When We Pray, We Are Talking to God

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June 1, 2011
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Deborah Kram

In the last years of his life, my paternal grandfather would repeat a particular teaching to each of his grandchildren whenever we talked with him. After his death, we realized this was not forgetful behavior on his part, but that he had left each of us with a special message. Mine was: Tefilah b’li kavanah, k’guf b’li neshamah, prayer without intention is as a body without a soul. I have ruminated on and struggled with my grandfather’s departing message throughout my adult years. While I have embraced Torah study with unbounded enthusiasm, embracing the associated joys and challenges of wrestling with text, my mind and heart work appreciably harder at connecting with God through prayer. Perhaps this is due to the realization that when we study Torah, God is in conversation with us, but when we pray, we are talking to God. The classic dialectic of placing one’s humble human self in intimate conversation with majestic God has led me not to complete discouragement or abandonment, but to a continual struggle to engage fully.

In times of need, beseeching God on behalf of others presents no obstacle in my prayerful intentions. Godly praise and thanksgiving come without hesitation. The siddur offers meaningful scripts of poetry and prose to express my awe and gratitude. But I am repeatedly challenged when the focus of my petitionary prayer is my own self. As I have faced some of life’s more dramatic scenarios, I’ve begun to conquer my reticence to pray meaningfully on my own behalf without being overwhelmed by a sense of audacity.

The weekday Amidah, the pinnacle of the prayer service, opens with blessings of praise. It delineates our relationship to God and then moves from blessings of a spiritual, ephemeral nature — acknowledging God as the source of insight, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption — to blessings of a physical nature — blessings for health and sustenance. The Amidah then turns to blessings pertaining to national concerns, and concludes with blessings of thanksgiving and peace.

As with the Amidah’s other blessings, the blessing for health and healing is addressed as a collective concern. Most unusually, according to the Tosefta1 and subsequent commentators, the composers of this prayer changed the wording of the verse in Jeremiah 17:14 from a singular plea, “Heal me, O Lord, and let me be healed,” to a plural form, “Heal us, O Lord, and let us be healed.” Homiletically, the plural form allows us to include others who are ill and in need of our prayers without privileging anyone. We are also given an opportunity to insert a personalized plea.

While the central Refa’enu blessing concentrates on our health, the addendum calls upon God to specifically grant both refu’at hanefesh and refu’at haguf, spiritual healing and physical healing. This expanded language acknowledges the mind-body connection and recognizes mental wellbeing as an arguably essential ingredient of overall health.

This connection is hinted at in the central blessing, for after requesting healing we then ask for salvation: Hoshe’anu v’nivashe’ah, save us and we shall be saved. Within yeshu’ah, salvation, is the kernel of yesh, “being.” We are praying for God to grant us a refreshed and renewed self, in body and in soul.

My late grandfather chose to teach me decades ago that a life of meaningful devotion requires intention. Being mindful in prayer cannot ensure good health, but it can serve to gently nurture our spirit and deepen our relationship with the divine.

1 Tosefta, Megillah, 3:41.

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Deborah Kram is a senior scholar and consultant on Jewish education. She served in Boston as director of adult learning for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, as the family education consultant for the Bureau of Jewish Education, and as the co-founder and director of Ma’ayan, a program of lifelong Jewish learning for women.

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