Tag Archives: prayer

Is Prayer Selfish?

Response to “Is Prayer Selfish?” | Alternet

by Rabbi Rick Brody

Prayer is an exercise in both humility and in strengthening our own capacity to achieve fulfillment.

I dislike the title of this article from Alternet (we can also ask, “Is Breathing Selfish?” no?), and it’s helpful to note that the author, Valerie Tarico, penned the book, “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” because it seems a lot of her own baggage is seeping out in her critique.

I wish Ms. Tarico didn’t spend so much time inveighing against intercessory, “bad prayer” and presenting ridiculous straw-man examples of religious extremists faking the efficacy of such prayer to gullible children. In the middle of the article, she states that “The answer [to why we pray, given the apparent inefficacy of petitionary prayer] is that there is more than one kind of prayer.” But it is not until her 3rd-to-last paragraph where she offers any constructive comments about the importance and possibility of such different prayer as a fundamental part to living fully and deeply:

There is an alternative, another kind of prayer that isn’t about requesting or celebrating special treatment at the hands of an interventionist deity. Instead it is about something within us, about our struggle to live in alignment with our deepest values. In fact it is about resisting the self-serving impulses that drive so many bowed head moments.

I fully affirm the idea that prayer is about articulating — and attempting to live in alignment with — our deepest values. For many of us, that articulation is connected to our yearning for connection with something beyond ourselves. I think there’s a big difference between yearning for the benevolence of a Divine benefactor and falling into the childish, magical thinking that assures us that whatever we want and ask for, we will get. When our articulations take the form of traditional petitions and invoke the imagery of the benefactor, we can and should take the liberty of reminding ourselves that we’re not expecting “direct responses.” Rather, it is the act of asking, of recognizing a degree of our own powerlessness in the face of the enormity of existence — and the act of actively hoping to harness some strength to achieve the alignment we seek — that is the ikar, the essential component to this ancient human activity. It troubles me to no end when those who so cavalierly dismiss religious language out of a humanist impulse seem to lack any faith in our amazing species to be able to think with a degree of sophistication such that we can continue to employ symbolic language, to use words that say much more than their literal meaning.

And even in this endorsement of “good prayer,” I am troubled by Ms. Tarico’s rejection of the centrality of gratitude. She herself, as I quote below, seems to appreciate the way we can joyfully and humbly drink of the gifts of being alive — and I agree with her that much of the bowed-head prayer that proclaims “there but for the grace of God go I” fails to take note of the problematic messages embedded within such statements. But she seems to argue that in general, prayers of gratitude (as well as the petitions that precede the presumed Divine benevolence that yields such gratitude) almost necessarily spiral down into the absurd pettiness of a zero-sum game, whereby because God helped my team win, that means God made your team lose, or because God diverted the hurricane from me, God sent it to you. Our gratitude doesn’t have to include a perfectly rational explanation for “how God works” (if God wanted me to survive my car crash, does that mean God didnwant your friend to survive hers?). If you’re trying to articulate such a coherent theology at a moment of genuine gratitude, you’ve completely missed the point — and are suffering from a much deeper psychic problem of emotional paralysis that, presumably, prayer seeks to address. A lovely counter-example of the purity of gratefulness comes from Adam Frank, at NPR’s “Cosmos and Culture” blog, who states simply and poignantly, as a self-proclaimed atheist, in an entry before Thanksgiving:

I will feel the mystery and be thankful to it, to [my family] and to the world entire.

What else, after all, is there to do?

Ms. Tarico herself goes on, in her final paragraph, to offer a similarly inspiring perspective on a relevant form of prayer:

A prayer may be nothing more than a deep, centering breath; a moment of silence; a thrill of delight; or a surge of love that brings tears to our eyes, reminding us beautifully, painfully, quietly of our small place in the greater whole. In a world with gods or without, in our world today or even a world beyond belief, that is a kind of prayer worth praying.

I just wish she could have arrived at this approach earlier in her article, devoting less energy to railing against the bad forms of prayer.

In addition, while perhaps all prayer needs to include an element of selflessness, it is — as I sarcastically suggested above in my parenthetical comparison to breathing — a crucial aspect of our self-care. Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” To express poetically or passionately our fervent desire to live in good health and to fulfill our potential, with the intention that naming such desires will bring us closer to realizing them — and to offer prayers of gratitude for achieving those realizations — are steps that, while not sufficient to living fully (Hillel’s next question, of course, is “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”), almost necessary come early in the process of building our relationship to the Divine. The author herself suggests breathing — a very selfish act! — as a form of prayer. (But isn’t that taking away oxygen from others who might need it more? Isn’t a zero-sum game?!)

I also wish the author didn’t present (Jewish) Biblical theology in such a reductionistic fashion and without any comment on the evolution of ideas within religious communities. She misses a golden opportunity to describe how the Jewish and Biblical tradition does tell the story, essentially, of “a nubile 17-year-old” being wooed and chosen by a powerful and handsome man — we see this imagery throughout the Prophets and especially in Song of Songs. She also inappropriately conflates Jewish and Christian ideas by introducing promises of immortality into the same sentence that begins by discussing the choosing of a “tribe of wandering herdsmen” (which is, itself, both inaccurate — we can say the Torah depicts the choosing of “one wandering herdsman” or a “tribe of redeemed slaves” — and also possibly a bit demeaning to Jews with its emphasis on a “wanderer” status, which was not the case at all during the First Commonwealth, when much of the Biblical material was likely written).

In Ms. Tarico’s all-too-easy dismissal of the chauvinism inherent in the traditional Jewish morning blessings that thank God “for not making me a gentile, a slave, or a woman,” she neglects to note the almost universal modifying of these blessings in non-Orthodox prayerbooks into positive statements, thanking the Source for “making me a Jew, a free person, and with the Divine imprint.” Also noteworthy is vocal criticism from those within the Orthodox community, particularly an article by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles (it appears the original piece that set off the firestorm is no longer online) and other posts that followed.

As the above example should make clear, I don’t believe that all traditional prayers are salvageable. And I recognize that for some people, petitionary prayer is simply not the manner in which they interact with the Divine. For me, such prayers are quite likely very different than what they were to people of long ago. But the basic human need to express our needs and the desire to connect with a Power that can help us meet them are not aspects of the human condition that necessarily hold us back. I believe we ought to own them. Yes, we ought to respond to these human qualities responsibly and intelligently. But they will not go away, so the challenge lies before us to make our prayer life as rich, exciting, and relevant as possible.

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The Planetary Journey of our Spirits: Turning and Reflecting

Yom Kippur Evening 5772

The planetary journey of our spirits: turning and reflecting

Rabbi Rick Brody
Congregation Kol Halev
Austin, TX

Last week I offered two important approaches to the process of personal renewal and transformation.  One was to embrace a sense of empowerment — that the pen is in our hand and we can write our own book.  I encouraged us to think about the idea of writing our own eulogies, going back over the errors that we’ve already written in our book and finding ways to change moving forward — as we fill in the blank pages of our legacy before it’s too late. I suggested we think of this process as like being on a jury — deliberating — with God on the jury with us — about our own merits and failures.

And the second approach was about having a good attitude — seeing our responsibilities as blessings; seeing ourselves as all-stars, selected by God — because of our infinite worth — to participate in the sacred gathering of these Days of Awe. I quoted John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” — “Who on earth do you think you are? A superstar? Well, right you are. Well, we all shine on. Like the moons and the stars and the sun.” I reminded us how radiant we can be, and how we can feel that radiance — the sun on the street for the poor cripple in Tsotsi; the light reflecting off the title character in that film who just can’t see it and only sees broken glass; the call in the song “Unwritten” to “open up the dirty window” and “let the sun illuminate the words you could not find.” As I reminded us, all of our encounters with radiance can propel us to new heights, past any obstacle — whether it’s the miraculous, the mundane, or the morbid.

But there’s a little bit of a discrepancy among some of these images and lyrics. Let’s look at the idea of our being stars, of our shining on brightly. We know, scientifically, that there’s something not true about saying we shine on like the moons. Stars and suns shine, yes; but moons and planets don’t radiate their own light. What they do is very instructive for us: They reflect light. The light is not their own. They are vessels of reflection, like pieces of glass. The light comes from beyond, beyond the dirty window. We let it in. And sometimes we allow it to be obscured, to be eclipsed by another vessel that goes from being a reflector of light to a blocker of light. And sometimes we turn away from the light. So much depends on our position — or our point of view.

So, I’d like us to think about ourselves as planets. And not just because of our reflective capacity; but also because of our movement. We are travelers. We are distinct and unique entities engaged in a never-ending journey of turning.  We go round and round, attracted by the pull of something greater, something with so much more energy than we have that we find ourselves building our lives around it.  We are always moving in relation to it, yet are forced to remain at a nonnegotiable distance, at least in the visible short-term. … Although our worlds seem pretty stormy when we examine them up close, from afar it appears that we function with relative regularity and constancy.  We build lives filled with orderly, comforting routines.  On one hand, change seems difficult.  We like maintaining a rather predictable existence.  On the other hand, we realize that, like it or not, we are constantly evolving.  We don’t remain the way we were long ago, but rather continue on our journey of growth and discovery.  We are in motion.  We might wonder sometimes—or perhaps often—if we are ever really getting anywhere, but the fact remains that we are always moving—sometimes only in ways that we can perceive from a distance.  Our journey involves a daily transformation that’s so easy to overlook.  Daily, like the earth on which we live, we turn and return.  We make t’shuvah, the act of returning.

We see this cycle, this turning, with the daily rising and setting of the sun.  But that language suggests what our ancestors actually believed, that the Earth was fixed, in relation to a moving sun, rather than the opposite.  Perspective can be deceiving.  It’s so easy to focus on the movement—or supposed movement—of others, and forget or lose sight of the changes going on within ourselves.  The time then comes to look inward—to become conscious of, and to take responsibility for, personal change.  We need to become the self-conscious planet, embracing the reality of our place and our movement in the universe.  Now is that time.  This is the moment for us to see ourselves as we really are.

To gain this proper perspective of what’s happening within us, we need to step back—we need to see the big picture.  Who are we really in relation to everything and everyone else?  And from this new perspective comes another “revolution,” a different kind of turning—the turning upside down of our outlook on ourselves in the cosmic order.

We reenact on the personal level what the scientific revolution brought about in regard to our understanding of Earth—that we are a planet.  The great truth is unveiled: The universe does not revolve around us.  We are not the center of all Creation.  To go from being the point of universal convergence to being a mere traveler, making the same basic trek as countless others beings, is a revolutionary transformation.  Tomorrow, in our Ne’ilah prayers, in a moment of great humility, we will declare, “What are we?  What is the value of our lives?  Before you, God, the mighty are as nothing, the famous as if they had never been; the wise are without wisdom, the clever without reason.  For most of their deeds are worthless, and their days are like a breath.”

The fasting we engage in this Yom Kippur reinforces for us this humility.  We remember the truth that our lives are not a mere selfish pursuit for physical satisfaction and satiation.  Rather, we’re on a spiritual journey that requires that we constantly evaluate our path, assess where we’re going, and no matter what, continue to move.  Yes, we might have our own sphere of influence.  We might have our own satellites.  We might be exerting an attraction on others who consider us their center; but in the big picture we are a part of a dance of trillions, each of us in motion—each one engaged in its own orbit but around a common center much greater than ourselves.  And we do this as a community of planets. We have our own orbit, but we are not alone. …

Let’s look at one another and see the beauty of all our fellow-travelers, seeing each of us as a planet, clearly established as the only body like it—each of us drawing our circle of exploration—each of us reflecting in a unique way the light that we all share.

So, if the celestial planets are revolving around the sun, then what are we, as spiritual travelers, revolving around?  What is the gravitational power at the center of the circle we draw with our life’s travels, the point that pulls us into motion but that we can’t reach or touch?

For many throughout time, a spiritual center has been the source of nourishing light and warmth.  Even though they didn’t necessarily have their astronomy correct, the ancients were on track spiritually by emphasizing the divine-like qualities that existed within the sun: the constant, radiant source of light and warmth—and thus of life, wisdom, enlightenment—the most powerful gravitational force in our midst.  No wonder that the closest the pagans got to something resembling monotheism was worship of the sun as the premier deity.

We even see some faint remnants of this sun-worship in our own prayers, transformed to focus on an all-powerful God that exists beyond any one aspect of Creation.  In the morning yotzer prayer, we praise God for the creation of light as we behold the sun’s light with a new day—and we also express the hope that God shine a new light on Zion.  We unify the source of physical light with the source of spiritual light—the sun (and other lights in the sky) are but one example in God’s infinite display of might.

The prayer goes even further.  In the middle of it, there is a seemingly bizarre shift from a celebration of light in nature to a spiritual vision of angels encircling the Divine throne and singing praises on high.  Here’s the link:  We first identify the physical lights, the luminaries—m’orot (sun, moon, planets, and stars)—as testaments to God’s glory: Natan s’vivot uzo (God has placed them in a circle around God’s strength).  We say that they declare God’s praises.  M’orei or she’asita (the luminaries you have made) y’fa’arucha sela (they glorify you).  Essentially, we recognize that light-bearing objects are engaged in an orbit—but around God!  Regardless of the physical reality—that the planets, the physical satellites, are satellites around the Earth, the sun, or some other physical object—they are also revolving around a spiritual center that transcends the entire physical realm.  This celestial dance we observe in the physical sky—and which we know that we, on planet Earth, are a part of—is all a tribute to a non-physical power which all these objects are devotedly serving.  Enter the angels.  The prayer shifts almost imperceptibly from discussing the sun and moon that rise and set in their proper times to mentioning the “heavenly host”—s’rafim, v’ofanim, v’chayot hakodesh.  This shift from physical to spiritual allegiance turns us to Isaiah’s prophetic vision of dedicated, constant, angelic beings that repeatedly declare, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh (Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts).”  These angels are, essentially, a religious stand-in for the planets.

There’s actually a long history in Jewish folklore and mysticism — and in other religions as well — that celebrates a strong relationship between the planets and angels. In astrology, it was through the planets, whose paths and movements were governed by angels, that angels had influence in our world.  The planets were divine intermediaries.  They determined or foretold of human beings’ fate, while at the same time making their movements through the sky in the honorable service of God.  Their very actions were a tribute to God’s greatness.  In polytheism, of course, the planets actually represented various distinct pagan gods.

Now, if we are planets—or can see in their constancy a model for our own behavior—then so, too, do we seek to emulate the angels.  Especially on Yom Kippur.  Today, we are angels.  We shift ourselves from the physical concerns of food, comfortable clothing, physical cleanliness—and focus on spiritual purity.  We wear all white.  And we declare aloud “Baruch shem k’vod…” the words we usually say silently after the Sh’ma because they are reserved for the angels, who in their spiritual purity, declare God’s holiness in heaven.  Tonight and tomorrow, we say these words.  For this one day, we are angels. This is the day in which, by pretending we are not human but rather angelic, we ultimately get most in touch with our humanity.

And our humanity is dependent upon our recognizing our center. In religious terminology — though we each might choose to understand that center very differently — that center has been called God. Each of us needs to identify that center for ourselves—the organizing principles that enable us to keep moving, the core ideals that keep us striving and growing and in pursuit of something good and meaningful.  When we lose sight of the center, we lose our footing, we stumble; we stray in our orbits.

Most of the time we’re not angelic planets, moving along so orderly in perfect, consistent orbits. That’s a nice wish, and that’s what we’re striving for as we play that angelic role on Yom Kippur. But no, most of the time, we’re much more like the demoted, former-planet Pluto, which fell from grace in the eyes of astronomers. Why did Pluto get demoted? Because it simply didn’t exhibit the same consistent features of the much larger objects that are closer to the sun. We, too, are much smaller, much more removed from the radiance, warmth, and gravitational pull from our center. We are wayward objects with irregular motion.  We sometimes interlope into the orbits of others, like Pluto does with Neptune.

This is all, partly, I think, why so many of us identify with that little underdog chunk of ice at the far reaches of the solar system.  We find ourselves, like this dwarf-planet, terribly distanced from that illuminating center, terribly cold, and seemingly lost.  How many of us are just spinning, with no awareness of the light we can be reflecting, no understanding of what is motivating us, what is pulling us, what is the energy that has its hold on us?  Are we allowing for a relationship with that power, or are we kicking and screaming as we move along?  If the latter, then we might be upsetting—in our spiritual system—that balance that is so orderly in the planetary march of the solar system.  The Hebrew word cheit, sin, actually comes from a term in archery that means, quite plainly, missing the mark. We strayed. We erred. We were out of alignment, out of orbit. We need to realign ourselves with our center, come back from being Pluto to being Earth, positioned in just the right manner so as to promote the flourishing of life.

So, today, to be earthly is to be angelic. For this one day, we are are not mere humans or dwarf-planet ice-chunks. We transcend the physical obstacles that keep us out of orbit. We focus on turning, revolving, and evolving in an orderly fashion so that we can be hosts to life. And we do this as a community, a system, a network of fellow, well-aligned travelers, orbiting consistently yet always in motion, in relation to a spiritual center.

The miracle of Yom Kippur is that we know that God will pull us back into our rightful planetary orbit, if we are open to that realignment, if we do the work to repel the forces that detract us from our proper gravitational pull and that cut us off from the radiant light.  The spiritual reality is that we will never be banished from the community of sacred voyagers, never demoted.  Only our own lack of awareness of the center, our own turning away from the light, will throw us off.  Today is the time to reestablish that connection to the center, to look inside ourselves, find the angel within, find the light from beyond that pierces our depths and that we have the choice to reflect back out into the universe. And with that reflection of light, with that humble response to the gravitational pull that lures us towards the source of that light, we return—make t’shuvah back to our proper orbit.  May we all journey in safety and in joy, in light and in peace.

Prayers for Rain?

I was just asked about whether Jews, especially here in Texas during this brutal drought of record-breaking heat, do or say anything to acknowledge the need for rain.  While my congregation, Kol Halev, has not done anything formal in that regard, the question prompted me to reflect on the ways Jews do encounter, daily, the idea of rain in our liturgy.

1) A series of blessings recited three times daily on non-Sabbath days includes a specific petition that God “provide blessing upon the land and satiate us with Divine goodness, blessing our year like the good years (of old).”  In the winter (the rainy season in the climate of the Land of Israel), the blessing is amended to say “provide dew and rain for a blessing upon the land…” — so, for part of the year we ask for rain explicitly.  The idea behind the seasonal distinction is that rain wasn’t expected during the summer months in a Mediterranean climate that is different from ours here; but for us, we know we need rain during the summer in order for us and the land to be blessed fully with Divine goodness — so clearly, our expectation is that the good for which we pray will require rain.  Thus, implicitly, we still ask for rain at this time.

2) Every morning and evening, Jews traditionally recite (as the second paragraph of the Sh’ma) Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which expresses the idea that if we are true to God’s ways, we will be blessed with rain that will grant us abundance, enabling us to eat and be satisfied; but that if we stray from that path, following “other gods,” God will close up the sky and there will be no rain, spelling doom for us all.  While many (perhaps most) of us in today’s world don’t subscribe to a belief in a quid-pro-quo relationship between human actions and natural occurrences (or “acts of God”), we can remember two ideas.  First, there is certainly evidence for a human role in fostering current climate change patterns, and that crisis ought to drive us towards an examination of our lust for the false gods of wealth, power, comfort, and convenience that have contributed to the natural effects we are now experiencing.  It is possible that becoming more judicious in our consumption and more respectful of our ecosystem could restore balance to our climate.  More significantly, though, is the basic idea of how much we have always valued rain and how much of a blessing it is.  Even if it can’t be earned through our thoughts, prayers, or actions, our tradition reminds us how central it is to living a healthy and fulfilling existence.  Receiving this reminder every day through the ritual recitation of verses of holy text allows us to reorient our priorities towards what really matters — a functioning ecosystem that allows for all life to flourish.  This, in its own way, is also an ongoing prayer for rain.

May it come soon.