Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2003
Prayer as a Rebellion: What Happens When You Ask God for Help?
By Leonard Felder
During the past few years I have been giving workshops on the psychology of prayer at temples, synagogues, and Jewish book fairs nationwide. At each event, I invariably get asked the same probing questions: "Is it OK to ask God for assistance?", "Do Jews still talk to God about their dreams and desires?", "Do these personal prayers and meditations make a difference?"
For a variety of reasons, the majority of Jews today have stopped asking God for anything. I have found from interviewing thousands of men and women from all branches of Judaism that, for the majority of Jews, Jewishness consists of shared history, ethnic food, compassionate values, and feelings about Israel. Only a small percentage still pour out their hearts each day like Moses or Tevye or your great grandmother did when they constantly argued and confided with God about the problems they faced. Most Jews today have tried many more flavored varieties of bagels than their ancestors did, but they have stopped conversing with God.
One of my counseling clients told me, "I stopped praying after my wife and I lost an infant child. Our prayers seemed to be unanswered." A close friend of mine who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor told me, "I stopped asking God for help when I was a teenager and I heard my father tell me about the cruelty and randomness he experienced in the camps.
Yet another counseling client, an Israeli, stopped praying when she lost her nephew to a suicide bombing. "I no longer talk to God," she said. "I'm angry at God." I also have found that many of my counseling clients, friends, and colleagues who entered adulthood during the politically-charged 1960s and 1970s don't pray. As one counseling client told me, "We grew up with a devotion to repairing the world, but we weren't going to wait for God to help."
I remember listening to FM radio in 1969 when Jim Morrison and the Doors sang angrily and hypnotically, "You cannot petition the Lord with prayer." In those days you needed to be quite your own person to possess the guts to sit down and converse with God. Time magazine had proclaimed that "God is dead." Most of my college professors and intellectual mentors were devout atheists. And the state of the world didn't look like the Creator was still responding to any personal requests for help.
So why bother in the year 2003 to ask God for help? Why should you study the Jewish methods for connecting with the Mysterious Presence or the guiding life force that may or may not be responding to your requests? Why pour out your feelings, your desires, and your vision of how things ought to be if there might be nothing at the other end of the conversation? Why petitionary prayer?
For the past twenty-five years I have been studying various Jewish approaches to petitionary prayer. I wanted to learn which part of my brain to follow--the skeptical part raised on Jim Morrison shouting "You cannot petition the Lord with prayer," or the curious part that longs for a way to gain access to deeper levels of awareness and that hungers to connect with the unseen forces of the universe. I found in Judaism several reasons for choosing the path of prayer. Here are a few for you to consider:
Petitionary Prayer Can Help Us Resist Indifference
As you probably have discovered for yourself, we live in a society that is designed to keep us numb and distracted. Rather than seeing or responding to the pain and injustices of the world, our lives and our media are filled with ways to avoid what really matters. We've built freeways and expressways that race past neglected neighborhoods, as well as expensive ad campaigns that tell us Philip Morris really does want to prevent lung cancer and Chevron really does care about ocean ecology. We each have different ways of "being too busy" to deal with the outrages of our times. For some, it's that we work too hard. For others, it's that we are absorbed with a house remodeling project or raising our kids. We fear becoming too involved in community service projects that might drain our energies.
According to a powerful lecture I heard several years ago from Rabbi Mordecai Gafni of the Bayit Chadash school in Israel, the essence of being a Jew is to "shry gevalt" (to cry out passionately) and demand a response from God and God's human ambassadors whenever you see cruelty or injustice in the world. Gafni cited numerous Hasidic and traditional teachings reminding us that to be a Jew is to strive to become fully "Yisra-el," the one who wrestles with God.
If you can wrestle with God, you can definitely petition the Holy One with prayer. When you see cruelty or injustice, you are obligated to speak up and ask the Creator of the Universe or the in-dwelling Presence that connects all of life to please give us help and guidance. Not necessarily for God to fix the problem without our participation and partnership, but rather for the divine sparks within each of us to be awakened by fervent prayers that say, "Help us God. Open our hearts. Don't let us become numb or indifferent. Give us clues and visions on how to repair this broken part of the world. Give us strength and persistence to follow through until healing does occur."
Whether you are someone who prays often, rarely, or never at all, Jewish teachings tell us that right at the moment when you see something which has been broken by human callousness or someone who has been wounded by human cruelty, it is not only permissible but also a sacred duty to cry out in spontaneous words of prayer and ask the mysterious Creative Force to light up a path for healing and repair. As it says in the Pirke Avot (the teachings from our ancestors, verse 2:21), "It is not your duty to complete the work [of repairing the world], but neither are you free to desist from it." Crying out to God is the first step toward opening your heart wide enough so that you will be able to ascertain and focus on what needs to be done.
Petitionary Prayer Connects Us to Our True Selves
A second Jewish reason for clarifying your needs each day with God (in whatever way you imagine God to exist) is for its therapeutic value for your own psyche and soul. According to Martin Buber, the best way to become whole, complete, and fully alive as a human being is to move beyond cold and objectified "I/it" conversations and small-talk in order to reach a deeper way of relating. Buber called this deeper way of connecting with human beings and with God "Ich und Du" (a German phrase that is often mistranslated as "I and Thou" but is closer in essence to "becoming one with each other" or "connecting soul to soul" or "feeling fully met and understood").
In his writings about Hasidic Judaism as well as in his lesser-known professional guidelines for Gestalt psychotherapists, Buber explains that if you are only partially honest or somewhat suppressed in your relationship to a loved one or to God, you will feel split, phony, or alienated. But if you can become fully yourself, fully honest, and fully present when talking with another human being or with the mysterious Oneness, you will experience a holy moment that is both transcendent and quite healing.
For many years I had wondered if it was permissible to ask God to fulfill my personal needs and desires. Wouldn't that be treating God like some giant Santa Claus or ATM machine in the sky? But several years ago I heard Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi sound a lot like Buber when he explained:
In Judaism we have a very honest and intimate love relationship with a mysterious Presence. Just as a marriage doesn't work if both sides are being too polite or too restrained, it's the same way in your relationship with God. Don't try to hide your needs, your desires, your curiosities, and your flaws. Pour out your heart and soul to the Soul of the universe and don't try to be so polite or sneaky. When you're offering up a prayer request to Ribono Shel Olam (the guiding force of the universe), tell the truth and be completely honest, even if you think it's small or inconsequential. God is the creative energy that expresses itself in even the tiniest particles of life.
When I think of what it means to follow these teachings of Reb Zalman and Martin Buber, when I contemplate talking to God in a vulnerable, honest, and authentic way, I think of Moses crying out to God, "Why did you give me this frustrating task to lead so many complaining Hebrews when I have a speech impediment and no one is listening to me? Please help me God. Please guide me on what words and actions will move these stubborn people."
Or you can think of Tevye asking God for insights on what to do about his precious daughters who keep falling in love with men who don't believe what Tevye believes. Or you can picture your grandmother or great grandmother asking God each day and night for help on how to raise a family and have the strength to deal with all the difficulties of life as a Jew. Or you can think back to the times when a loved one, a therapist, a friend, or a teacher listened to your most vulnerable and heartfelt needs with complete respect and compassion.
Buber would argue that these moments of conversing in pure at-one-ment with another soul, or with the Soul of the universe, are the most nourishing moments for your own soul and psyche. These are the intimate moments when we are most fully alive and fully authentic.
Petitionary Prayer Can Stir Up Positive Changes in Ways We Might Not See
Now we come to a Jewish explanation of prayer that requires a bit of faith. According to the mystical tradition in Judaism, when we pray and ask God for help, we stir things up at levels of existence you and I can't see with our limited vision or our constricted human awareness.
For example, when you pray for a loved one who's ailing and you give tzedakah (charity or acts of justice) on his or her behalf, the mystical tradition in Judaism says you are stimulating the flow of shefa (divine outflowing), chesed (lovingkindness), and rachmones (compassion) not only on this physical level of existence but also on other levels as well. Your loved one may or may not achieve a physical healing. The healing might occur on a soul level that is hard to describe, or the healing might be that some aspect of suffering or alienation in this world or in another level of existence is being repaired by your acts of kindness. You and I can't control what happens when you stir up the flow of goodness with your words of prayer or your acts of tzedakah. All we can do is stir things up and then let the forces of the universe do what they do.
To give you just one example of how a formal or spontaneous Mi Shebeirakh (prayer for healing) is a revolutionary act, consider what happened for one of my counseling clients several years ago. Her mother had advanced pancreatic cancer and was told by her doctors she would probably die in a matter of weeks. My client prayed fervently for a healing of body and soul. She also gave to a favorite charity that does important work helping battered women rebuild their lives.
I can't say that my client's mom had a miraculous physical recovery, but during the remaining fourteen months of her mom's life something miraculous did happen on an emotional and soul level. My client and her two siblings got closer to their difficult mom and experienced a deeper love than they ever had before. And seven years later my client met a well-dressed and successful woman at a conference whose life had been transformed by the battered woman's shelter that my client had given money to in honor of her dying mother.
In Judaism there is a word for prayer, "avodah," that also means "to be of service" and "to work or take action for a higher purpose." Prayer is not a passive activity, but rather a way to stir things up and get things rolling. I think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. and saying they were "praying with their feet." Prayer that is connected to service and action is the way we bring God's Presence into the world.
I can't guarantee what will happen if you use prayer and tzedakah to ask God for help. But you just might create an unstoppable flow of healing and repair, a very different result than if you close your heart and do nothing. You just might open up a path of light where before there was darkness.
Leonard Felder, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist whose most recent book is Seven Prayers That Can Change Your Life: How to Use Jewish Spiritual Wisdom for Enhancing Your Health, Relationships, and Daily Effectiveness (Andrews-McMeel, 2001).
Felder, Leonard. 2003. Prayer as a Rebellion: What Happens When You Ask God for Help? Tikkun 18(4): 59.