Prayer in a Time of Uncertainty

Image: A narcissus flower. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Oh Holy One, I do not know what is going to happen next.

Too much of life seems uncertain to me, and the future is unknown.

I am surrounded by foolish voices: are they foolish, or am I? I fear the worst, and I cannot even imagine what it is.

Help me to discern those things that I can control. Help me to release the rest.

Guide me to mitzvot that I can do. Show me how I can be helpful to others and increase the good in the world.

May I mirror those who do me a kindness, and may I be untroubled by those who wish to do me harm.

Sim shalom, oh Holy One, make peace among us, now and in the coming days.

Amen.

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah

Image: Two hands knitting. One stitch leads to another, just as one mitzvah leads to another.

It’s one of those weeks. I am battling through a round of depression. The blog has suffered, I know.

I will be back soon, I promise. In the meantime, I suggest you join me on the path I’m taking: mitzvah goreret mitzvah, let one mitzvah lead you to another mitzvah. If we follow that path, we will find our way through the dark.

Feeling Scared? Try This.

Image: “Be kind” written on a sidewalk in chalk. (reneebigelow / Pixabay)

Have you noticed how angry many people seem to be right now? Linda and I noticed it driving home from Oakland on a pleasant Sunday morning. People drove their cars as if the cars were weapons and it was war.

Whatever their politics, a lot of people feel the strain of uncertainty, and often they express their fear with anger. Politics is one big angry fight. Here in California we’re feeling climate change very strongly, and people are worried, some are downright frightened. Things we used to depend on seem undependable.

In such times, I keep myself calm with the first line of the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian

Much as I’d like to, by myself I can’t fix the climate. I can’t fix Pacific Gas & Electric. I can’t fix Washington. It may be that by voting, in cooperation with others, I may be able to help with those things, but it isn’t Election Day yet. So I have to put those things, for now, on the “accept” list. I don’t like them, but that’s reality.

What do I have the power to change? I can choose to be one tranquil person, one kind person, out there on the road and in the world generally. I can choose that each person with whom I interact leaves our conversation at least no more upset than they were when we began.

  • I can say “no” kindly, when I have to say no.
  • I can say “yes” with grace, when I can say yes.
  • I can maintain a calm and kind presence.
  • I can be a careful driver, neither in a hurry nor too slow.
  • I can focus on the Jewish value of kindness, chesed, and try to bring it to every interaction.

More thoughts about kindness:

The world rests upon three things: Torah, worship, and acts of kindness.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in From Optimism to Hope

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally.

– Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, “Loving Kindness in the Torah

My own behavior is one thing I can control. Kindness is what each of us can bring to the world in times of trouble.

Heal Us and We Shall Be Healed

Image: Healing hands. (Image by chiisaihana20200 /Pixabay)

I’ve introduced several prayers from the Amidah, from one of the core prayers in the daily service. Here is one that I find particularly helpful for stressful times, and for maintaining my balance in unbalanced times:

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed, save us and we shall be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete healing to all our wounds,

(Prayer to add for a sick individual: May it be Your will in front of You, O Lord, my God and the God of my forefathers, that You quickly send a complete recovery from the Heavens – a recovery of the soul and a recovery of the body – to the the sick person, insert name, the son/daughter of insert mother’s name, among the other sick ones of Israel) for You are God and King, the faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who heals the sick of his people Israel.

Siddur Ashkenaz

Am I asking God to magically fix things? No, I’m asking for the strength to do what I need to do, and for God’s mercy on all those who are suffering (who may include myself.) It’s another great prayer from our siddur.

Then it’s up to me to do what I can for myself, for my community, for my sick friend. We are the hands of God in the world.

May We Be Renewed

Image: People running joyfully into the ocean. (Pexels / Pixabay)

I had the honor, this week, of serving on several batei din (plural of beit din, rabbinical court,) examining and talking with candidates for conversion. In each case, after a good conversation and agreement among the members of the beit din, we proceeded to the mikveh for tevilah, immersion. These are the age-old rituals at the close of the process of gerut, conversion, and I am always moved when I am a participant.

The adults I heard this week have spent months and years in study, living Jewish lives, learning about mitzvot. What may have become routine to me is still precious to them, and I am grateful for the opportunity to see Judaism again through beginners’ eyes. They remind me of my own path to Judaism (indeed, I became a Jew 23 years ago in that same mikveh) and they sharpen my appreciation for the joys of a life of Torah.

I notice what is different, too. In 1996, there was a presidential election, with Senator Robert Dole running against incumbent President Bill Clinton. In 1996 the Oslo Accords were in effect, and expectations for peace in Israel were very high. In 1996 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States were upsetting but infrequent. In 1996, if a Jew made reference to “Pittsburgh” I assumed they were speaking of the Pittsburgh Platform, the first official statement of belief and practice from the Reform Movement. In 1996, no one was questioning either my loyalty to the United States or my relationship to Israel. We live in a different world now.

What I know for sure is that Torah itself doesn’t change. Hillel’s lesson, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person – Go and study!” still holds. I am still commanded to love God and to love the stranger. I have spent much of the past 25 years studying Torah, and I still have much to learn. The “sea of Talmud” – really, “sea of Jewish learning” – is wide and deep.

The Jewish People have endured for thousands of years and we’ve seen it all: war, revolt, defeat, destruction, persecution, and even genocide. As a community, we have survived all that, although the individual losses are each excruciating and do not become easier over time. As I listened to the splashing of the mikveh water, as candidate after candidate became a new Jew, I reflected that this, too continues over thousands of years. We are renewed: renewed by each new baby emerging from the womb, and by each new Jew stepping up out of the ritual bath. We are renewed as rabbis lead the ancient blessings. We are renewed with each returning Shabbat.

That’s what I shall pray for, this Shabbat: let us be renewed. Let us pray, as our ancestor prayed in a much worse year, after the destruction of Jerusalem:

Help us turn to You, and we shall return. Renew our lives as in days of old!

Lamentations 5:21

Jewish Prayer Keeps Me Going

Image: A person holds a book, hands resting on top of it. (Pixabay)

More than anything else, prayer keeps my boat afloat in turbulent times.

Jewish prayer has two major forms, public prayer and private prayer.

Public prayer keeps me going by reminding me that I’m not alone. I’m part of something much larger than myself: Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. The words of the prayers often remind me of other things, mitzvot I need to fulfill, or of my true place in the world (neither the highest nor the lowest in creation.) The ancient words are a lifeline to sanity.

Public prayer happens in the synagogue or sometimes in the home, very occasionally other places. It involves minyan or a family. It generally is composed of words that are familiar in their repetition.

In the synagogue, there will usually be Shabbat services on Friday evening and Saturday morning. Most synagogues offer services at that time. Some offer weekday prayers as well: Morning prayers called shacharit (dawn), and evening prayers called Ma’ariv (west). There is also an afternoon prayer service called Minchah, which may be said anytime from noon but which in practice is often said immediately before the evening prayers.

If I can’t get to synagogue, I can say the prayers at home in the spirit of saying them with my congregation. Even if my own Temple Sinai doesn’t have a morning service on Wednesday mornings, I can read the shacharit service and know that there are other Jews, somewhere in my time zone, who are saying it too.

In the home, there are prayers before and after meals, and holiday observances like the Passover seder or the prayers for lighting Chanukah candles. I call those “public prayers” because they are usually said with a group of people.

Elsewhere, there are prayers that are said in a funeral chapel or at a graveside, as part of the funeral service. There may also be prayers at a public event, but those are usually said by one person with everyone chiming in after with “Amen!”

For suggestions about how to approach Jewish public prayer and get something out of it, read New to Jewish Prayer? Nine Tips for Beginners.

Private prayer includes both individuals reciting familiar prayers, and spontaneous prayer.

Before I eat a bagel, I quickly say the blessing for bread. I may not think about the words, but it is a pause to appreciate the fact that I have a bagel, and that this little piece of bread comes to my hand as the result of a series of miracles. Other things I ingest have their own blessings: vegetables and fruit, and even a glass of water. The Jewish Virtual Library offers a one-page introduction to kinds of food and their blessings.

There are also blessings for natural wonders, large and small: for a lovely fragrance, for one-time events, for seeing a wonder of creation, and for the pleasure of Torah study.

Saying each of these blessings slows me down and invites me to pay attention, either to the words of the blessing or, better, to the experience for which I am blessing. Without them, I am more apt to rush through life “sightless among miracles” as Rabbi Chaim Stern, z”l wrote. The blessings are speed bumps, slowing me down to smell the roses.

I say the prayer Modah Ani when I wake up, giving thanks for the fact that I woke up. I say the morning blessings, either publicly or privately, and they walk me through the miracles of beginning my day.

Sometimes prayer is simply silence. Someone might call that “meditation” but I like to think of it as listening. I sit quietly and let the thoughts running through my mind run themselves out. When I finally get to silence, it feels like sitting in the presence of the Holy One.

At the close of day, I say the Bedtime Shema, another reminder that I am not alone in the world, that my interactions and relationships with others are important. It also helps me release the day and settle down for night.

You may be wondering about now, how I manage to get anything done, with all this praying! Some of it happens in a mumble, between one moment and the next. Some of it is imperfectly done, too – I strive to say all my prayers every day, but I am an imperfect person and sometimes they don’t get said or done. What prayer DOES impede is mischief: if I’m doing all the mitzvot I’m supposed to, including prayer, I don’t have time for gossip or resentment or nonsense!

Ideally we bring our imperfect selves to prayer and we become better people – that’s the goal. Praying reminds me of the person I wish to become, and points me down the road to becoming that person. It kicks me in the pants, reminding me of mitzvot I’ve not yet done. In happy times, it insures that I don’t overlook the good in the world. In upsetting times, it readies me for challenges, and steadies my resolve. Prayer keeps me going in times like these.

Prayer for the Country in a Time of Division

Image: People watching the sunset from a bridge. (By Gerd Altmann / Pixabay)

El Rachum v’Chanun, Merciful and Gracious God, Healer of the sick, Source of all Wisdom, we ask You for Your help in this time of trouble. Help us to see Your world as it truly is. Help us to tell the truth, and to recognize lies and half-truths. Give us discernment, and share some small measure of Your Wisdom, so that we may find our way through the present discord.

We ask that You, whom we call Erech apayim v’rov chesed, “slow to anger and abundant in kindness,” grant us the ability to look upon one another with eyes of compassion. Help us look past our anger, past our fears, past our grudges and recrimination to truly see one another in all our humanity.

Give us a thirst for true justice, instead of the poisonous drink of revenge. Open our eyes to genuine need, and open our ears to the cries of the hungry and the sick.

Make us bridge builders, instead of grave diggers. Inspire us to bind up each other’s wounds. Open our ears to each other’s stories, and soothe the defensiveness that rises like bile in our mouths. Help us listen, and truly hear.

O God, who has commanded us, “Be holy, as I your God am holy,” help us find our way to goodness.

Help us, O God, and we will try harder.

Amen.