When I was a child, and throughout my high school years, I was a fervent atheist. I knew that the universe was a coincidence, and that the emergence of human life was fortuitous. The evidence for my conviction was not hard to find: the extraordinary amount of suffering that all human beings endure, the tragic deaths of countless children to cancer or leukemia or sudden infant death syndrome, the disappointments of aging and of losing those we love, and the randomness of the way good people suffer and bad people prosper. All these factors confirmed for me that life did not have any purpose; it simply happened.
As it was the belief of much of my family, I was quite comfortable with my atheism. I grew up assuming that “religious” was a synonym for “dumb,” and that religious people were simply cowards unwilling 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 some unreasonable standard, but simply following in the footsteps of our families. Our freethinking 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. l remember his explanation that he had become a Bar Mitzvah, and so had his father and all our male forebears since the beginning of the rite. From my perspective, the fact that half of my ancestors had participated in what seemed to me to be a stifling and irrelevant performance was not a sufficient reason for me to waste my time. Besides, I hated services — from my 12-year-old point of view, they were boring, hypocritical and cold. I became a Bar Mitzvah because my father wanted it.
In hindsight, all of this seems noteworthy only from the perspective of a rabbi. From birth until college, however, I was a self-assured atheist.
Except for one brief interlude: When I was 12, I began to suffer from a painful and embarrassing illness that produced oozing sores on the surface of my skin. This disease struck me in the midst of puberty and in the most private of places. Í was so ashamed that I did not tell anyone for two years. I bled, suffered, and even cried in silence. Surrounded by loving people, I was still alone. Finally, in my first 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 examination chair, face down, with my feet strapped into stirrups so he could explore without interruption. In my memory, the exam took hours. It was the most painful experience I can remember.
Two days later, he gave my mother the pathologist’s report: I had a terminal, inoperable cancer. The medical treatments for that illness (a diagnosis which turned out to be erroneous in both its fatality and its inoperability) continued for more than 10 years.
In that examination room, strapped to a chair, humiliated and in great pain, I had an overwhelming experience of God. Devout atheist that I was (and would remain for several more years), one image kept flashing in my mind. All I could think of was Moses crossing the Red Sea — his courage in confronting Pharaoh, and his joy of liberation. I kept asking God to be with me and felt a strange comfort in the request, which I repeated over and over. God was with me in that room, in my pain.
Once the examination ended, I forgot about God and about Moses. Until years later, I never thought about it again. But I recognize it now as the beginning of the path that led me back to Judaism and, ultimately, to Jewish observance and celebration. In retrospect, that moment was the first time God broke through my barriers, no longer able to stand aside and wait. My pain was too much; God simply acted.
With further thought, I realize that God was there not only in my awareness of God, but also in everything that was going on.
With further thought, I realize that God was there not only in my awareness of God, but also in everything that was going on. God was in the hands of the doctor who was causing me so much pain in the process of trying to help, in the nurses standing by his side offering comfort and care, and, most of all, in my brave, wonderful mother who waited nervously nearby. (Is there a better model of divine persistence and love than that of a parent who stays with her child through his pain?) In fact, there was nowhere that God was not present. And there never is.
Naming the Presence; Calling the Presence
But we do not know how to identify our encounters with God; we do not call them by their proper name. So pervasive is God’s love and support, that we do not notice it anymore. The permanence and accessibility of miracles is the undoing 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 marvel of a new morning, we will always be indifferent to prayer.
Our problem with prayer is not a technical problem. It is not simply a question of learning Hebrew, or the right melody, or the proper posture.
The issue of prayer is the issue 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 hearts before God?
Learning to pray, then, requires first understanding that we have already experienced God; we just need to learn to label those experiences correctly. Each of us could easily list moments in which we encountered an inexplicable sense of wonder, awe or marvel. Everyone has felt himself in the presence of something encompassing and assuring. But we have forgotten its name, and we do not remember where to go to look it up. We do not even have the sense to seek out other people who are looking to name the same experiences we share. And we certainly would not discuss it in sophisticated company!
The answer to the question “Why pray?” is not found inside synagogues or prayerbooks. 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: in the home, the office, the park, and the school. Why pray? Because that is what we do with our encounters with God.
When I was applying for my first position of rabbi of a congregation, a few other candidates and I each spent a Shabbat there, leading services, teaching some classes and meeting the community. During one of my classes someone asked me to summarize Judaism, which I did by quoting from Psalm 16, “I will set the Lord before me always.”
Every deed can be a sacred deed, every moment an encounter with God and a reaffirmation of meaning. Nothing is so trivial or irrelevant that it cannot be worked into a tool for strengthening our humanity, community and holiness. In our hands is the power to harness random acts and instinctual drives into a network of moral rigor and emotional depth, forging those mute facts into values which simultaneously affirm and restore our own humanity.
In transforming our routine, we renew ourselves. We begin to encounter God in occurrences that used to seem mundane. Prayer is the key to that transformation, adding a layer of depth and resonance to otherwise random moments and habitual patterns of behavior. By allowing us to focus attention on the daily miracles of life — a new day, an old love, life itself — prayer can intensify and restore our commitment to repair the world under the sovereignty of God. And is not that potential, the inner power of prayer, a miracle worthy of gratitude?
Prayer is what we do when we stand in the presence of what is beyond words.
Prayer is what we do when we stand in the presence of what is beyond words. It is our response to an awareness that God is with us and will not abandon us. In the smallness of our efforts, in the enormity of our need, prayer is a bridge, linking 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 those experiences and the gratitude they inspire into words, community and deeds.
Prayer provides words for our wonder and solace for our sorrows. It lends us the script while we play at being righteous, pious and good. And in the process of the drama of prayer, we become the part that we perform. 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, stage directions and effective lighting. The right backdrop and a little music at the proper moment all contribute to the process of allowing actor and audience to live the life of the play. So it is with worship. The prayerbook, the pageantry and the ritual objects are tools to allow a more complete identification between actor and part, a more complete adherence to the will of the Director.
To withdraw from prayer keeps God’s presence sporadic, private, and uncertain. Humans are built to remember 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 fuller humanity.
Prayer lets God into the world; prayer lets humans into God’s presence. Prayer allows us to become truly human.