In the Movie “Gravity” (no spoiler alert. Just one thought while watching the movie) Sandra Bullock asks someone to pray for her. She claims she does not know how to pray, that no one ever taught her. There are many good lines in the movie but, when you are a Rabbi that is the one line of dialogue that jumps out at you.
We get that kind of a question/statement all the time. How can I pray if I don’t know how? How can I pray when I am not feeling prayerful? How can I pray if nobody ever showed me how to pray? Can I pray when I am not in synagogue? Can I pray if I have not been in synagogue for many years?
I have to thank my colleague, the famous Rabbi Harold Kushner for first showing me how to properly answer questions like these. Until his lecture, I honestly didn’t know how to answer the questions. I know how to pray. I have studied prayer in school for almost ten years. I have been praying since I was a small child. I was taught to pray. I was trained by my teachers to pray and I have a very active prayer life. I had almost no conception about what it would be like to live a life without prayer.
Rabbi Kushner understood the question behind the question. He taught that asking how to pray is like asking how do I eat? Or how do I learn? Or how do I breathe? Everyone prays. It is a natural part of living.
Like everything else in life we assume that there are others who must be better at prayer than we are. Others who are more practiced, who are more religious, who are more spiritual, who can do prayer better than we can. But nobody can pray the prayers that are in our own hearts and only we have the needs that drive us to pray.
There is a story of a man who is preparing to serve as Shaliach Tzibor, as the prayer leader for Yom Kippur. This is the day when the prayers are so intricate and complicated that one must prepare carefully in order not to confuse yourself or the congregation. The man prepared meticulously, learning not only the words of the liturgy but the mystical meanings behind each prayer. Just before the service of Yom Kippur started, the Rabbi found the man in tears behind the synagogue.
“What is wrong?” asked the Rabbi. “Are you sick?, Are you hurt?” “No” said the man, “I prepared so hard for this service and I can’t remember a thing about the prayers or the mystical meanings behind them. I even wrote them down on a piece of paper so I would not forget and I lost the paper!”
The rabbi replied, “Where there is a fire in a house, the firefighters need to have the keys to the house, in order to open all the doors so they can rescue those inside and put out the flames. But there is one key that opens all doors, it is the ax. With an ax, they can open every door without waiting for the key. So it is with prayer. The mystical meanings are the keys that unlock the secrets of each prayer. But tears are the ax that can open every door. Your tears will assure this community of forgiveness and of the acceptance of our prayers.”
When our prayers are spoken with sincerity, humility and need, we can expect the pain in our heart to break through any door that would block our prayers from Heaven and it bring it right to the place where God can be found. It will bring is hope, courage and faith to help us find our way out of the darkness into the light.
Don’t say that you need someone else to pray for you. It is your own needs that make you an instant Baal Tephilla – a Master of Prayer.