Prayer: Where Heaven Meets Earth In The Human Soul

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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"Tefillah is where heaven and earth meet in the human soul, and something new is born. For without the faith expressed in prayer, fear would prevail. Would we have the same courage to build, create and take risks if we believed that ultimate reality was deaf to our prayers, blind to our fate? But Judaism said more: just as we have faith in God, so God has faith in us. He has invited us to become His partners in the work of creation."

There is a classic Jewish story of a learned rabbi and a taxi driver who depart this world at the same time and arrive together at the gates of Heaven. The angel at the gate signals to the taxi driver to enter, then turns to the rabbi and sadly shakes his head. 

“What is this?” asks the rabbi. “I am a learned rabbi and he is only a taxi driver who, not to put too fine a point on it, drove like a lunatic.” 

“Exactly so,” replies the angel. “When you spoke, people slept. But when they got into his taxi, believe me, they prayed!”

That’s a way of reminding us that prayer isn’t always predictable. We never know in advance when we will feel the need to turn to God. Why then the discipline of daily prayer? Preparing a new edition of the Jewish prayer book has made me yet more vividly aware of how powerful prayer really is. 

The 11th-century poet Judah Halevi, said that prayer is  to the soul what food is to the body. Starve a body of food and it dies. Starve a soul of prayer and it atrophies and withers. And sometimes prayer is all the more powerful for being said in words not our own, words that come to us from our people’s past, hallowed by time, resonant with the tears and hopes of earlier generations, words that gave them strength and which they handed on to us to use and cherish.

Prayer changes the world because it changes us. It opens our eyes to the sheer wonder of existence. Is there anything in the scientific literature to match King David’s words as a hymn to the ordered complexity of the Universe?

“Bless the Lord, my soul; Hashem, my God; You are very great. You are clothed in glory and majesty.”  (Psalm 104:1-2)  

There is something in the human spirit that, however intricately it understands the laws of physics and biochemistry, wants not merely to explain but also to celebrate; not just to understand but also to sing.

Prayer teaches us to thank, to rejoice in what we have rather than be eternally driven by what we don’t yet have. Prayer is an ongoing seminar in what New York Times columnist and author, Daniel Goleman, calls emotional intelligence. It sensitizes us to the world beyond the self: the real world, not the one defined by our devices and desires.

Daily prayer works on us in ways not immediately apparent. As the sea smooths the stone, as the repeated hammer blows of the sculptor shape the marble, so prayer — repeated, cyclical, tracking the rhythms of time itself — gradually wears away the jagged edges of our character, turning it into a work of devotional art, aligning it with the moral energies of the Universe.

Prayer is not magic. It does not bend the world to our will; if anything it does the opposite. It helps us to notice the things we otherwise take for granted. It redeems our solitude. It gives us a language of aspiration, a vocabulary of ideals. And seeing things differently, we begin to act differently. The world we build tomorrow is born in the prayers we say today.

I remember visiting Auschwitz, walking through the gates with their chilling inscription, “Work makes you free”, and feeling the chill winds of Hell. It was a numbing experience. There were no words you could say. It was not until I entered one of the blocks where there was nothing but an old recording of the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead that I broke down and cried. It was then that I realized that prayer makes grief articulate. It gives us the words when there are no words. It gives sacred space to the tears that otherwise would have nowhere to go.

I think back to my father, a Jew of simple faith. In his eighties he had to go through five difficult operations, each of which made him progressively weaker. The most important things he took with him to hospital were his tefillin (the leather boxes with straps worn by Jewish men during weekday morning prayer), his prayer book and a book of psalms. I used to watch him reciting psalms and see him growing stronger as he did so. He was safe in the arms of God: that was all he knew and all he needed to know. It was only when he said to us, his sons, “Pray for me” that we knew the end was near. For him, prayer was life, and life a form of prayer.

We enter the New Year, this year as last, poised between hope and fear. The situation in Israel remains uncertain. Elsewhere, antisemitism is on the rise. The international arena is still tense. Individually, we live in an age of rapid and unpredictable change. In retrospect, ours will be called the Age of Uncertainty.

Jews, however, are no strangers to uncertainty: our ancestors lived with it and still found themselves able to celebrate life. That in no small measure was due to the strength they gained through prayer, especially during the Yamim Nora’im. What, though, is prayer?

Josephus, who lived in the first century C.E. and witnessed the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, tells us that the Jewish world at that time was divided into three groups: the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Pharisees. They differed in their view of fate. 

The Sadducees believed that history was made by human beings. The Essenes believed the opposite, that what happens is the result of Divine providence, not human choice. The Pharisees, guardians of rabbinic Judaism – our Judaism – and the sole group whose beliefs survived, thought that both were true: fate is an interplay between heaven and earth, Divine decree and human choice. That is what gave the Pharisees their distinctive view of prayer.

Tefillah is where heaven and earth meet in the human soul, and something new is born. For without the faith expressed in prayer, fear would prevail. Would we have the same courage to build, create and take risks if we believed that ultimate reality was deaf to our prayers, blind to our fate? But Judaism said more: just as we have faith in God, so God has faith in us. He has invited us to become His “partners in the work of creation”. 

Prayer therefore is precisely that interaction between the infinite and the finite that, according to the Pharisaic sages long ago, shapes the course of our collective and individual lives. If we were Sadducees we would not need to pray. If we were Essenes, we would not need to do anything except pray. We would not need to act. Providence would do it for us. Both were wrong. We need to act, to do our share. God asks that of us. But when we act, we are not alone. If we have aligned our wills with His, God is with us.

Daily Goals:
Jewish history – the most remarkable of any people on earth – is the story of God acting through human beings who acted because they had faith in Him. In Jewish history, as in our individual lives, heaven and earth, God and us, each play their part, in ways not always apparent at the time but which become clear in retrospect. Prayer is where heaven and earth meet and a new strength, greater than ourselves, is born. May our prayers this year have a special depth and intensity. And may the Almighty hear our prayers, for ourselves and our families, for the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and for the world – and may He grant us health and fulfillment, blessing and peace.

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