Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Counting of the Omer 5771 - Day 43 - Praying

At Day 43 initially I thought 4-3-2-1 and to do a countdown as we are a week away from Shavuot and I should have made some progress in helping to draw a conclusion or at least a concept on our story and how it's coming together. But I determined that in an attempt to do that there has been too much straying and too much conversation about that very issue.

So taking a completely different tack on a day that's had challenges and questions I thought we might discuss the difficult and much differing idea of praying.

Not knowing how many of you feel about this I go back to my favorite source (the dictionary) and define, as best I can, the word itself and how it manifests itself in our lives and when and even how. I imagine that at multiple times in our lives the act of praying has come at milestones, at times of sorrow and hopefully at times of joy and thanksgiving.

It is not something we come to easily or thoughtlessly. The modes of prayer are also varied. Some Christians bow their heads and fold their hands, some native Americans dance, some Sufis whirl, Hindus chant mantras, Jews (even non Orthodox) sway back and forth, Muslims kneel and prostrate themselves and Quakers keep silent. There's private prayer, communal prayer and there's music and there are many I am sure I have left off.

As for me I have been known, at least to myself, to do all of the above but mostly use the Quaker model with a little bit of this and that and a variety of combinations. No special format. Please note this is not about the rights and wrongs or whys and wherefores, this is about the model and sometimes the need and sometimes the personal result. It is not about who we are addressing if anyone. It is about the act.

If we begin to examine the important times in our lives, the times that move us, change us we should be able to find some form of prayer as a part of it. Or for those of you who question the concept some conversations. That's what we might consider for an important part of our sacred narrative.

It has been a day. A day when a prayer might have been needed or contemplated. There are few days when that is not the case. As we close in on journeys' end and our story as it stands it is time to go within.

And who says or writes it better than Mary Oliver on A Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and

down -

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated


Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?


Larry Kaufman said...

I have a problem with the word prayer, or its near-synonym, worship, because either implies either a conversation with God, Who may or may not be listening, or a monologue addressed to God.

Now Alden, to name just one, probably does come to the synagogue to talk to God, to whom he also talks outside of synagogue. I, on the other hand, am the proverbial Litvak who comes to shul to talk to Alden.

So what do you call what I'm doing during those two hours I sit in Kahal services each Shabbat morning -- if I'm not praying either in praise or petition, nor worshipping in the sense of offering allegiance.

The best the linguist (or Litvak) in me can come up with is that I'm reciting the liturgy, as part of forming and living a bond with those who recite alongside me.

I don't mean to rain on anybody's parade, but you issued an invitation to a conversation, so here I am.

Ellen Blum Barish said...

I've always liked the idea that prayer - in the way Larry defined it as "reciting the liturgy as part of forming and living a bond with those who recite alongside me" - is a talking-to-God practice with the added benefit of being in similarly-minded community. That God would be listening seems secondary to me somehow, at least in that rendition.
And that meditation, or silent prayer as the Quakers do it (something I, like Marilyn, have some experience with having been educated in a Quaker school in Philadelphia) was a listening-to-God practice, much like meditation. And that these two practices, vocal and silent, constitute the formal "conversation" between God and Us.
But I also like to think that there is a third prayer form, a less formal version, where the words spoken, either in a whisper or aloud, and are my own rather than in the liturgy, start a private dialogue with God. And in the spaces in between; in the pauses or the breath-taking, a response comes. To some it may sound like a voice. To others, simply a knowingness. A feeling. A sense that some exchange has taken place and that, as a result, insight or wisdom or clarity remains.

Just my two cents.

Larry again said...

Both Marilyn and Ellen seem to be basing their comments around the reality of God, whatever that may mean. However, while I classify myself neither as an atheist nor an agnostic, nor even as an ethical humanist, any theist-deist-believer might so classify me.

I accept God as a reality of Jewish history and the total Jewish experience, and even perhaps as an inspiration. I live my life as if I were a believer. As I have sometimes put it, There is no God, and I am His partner in perfecting the world of creation.

But since I have no confidence there's Anybody at the other end of the phone line, whom am I talking to? Or praying to? Or worshiping?

marilynlprice said...

In the words of our prophets Larry, you are right and so am I. I answered a little of your comments on today's message unsure if I could get this out today. Your question "What do I cal what you're doing..." I probably don't call it anything but you coming to services because you want to talk to Aaron. Somehow after some conversation with you and having a class or two with you in it and ... watch you come to services it isn't prayer or worship but a necessary and important part of your Shabbat and its regularity becomes a part of your understanding of what you need for a Shabbat. i think it matters little what you do on Shabbat but how you feel rested and connected. Connected to community and history. It is not part of the Dictionary definition but works for you. I'm glad it does. marilyn

Noch amohl, Larry said...

Today, after reading Marilyn's responses to my comments about prayer, both here and in the blog post that comes right after, I found the following, by Cantor Kim Harris of Temple Beth El in Northbrook:

"The word for "to pray" in Hebrew is l'hitpaleil, a reflexive verb literally meaning "to judge oneself" with the connotation also of "intervention." When we pray, therefore, whether we are saying the words or singing the Hebrew, singing only "la la la," or playing an instrument, clapping, or dancing, there must be some element of "stop, look, and listen" - stop what you are doing, look within yourself and listen to your heart. The most important aspect of any prayer service, no matter by whom it is led or with what instrumentation it is accompanied, is the introspection it provides, the moments we get to spend looking inside ourselves, and the moments in which we look outward for God."

Cantor Harris brings me a long way towards the answer I was seeking. If you want to read her whole post, which I strongly recommend, it's at http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2011/06/pray-the-music-or-pray-the-wor.html

Ellen Blum Barish said...

I'm so glad Larry found Cantor Harris' words as I've been piecing a response to Larry's question in my own mind for the past few days. And the Cantor said it well!
In our last Torah class today before the summer break, we talked at length about the meaning of "fearing God" that comes up early in Exodus.The conversation was so rich that I immediately began taking notes and plan to reflect on it soon here in this space. Rabbi London spoke about "fear of God" having two sides: 1) fear of punishment and 2) a holy or noble kind of fearing. Something more like wonder and awe, majesty and even mystery. These words are multi-faceted of course and mean different things to different folks, but I've noticed that in communities like ours at Beth Emet - a well educated and thoughtful one - that many of us have a hard time with words like "awe" and "mystery." When I spoke with Sophie Black today for a future blog profile, she said that when she'd ask her mother about God or about spiritual concepts, her mother, one of the few of her age to hold a master's degree (in history), would respond, "It's not logical." Sophie said, "That got me to shut up!" We do hold logic dear, don't we? But prayer asks us to let logic go a little. To be open to the quiet moments in which something bubbles up or sparks us to make a connection in some way.
Thanks so much for raising these questions, Larry. More on this topic soon.
Feel free to chime in, Beth Emeters!

Janice Weiss said...

Thanks to Larry Kaufman for pointing me to this online conversation this morning! For those especially interested in or curious about the topic, I'm giving the d'var tomorrow morning (June 4) at kahal and will be focusing on petitionary prayer, especially on kahalniks' personal experiences with and interpretations thereof. I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts! (And I'm so glad to know that I'm not the only one here who's musing on the subject!)

Ellen Blum Barish said...

Great to have you in on that conversation, Janice! A chorus of thoughtful voices - that's the idea!
Feel free to comment, question, muse or reflect ....

noch a mol Janice Weiss said...

Thanks, Ellen!

marilynlprice said...

We have now journeyed 6 more days away from the subject of prayer and I say to all of you thank you for the seriousness and intent of all the remarks. Hardly ever using the word prayer when praying or in fact using words at all but more of an inclination to reflect and converse with myself. I think of it as a internal check up. I don't have a different word other than prayer and I'm not afraid to use it but it doesn't fit the definition of what it is to me. I don't have any faith (excuse the pun) in penitential prayer, can't imagine asking for anything but I do believe in gratitude. Gratitude to those who help and those who guide. That's as close as it gets for me.

Steven J. Lipton M.Ed. LEHP said...

Larry mentioned we should leave some comments here if we did not speak at Kahal last week. I said nothing in the discussion, though I had a lot to say. I was too busy trying not to cry.

Unfortunately the 1,200 words I have to say does not fit in comment. So I will give the link to my commentary on this week's portion which happens to be that comment.