Posted on December 31, 2013 by David Bogomolny
I count myself among those who wouldn’t quite know how to begin a conversation with G!d without a great deal of practice and forethought. What would be worth saying? What would bring G!d to listen?
Traditional Jewish prayer works for me – it’s expected of me, ostensibly by G!d, regardless of my awkward reluctance, and its syllables provide me with a launching pad for further personal expression.
While we are encouraged to add our own words to each of the 19 blessings of the Amidah, some prayer books offer us specific formulas to insert into the texts of particular berakhot (blessings). I may feel tongue-tied before my Creator, but tradition provides me words with which to frame my petitions.
The ready accessibility of the 8th blessing of the Amidah (the blessing for healing) and its suggested insertion (included in both the Koren and Art Scroll prayer books that I am familiar with) has been comfortable and comforting to me; and as my Savta says to me after every conversation, “… the most important thing that I wish for you both is that you stay healthy!”
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[expand title=”Transliteration and Translation”]
If prayers might have a supernatural effect; if G!d might bring somebody healing in response to people’s prayers… In my heart of hearts, I simply cannot reject the possibility – so I must at least try, or reject my faith, right?
It’s not uncommon to receive requests from community members to pray for the health of people that we may not know ourselves. Having made such a request once, I found it allowed me some emotional release, as a vehicle for expressing my concerns. On the other hand, it feels vulnerable to let others know that somebody I love is hurting… and the closer the loved one, the more vulnerable I would feel asking for other people’s prayers.
Despite my idea that prayer may have supernatural effects, and even despite another idea that praying for others nurtures compassion within myself, I have difficulty praying for people that I don’t know. Can I honestly say that I care about somebody that I’ve never met?
In principle, I strive to love all of humanity, and believe that this is an aspiration that should naturally stem from a love for G!d. Still, I struggle with the barriers of disconnection, apathy, cynicism and selfishness. The painful empathy and concern that I experience when I witness another’s suffering, or when one of my dear ones is suffering, is usually lacking for me when I am given the name of a stranger who happens to be suffering somewhere away from me. My prayers for strangers have felt inauthentic.
Some weeks ago my mother asked me to pray for two little children, unrelated to one another, both battling cancer; neither of whom I’ve met… and I felt the usual resistance building up inside of me. I don’t know these strangers. I don’t know…
These children… these children that my mother knows; that my mother directly asked me to pray for. I steeled myself to bring down my barriers – I’d promised my mother directly, and… what if? what if G!d might heed me? What should arouse my compassion more than the suffering of little children? What if I might begin to overcome myself? I inserted their names into my prayers, and felt my spine shudder.
A few weeks later, I happened upon a WHO video cartoon, describing depression; and it gave me pause.
The idea that “depression” is a “black dog” (a force apart from its victims, rather than a part of its victims) reminded my of something that I first learned in the Pardes ‘Self, Soul, & Text’ course several years ago: identifying and labeling our thoughts and emotions helps us manage them.
In particular, the video includes a scene in which the “black dog” is biting down on the victim’s hand behind his back, causing him to lash out at a loved one. I suddenly saw myself in the scene, as I’d been reacting irritably to people in my own life; and the “black dog” imagery helped me imagine a force beyond myself effecting my reactions… and because of my recent reflections upon prayers for health, I found myself framing this “outside force” as any mental health issue (not necessarily depression).
As hard as it has been for me to pray for strangers, it has been harder for me to pray for myself. Admitting my vulnerabilities to myself before G!d in prayer… ouch. And beyond this, it had never occurred to me to pray for anybody’s mental health; somehow, I’d only ever considered physical ailments as justifying petition.
The experience of praying for people that I’d never met had left me feeling more open to further openness, and the WHO video stimulated my imagination – it broadened my thinking about “health”, as it related to me.
So, cautiously, I began inserting my own name into the 8th blessing of the Amidah, praying for my own mental well-being; and found the thrice daily labeling of my emotions before G!d easing for me. And… perhaps prayers can have a supernatural effect upon our lives – I do find myself inclined to believe that – so who knows? Maybe G!d is considering my petitions.