How is one to pray with a broken heart?
Many of the best known Jewish prayers are prayers of praise. Sometimes the words of these prayers are hard to say when we are hurting, or when there is something we desperately need. Blessing God – the simplest form of Jewish prayer – is counter-intuitive when we are in pain.
There is a kind of prayer that is not so well known, but it can be helpful when we are in the depths. That sort of prayer is lamentation. When we make a lament, we list our pains and our disappointments. We own those parts of our unhappy state that are our own fault, but we also list those things that are simply lousy luck or the malice of people over whom we have no control. We make a list, and we hold it up before God. We say, “See? I hurt!”
A prayer of lament is not magic. It will not bring back the dead or mend what is broken, any more than the lament of the speaker in the Book of Lamentations brought back the dead or freed the slaves of Jerusalem after its destruction. So one might ask, what’s the point?
The point of such prayer is not that it is guaranteed to change the situation – many things cannot be changed. However, the prayer can change us.
In making the whole, long, miserable list, we are going to notice things we did not notice before, because we were so lost in pain:
- Since we are not making this list for anyone but ourselves and God, there is no need to minimize or exaggerate our troubles. We can simply state them as facts, and move towards accepting them as facts.
- We may notice that some things really were beyond our control: the recession, the fire, the illness. We can say, as Job did to his comforters, “I did not choose this. It is not my fault.” We can reject foolish theories about “attracting” misfortune or illness.
- We may notice that some things were indeed our own doing. That is not a pleasant discovery, but at this point, it is simply another fact. Perhaps we need to work on teshuvah [repentance] or work on forgiving ourselves. By making teshuvah properly and forgiving ourselves we will be able to move on.
- We can participate in the Jewish tradition of holding God responsible for those things that were not human actions. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it says that the ancient Hebrews cried out to God, who listened to their cries. In the wilderness, they complained (a lot!) David complained in several of the Psalms. And in modern times, prisoners in Auschwitz actually put God on trial for failing to keep the Covenant.
- Sometimes making this list will allow us to let go and cry. Sometimes there really is such a thing as “a good cry.”
- With the calm that comes from really accepting that things are “that bad” new possibilities may emerge. Perhaps pride or shame was getting in the way of accepting help.
- Telling the truth about our lives is an act of intimacy and dignity. Whatever your understanding of God – whether you address God very traditionally as Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World] or you address the “still small voice” within your own heart, it is movement towards something new.
Have you ever made a prayer of lament? What was your experience with it?