The Lost Art of Prayer
A Pesach sermon by Rabbi Benjamin H. Englander

The special portion set aside for reading on the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed Pesach deals with Moses' prayer.

Har'eni na et k'vodecha -- "Show me I pray Thee thy glory."

No human being can know God -- not even a Moses.

Ki lo yir'ani ha-adam va-chai-- "No man can see me and live." -- it is only the attributes of God that man may know -- his faith is in his mercy and that He will hear prayer that sustains man. Thus prayer has become the inimical expression of religion -- it is the acknowledgment by man of the presence of the Divine.

In our day, prayer appears to have become a lost art. How often does the average Jew pray? How much of our time and effort is given to an exercise that has been called "Conversations with God?" I don't mean the reading of prayers or listening to prayers being read -- but actually praying, down deep in our hearts! How many of us, like Abraham, stand before our Maker arguing and praying?

In the prayers of the ancient Romans, historians tell us, the all-important thing was the correct repetition of the form of prayer. Exactly the same words must be repeated, and always with exactly the same emphasis. The more often such "correct" prayers were repeated, the greater the blessings. Thus, prayers became a ritual -- and nothing more.

All too often, our Jewish worship deteriorates to the same kind of an empty, unsatisfying ritual. To the Jew, prayer was meant to be a fresh, religious experience every time. It was an opportunity to become identified with the Creator, to be at one with God.

Criticism is leveled against the prayer book content. "It is outmoded, it is not germane to the problems that beset us." The heavens have receded by man's probing into outer space, and the power of the atom has made him a "superman." The prayers take no cognizance of these changes, we complain. To meet the criticism, attempts are made to revise the prayer book. Yet, with all the changes, the use of vernacular, music, and elaborate cantor-choir dramatization, the spirit of prayer seems to elude us. As one blithe spirit remarked, "When Jews prayed, they required no revisions of their prayer books. Now, they no longer pray and they require constant revisions."

Our thesis this morning has nothing to do with the prayer book, but with the basic question of prayer itself. What do we expect from prayer? Of what use is prayer? What good does it do? What value can it have for men and women who have witnessed amazing conquests in the realm of nature?

The answer is that, despite our scientific progress, man himself has remained the same. Man is the same -- gregarious, selfish, avaricious, mean -- creature known to former generations. Nay, even more so than ever before. Man cannot live by bread alone, essential though it is! If he is to survive his own destructive powers, he requires a periodic communion with God through prayer. When he neglects this spiritual need, he suffers from a sense of inner insecurity, emotional frustration, and psychological imbalance.

Do you recall the Yiddish expression, Az Got is mit mir, far vemen hob ich moyre? -- If God is with me, whom do I fear?

Or the encouraging verse at the conclusion of the hymn Adon Olam, Hashem li v'lo iy'ra -- God is with me, I will not be afraid. How encouraging these beliefs can be! How soothing and how wonderful, to rest our faith in God!

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was known for his confrontations and arguments with God. I need only mention several of his many popular songs -- Ich vill dir a dudele zingen, A din toireh mit Got. He once delivered a Passover message to his Chassidim, and this is what he said:

"The Haggadah speaks of four sons: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask." Which am I?, Rabbi Levi wishes to know. I, Levi Yitzchak ben Sarah of Berditchev, am the one who does not know how to ask. Ribono shel olam -- I not only know nothing, but I do not even know what questions to pose."

"Does not the Haggadah ordain that, in the case of the one who does not know how to ask, At p'tach lo -- You are to stimulate the subject. You -- the father -- must take the initiative in disclosing the truth to him."

"Lord of the world, are You not my father? Am I not your son? When You are ready, You will take the initiative and disclose the truth to me. In the meantime, I can wait. Besides, could I comprehend Your answers, were they given to me?"

"But with one issue I cannot wait; to one question I cannot defer the answer. This, You MUST reveal to me every moment. Show me in connection with whatever befalls me -- whatever it requires of me -- what You, Lord of the world, are hinting by way of it."

"You see, God, I do not ask why I suffer -- I wish to know only that I suffer for Your sake!"

This is what Levi Yitzchak had to say to his Chassidim one Passover two centuries ago. He did not pray for release from suffering,, as you and I might do. Levi Yitzchak wanted only that his suffering be for the Lord's sake. Even in pain, he wanted to find identification with God, and through it, a measure of relief.

What is prayer? We should understand what it is not, as well as what it is. No one should expect through prayer to receive an outright gift from God. Prayer is not to be a short-cut to material rewards. Neither should one hope for a miracle when he turns to prayer as a last resort -- as if God were a celestial complaint receiver!

The story is told of two marines on a crowded landing boat, taking part of the invasion of Iwo Jima. Bullets and shells were flying in all directions. The sea was choppy. It was frightening. One of them fell quakingly to his knees and engaged loudly in prayer. When it was all over, he said to his buddy, "I was so scared, I prayed more than I ever prayed in my life! Weren't you afraid?"

"Of course I was," the buddy replied. "But I did my praying before we left the ship."

The real value of prayer is its power to transform a man's life. It can perform miracles in our lives by bringing us nearer to God. We feel better when we have prayed well. We find consolation in sorrow, and edification when the sun shines brightly with victory and success. Through prayer, we are cut down to proper size when we become haughty and proud, even as it gives us strength when we struggle amidst pain, doubt, and discouragement.

Prayer above all creates a feeling, a state of mind, an attitude which each one must cultivate for himself out of the spiritual treasure house of our prayer book and out of his own inner resources. The mood and attitude must be built up through frequent and regular practice.

When we pray, God no longer seems distant and far off -- an unknown, a stranger. He grows very near to us and becomes our loving, cherished, and devoted friend.

Solomon Ibn Gvirol, a Hebrew poet of the Golden Age of Spain around the 12th Century, once recited this prayer:

"When all without is dark
And former friends misprize
From them I turn to Thee
And find love in Thine eyes.

When all within is dark
And I my soul despise,
From me, I turn to Thee
And find love in Thine eyes.

When Thy face is dark
And Thy just angers rise,
From Thee I turn to Thee
And find love in Thine eyes!


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