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Prayer in My Life: Some Reflections

I just returned home from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) Hevraya (spiritual alumni) retreat in West Cornwall, Connecticut. Five days of Jewish mindfulness meditation, yoga, intense study of Chasidic texts, self-reflective silence (for 15 hours a day), and some of the most uplifting prayer I have ever experienced. Rabbis, cantors, educators (my wife!) gathered together in spiritual exploration. We focused on prayer, and how every moment of every day can be a prayer of holiness. The retreat provided ample opportunity to reflect on my relationship with prayer. In preparation, I wrote a short exploration of how I felt about my own prayer life. Excerpts are below:
I stood on the bimah one Rosh Hashana, closing my eyes for Shema. We sing it with a contemporary tune – Listen written by our Cantor – which often sends flutters into my heart. Opening my eyes during the “Baruch Shem Kavod,” I saw a good percentage of the congregation standing with arms around each other. Some had their eyes closed; some were crying; some swaying slowly. I flashed back to Martin Buber’s teaching that when two people engage in authentic meeting, becoming I and Thou, God is in that moment. A colleague once explained that God is “in the hug.” I flashed forward to a teaching that echad means more than “not two” (as in Zoroastriansim) and “not three” (as in Christianity) and “not many” (as in ancient Greek or modern Wiccan polytheism). That echad speaks of oneness; we are all part of the Oneness of YHVH (Adonai/the Holy One/God). In that Rosh Hashana moment, as we stood arm in arm, declaring in unison the Oneness of God (and that we are all part of that Oneness), I experienced the Presence of the Holy One. In the words and in the community, achen yeish Adonai bamakom hazeh – God is surely in this place and I did not know it!
I also recall: In recent years, during times of greatest need, I have turned to God. I first encountered such personal prayer at our final IJS retreat here at Trinity Retreat Center, when we experimented with Nachmanian hitbodedut (personal prayer). I remember walking around on the grass, outside the meditation building, for forty five minutes, arguing vociferously – angrily – with God. Thankfully, God seemed to listen. Since then, our conversations, whenever I opened them, have been calmer and very efficacious. When I had tsuris (problems) with one of the kids that ripped at my heart, when an employment issue required I quickly find skills that diverged radically from who I was, when I had to make decisions for the synagogue mediating between my deeply held beliefs and the demands (the realities) of the moment, I sought support from the Holy One. Sometimes we speak when I am driving in the car; sometimes I interrupt my davening at shul, placing the open siddur against my chest, so I can silently speak my words directly to God. My prayer is a simple variation on: “Please help me find the strength and the skills that I need to face that which we are facing. I do not ask for a particular outcome – though You know the desires of my heart – but I ask merely for the wherewithal to be able to figure out what to do and to help those I love navigate the current difficulties.” In recent years, each time I have turned to God, God has turned to me. While in the short term things do not always turn out as I might have preferred, nonetheless the long term results have been pleasing. In each case, I have discovered the strength and courage that I needed to face the future.

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