Wednesday, June 3, 2015

I've Been Doing it Wrong: How to Pray

I receive a lot of books for review in the mail, most Jewish-themed, from a bevy of book publishers. Some of them I get to, some of them I start and set aside because they're trying too hard, and others I fall into with a heavy mixture of exhaustion and relief.

One of these books I'm only a few pages into, but it's a "lesson a day" kind of book, so that only makes sense. Normally I wouldn't even write about a book or review it until I'm practically finished, but I feel compelled to write something.

I've had a rough couple of years, and an even rougher past eight months. My experience is that my whole life has been one gigantic challenge, with very little coming easy and very little feeling like it makes sense or that I can take a few days to just relish in what I have. It's a thankless perspective to have on life, but when I'm low, it's how I feel. I have a beautiful child who is my reasoning for waking up every day, and that is what drives me even as I struggle in every other aspect of my existence.

And then I hear stories or read book introductions, and I feel like my pity party is disgusting, selfish, and unwarranted. Chin up, buck up, it could be worse. It could always be worse.

Turn Around: 180 Degrees in 180 Days was written by Orit Esther Riter, a woman who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis three months after the birth of her first child. Through relapses and other pitfalls, she's stayed forward-thinking, always looking at how good things are. I can only dream of having that perspective, the perspective that Mr. T so confidently holds, too.

The first day, "What Lies Deep Within Us?" has a very simple lesson about prayer, tefillah: "We should ask for our needs to be fulfilled because we want to use them to serve Him better."

Aha! Lightbulb.

When I was little I'd pray with a bargaining chip. "If you do this, G-d, I'll do or be that." If you make such and such happen, I'll be good, I'll pray every night, I'll help more. When I was a kid, I was doing it right.

At some point, the more I prayed, the more I learned, the less I held to this. In the past eight months, I've spent a lot of time talking to G-d. I've asked for my husband back, because I cannot, should not be alone. Because a son needs a father. But I've been doing it wrong. Because I've had such a hard time already, enough is enough.
"We ask for wisdom to understand the Torah. Give us health, so we can perform the mitzvos (commandments)." 
Aha! That's it. That's. It. Thank you, Orit.

When I read this I realized that my formula has been wrong. I'm should pray for my husband to return so that I can observe the mitzvah (commandment) of taharat ha'mishpacha (family purity, loosely going to mikvah). For my husband to return so that I can have the time, energy, and capacity to study and understand the Torah. I should pray for my husband to return so we can fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.

You get the drift. It's about recognizing that everything comes from HaShem (G-d). All roads lead there. It's about having emunah -- a term that is difficult to translate into English. It's typically translated as "faith" or "belief" and first appears in the Torah with Abraham. After leaving the land of his father, Abraham and Sarah go through a lot, after which he challenges G-d. Then, G-d promises that Abraham and his seed will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and at last he says,
“And he believed (vehe’emin) in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15: 1‑6).
But it isn't belief as we understand it today. No, as Dr. Menachem Kellner explains, Abraham finally truly trusted HaShem. Emunah is ultimate trust. 

The truth is, being a cerebral person, this is the most difficult aspect of my Orthodox Jewish life to put into words or feelings. It's something so internal, so deeply embedded in me, that it's difficult to vocalize. I've always trusted. At the same time, it's so entrenched within me that it also gets covered up and forgotten about when things get hard. I forget how to trust because I take for granted that it's there.

B'ezrat HaShem (with the help of G-d), this book will help me, day by day, to rebuild my relationship with G-d, to pray with conviction and understanding of why I'm praying and how it connects me to HaShem. 

Heaven knows I need it.