By Rabbi Shohama
One of the things I enjoy most about this congregation is how fully many of us respond to Spirit, or God, or whatever name we choose for the Holy. We pour hearts into our prayers set to music. We dance with feet and with fingers; we pray for ourselves and others when we hear “Waters of Healing.” We pray for people on our Healing List. We even have a Healing Circle that meets to strengthen our group prayers. (If you feel moved to be part of it, please be in touch with Daniella Haney after services.)
This outpouring of fervent prayer was foreign to me when I was growing up. But there is ample precedent in Torah of holy chutzpah, the boldness that is connected to Spirit. This week’s reading, Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah), recounts how Abrahams’s servant Eliezer prayed in great detail to find the right wife for Yitzchak (Isaac). Lo and behold, his prayer came about exactly as he asked.
Next week’s Torah reading, the portion during which we will hold our Sunday Luncheon, mentions that Rivkah (Rebekah) was barren and that her husband Yitzchak (Isaac) prayed to God on her behalf. We don’t know how he prayed, and what words, if any, he used. Torah says “Vaye-etar Yitzchak l’Adonai l’nochach ishto” / Yitzchak entreated God on behalf of his wife (Genesis 25:21) – and Rebekah conceived.
How did he plead with God? Was it a silent prayer? Was it with cries of anguish? Did he utter many words, or just a few? Did he just envision her pregnant or send her energy for fertility? Whatever his modality, he had holy chutzpah. The word entreat suggests a plea that comes from the strongest emotions of the heart. Another example is Moses’ prayer for Miriam to be healed, just six words — Ana El na, r’fa na la / “Please God, please heal her, please!” (Numbers 12:13). And she was quickly healed!
In Jewish tradition prayers are not just for healing, but for any matter deemed in need of assistance, no matter how small. This is where angels come in. The Hebrew word for angel is malach, which means messenger. In Jewish tradition angels are called upon in the bedtime prayers, as well as for Shabbat, (the song Shalom Aleichem which we often sing to welcome in the Shabbat), but in Torah they have many functions. Tradition took the concept further and said there is an angel for every blade of grass that empowers it to grow. (Said Rabbi Simon: “Every single blade of grass has a corresponding mazal in the sky which hits it and tells it, ‘Grow!'” (Bereshit Rabbah 10:6).) How much more so an angel for each one of us, or each community or project.
Of course, God and angels are not sufficient; we are called on to act, to do something to make manifest the most beneficial result.
In my own life I’ve experienced a number of seemingly miraculous responses to prayer, whether just from the Holy One or through angelic intervention. The first was when I was 35 and said to God, “I don’t know if You exist, but if you hear this, and let me know You do, I will follow.” Instantly my heart expanded with overwhelming love. So began my journey into Jewish spiritual life, and into the rabbinate.
The other story I love to share, so appropriate to this weekend when I move from your year-round Rabbi to Rabbi Emerita/Guest Rabbi, is when I served a High Holiday congregation on the Big Island in Hawaii. The people were so warm and full of Spirit I uttered this prayer: “You know, I would love to be with a congregation like this — on an island, but it has to be close to my home in New Rochelle.” Holy chutzpah, in retrospect, but no matter, the rest is history (or herstory, as we now say).
Angels often appear in human form, as when Abraham was visited by three men (angels) who came to announce Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy with Isaac (Genesis 18:1-10). We can serve as angels for each other as well, whenever we offer a helping hand.
The downside to prayer is that it may not be answered in the way we wish; and that may lead to a lack of faith in a Guiding Spirit. Theology is not simple. A wise person once said, “if you offer a prayer and it is not answered, you are no worse off than if you didn’t pray. But if it would be answered and you don’t try, you have much to lose.”
May we all have holy chutzpah! May be strengthened to offer prayers for matters large and small. May we be inspired to take action to empower these prayers, and may we feel God’s loving presence in the answers.