Answering Prayers

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September 4, 2009
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SHIRA KOCH EPSTEIN

‘‘Avinu Malkeinu, please grant me a job with benefits; a pension fund that actually earns rather than loses this year; and health insurance that covers our medications this year…”

How ironic that on this year when so many of us find ourselves in need, the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, a day on which we traditionally forgo petitionary prayers like Avinu Malkeinu. I imagine that for many of my congregants, this is a relief. For the many who do not believe in an interventionist God, is there a place in our worship for prayers of petition? First, it is important to clarify that although our traditional tefillot include prayers of petition, according to the Mishnah (Brachot 9:3) prayers that ask God to intervene in matters that are already determined are uttered in vain. It is folly to ask God to change the gender of a fetus or to undo a disaster that has already occurred; instead we are to use prayer as a way to access the strength and power of the Divine to help us contend with our troubles. As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Man in prayer does not seek to impose his will upon God; he seeks to impose God’s will and mercy upon himself.” (“On Prayer,” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 259)

The essence of petition in our tradition is not to ask for gifts but to access attributes of the Divine in dealing with issues that we face in life. The bakashot, or prayers of request, of the weekday Amidah, follow a formula. For example, the prayer for wisdom praises God for being wise, and then embraces the God of wisdom. The underlying concept of all petition is the understanding that we recognize Divine attributes, and the request is that we, as beings made in the Divine image, can access these attributes in our own lives.

Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th-century French Jewish philosopher, proposed that we each bear ultimate responsibility for the other. He suggested that Jewish prayer is not an individual, selfish act of seeking help for ourselves, but rather an act that focuses our attention on the troubles of our people and our world, “the edification of the worlds or the repairing of the ruins of creation. To pray signifies, for a ‘myself,’ seeing to the salvation of others instead of — or before — saving oneself.” (Levinas, “Judaism and Kenosis,” In the Time of Nations, p. 129)

As part of a minyan, we see the needs on the faces of our neighbors sitting to our right and to our left. What need cries out from the hearts of the people sitting in the rows in front of us this Rosh Hashanah?

A rabbi I know asks each of his congregants on Yom Kippur to confess their mistakes on small scraps of paper and anonymously place them in a small basket. During the viddui, the communal confession of sin, these papers are read aloud after the formula, “al cheyt shechatanu lifanecha…” and everyone beats their chests. We recognize that our individual sins affect our whole community and as a community we take on responsibility for our collective behavior.

Perhaps this is a way to address petitionary prayer as well. What if each of us wrote our petitions on a scrap of paper, and then heard them read aloud during Rosh Hashanah services?

“Avinu Malkeinu, grant me more affection from my family.”
“Avinu Malkeinu, bring healing to my beloved.”
“Avinu Malkeinu, I don’t want to be destitute in my retirement.”
“Avinu Malkeinu, grant me a second chance with my spouse.”
“Avinu Malkeinu, don’t let me be so lonely this year.”

If we hear these words pouring out from our own souls and the souls of those around us, can we ignore working toward the salvation of others? Can we ignore our own power to be God’s partners in visiting the sick, helping those in need, providing forgiveness and compassion? If we come to prayer open to the needs and petitions of those among whom we live, our prayer can be a conduit to the Divine as we work to see to the salvation of others.

This Rosh Hashanah, many of us will take a break from petitions on the first day and focus on prayers of gratitude and blessing. When the time comes for petition, may we find it within ourselves to hear the swirl of petitions emanating from our fellow community members, and ask ourselves: what can I place on the communal altar that might help God answer some of these prayers?

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