My book, Dancing with Gd: How to Connect with Gd Every Time You Pray, has finally arrived. It will be available from the shul office and if you buy it there or on its special website later in the week—www.dancingwithg-d.com—all proceeds will go to charity. Now only the Kindle version is available at Amazon.com, but next week, the hardcopy should be available there and at www.Korenpub.com as well.
How many years have I been working on this book? More than 20. How many years have I been trying to get it published? Probably about 5 years. Have there been disappointments along the way? More than I care to share. But I never stopped trying and praying because I knew that its message is crucial for our times and can literally transform the lives of those who use it. And now—Baruch Hashem—it is a fine hardcover book published by the Menorah Division of one of the largest Jewish publishing houses in the world—Koren Publishers. I’ll send out more information about it this week.
As I look back at this long journey it occurs to me that I’m not the only one who has worked so long and so hard for a dream to come true. And so let me share a relevant thought about this from my book.
Have you ever prayed for something to occur and it didn’t happen? One day passes after another, month after month, year after year with no result. It may bring you to ask, can our prayers really make a difference other than helping us feel closer to Gd?
In today’s Torah portion, Rachel sees her sister Lea—who is also married to her husband Jacob—have child after child after child while she remains barren. In her torment she demands Jacob (Gen. 30:1), Hava li vanim, v’im ayin meyta (Give me children—otherwise I’m [like] dead)! Jacob became angry and said, Hatachat Elokim anochi (Am I in place of Gd Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb)?
The Midrash says she was only really asking Jacob to pray for her. After all, that’s what happened to Jacob’s parents. Rivka was barren and Isaac had prayed for her and she became pregnant, giving birth to 2 children. The sages scolded Jacob for his insensitivity to his wife (Ber. Rabba), but also say that Jacob did pray for her and she then gave birth to Joseph and later to Benjamin.
The lesson is that prayer can be very powerful, so never give up hope! The Midrash (Tanchuma, Beshalach 9) comments on a verse in Isaiah (41:14) comparing Israel to a worm: “‘A worm can fell the mightiest cedars, but only with its mouth.’ It is a soft creature, but it can fell the hardest tree. Israel likewise can make use of prayer.” Such is the power of prayer!
There’s an old joke about a man who comes to Jerusalem and prays his heart out at the Kotel. Suddenly he hears the voice of Gd speaking to him telling him how proud he is of the good things he has done in his life. Gd then tells him He will grant him one request. The man thinks for a few moments about all the things he and his family could use and then asks, quite unselfishly, “Please make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
The voice responds, “You’re talking to a wall!”
Do your prayers seem to be landing on deaf ears giving you the feeling when you’re praying that you’re talking to a wall? Could it be because your prayers are perfunctoral? You may recite the proper words at the proper time, but with how much feeling? Do you really mean them while you’re saying them? King David teaches in the Ashre (Psalm 145): Karov Hashem l’chol korav, “Gd is near to all who call upon Him,” l’chol asher yikra-uhu v’emet, “to all who call upon Him in truth.” Gd can be close to us, but we must make the call—not just by reciting the proper words, but v’emet, “in truth,” by pouring out our hearts.
But what if you prayed again and again with all your heart and soul and nothing happened? How many of us have prayed that someone who was ill might live and then he or she died? There’s a story of a little girl who cried the familiar lament: “I prayed that my grandmother should get all better and she died. How could Gd be so cruel?”
Wisely her mother responded: “There are few deaths, thank Gd, where there is no one to pray for the one who is dying. Do you suppose that the gift of prayer was given to us in order that one may never die? Do you think Gd intended that we live on in growing infirmity, till at last we would pray for death to save ourselves from despair? Only Gd knows how to answer. Gd knows when to say, ‘No.’” (Rabbi Earl A. Grollman, Eulogies)
“I see,” the skeptic might say. “If she gets better it is Gd helping her, and if she dies it is Gd saying, ‘No.’ As the Church Lady might say: How convenient!”
And I would say to the skeptic, “Yes, to a certain extent that is correct. Our sincere prayers from the depths of our hearts do have a profound influence upon Gd’s decrees. But sometimes it is time for someone to die, even though we may feel that she has died before her time. Gd does not always give us what we ask for. He does give us what we need! Sometimes Gd’s answer must be, ‘No!’”
Ok, now we understand how Gd sometimes must answer our prayers by saying, “No.” But how do we get to the state of “Yes!”—the state where Gd answers our prayers by giving us what we prayed for? King David tells us the secret in the next verse in the Ashre prayer: R’tzon y’reyav yaaseh, “He will do the will of those who are in awe of Him,” v’et shavatam yishma v’yoshi-eym, “and He will hear their cries and will save them.” Be in awe of Gd—especially in your prayers. Align your intention with His—resolve in your prayers to do Gd’s will—and He will align His intentions with yours—He will resolve to do your will. As it says in Pirke Avot (2:4): “Make your will like Gd’s will, so that Gd will make your will like His will.”
Deep prayer has the power to change us, to transform us so much that even if Gd decreed we should be ill…because of our prayers we now might no longer be the same person for whom that illness was prescribed and we can then begin to heal. The Talmud (Brachot 5a) advises that when we become ill we should search our lives to see if we need to change our ways and ask forgiveness. That needs to be part of the process of deep prayer. And most important, when illness or misfortune strikes, we need to ask Gd to help us understand what is the lesson we need to learn from what life has thrown at us? Once we learn the lesson, there’s no further need for the distress. And so the Talmud (Brachot 32b) teaches: “Whoever prolongs his prayer (with meaning, focus, attention), his prayer will not be left unanswered.”
Once, one of our members shared with me that his grandson’s wife was pregnant and the doctors had discovered a tumor in the brain of the fetus. Apparently this was malady had been in the family before. When he found out about this, he began to be more scrupulous about putting on tefilin every day and reciting his prayers—especially for his great grandson to be. 2 weeks later the doctors checked and—Baruch Hashem—there was no trace of the tumor! True story!
I had him share this story in my class on prayer and it prompted others to share similar stories. Our prayers are heard and can be very powerful if recited with all our hearts.
Does Gd answer our prayers? You bet He does! So let’s rise for the Musaf service now as we continue our prayers—hopefully with greater focus and resolve. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis