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10/19/2006 - 6:01 p.m.

PRAYER—AND ALL THAT JAZZ

What is prayer, any way? What should prayer be? And where does God fit it? I did not start out to think about any of these issues today. Today was filled with a lot of driving, meeting with a client in one of our prisons, coaching mock trial, and making file notes. It was not exactly a day that lent itself toward thinking of prayer and God all on its own. And then I started reading—and you never know what direction the internet will send you. For me, that's half the fun of it.

RegularGoy is talking about prayer. He is struggling with issues of communal prayer versus individual prayer. He wonders about feeling closer to God when he listens to popular music and wonders if it can be a form of prayer. The Geezer commented in response that the concept of prayer has confused him since he was a teen, many years ago. (I know how many years ago but I'm not telling.) He asks, "If one believes in a personal God, who is both omnipotent and omniscient, if you pray for a particular outcome, aren't you saying you know more than God or that God does not know your personal desires unless you address them to Him. And, if your view is that true prayer is praise of God, aren't you belittling God by saying that a being who created the entire universe NEEDS your praise to fulfill Himself?"

I've struggled with the idea of prayer. I have never been able to bring myself to believe that God needs our prayers. The Geezer's thought have probably influenced mine but I have been away from home for more than thirty years now and have had many, many thoughts of my own. I just do not see what God sees in prayer. I know people who will tell me about God's need for love and a few stories from the Torah seem to bear that out but God must know whether that love exists with or without our prayer.

But what about us. Does prayer have some use beyond God? I think so. Communal prayer matters precisely because it binds us to one another (and, if misused, separates us from one and other but I am talking about prayer at its best) and to the larger community. When I am asked to pray for those who are ill, sometimes I am being told that they are ill, that I should care, and that I should keep them in my thoughts, and, if appropriate, take steps to help them. Prayer acts as a means of communication and of strengthening the group. Prayer acts to encourage caring and to help drive away despair. When I recite (or better yet, sing) an ancient prayer, if I am really concentrating, I usually connect with that history.

(True confessions: most of the recently penned prayers do nothing for me. They lack the connection with history and many of them are badly written—at least the ones used at my synagogue. I cannot intone with any sense of connection that "God loves puppies and smiles and rainbows" and I doubt the children the prayer supposedly was written for connect with it either. In any event, do we really intend to tell suggest that God loves only the cute, the happy, and the beautiful?)

But private or personal prayer has a use beyond praise or request too. For me, at least, personal prayer can connect me with the best in myself. At its best, it can connect me with goodness, creative forces, love, and even anger (in its useful form.) I suppose that those who speak of the Jewish concept of the divine spark in all of us might say that it clear the way to that spark. Music often does it for me better than words but the Chasidim would understand that. In the part of the service that calls for private prayer, I often think a nigun, a Chasidic prayer song with no words. Can popular music do it? Yes, RegularGoy, I believe it can. Is that prayer? It is to me.

So, for me, prayer is all about God and not about God at all. It's a contradiction but much in life is. I long ago accepted that one of my best character traits was also one of my worst. What matters is not the trait but how I use it. And so it is with prayer.

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