What Can Prayer Do?

Image: Hands folded on a prayer book. Photo by voltamax via pixabay.com.

Prayer cannot bring water to parched field, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will. – Gates of Prayer

“The Power of Prayer” is a big topic for me these days.

I tend to be very careful about words like “miracle.” I have spent enough time around hospitals to know that inexplicable healings happen, sometimes after family and friends have prayed. But I also know that injury and illness usually run the course predicted by medical science. When a doctor tells me that they expect someone to get well, I believe them. When they tell me gravely that it’s “very serious,” I know what that means.

Where is God in this? I do not presume to know the mind of God – in fact, I am pretty sure that even using the word “mind” for God puts limits on the Holy One that do not apply. God, to me, is the mysterium tremendum, to use Rudolf Otto’s words.

Still, I pray for sick people and since September, I and a lot of other people have been praying for my brother. (For his story, click the link.) I put a pretty cheerful spin on it in that previous post. The truth was that he was gravely injured, and most people with the injuries he had do not wake up; they die. Yet after 5 weeks in a coma, my brother woke up and told his wife that he loves her. A week later I sat in his hospital room, and we were able to communicate. Reports continue to be excellent – he’s recovering his speech and control of his body, and even the super-cautious like myself are calling it a miracle.

Did prayer do it? I don’t know. Did God do it? Absolutely, through the hands of wise doctors and skillful nurses and the life force inside Albert himself. Whether God was whispering to him, “You’re going to make it,” I don’t know. I just know that he is better, and I am grateful.

And yet there is another family somewhere saying, “We prayed! We prayed HARD!” but their loved one still died, or remained in the coma. Prayers are not magic.

I don’t know why some people live and some people die.  I refuse to believe in a capricious God. 

Last night I got another lesson on the power of prayer. I went to Shabbat services, which I haven’t been doing often because all the travel in the last month has left me with big pain problems. I prayed at home, which is good, but it isn’t the same as praying with a minyan. Last night I went to services, and I surrendered to the rhythm of the service: ancient prayers, ancient songs, some of them to tunes written recently by people I know, some composed hundreds of years ago. I heard wise words from my rabbis. I heard encouraging words from our temple president, Sam. I watched as new temple board members were blessed in, one of them a student of mine. (Oh, delight!) And then we prayed some more.

I have been on overdrive since Rosh Hashanah. I was wound so tight, worrying about my brother, worrying about his wife and kids, shepherding people in my care, listening to people talk out their frustrations and fears, trying to give reassurance and strength. I accompanied a family through a complicated funeral. I sat on a beit din (rabbinical court) and affirmed a new Jew.

But last night, through the power of prayer, my heart opened up and I cried. I leaked tears throughout the service, beginning at the “Mi Chamocha,” (“Who is like You?”) the song the Israelites sang after they’d crossed the Red Sea and finally gotten away from Pharaoh. Prayer in the midst of my community gave me what I needed, and challenged me to be more.

Prayer at its best brings us closer to the best person we can be. It builds our compassion for the suffering, and it reminds us who we really are. 

Some miracles are amazing, and some are quiet. I am grateful for both.

Where’s the Miracle?

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If you look very closely at the heart of this photo, you may be able to spot a miracle: among the milkweed leaves and blossoms there is a Monarch caterpillar!

My garden is crawling with these little fellows at the moment, all happily munching their way through the milkweed. The casual observer won’t see a single one of them. All that most people see are the colorful flowers and the large, weedy-looking bushes.

This caterpillar is a tiny miracle. In a week or so, she’ll find a handy spot to set up housekeeping and make the cocoon, which will look like a bright little piece of jade studded with gold. No one is likely to notice her for another two weeks, when she emerges from the chrysalis stage as a fully-formed Monarch butterfly. Then she’ll look like the miracle she is.

We pass by “caterpillars” all the time in our lives, miracles we are just too busy or preoccupied to see, miracles that are not yet very fancy. My wish for all of us this Shabbat is that we will each have a chance to see at least one such miracle in our own lives, one tiny thing that has escaped our notice.

May this be a Shabbat of peace and blessing, a Shabbat of seeing clearly!

P.S. – if you still can’t find the caterpillar, visualize an X drawn from the four corners of the photo. Look at or just above the place where the two lines cross.

Eyes Full of Wonder

Dr. Reuben Rivera, OD, MS
Dr. Reuben Rivera, OD, MS

Yesterday I made a pilgrimage to see one of my teachers, Dr. Reuben Rivera. He’s my optometrist, but he’s much more than that. Over the past 20 years, he has not only helped me keep my vision clear and my eyes healthy, he has acquainted me with the wonders through which I see the world. I always leave his office in a state of amazement, murmuring to myself the words of the ancient prayer for the body:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the time and space, Who formed human beings with wisdom and created within us openings within openings and hollows within hollows. It is well known before Your Throne of Glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would become impossible to survive and to stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

You see, I’ll be 60 in March. I’m aging. Dr. Rivera always reminds me how wonderfully our bodies age and compensate and heal. I was hit in the eye with a stick when I was about 14. The scar’s still there, on my cornea, but the eye healed and sees just fine. I am very, very nearsighted, and now that I’m older, there are issues that go with that, but my eyes are aging with grace, plastering over the thinning places with pigment, keeping clear my window on the world. My retinas are hanging tight. My astigmatism seems to be rotating, which makes no sense to me at all, but darn, it’s a wonder!

When Dr. Rivera looks into my dilated eye, he cannot see my soul, but he can see what’s happening inside my body: how are all those fine veins and capillaries doing? How’s the blood pressure, the blood sugar, the cholesterol? What news is there from the openings within openings, the hollows within hollows? He reads all that, and he tells me about it, tells me enough that I can marvel with him at the beauty of it.

Our bodies are miracles. We lose track of that sometimes, when we worry about Hollywood standards of beauty and even more so when we confuse those standards with health. Nothing is more wonderful, more beautiful, than the simple fact that we survive.

This is the reason that I don’t worry about a conflict between science and religion. Science at its best  helps us appreciate the miracles of everyday existence. Religion at its best is the response to those miracles.

May your day be full of miracles, and your eyes full of wonder.

 

 

“Miracles” in the News

Big News
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My atheist friends give me a lot to ponder.  One wrote passionately on facebook:

Media: Stop using the word miracle. It has a whole host of implications, and some of the ones from the last 24 hours of the news cycle are horrifying, and deeply offensive. Don’t use it. Just don’t.

I knew immediately what he meant: there’s a story in the news about three young women who were kidnapped ten years ago and finally managed to escape their captors.  I agree with my friend, using “miracle” in this context is a minefield.  We’re talking about three young women who appear to have suffered imprisonment and abuse for a decade – he’s right, the word “miracle” is just gross.

That thought led me to another: is the obsessive reportage of this story a problem when we look at it at through the lens of Torah? My answer to that is a swift, “You betcha.”

The story is all over the news right now, and because it is upsetting, people want to talk about it. The fact that it is upsetting and sensational is the reason it’s all over the news, too -Big News is in the business of selling advertising time, after all: this story is much more mezmerizing than drones or the economic crisis facing most Americans. It will sell more soap flakes, and more diet aids, and after all, that is the bottom line.

Torah demands of us that we ask questions: instead of nattering about miracles or obsessing over salacious details, let’s stop and think, what speech is necessary? And is there any way we can learn something or be helpful?

OK, it was necessary to report the story; we need to do know what the cops do, and what goes on in our community. I’m less clear that I need to know about something like this in Cleveland when I live in California, but OK, I’ll go that far. But do I need breathless prose about miracles and gory details from well-coiffed anchors? I don’t think so. Do those poor women need microphones poked in their faces? Do their families? No and no.

Jewish tradition forbids talking about other people unless it is necessary. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote a wonderful book on the subject, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. MyJewishLearning.com has an article that gives you the short form of his teaching about lashon hara, [evil speech.]  Especially if the words we use could spoil someone’s reputation, or even cause envy, they are not proper speech for a Jew  even if they are true. Jewish law is stricter than American civil law on this subject: the truth of the words is immaterial, if they have any potential to cause injury, we shouldn’t say them.

There are words that ARE necessary, sometimes, even unpleasant words. We are commanded not to be passive when someone is being hurt (Lev. 19:16) so by all means, if you know of a crime or a possible crime, report it.

What speech is truly  necessary, in the case of the news story? Certainly, if you’ve heard the story and it upsets you, find someone with whom to discuss your feelings. The details of those women’s suffering are not our business; they are the business of law enforcement and the courts.  My fears, and my upset are my business. If I find I can’t leave this story alone, then I should talk it out with a rabbi, a therapist, or maybe a trusted friend.

It may be too, that with the story everywhere, it is necessary to talk to children about it. We need to reassure children that (1) this is very unusual and that (2)it is important not to go anywhere with strangers, etc. We also need to tell our children that we will value them no matter what, that they are infinitely precious, and that nothing will change that.

What can we learn? Perhaps we could learn to ask more questions when a situation in our neighborhood seems “a bit off.”  I’m afraid that’s all I can think of, though: this isn’t a news story that will inform my vote, or cause me to write my congressman, or make me a wiser person.

Speculating about it or treating this event as if it is some kind of entertainment is a low form of gossip.  Making theology out of it (miracles! redemption!) verges on blasphemy.  I am not in charge of Corporate News, but I am in charge of my keyboard and my remote. Jewish tradition suggests that if there is something that needs to be said, I should say it; if there is something that needs to be done, I should do it, but that beyond that, it’s seriously time to turn off the news.