Prayer, it seems, is getting a bad rap as of late.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Charlottesville, Puerto Rico, Houston, Florida, Las Vegas, rural Texas” — and people don’t want prayers. They understandably want action, steps taken to create lasting change, help given to rebuild.
In last week’s Torah reading we see that Jacob is a man of action. He is preparing to meet his brother, Esau, and sets out for this significant event with a plan. He sends gifts of appeasement to his brother, plans for the probability of war and prays to G-d that he should be successful.
In Judaism, when we pray for someone or something, it is not a shallow, one-dimensional activity. Often you will hear someone say, “I will pray for you” or “I will daven for you,” which is the Yiddish word for prayer, whose root is in the Latin word for divine.
A connection upward and a connection inward, but always accompanied by action.
When someone says a mi shebeirach at the Torah for a loved one, it is customarily accompanied by designating an amount of money toward charity. What the person is saying is that through my act of charity, please accept my prayers on behalf of my loved one. Action with prayer.
Words seem hollow. “We are praying for the victims of (insert latest global tragedy)” somehow doesn’t cut it. What are we doing about all the recent natural and man-made disasters?
The frequency of traumatic events (and the sending of prayers) is indeed concerning.
Yet sometimes we have done all that we can personally do, and all that is left for us to do is pray. Do we throw the baby out with the bath water?
The Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schnersohn, the third rebbe in the Chabad dynasty (1789-1866), said: “If you only knew the power of verses of Tehillim/Psalms and their effect in the highest heavens, you would recite them constantly. Know that the chapters of Tehillim shatter all barriers. They ascend higher and still higher with no interference. They prostrate themselves in supplication before the Master of all worlds, and they effect and accomplish with kindness and compassion.”
The Book of Psalms (Tehillim) is powerful. Tehillim is like a multivitamin for your soul or starch for all things needing to be ironed out in your life. It is the one-size-fits-all-problems prayer machine, and, like most functioning humans, I need constant blessings, hence constant prayer.
Practically, one cannot be busy in prayer all day, but many people say a single psalm each day, and on Shabbat Mevorchim, the Shabbat preceding each new month, it is customary to say the entire Book of Psalms. This is a custom that dates to the time of the Ba’al Shem Tov.
As a mother of small children, I say as many chapters as my time will allow me to. It is not a pressure; it is a privilege.
I can remember a time recently when my monthly Psalms recital was overshadowed by a more significant personal need. Not only was I concerned about the chaos in our world, my family, health, happiness and livelihood, but we also were facing a personal challenge for which, after doing all I could in a down-to-earth, physical sense, I was left only with prayer. I helped myself, and now I was hoping G-d would kick in in answer to my prayers.
Many people find themselves in situations for which it can seem as if there is no way out, no way to resolve the unpleasantness; for this there is prayer and the new reality you can create for yourself through it.
To be sure, the month’s prayers were fervent and plentiful, and as Shabbat was coming to an end, I was unwavering in my goal to finish all 150 chapters of Psalms. Coincidentally, I was also in the midst of a self-prescribed sleep-training boot camp for all my little ones.
What I didn’t realize was how equally single-minded I was to finish Psalms as I was to train my children to fall asleep easily, which means without jumping out of bed for fruit, drinks, boo-boos and books every three minutes or so. Compound one child doing this by four and you have a nightly game of spirited whack-a-mole on your hands. One down, one up, one down, another up. You get the picture.
So as the sun was setting and Shabbat waning, I sat on the floor, perched on a pillow against a wall, in the space that is called a four-square, with bedrooms in each corner and a bathroom in between. Sitting there at my post, I had strategic access to each bedroom and the goings-on by my children inside.
For the most part I continued reciting chapter by chapter, my thoughts on blessings and success for the coming week. I got up to provide a drink of water, a fallen book, a re-tuck-in and a toy confiscation. Some shushes and “We’ll talk about it tomorrow” comments, and all seemed quiet.
Except for my child who claims he never sleeps, the child whom I sometimes believe when he makes this claim. If you don’t try very hard to catch him sleeping, you won’t know it happens.
As all the other children had fallen prey to the lull of nighttime, I moved myself from the floor into the bed of the last child standing. I continued reciting the Tehillim as he tossed and turned, talked to himself, and played with the window coverings.
Before long, I realized I was no longer praying for lofty things like world peace, healthy children, the livelihood for our household or the clarity of success for our specific struggle; I was praying that my son should please fall asleep.
As I began to murmur the lengthy Chapter 119, I could hear the calm of steady breathing and the hush of his sleeping peacefulness descend — indeed, my prayers were answered.
Try it for yourself.