At fifteen I was arrested for shoplifting, getting a D minus in Algebra and mired in acned adolescent angst. Not knowing what else to do, my befuddled parents sent me to a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin and hoped for the best. The best is exactly what happened. Within hours of my return I missed camp so much my heart hurt. I missed the music, the hippie counselors, the towering, wise rabbis and the pretty girls dressed for the Sabbath in flowing white dresses and flowers in their hair. I wanted to fall asleep in my cabin just one more time to a candlelit Hassidic story while crickets chirped outside.
My first night home from that transformative summer, alone in my tiny, pine-paneled basement bedroom, I took out my camp prayer book, wrapped myself in my bar mitzvah prayer shawl and poured out my teenage longings. I chanted, swayed, wept, and somehow felt connected again to the people I had come to love so much. It was then I first understood that to pray is to hold that which we feel but cannot touch. A few years later, I prayed as a backpacking college kid standing in front of the crematoria at Auschwitz. Because there are no words for what happened there, I said the Mourner’s Prayer out loud and I wept. We pray when there are no words, but something must be said.
The word “prayer” itself comes from the Latin precari, which means to beg. This frames prayer as a conversation of sorts between the worshipper and some external, supernatural power. Externality is the opposite of mindfulness and I have never imagined God as a cosmic grantor of wishes. I understand and experience prayer differently and therefore ask for nothing. When I pray for my father, whose Alzheimer’s disease will only get worse until he dies, I am not praying for him to be cured because I don’t believe in prayers that cure. But I do believe in prayers that heal. I pray for my family to heal together as we try to protect and comfort my Dad as best we can. I pray for our broken hearts to heal with time. I pray for the healing that comes when we make peace with that which we cannot change.
Instead of begging for things when I pray, I ask to be rid of things; to be rid of anger, arrogance, and pettiness; to be rid of ego and anxiety and all joyless things that stand between me and my best self. The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah from the root pelel which means “to reflect upon or evaluate oneself.” My prayers require me to deepen my own sense of awareness, not God’s. I hope for them to change me, not to manipulate or cajole the Divine.
Prayer is an internal unlocking of tears and hidden sorrows. Prayer pierces isolation, surrounding us with swaying, songs and comfort. Prayer says to the sufferer, “I care about you. I am thinking about you. You are not suffering alone and unnoticed.” Prayer is hope, faith even, that things will not always hurt so much. When he found himself surrounded by family and friends at the memorial service in his home the evening after the funeral, a man whose 30 year old daughter died in a car accident put it best. He looked up and saw a community of people who cared, gathered in a circle, singing and chanting mourning prayers; prayers that speak not only of grief but also of all that is beautiful in life and he said, “This changes nothing, but it means everything.”
Prayer is the counting of our blessings when that is such a difficult thing to do. When we least feel like it, when we would rather sink into the very ground and die ourselves, when we feel so terribly cursed, we are invited by prayer to affirm the power and the blessing of life itself. It is hard to be hopeless when you are grateful. As legend has it, in the time of Kind David, 100 people died every day due to a terrible plague. Realizing that the plague had a spiritual cause, King David and the Sages instituted a “measure for measure” response: the saying of 100 blessings each day. Once implemented, the plague stopped. Modernity is its own sort of plague. So many of us feel so much stress, anxiety and uncertainty each day. Yet so many miracles abound amidst the hurry and the worry and the scurry of everyday life and without prayer they are easy to miss. A friend of mine calls this “Standing knee deep in the river and drowning of thirst.”
Thanks in part to that King David legend, a traditional Jew says no fewer than 100 blessings a day. You’re about to eat a strawberry? There’s a blessing for it. What about a handful of rasins? There’s a blessing for that, too. How about if you see a rainbow or were almost in a terrible car accident or just wake up to experience another morning of life? Yes. A blessing after you go the bathroom expressing gratitude for the fact that your openings open and your closings close? Yes. That might sound funny until you actually have an opening that doesn’t open or a closing that doesn’t close—then you are facing what is otherwise known as a stroke, or heart attack, or obstruction, or hemorrhage and you may well die. So a blessing for each day our bodies work? Yes. A blessing to keep our tongue in check each day when we would rather gossip and snipe? Yes. A blessing over the sunrise? Yes.
If you ask me to define mindfulness I would say prayer and if you ask me to define prayer I would say mindfulness. Each requires that we be present in order to affirm the extraordinary nature of ordinary things; to sanctify the mundane as something so much more than mundane. We pray to be aware, to be amazed by life, nature and love. We pray to demand of ourselves that we become more humane human beings. We pray to thank God, or whatever words other than God that we can embrace; the Power behind all powers, the Power of the mountain and the sea, my children’s laughter, my wife’s shy smile, ripening fruit and flowers opening petals to the sun, the Power of the cosmos and the quark, the Power of breath in our bodies each morning, the Power of awe and wonder. We pray out of gratitude to that God, that Force, that Power, that Miracle, that whatever- word- you- choose, which grants us life itself.
Almost all cultures have some sort of blessing over bread. Why? Why a blessing over something as ordinary as bread? It’s simple of course…if we can be grateful for bread, then we can be grateful for the other, greater blessings of life as well. Ideally, a prayerful person, a mindful person, takes no small thing for granted. It is a wise person, a happier person, a more successful person, a better person, who affirms the enoughness, the beauty, the miracle of bread.
So yes, I pray before I eat a slice of bread—the simplest of foods. I pray too each summer when a few weeks after I plant seeds in rich, musty-smelling soil, water, feed and wait, those seeds burst into plants and weeks after that I see the first, tiny green bulbs the size of marbles. I want to be that sort of person; grateful for bread and amazed by a baby tomato. To be connected, multiple times a day to the greatness that surrounds us is a prayerful, mindful, gentle and powerful way to live.
Because I am the rabbi of an 8,000 person congregation, most days, a call or an email informs me that someone is dying, or might be dying, from cells gone made, or the scalpel, or the clot, the plaque, the infection, the “We’re really not sure but her vitals are getting worse.” The ancients considered sleep a sort of miniature death. They were amazed and grateful each time they awoke to a new day. But for most of us, it’s easy to take waking up in the morning for granted. So I keep a small, laminated prayer in different places all over my house. It’s a prayer of gratitude for awakening that day and I say it quietly each morning before I kiss my sleeping wife, whisper “I love you” and head out the door. My morning prayer helps me remember, as a forty-year-old man with three children who suffered a heart attack once said to me, “Even a bad day is a gift.” I pray because someday something will happen to me and I will die. I pray to cherish life.
Two thousand years ago the Talmud reminded us that to be rich is to be satisfied with what we have already have. Half a century ago Robert Kennedy said GDP “measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile.” My Yiddish speaking grandmother put it another way, “A burial shroud,” she quipped, “has no pockets.” The polish psychologist Bluma Zeirgarnik proved that when you show people a picture of a circle with a small wedge cut out of it, their eyes go to the missing piece and miss the much larger whole every time. Prayer focuses our minds on the larger whole in our lives instead of the missing piece. Prayer reminds us to count our daily blessings and to know that we are enough, and we have enough, and we will always have enough if we just look at how much we have, how many we love, and how many love us.
It has been 43 years since that fifteen year old boy prayed so fervently and true in that tiny basement bedroom, reaching for something he could not hold any other way. I have prayed nearly every day since then and when I do, I still hold so much—the people I love, the beauty of the simple and the mundane, the quiet power of life coursing through my veins–and in that holding, I know that I too am somehow gently held….
Steve Leder is the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and the author of More Beautiful Than Before; How Suffering Transforms Us.