Author’s note: I use language in this post which some people might find offensive, especially in relation to prayer and God. I use that language because it accurately represents the situation. Those are words I have actually spoken aloud to God when I’ve been angry. I’m sorry if I offend people, but I felt this piece would be inaccurate if I censored it.
I find prayer very difficult. I’m not alone in that. Many of my friends find it very hard to pick up a siddur (prayer book) and say the words. Some feel no connection to it; others are angry with God and can’t bring themselves to pray to a being about whom they feel so conflicted. For me it’s something else. It’s not that I don’t believe in prayer or find it unhelpful; it’s not that I have no connection to the idea of prayer, or that I don’t understand the prayers themselves. For me the problem is that the words codified by our Sages weren’t written for me. I don’t feel that they’re specific enough. True, most of the standard prayer service can be adapted to any specific emotion or thought, but getting to the point where I can connect the two is very difficult for me.
I pray every day, the standard stuff from the siddur, but all I’m really doing is mouthing words. I don’t feel more connected to God when I’m finished. I feel as though I have fulfilled my obligation, allowing me to get on with my day until my next God-related obligation. The times I’ve felt most connected is when the words come from me, when I am their author, and they are crafted for a specific situation, emotion, feeling, need, or expression. During Neilah (closing prayer service) on Yom Kippur, when I break down and cry like a child begging his parents for something, begging for forgiveness for my transgressions—the words I speak that elicit those tears aren’t written in my machzor (prayer book). I am talking straight to God, and it is the only time I feel God is actually listening to me. When I’m finished, I feel the way I imagine that begging child would when he thinks he may just get his way. It’s not easy asking for forgiveness, admitting wrongdoing, but one day a year, we are told that if sincere, our repentance will be accepted, and our prayers will be answered. That makes it somewhat easier.
Then there are the times when I’m angry, furious, hurt, frustrated, and feeling betrayed by God. These usually occur after when friends of mine are suffering. They are spontaneous and visceral. I remember driving down the BQE a day after spending the night with a friend of mine while she endured a rape kit, and suddenly bursting into tears, shouting at the heavens, asking God why the fuck He saw fit to torture the people I love. I remember the words of Neilah:
יהי רצון מלפניך שומע קול בכיות שתשים דמעותינו בנאדך להיות ותצילנו מכל גזרות אכזריות כי לך לבד עינינו תלויות
(May it be Your will before You, who hears the sound of weeping, that You place our tears in Your flask to stay, and that You rescue us from all cruel decrees, for to You alone to our eyes look.)
It’s the basis for that Mordechai Ben David song, Daddy Dear. In it, a son asks his father if it’s true that when we cry, God cries along with us, collects those tears in His cup, and that when that cup finally fills, the Redemption will come. The father tells his son that it is true. “One more question,” asks the son, “Just how deep is this cup/ tell me when will it fill/ don’t you think it is time/ that the sun forever shine.”
It’s the question I ask God every time I find myself at a loss to explain why people I love suffer. The words come easy, as do the tears. By far this is the easiest form of prayer for me, when I’m angry at God and confused by His judgment.
The hardest form of prayer for me, is thanking God for everything He’s done for me. Sure, there’s Pesukei D’zimra and Hallel (prayers of praise), but years of rote make that equivalent to the half mumbled thank-you a child gives his mother before running out the door with a Popsicle. No, in order to properly thank God for something, the words need to be mine, with the object of my gratitude firmly in my mind. I need to open my mouth, and utter three simple words: “Thank you God.” To me, that is the hardest form of prayer. It takes me hours before I can bring myself to utter those words.
I’ve thought about why it’s so difficult for me to get them out, and it’s taken me a while, but I think, through writing this, I finally understand. It’s not because I dislike God. There are things I will never understand, and I do find myself angry at God often enough. It’s not that, though. When I think about it, the most difficult part of saying “Thank you God” is the act of humbling myself to the point where I can acknowledge that whatever it is I feel compelled to thank God for, is something that I could never have gotten or achieved on my own without God’s intervention.
As human beings we like to take credit for our possessions, our stations in life, our accomplishments, and sideline any contributors to that success or accomplishment. That doesn’t hold true only when it relates to God. How many times has someone taken credit for something you’ve done, something they could never have accomplished without you? It happens all the time in the corporate world, creative industries like writing, music, and art, even around the house, with one kid claiming credit for the spotless floor when really it was his younger brother who slaved away at it with a toothbrush, his left thumbnail, and a bucket of soapy water.
That humbling is terribly difficult. In my mind I can easily acknowledge God’s role in my success. I can even write articles about it. But saying thank you to God remains difficult. Somehow when it stays inside my head, or between you and me in writing, it’s either personal, or between me and my fellow human being, and God won’t see it. I know that’s not true, but I can tell myself that God has other things to do, and that my admissions of humility in the form of thanks will go unnoticed, which makes it easier to think or write. When I actually utter the words, however, I know God is listening. God is acknowledging my humility, my admission that whatever I am thanking God for is not of my doing alone, and tacitly accepting my thanks. It makes it real. It makes it hard.
Anyone else have the same issue with prayer? I’d love to hear some other perspectives on it. Share this around; get a conversation started.