Straight From the Heart

My lips speak the same words my great-great-grandmother uttered somewhere in Europe, like ancient Jewish sorcery. On Erev Yom Kippur, reflections on the power of prayer

Sahara Blau
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Sahara Blau

There is a story about a naive (and simpleminded, I added myself ) shepherd who, unable to read, emitted a shrill whistle in the synagogue. Outraged, the worshippers demanded that the brazen lout be evicted. But the rabbi came to his defense and explained that precisely this whistle penetrated the canopy of the sky and reached the seat of glory on high. "That whistle paved the way for all your prayers," the rabbi explained to the conformist congregation.

Then there's the one about the naive wayfarer who stood in the center of the city and shouted, with great intention, all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. "I don't know how to say the prayers," he cried out in desperation to the Creator. "Please accept all the letters and fashion them into a prayer according to your will."

Yom Kippur slichot service at Jerusalem's Western Wall on Sept. 17, 2010Credit: Daniel Bar On

As a child I secretly scorned these two uneducated characters. I was certain that God preferred the correct and proper prayers that were printed in the small siddurim that were a gift for starting first grade. And no, I didn't believe that God kept the prayers of children who cried to no one in a special box. The rigid and slightly Protestant God of my childhood wanted his prayers according to the regulations.

***

I was chosen to be the cantor.

Even though the school was filled with girls more God-fearing and devout than I, they chose me because of my beautiful voice and my dramatic recitative ability. If you think those skills are in total contrast to silent, obedient religious devotion, you're absolutely right.

On the days I served as cantor and chanted the beginning and end of the prayer passages I didn't manage to pray at all. I was caught up in presenting the facade of a worshipper, my greatest fear being that I would be unable to keep up with the pace of the prayers that the girls were supposed to read to themselves in a whisper. How long would I have to wait until going back to reading aloud from the siddur? How long was it supposed to take to read four pages of Pesukei D'Zimra? I would stare at the girls to see when they lifted their heads from the prayer book, tak-tak-tak-tak, one after another like a line of inflatable punching clowns. Only then did I feel confident to continue reading out loud. Naturally, I made sure to move my lips, as if in prayer, as I waited for them to finish.

A close friend once gave me some useful advice: "Why don't you just pray and that's all? Instead of trying to keep up to speed, simply experience it."

"How can I pray at all?," I wondered. "After all, I'm the cantor."

***

I have often asked myself why God needs prayers, what is it He likes so much about these whispered mumblings of ours. In elementary school we were taught that the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel were barren because "God desires the prayers of righteous women."

That frightened me. God is not supposed to desire anything. He is meant to reside in Heaven, cold, clear, distant and critical. God is supposed to be in full control all the time and not desire anything.

I think that God is pretty wonderful, when all is said and done, but I'm still not sure He listens to all my prayers, much less "desires" them.

***

This section is unavoidable, because it's impossible to write about prayers to God without referring to the ones addressed to him between 1939 and 1945, at least six million of which went unanswered.

Hasidim will say this is is an example of hester panim, a hiding of the divine face, and argue that there is no point in trying to comprehend what happened because it is beyond human understanding. I was always torn between two explanations. In the first, the Holocaust was a kind of divine failure, a plan that went awry to the point of slipping out of God's control, which implies that God is weak. In the second, it was a precise plan that he conceived, planned and executed from start to finish, which presents God as cruel. In choosing between the two, I always preferred the cruel God, because there's nothing scarier than a weak God.

***

Then why pray to a cruel God?

Inner voice: He's not cruel.

Inner voice II: He is cruel. Don't forget what He did to you on the 11th of Shevat, years ago.

Inner voice: He is complex, just like you.

Getting psychoanalytical, prayer is a kind of merging with the great Father or Mother in the heavens, for all babies imagine their parents to be omnipotent. All infants perceives their mother as a capricious entity who is sometimes at their side, enveloping them in warmth, and who sometimes leaves them squalling in bed. Since they cannot bear this complexity - the good mother who does not come to them - they split her into two separate entities, one good and the other bad.

Prayer is always to the good God, who is responsive, who accedes and swaddles. You never doubt the good-hearted nature of the God you pray to, no matter how many bodies are strewn on the ground.

***

True prayer enables you to emerge from loneliness. It is a kind of springboard to a type of spiritual experience, a sense of transcendence, a loss of the self. It took many years for me to understand that the ritual of "prayer" I was raised on is not prayer at all.

Years of emotional detachment and a technical, sterile observance of religious laws, years during which I operated as a "good religious woman" but was far away from genuine prayer. Standard prayer took the form of automatically opening the siddur and scanning words that had long since lost their meaning. When did I grasp that this was not prayer? Perhaps when I stopped seeing God as a clerk perched in the heavens, tallying up mitzvot observed; perhaps when I realized that the important thing was heart, spirit and intentionality, and to hell with technique!

The Bratslav Hasidim, with their tempestuous, emotional prayer, are now considered some kind of innovation. In fact, they invented nothing, because the first prayer burst straight from the heart, it was not written in any siddur, it did not need the protective walls of the synagogue, it never dreamed that it would have to be recited in a minyan of 10. It was wild, it shone forth from within.

***

In "Heat," Robert De Niro's character explains the iron law of gangsters: "You don't put anything in your life you can't walk out on in 30 seconds flat." We have already received our institutionalized prayers. After the Temple was destroyed and we went into exile the sacrifices were replaced by prayers, and instead of the geographic center, which dissolved, synagogues were established, with minyans and siddurim, which can be carried anywhere. In 30 seconds flat.

Still, with all my criticism of the prayers packaged in the siddurim, which do not burst from the heart, I cannot but feel the power of these words, which contain the strength of generations. It is meaningful that my lips utter the same words that my great-great-grandmother's uttered somewhere in Europe. There's a magical force to it, like an incantatory charm, like ancient Jewish sorcery.

Maybe the true power of prayer is that it changes those who recite it. God can listen or not, He can also decide that He doesn't even exist, but that has nothing to do with the act of prayer itself, with the form of the request and this particular expression, because muteness is the true hell.

***

Oh Lord, open my lips. Amen.

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