As a child, and throughout my high school years, I was a staunch atheist. I knew the universe was a coincidence and the emergence of human life was fortuitous. The evidence for my belief was not hard to find: the extraordinary amount of suffering endured by all human beings, the tragic deaths of countless children from cancer, leukemia or sudden infant death syndrome, the disappointments of aging and the loss of those we love, and the randomness of how good people suffer and bad people thrive. All of these factors confirmed to me that life has no purpose; it just happened.
As was the belief of much of my family, I was quite comfortable with my atheism. I grew up assuming that “religious” was synonymous with “stupid” and that religious people were just cowards who didn’t want to face the universe and its indifferent reality. My mother’s friends ignored religion except as a cultural artifact. Most of my playmates were also atheists – not out of conscious rebellion against an unreasonable standard, but simply following in the footsteps of our families. Our free-thinking was a matter of habit.
While I (and my Jewish buddies) participated in becoming a Bar Mitzvah, it was only because of my father’s adamant insistence. I remember his explanation that he had become a Bar Mitzvah, along with his father and all of our male ancestors since the rite began. From my point of view, the fact that half of my ancestors participated in what seemed to me to be a stuffy and irrelevant spectacle was not enough reason for me to waste my time. Also, I hated the services – from my point of view as a 12 year old they were boring, hypocritical and cold. I became Bar Mitzvah because my father wanted it.
In hindsight, this all seems remarkable only from the perspective of a rabbi. From birth through college, however, I was a confident atheist.
Except for a brief interlude: At the age of 12, I began to suffer from a painful and embarrassing condition that produced oozing sores on the surface of my skin. This disease struck me in the middle of puberty and in the most intimate places. I was so ashamed that I didn’t tell anyone for two years. I bled, suffered and even cried in silence. Surrounded by loving people, I was still alone. Finally, in my freshman year of high school, when the pain was more than I could bear, I revealed my secret to my stepfather.
The next day I was in the proctologist’s office. He put me on an exam chair, face down, with my feet strapped in stirrups so he could explore uninterrupted. In my memory, the exam lasted for hours. It was the most painful experience I can remember.
Two days later, he gave my mother the pathologist’s report: I had terminal, inoperable cancer. The medical treatments of this disease (diagnosis which turned out to be erroneous both in terms of its lethality and its inoperability) continued for more than 10 years.
In that exam room, tied to a chair, humiliated and in great pain, I had a moving experience of God. Fervent atheist that I was (and will remain so for several more years), an image kept flashing in my mind. All I could think of was Moses crossing the Red Sea – his courage in the face of Pharaoh and his joy of liberation. I kept asking God to be with me and I felt a strange comfort in this request, which I repeated over and over again. God was with me in this room, in my pain.
Once the exam was over, I forgot about God and Moses. Until years later, I never thought about it again. But I now recognize it as the beginning of the path that led me back to Judaism and ultimately to Jewish observance and celebration. In retrospect, this moment was the first time God broke through my barriers, unable to stand aside and wait. My pain was too great; God simply acted.
As I think about it further, I realize that God was there not only in my God consciousness, but also in everything that was going on.
As I think about it further, I realize that God was there not only in my God consciousness, but also in everything that was going on. God was in the hands of the doctor who was causing me so much pain trying to help me, the nurses who stood by his side to offer comfort and care, and most importantly, my brave and wonderful mother who waited nervously very close by. ‘here. (Is there a better model of divine perseverance and love than that of a parent who stays with their child despite their pain?) In fact, there was nowhere where God was not present. . And there never is.
Naming the Presence; call presence
But we do not know how to identify our encounters with God; we do not call them by their proper name. God’s love and support are so pervasive that we don’t notice it anymore. The permanence and accessibility of miracles is the loss of true religion: until we know our experiences for what they really are, until we can see God in the face of a child or the wonder of a new morning, we will always be indifferent to prayer. .
Our problem with prayer is not a technical problem. It’s not just about learning Hebrew, or the right melody, or the right posture.
The question of prayer is the question of God: Do we let God into our lives? Are we comfortable being uncomfortable in the presence of the Creator of the Universe? Do we dare pour out our heart before God?
Learning to pray therefore first requires understanding that we have already experienced God; we just have to learn to label these experiences correctly. Each of us could easily list times when we have encountered an inexplicable feeling of wonder, awe, or wonder. Everyone felt in the presence of something encompassing and reassuring. But we have forgotten his name, and we no longer know where to go to look for him. We don’t even have the sense to seek out other people who seek to name the same experiences we share. And we certainly wouldn’t discuss it in sophisticated company!
The answer to the question “Why pray?” is not found in synagogues or prayer books. It is not found in meditation or in the right techniques. The answer to the question “Why pray?” begins with life as it is lived: home, office, park and school. Why pray? Because that’s what we do with our encounters with God.
When I applied for my first job as a congregational rabbi, a few other applicants and I each spent a Shabbat there, leading services, giving classes, and meeting with the community. During one of my classes, someone asked me to summarize Judaism, which I did by quoting Psalm 16: “I will always put the Lord before me.
Each act can be a sacred act, each moment an encounter with God and a reaffirmation of meaning. Nothing is so insignificant or irrelevant that it cannot be turned into a tool to strengthen our humanity, our community and our holiness. In our hands lies the power to harness random acts and instinctive urges in a web of moral rigor and emotional depth, forging these mute facts into values that simultaneously affirm and restore our own humanity.
By transforming our routine, we renew ourselves. We begin to encounter God in events that seemed mundane. Prayer is the key to this transformation, adding a layer of depth and resonance to otherwise random moments and habitual behaviors. By allowing us to focus our attention on the daily miracles of life—a new day, an old love, life itself—prayer can intensify and restore our commitment to repairing the world under God’s sovereignty. And isn’t this potential, the inner power of prayer, a miracle worthy of gratitude?
Prayer is what we do when we stand in the presence of that which is beyond words.
Prayer is what we do when we stand in the presence of that which is beyond words. It is our response to a realization that God is with us and will not forsake us. In the smallness of our efforts, in the enormity of our needs, prayer is a bridge, connecting our outstretched hands to God, exposing God’s love for us.
Not how, but who?
The first step in learning to pray is to learn to label experiences of the divine for what they are. The next step is to develop these experiences and the gratitude they inspire in words, community and deeds.
Prayer provides words for our wonder and comfort for our sorrows. He lends us the scenario as we play at being righteous, godly, and good. And in the process of the drama of prayer, we become the role we play. We are both actor and spectator, and the story emerges in the unfolding of our lives. Under God’s direction, our souls, hearts and minds provide the stage for transformation and renewal.
A good play benefits from props, appropriate costumes, staging and effective lighting. The right backdrop and a bit of music at the right time all contribute to the process of allowing the actor and the audience to experience the life of the play. So it is with worship. The prayer book, the pageantry and the ritual objects are tools to allow a more complete identification between the actor and the role, a more complete adhesion to the will of the director.
Withdrawing from prayer keeps God’s presence sporadic, private and uncertain. Humans are made to retain only what we can share, only what we can express. What we cannot articulate, we do not remember. And what we do not remember cannot strengthen conviction, instill courage and contribute to our full humanity.
Prayer lets God into the world; prayer allows humans to enter into the presence of God. Prayer allows us to become truly human.
Bradley Shavit Artsona contributing writer for the Jewish Journal, holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean Professorship of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.