Why I Pray
by Steven Z. Leder
The first time I ever really prayed was the night I returned home from summer camp. I was fifteen. I missed my friends, missed the music, missed the towering, wise rabbis, missed the pretty girls with flowers in their hair on Shabbat, Israeli dancing, and Chassidic stories in the cabin late at night. Alone in my little wood-paneled room in the basement of our modest Minnesota home, I took out the camp siddur, my Bar Mitzvah tallis, and I prayed.
I prayed to overcome my loneliness, my adolescent longings. I prayed to be back with the people I loved.
I still pray to be back with the people I love. When I say "Va-a-nachnu Korim U'mish-ta-cha-vim U'mo-dim," I hear my father, my zaydee and his zaydee. I hear the old men in the shul where I davened in Cincinnati. I hear the Vilna Gaon, the Gerer Rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk all singing, "Va-a-nachnu Korim U'mish-ta-cha-vim U'mo-dim."
I prayed as a backpacking college kid standing at the ovens in Dachau. Because there are no words for what happened there, I said Kaddish. We pray when there are no words, but something must be said. To pray is to express the ineffable.
I prayed many years later when my wife was in the hospital after twenty-three hours of labor and things weren't going well. "Hey, if you gotta go now's the time, because we're calling an emergency C-section," the doctor advised. I used my five minutes to sit in the hospital chapel. All my anti-supernaturalism, hyper-rationalism, limited theism was pushed aside in favor of a simple, "Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad" Please God, not my wife; not my little boy. Not this time. Please God. Please.
A great rabbi once observed, "We pray when we tremble, gasp for air, flail about wildly to grab at a straw of life. Then is when we catch a glimpse of the miracle of breathing, seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, feeling." We pray when we are afraid, because prayer and fear are both about gratitude.
Then I prayed again, silly as it might sound, that summer, after a friend taught me about growing tomatoes. I planted the tiny sprout of a plant in rich, musty-smelling soil, watered, fed, weeded and waited. One morning I saw it, a tiny green bulb the size of a marble. "Baruch Ata Adonai Oseh Ma-a-se V'reshitBlessed are you Adonai who made Creation." I said it because I was amazed. I am that sort of person amazed by a tomato.
To pray is to be amazed; to be aware of a part of the unceasing rhythm to which all things dance and sway. To pray out of longing for the people we love, out of longing for our past, out of wonderment, out of fear, with words that say what can not be said, is to reach for and hold none other than God. And in our holding, we know too that somehow, we are gently held.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and the author of The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, published by Behrman House.