Prayer as a Way of Being

Beyond services and synagogue, the challenge of living a prayerful life

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Moments of prayer in our busy lives become opportuni­ties for self-reflection. Most often when we do that, when we gaze in the mirror of truth, not only do we see that we are only an insignificant dot in the universe, but the countenance staring back at us is an ugly one. We see all the bruises and warts on our faces earned in our lives. It is the portrait of Dorian Gray that we see rather than the prettified self we like to think we present to the outside world.

Some commentators understand the word for prayer, mitpalel, with its reflexive grammati­cal form, to mean "judge oneself." Prayer prevents us from being car­ried away with ourselves. Yet even as we gain true perspective and a truer sense of ourselves, we are not meant to berate ourselves for our failures. Nor are we meant to feel insignificant or that in the scope of the universe whatever we do or whatever happens to us is insignificant. Nor is the goal to achieve an equanimity that leads you to feel nothing matters. Nor to come to a realization that all life is just a passing breath, as in the imagery of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes.

For as small and as fallible as we are, as we encounter God in prayer we are reminded that we are created in the image of God. This means that each person is unique and each of us is called to act in Godly, that is, holy, ways.

No Place Absent of God

The Hasidic master Isaacher Baer of Zlochow taught on Genesis 44:18 the following: At first, when a person wishes to pray, he thinks of God's greatness and says to himself: "Who am I, a mere flawed mortal, to pray before the great and exalted God." But upon further reflection, he real­izes that there is no place absent of God, and therefore he, too, is part of the Divine. We are all created in the Divine image. With this under­standing the person will now be able to pray with great enthusiasm.

Prayer becomes the expression of and evidence for our relationship to God. It is an affirmation that we are never alone, we always stand in relationship to the Holy One, who loves us with an everlasting love.

Prayer reminds us that God the Creator is everywhere in the uni­verse, including, most importantly, in ourselves. To live a prayerful life is to see the image of God in every person we see, to see the everyday blessings of a blue sky and a green tree. In fact, it is to see the many blessings of our lives even as we don't ignore the curses and the suffer­ing that is inevitably our fate.

Standing on an empty beach, we look back across the sand stretch­ing as far as the eye can see. Lost from our sight is not what lies beyond the horizon, but rather the millions of grains of sand lying at our feet. All those millions make up this sandy vista, but we only perceive the mass whole. A life of prayer is to make us aware of the millions of mo­ments that together make up the sandy beach of our individual lives. As small as each of us is in the vista of the universe, as fleeting as this mo­ment is, this moment and myself are integral parts of the tapestry of ex­istence.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.