The prayer he said of these 2 individuals reflected their life circumstances. How can’t it? What’s wrong with that anyway?

Rav Lau said that he has prepared sources which he gave out, but he didn’t really use them. The sources from the Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Brurah, Siman 101 and Gemarah in Brachot 24 discuss whether one can raise ones voice when one prays on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rav Lau also quoted the Mishna in Maaser Sheni , which talks of the, ‘Meorrerim’ who made a noise during prayer. Rav Lau compared the traditions of the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi of making sounds, crying and shouting during prayer, as he compared different traditions within contemporary Orthodoxy, of different Chassidik sects and their attitudes towards making noise during prayer. The sources also discuss the difference between making a noise, shouting and crying during prayer and which are permitted and which are forbidden.

Rav Lau asked, why would a person need to raise one’s voice or shout or even cry when he or she prayers? Why do the unusual and shout out? Because when you feel you are being ignored and normative forms of prayer and engaging with G-d have failed, it’s a natural reaction to look to other means of prayer and literally cry out.

If a person feels they need to raise their voice when praying let them. Let them feel they have a chance of G-d listening to them, when so far their prayers have been ignored. Just like when a baby or child cries – They do so because they are not being heard and need to be. Their tears are those of desperation and angst. Maybe through making a noise and shouting or crying out your prayer is becoming authentic and more real?

So, I guess during this time period, when we spend so much time davening and saying selichot, we need to bear in mind that there are so many people around us for whom standing before G-d is difficult and painful. Those who year after year stand in prayer, and year after year have to face the harsh reality that unlike their friends around them, their prayers have not brought them the results they hoped for.

May all our tefilot be answered,

Benjy.

About the Author
Benjy Singer works in social media, content writing and editing. He runs a popular online community, IsraelB.org, which is a very useful resource, especially for Olim. A graduate of the LSE, UCL and Yeshivat Har Etzion, Benjy enjoys writing, teaching and connecting people.
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