Answering Prayer By: Rabbi Rachel Marder
South Orange, NJ
There once was a woman who desperately wanted to have a baby, but she and her husband struggled to conceive. Her husband didn’t understand her suffering. He loved his wife deeply and believed they could lead full lives just the two of them. “Why are you crying?” he would ask her. “I love you. Aren’t you happy with me?” As the years passed, the woman grew lonely. She felt isolated from her husband and from the outside world. She felt forgotten by God. It became difficult for her to leave her home. Everywhere she went it seemed she saw babies in strollers and happy families. She yearned for the love and joy of bringing children into the world. Why had God not blessed her as He had other women? She felt incomplete.
One night after dinner the woman rose from the table and went to find her local shul. She didn’t know what had come over her, but for some reason she felt an urge to pray. She arrived at the synagogue. It was dark and quiet inside. She approached the ark and fell to her knees. With her face buried in her hands, the woman began to weep. Then she looked up and cried out to God. She didn’t know if Anyone was listening, but that didn’t matter. As her tears poured out, so did her pain; all the doctors’ visits, the endless fertility treatments, the exhaustion and isolation, the despair when nothing seemed to work. Between desperate sobs she took to bargaining. “If you will remember me, God,” she whispered, “if you will allow me to have a baby, I will dedicate my child to You. My child’s life will be about service and gratitude to You.” At that moment, she felt hopeful that God would hear her plea. Suddenly the woman felt a tap on her shoulder. It was the rabbi. He didn’t understand what this strange woman was doing alone in the dark in the shul. “Are you drunk, miss?” he asked accusingly. “No, no!” the woman said, wiping her tears and jumping to her feet. “I’m praying.” The rabbi felt embarrassed for misjudging her heartfelt prayer, and apologized. “May God grant you what you have asked,” he said. And as the woman turned to leave, for the first time in a long while she felt better.
This story may sound familiar. It’s the tale of Hannah and the high priest Eli at the sanctuary of Shilo in Ancient Israel, from Samuel 1. Hannah’s story is shared by many couples and individuals today, including, I’m sure, some of you reading this. About 1 in 8 couples in the United States who would like to have children face the challenge of infertility. I bring Hannah’s story this morning because today congregations across the country are observing Infertility Awareness Shabbat. Yesh Tikva, an organization whose name means “There is Hope,” encourages all of us to remember the story of Hannah on this Shabbat, and to honor the struggle of couples we may know; to listen with sensitivity, offer support, and lessen their loneliness.
I also bring the story of Hannah this morning to explore what she can teach us about prayer. Hannah’s story is significant not only because many of us resonate with her struggle, but also because in our tradition, Hannah became the model for how a Jew should pray. The Sages of the Talmud identify Hannah’s whispered, personal plea as the highest form of prayer. This is surprising, as the Sages also developed the highly structured Amidah prayer, with its fixed wording and standardized choreography. But they are very concerned with kavannah, the intentionality and personal focus we bring to prayer, and Hannah exemplifies this. She opens herself to God; she prays spontaneously, from the heart; she is fully present. It’s interesting to note that in this story Eli the priest, the representative of institutional religion, does not understand Hannah. He doesn’t grasp what she’s doing; he can only imagine that she’s drunk or disturbed. That’s because Hannah’s prayer is bigger than religion. It breaks the rules of structure and decorum. Hannah does not recite traditional words by rote; she offers her own words — honest, anguished, deeply human. This, our Sages said, is the most authentic way to come before God.
Before our Sages taught the value of connecting with God through offering t’fillat halev, the prayer of our hearts, the ancient Israelites offered God animal and grain sacrifices in a highly structured system we read about in parashat Vayikra. In the wilderness they offer sacrifices in the mishkan, the portable worship space in the desert; later, they offered their sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. But even before the Temple was destroyed, some ancient prophets challenged the sacrificial system as a way of connecting with God.
“We shall offer the words of our lips instead of calves,” said Hosea in the 8th century BCE (Hosea 14:3). And the speaker in Psalm 55 says: “In the evening, morning, and afternoon I will speak and cry aloud, and God will hear my voice” (Psalms 55:18). Already in ancient Israel, some religious visionaries realized that a practice of offering one’s own words to God makes possible a spirituality that is inward, personal, individual — something the sacrificial system lacks. In the Temple, spiritual practice was highly prescribed — fixed, formal, communal and vicarious — the priest carried out the ritual for the individual worshiper. But when the Temple was destroyed, a new model emerged. For the Sages who reinvented Jewish spiritual practice after the destruction, the words of our heart become crucial in reaching for God. Highly structured communal ritual, devoid of the individual voice, is not enough anymore.
Jewish prayer in our own time is about striking a balance between communal structure and individual need; between the fixed words of the prayer book, recited together at set times, and sharing one’s deepest, most personal feelings with God. Some of us feel pretty good at one of these, and it’s hard to achieve both every time we pray, but both dimensions of prayer are valuable. Honoring our fixed times for worship ensures that we will show up to pray regularly, and not just on those rare occasions when we may feel like it. Praying and singing the traditional words in community allows us to provide support to one another, and reminds us that we’re part of something greater than ourselves. But if we only pray when and how we are commanded to, the experience can sometimes feel scripted or empty. So our Sages remind us to ask ourselves a question, every time we pray: What do I need to say to God right now that is not written in the siddur? They insist that our own voice, our own thoughts and emotions, are essential to prayer. Without this kind of deep personal engagement, prayer is incomplete. Said the medieval sage Bahya ibn Pakuda: “Prayer without kavannah is like a body without a soul.” It is an empty vessel.
Hannah’s kavannah is only one reason why she is a Jewish model of prayer. I believe she has something deeper to teach us. Hannah was feeling desperate when she prayed to God for a child. She did not know whether God would hear her and grant what she asked for. She had waited for years; maybe she had tried to pray in the past, and the words had not come or she felt ignored. Still, she took a chance. She kept her heart open. Hannah’s story teaches us that prayer is an expression of profound hope. When the enslaved Israelites cried out to God in Egypt, they did not know whether God would answer them. We pray to remind ourselves that the world can change, our circumstances can change, and we ourselves can change. Prayer is optimistic. One who prays says: what is now, need not always be. The world can get better, and so can we.
Prayer is also humbling. We offer up our dreams, and admit that we alone cannot bring them to fruition. We need God and our community to hope and act with us. The Talmud’s recommended prayer stance captures this dual posture of hope and humility: Einav l’mata v’libo l’mala. “One should cast one’s eyes downward as though looking at the ground and one’s heart upward as though standing in heaven” (Yevamot 105b).
I would suggest another direction to look while we pray: at ourselves. I agree with Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who taught, “There is nothing that we can rightly pray for that does not make demands on us.” We ask God for a peaceful world, a rebuilt Jerusalem, for rain, for good health and for healing. In so doing, says Rabbi Schulweis, we should also ask ourselves: How am I making the world more peaceful? What am I doing for Jerusalem and Israel? How am I caring for the environment? How am I guarding my health? What am I doing to bring comfort to those in my life who are in need of healing? When we ask God to be compassionate and to open His hand to us, we might ask: do I show compassion? In what ways am I giving to others? The 19th century German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that “l’hitpalel,” the Hebrew word that means “to pray,” should be understood as a reflexive verb. Prayer should motivate us to look at our own life, examine our deeds, and commit to change. The hope we express in prayer should also be about our own potential to grow and improve .
The Talmud tells us that the first century Sage Rabbi Eliezer would give money to a poor person before he turned to God in prayer (B. Bava Batra 10a). How could he ask God to care for humanity if he was not doing his part? Rabbi Eliezer’s practice reminds me that we are partners with God in an everlasting covenant to care for the world. The Talmud cites a verse in Psalms to support Rabbi Eliezer’s custom: “Ani b’tzedek echazeh panecha — Through righteousness, I will behold Your face” (Psalms 17:15), meaning, I encounter God when I engage in acts of tzedek, justice and righteousness. This is the work that God and people do together. For Rabbi Eliezer, the act of prayer — standing before God and making requests — obligated him to make those same demands on himself and to care for others. If Hannah teaches us that prayer is an act of hope, Rabbi Eliezer teaches us that prayer should motivate us to work in partnership with God. Finally, Hannah’s story teaches us how people can answer each other’s prayers. What gave Hannah comfort? When did she feel better? It was not while she was praying. Hannah is comforted after Eli the priest joins her in her prayer. After his initial misunderstanding, Eli offers Hannah understanding and support — he tells Hannah to go in peace and prays that her prayer will be answered. At that moment, says the Bible, U’faneha lo hayu la od (1 Samuel 1:18) — literally her face was no more, an idiom that means her countenance had changed and she was no longer downcast. Hannah was not yet pregnant, but she received a different kind of healing. Eli saw Hannah’s suffering and offered her empathy. He linked his hope with her hope, and because of that she was comforted.
I believe that God was acting through Eli, and that we, like Eli, are instruments for God’s healing in the world. Eli is a fallible human being. He makes mistakes. He is not God. But he, and all of us, are God’s agents in offering comfort and strength to one another. When I pray with my community I can see who is saying Kaddish and feeling loss, who has a loved one who is ill, who is celebrating a simcha, and who just survived a life-threatening incident. We can learn a lot about people by praying with them, and we can then respond to them. We can pray for one another, link our hopes and dreams together, and show each other kindness and empathy. Often we cannot solve the problems that our friends and fellow congregants are facing, but we can ease their isolation and answer their prayers in our own way. As Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman said, “Prayer cannot mend a broken bridge, rebuild a ruined city, or bring water to parched fields. Prayer can mend a broken heart, lift up a discouraged soul, and strengthen a weakened will.”
Unlike other conditions, when someone is struggling with infertility, we cannot usually see it. But we as a community can listen with sensitivity and refrain from asking insensitive questions about when a couple will have children.
The frustration of the infertile couple is a microcosm of our own frustration at being tongue-tied before God. And the relief a couple feels when the community reaches out to offer support reflects a community’s ability to find prayer together.