Learning to Pray is Lifelong Challenge

Some people seem so comfortable at praying. They shut their eyes and recite words praising God and fold into their own private space. I am still learning how to pray.

I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah four years ago and led others in the traditional prayers of a Shabbat morning service. I did not stumble over the Hebrew, and yet my adrenalin rush stemmed not so much from the words of the prayer. It came from the people around me. It came from the sense of community.

I understand the most basic of Jewish prayers – like the Sh’ma, where we acknowledge the existence of only one G-d. I understand prayers over the bread, candle lighting, and wine – and prayers about healing and gratitude. And yet, I do not know how to really pray for or about anything unless I am staring at a prayer book, unless others around me are also speaking the same words.

I am a writer, but when asked to write my own prayer blessing my own wonderful child at a recent conference, I stumbled. What words would possibly be adequate to bless my son, a blessing to me and his father because of so many things? He was born healthy and alert when I was 43. He has had a voracious appetite for life from day one. His smile is huge, his energy and enthusiasm contagious. He readily hugs me and his Dad, and willingly opens his arms up to others. He is surprisingly gentle with dogs. He may run up to a dog, but then he stops and ever so softly pats the dog’s back. Give him a way to help, and he is almost giddy with anticipation. He brought me one towel after another today as I was putting away laundry. Sure, the towels came to me more wrinkled than they were at the start, but what did it matter? My son was helping, and he was thrilled. So was I. He sings spontaneously throughout the day. He sees us take out candles on a Friday night and starts smiling and waving his arms as if to start shielding his eyes from the light. He sings the prayers along with us. How could I possibly write all of this down in a prayer? How could I pick out one thing to say as a blessing over my child?

In the benchers my husband recently bought for us is the standard Shabbat blessing for children. It tells us to place our hands on our children’s hands. For a son, we say a Hebrew prayer that means: “May G-d make you to be like Ephraim and Menasseh. For all children, we say, “May Adonai bless you and watch over you. May Adonai shine upon you and be gracious to you. May Adonai look towards you, and grant you peace.” They are beautiful words. I have no problem saying them, and yet those words, like the words of so many prayers, can never begin to express entirely what I feel.

My lessons on prayer likely will continue into infinity. It’s not just memorizing the words. It’s internalizing them. What do they mean? How do they relate to my own life? Can I create a prayer that says exactly what I want to say? It’s not the words, I suspect, that really matter. It’s the act of saying them. Shabbat shalom.

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