October 3, 2014 | 10 Tishrei 5775

Earlier this summer we were horrified at the news that Palestinian terrorists had kidnapped three young Israeli men, Gilad Sha’ar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel, all of blessed memory.

Congregations added their names to special prayers for Israel’s well-being.

We prayed inside synagogues, sometimes in special services arranged expressly for that purpose.

We prayed outside synagogues too.

Whenever we heard mention of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali’s names, we offered a prayer.

We prayed for their well-being.

We prayed that they would soon be released to the loving care of their families.

As the days went by one after the other for eighteen days and we heard nothing about these young men, we suspected the outcome that was finally confirmed.

All the while, until we heard that final word, we prayed.

Did our prayers fail?  Did they fall on deaf ears?

What are we doing when we pray at such times?  Do we think our prayers may actually influence outcomes?

Those are especially good questions to consider as we begin this holiest day of the year…one that, according to our tradition, brings us into intimate contact with God.

“B’rosh Hashana yikatayvoon uv’yom tzom kippur yaychatemoon.”

Last week we repeatedly sang this refrain, and we will do so again tomorrow.

“On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

But that isn’t the final word!

“U’tshuvah u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avereen et ro’ah hagezerah.”

Tefillah – Prayer, along with repentance and just action, has an impact on our fate or on how we accept that outcome.

What exactly does prayer do?

Maybe, more accurately I should ask, “What are we doing when we pray?”

The answer most people give me is something like this, “When I pray, I talk to God.”

With that image in mind, do you have any idea how many people have said to me prior to a wedding, “Rabbi, pray for good weather!”

If I were to ask them, “Do you think my prayer for good weather will have any greater impact than your own prayer?” they would probably laugh.

Yes, people are joking…sort of…when they ask me to pray for good weather.

But the request comes from a place that assumes praying is talking to a God who may respond, and the rabbi is better at it than someone who isn’t a rabbi.

Often, the issues are far more serious than the weather.

A loved one is ill or in great pain.

We pray to God for our loved one’s well-being.

We believe that God may intervene.

“Surely if there is a God in the heavens God would do something about her pain!”

But what happens when God does not intervene?

In most circumstances, these heart – wrenching words are best understood as an expression of terrible pain.

But for one who utters these sentiments and really does believe that God intervenes in response to prayer, prayer of that sort inevitably fails.

It can leave the one who prays angry and, in the extreme, estranged from God.

So if God doesn’t necessarily intervene in our world in response to our personal prayers or the prayers in our machzor, is this book a lie?

When we acknowledge God, when we thank God or praise God with the words, “Baruch atah Adonai” are we just wasting our breath?

I don’t think so because many of us are addressing our spiritual need at that moment.

We are reaching beyond ourselves and beyond human support.

We are reaching out to God, but not necessarily for a direct response.

We are expressing the mystery that can serve as the answer to our petitionary prayers.

Let me explain what I mean.

When we pray for healing and our loved one or friend recovers, we know that medical interventions, human resilience and possibly time are largely responsible for this outcome.

But what is the source of those healing medical interventions, of human resilience and the ability of time to help with healing?

Our prayers in those moments represent our spiritual answer – God.

That is why we “talk to God” at such times.

At other times, apart from a need like healing, prayer gives us an opportunity to acknowledge the wonder of God’s world.

Haven’t you stood amidst the dazzling, take-your-breath-away grandeur of nature and uttered a prayer?

You weren’t asking God for anything – you were just saying, “Wow!”

No one understood the need for such a response and its meaning better than did Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory.

“Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living,” Dr. Heschel said.

He wasn’t referring just to a mountain top expression of awe.

He was referring to daily prayer.

Most of us possess neither the spiritual awareness that Dr. Heschel’s words reflect nor the daily commitment he had to prayer.

But we do have moments, often amidst the beauty of nature or other wondrous times in our lives, when we are fully open to the “inconceivable surprise of living.”

That is not only when we pray.  It’s also why we pray.

I believe we pray for other reasons that have little to do with God.

Sometimes we pray in order to be with others like us who join us in worship.

You know the story about Levine and Schwartz…

Levine was an atheist.  Yet he often came to shul with his friend, Schwartz, an observant man who fervently prayed to God.

Shul regulars, knowing that Levine didn’t believe in God, wondered why he came to shul so often.

Someone finally got up the nerve to ask him.

“Why do I come to shul?”  Levine said.  Well, my friend Schwartz comes to talk to God.  I come to talk to Schwartz!”

Communal prayer does bring us together…and sometimes the experience is quite moving.

Have you ever been in a shul where it seems everyone is davening in a traditional manner?

The sound of fervent prayer, the sound itself, is uniquely evocative.

If the sound of traditional davening doesn’t have that effect on you, what about the resonant sound of a congregation joining together in a prayer like the Shema?

Don’t you feel a powerful connection to others in such moments?

By the same token, sometimes when we pray we connect with others who are not physically present…often times with loved ones who are no longer among the living.

Ari Goldman shares this sentiment in his book Being Jewish:

“The tallit I wear is one that I inherited from my father.  It is a broad woolen blanket-like shawl with a silver brocade that falls on my shoulders.

Under the tallit, I feel my father’s presence and my mother’s presence.  They are no longer in this world, but under the tallit I feel connected to a different realm where I encounter my parents…”

Some of you feel like Ari Goldman when you enter this sanctuary.

You feel the presence of your parents and other loved ones.

When you step to the rear of the sanctuary and look at your loved one’s memorial plaque you feel that he or she is here in some manner.

Some of you even touch the plaque with your fingertip or a siddur and then kiss it…a loving connection made in a moment across time and space.

Yes, you do feel your loved one’s presence.

Finally and fundamentally, we pray because prayer provides us with a much-needed opportunity for self-reflection.

Many of us spend a good part of our day seeking to complete one task after the other.

And if we do slow down a bit, we fill up the time with the television or other recreational activities.

When do we stop and remain quiet for a time?

When do we reflect on our lives?

When do we think about our directions or if our priorities are the right ones?

When do we quietly ask ourselves the question that Mayor Ed Koch, of blessed memory, used to ask aloud – “How’m I doing?”

Prayer, especially communal worship, encouraged perhaps by the words of a particular prayer and by some quiet time, can provide all of us with something we desperately need – moments to reflect on our lives and on what we are doing with the precious time we have.

The Hebrew word “lehitpalel” means “to pray.”

Literally, though, it means “to judge oneself.”

Whether it is the prayer experience as a whole or just an individual prayer, prayer encourages us to take a look at ourselves and assess where we have been so that we might make good choices as we move forward.

At its best, prayer can help change us.

How much we wish our fervent prayers earlier this summer would have joined with the prayers of Jews around the world and with the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces to save Gilad, Eyal and Naftali.

That they did not do so wasn’t a statement of their failure or the failure of petitionary prayer.

Even if God could not intervene to change an outcome, our prayers united all of us—Jews from around the world—in reaching out to the Holy One in the same way at the same time.

Connection – connection with God, connection with the wonder of our world, connection with loved ones and friends here and throughout time and, most importantly, connections with ourselves – that is why we pray.

May this enabling understanding and ennobling possibility find regular expression in our lives throughout this New Year.