You’d think praying would be pretty simple. But often it’s anything but. Sometimes it comes haltingly, or not at all. Even when we find the right setting, the right people to pray with, the right music and prayers, we can sit through an entire religious service and not feel a thing – no connection to the Divine, no inspiration, nothing.
And sometimes prayer comes easily. Sometimes we don’t need a book, a service, a rabbi or a minister. Sometimes the words pour out of our hearts, and our connection to the Source of All feels as natural and easy as breathing.
The Torah doesn’t teach us much about how to pray. We have examples – Isaac praying on Rebecca’s behalf, and Rebecca crying out to God about the twins struggling in her womb; Hannah’s silent prayer for a child; Moses asking God to heal his sister Miriam. But all of those are deeply personal prayers, said in moments of great need and spoken from the heart. We know how to say those kinds of prayers, because they are the ones we say without thinking.
Not until Deuteronomy does the Torah give us a set liturgy to recite, and it is a prayer of thanksgiving. Which in itself tells us something – when our hearts are breaking we find the words to pray without needing to be prompted, but when we are happy and satisfied, we might forget to give thanks, or not have the words to express our gratitude.
And oddly, this liturgy of thanksgiving is dictated to the Children of Israel while they are still in the desert, but is to be recited when they bring the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple. They won’t need this prayer for at least several years.
Why give it to them now? Why not wait until they will actually use it? I think the answer lies in the verse following the prayer, which says: “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household.” (Deut. 26:11)
The Torah’s message is that when we say a prayer of gratitude, it is just the first step in a process of giving thanks. We then need to share our blessings with others in our community, and, remarkably, with the stranger in our midst. In other words, we are enjoined to reach out beyond ourselves, beyond our immediate families, to the people around us. Even strangers.
Over the past few days, prayers having been pouring in to Florida and the islands in the Atlantic, much like the wind and rain of Hurricane Irma will come pouring down. It has a reciprocal feel to it, because just a few short days ago we were sending our prayers to Houston and the Gulf Coast communities. Now it’s our turn to be on the receiving end.
Even before the storm arrives, before we know what will happen, I find myself saying a prayer of thanks. I am grateful to the many people who are calling and writing, inviting us to their homes or simply sending prayers for safety, who are holding all of us in their hearts.
And I am grateful to the strangers with whom I reside – the upstairs neighbor who insists that I come upstairs to his apartment if my first floor apartment floods; and the new neighbor who I hadn’t even met, but who took the 30-pound bag of dog food out of my arms, asked me where I lived, and carried it inside for me.
There are countless stories coming out of Houston of neighbor helping neighbor, stranger helping stranger. I expect no less from my own community. And I am grateful to all of these people, and to the Source that created us with the ability to care about each other.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Jennifer