|I’ll never forget the story of the small child who when asked, “Where is God?” answered, “God lives in the bathroom.” When pressed for an explanation as to how he knew that God lived in the bathroom the little boy replied, “Every morning I see my dad standing outside the bathroom door saying, “My God are you still in there?”
It’s uncanny how children seem to take everything you say literally. Yet we all know that eventually little kids grow older, leave behind their childish understandings of the world and appreciate the subtleties and complexities of life. We all expect our kids to undergo not only physical development, but intellectual and moral development as well. And if we are lucky, they do.
They grow taller and reach adulthood with the full strength and vigor that they were meant to have. They grow intellectually through years of schooling, as the exposure to literature, science, math, history, geography, social studies, and foreign languages stimulates their minds to understand ever more complex ideas and concepts. And hopefully they grow in moral development as well from the simple notion that “might makes right” to the more sophisticated moral idea that there are fundamental mutual responsibilities inherent in being a member of any community or society.
But what ever happened to “spiritual development?” How does that come about? Like the second grade religious school student who was asked “Why do you believe in God?” and answered, “I don’t know, I guess it just runs in my family.” We seem to grow in every way other than spiritually in our culture. For where and when do we learn, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism once so intelligently said, “that the greatest challenge of the modern Jew is learn how to take the Torah seriously, without having to take it literally.”
That is the real challenge. Like with all of great literature - like with poetry, like with great novels, like the lyrics of great songs. We all know as adults that some things are written to be taken literally like history, mathematics and science and that others are intended instead to stimulate our emotions, evoke powerful images and beautiful ideas, and excite the imagination.
That is the language of prayer. It is metaphor. Like telling someone, “I love you with all my heart.” Everyone knows that a heart is simply a muscle pumping blood. But if you turn to your beloved and whisper, “I love you with my muscle pumping blood,” it just somehow doesn’t have the same effect!
But tell them “I love you with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might,” and trust me, they will know exactly what you mean – and gladly so. So, too with the language of prayer. We just finished long grueling hours of prayer on Yom Kippur with services that were filled with language as if we were talking directly to a supernatural being who was sitting on a throne of judgment listening eagerly to our every word: “Remember us, favor us, heal us, redeem us, forgive us, for you are a great, mighty, exalted God – rule over us forever.” And language just like that, all day long.
For many of us if we read the words as if they are to be understood literally, they stick in our throats for we just don’t believe in a God like that – the kind that sits in heaven somewhere looking down on human beings who “he” (it’s almost always a “he”) created and decides our fate every minute of every day – “Who shall live and who shall die?” Who will win the lottery and who get hit by a car.
And yet that is certainly how most of our prayers read. So if God is not sitting around waiting for us to offer words of prayer, if our prayers aren’t really being “heard” like you are all hearing my words right now, what is the point of prayer at all?
Believe it or not, two thousand years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud, that 20-volume compendium of traditional Jewish law and legend were much more sophisticated than most people give them credit – actually more sophisticated spiritually than most of us.
They understood that prayer is metaphor. They understood that these prayers were not written or supposed to be taken literally. Because they wrote them in the first place. Listen to what the rabbis of the Talmud wrote about prayer:
“If a woman is pregnant and about to give birth. And her husband wants a son so prays, “Dear God, please let it be a boy!” This is an empty, foolish prayer.” (Berahot 54a) Why did they write that? Because they knew, she is already pregnant, so it’s either a boy or a girl already. No prayer, no matter how fervently prayed, no matter how righteous the pray-er, is every going to change the gender of the fetus midstream (or rather mid-term).
Here is another comment on prayer from the Talmud rabbis: “If a man coming home from a trip hears a fire alarm in his town and prays, “Dear God. Please let it not be my house!” This is also an empty, foolish prayer.” (Berahot 54a) Why? Because if there is a fire alarm, obviously the fire is already burning and no prayer no matter how fervently prayed or how righteous the pray-er is going to magically make the fire leave the house it is burning and suddenly decide to burn someone else’s instead.
Two thousand years ago the rabbis understood that this isn’t what prayer is about – summoning up some magical, cosmic bell-hop God to do our bidding or like the Santa Claus idea who knows if we are naughty or nice and if we make the list will bring us cool presents.
The power of prayer is not in how it affects the world around us (although there are some studies that seem to indicate that somehow praying for the health and healing of others does often have an effect) – the power of prayer lies in how it affects US.
When Jacob in the Torah woke from his famous dream, suddenly saw the world and himself in a new light and said, “God was in this place and I didn’t know it,” he was expressing the power of prayer to transform us and our inner vision.
Jewish tradition encourages us to say these words first thing every morning – “Modeh ani lifaneha meleh hai vekayam shehehezarta bee nishmati bhemla, raba enumateha” ” “Thank you God that I woke up once again and for giving me this free day – what an amazing act of faith in me.”
The power of prayer is the power of gratitude to transform our attitude about everything in our lives. Each day becomes a gift. Each moment becomes an affirmation of our inherent spiritual value and self worth.
Prayer can be an expression of wonder at the magic and complex mystery of life itself. Jewish tradition teaches us to give thanks for the wonder of our bodies and the miracle of every breath we take, every beat of our hearts, every pulse of the blood through our veins. How can we contemplate the remarkable intricacy of the human body and not be moved to utter words of wonder and awe?
Every sunset is a miracle. Every star and planet and galaxy a tribute worthy of praise and exultation. Every creature on our planet, every flower, every blade of grass a wonder. How can we not pray in the face of such everyday miracles of life?
That is why we pray. To affirm our own ability to recognize the wonder of the universe in which we live and acknowledge the mystery and gift of it all. And to affirm our own spiritual self worth - that we are spiritual beings having this remarkable human experience. To remind ourselves of what we can yet be, who we can become, and that what we are today is already valuable, precious, matters.
So ultimately how do we know when our prayers are answered? My favorite response was once given by Ralph Waldo Emerson who should have been Jewish, even though he wasn’t. It was Emerson (even though a bit sexist in language) who truly captured the essence of what prayer is all about when he wrote, “He who rises from prayer a better man, his prayer was answered.”