Monday, February 13, 2017

Conversing With Hashem

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

"Why me?"

Such is the complaint, often, of people who are suffering. Rabbi Levi Meier offers an approach that is so direct and obvious that it is virtually never thought of. The obvious, often, is missed precisely for staring us in the face.

Meier (d. 2008) was a clinical psychologist and hospital chaplain in Los Angeles, author of "Ancient Secrets: Using Stories of the Bible To Improve Our Everyday Lives." He writes of a hospital patient who had never prayed. "He had thought of prayer as a recitation of a lot of memorized verses; he had thought praying as a form of begging. He did not know — because he had never been taught — that praying is talking to G-d."

Meier writes of another patient who had prayed, the lady who asked him, Why am I suffering?:

"'Ask G-d,' I suggested. 'Include this question in your prayers.'

"She seemed surprised at the suggestion. 'But will I actually hear G-d's answer?'

"When I explained to her that of course she would hear the answer — with her inner ear — she stared at me in disbelief. Although she had prayed all her life, the idea that prayer was a dialogue — not a monologue — was foreign to her."

Not the first person to dialogue with G-d — that was Adam — but the first person to conceive of prayer as a conversation was the Patriarch Isaac.

After long negotiations with Laban, Abraham's trusted servant Eliezer returns to Canaan with Laban's sister Rebeccah as a wife for Isaac.

As Eliezer and Rebeccah and her entourage arrive, Isaac, coincidentally, has gone out in the field in the evening "and he lifted his eyes and behold camels were coming" (Gen. 24:63). He has gone out, as the verse earlier records, "lasu'ach, to converse." The Talmud and midrash, based on a clearer use of the term in Psalms, take this to mean "converse with G-d."

This is a paradigm of prayer — conversation with G-d. It means exactly what it says. ( Two other paradigms of prayer — those of Abraham [Gen. 19:27] and Jacob [Gen. 28:11] — require a separate analysis. )

"A friend of mine was davening [praying] at the Western Wall during a recent trip to Israel," writes Rabbi J. J. Schacter, "when a blind Sephardi man slowly made his way to the front of the [Western] Wall. He put down his stick and slowly caressed its stones, lovingly running his hands over them. After about two minutes, he recited a few chapters from Psalms and then began to speak to G-d.

"'Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World],' he said, 'I have not had the opportunity to be here for a few weeks so I need to bring You up to date about my life and my family. You remember I told You about my son who was getting ready to go into the army? Well, he started about ten days ago. I don't know where he is, but You surely do. Please watch out for him. And then, of course, You remember my daughter. I mentioned to You that the last time we spoke that she was ready for a shidduch [match]. In fact, she started dating and she is finding it much more difficult than she thought it would be. Please help her. And then, my third child . . . '

"By this time, my friend was feeling uncomfortable eavesdropping on what was obviously a private conversation, but he was mesmerized by the obvious closeness this man felt for G-d. He had never heard someone speak to G-d in such a real, direct and unselfconscious way. After another minute he could not help hearing him say, 'And about my youngest child . . . Oh I'm so sorry, I don't mean to take up Your time. I just remembered that I told You everything about him the last time.'

"And when I heard the story, I thought to myself, does one have to be blind to see G-d in such a direct way?"

Two schools within modern Judaism have developed conversation with G-d as a regular spiritual pursuit.

Followers of Rebbe Nachman (Breslov chasidim) set aside 10 minutes or so every day to talk to G-d. These are not formal prayers sessions. No prayer book is opened. A person articulates his personal thoughts — distressed, joyous, whatever — to G-d every day. Per Isaac our Father and the blind Sephardi, G-d is conversed with.

In the Novorodock branch of the Mussar movement, this same discipline was followed, too (alas, not many followers of Novorodock remain).

If G-d is to be conversed with in this informal manner, what is formal prayer for? In Boston, between 1969 and 1972, I heard the following from the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, during one of his noted Saturday night public lectures:

Formal prayer in Judaism is an ethical gesture. The essential Jewish prayer is the "Eighteen Blessings" (Shemoneh Esrei). All the blessings are formulated in the plural. As Jews praise, petition or thank G-d, they do so on behalf of the entire community. For example, one does not ask G-d to heal one's illness and pains; one asks G-d to heal everyone. "Heal us," not "heal me," is the formulation. So it goes for the entire Eighteen Blessings.

If this is a conversation with G-d, it's depersonalized, to an extent. Someone in existential straits, be he ill, depressed, impoverished or insulted, will certainly not feel the same sense of closeness to G-d by praying on behalf of everybody as he will by praying from his own pain. Rabbi Soloveitchik observed: The tremendous obligation that the community imposes on each Jew who prays, in the plural, does not exclude personal conversation with G-d. As follows:

The end of the Eighteen Blessings is not its end. A few lines of prayer have been added on. If the Eighteen Blessings were sufficient, no more prayers would be needed. The additional prayers are in the singular. The individual, qua individual, must also converse with G-d.

Just so, a person's own prayers should not be limited by formal lines added to the Eighteen Blessings.

That is why, said Rabbi Soloveitchik, the first added line is Psalms 19:15: "May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, L-rd, my Rock and my Redeemer." This is meant to sum up one's own conversation with G-d. We have here a sandwich. The top layer is the concluding line of the Eighteen Blessings. The bottom layer is Psalms 19:15 ("the expressions of my mouth"). I supply the food in between — my own conversation with G-d. When I finish, I ask G-d to accept "the expressions of my mouth."

So, built into the structure of formal prayer is a time for conversation with G-d. Plain, simple talk. Besides my prayer for the community, there is a place for me to talk to G-d. Besides being an ethical gesture, prayer is a gesture of the individual's own heart.