Recently I was listening to Pastor Rudy’s Love Revolution on SiriusXM’s gospel station. (I recognize this is not how one might expect a rabbi to begin an article, but to be honest that’s the station I more often listen to.) Hezekiah Walker sang, “Every praise is to our God, every word of worship with one accord…” In between listening to some of my favorite gospel singers, Pastor Rudy opined, “Prayer does work. God does listen.”
The music left me. The songs faded. My thoughts wandered. “Really? How can he be so sure? How does he know prayer works? How can he be so confident God is listening?” There are so many things demanding God’s attention and care. There is an entire world in need of healing and filled with brokenness. God is going to listen to my small prayers, which must appear so self-absorbed in comparison to the world’s grand problems?
A crisis emerged. How can I lead prayer if I doubt prayer, if even for a moment?
I recalled an experience from some years ago. I was invited to attend the dedication ceremony for a neighborhood Greek Orthodox Church. The New York patriarch presided over the ceremonies. He spoke at length in Greek. I think he was praying. I am sure, however, that I did not understand a word. I wondered: “Is this how my congregants feel when I go on and on in Hebrew?” Then he walked among the attendees and sprinkled holy water. I tried to duck–I hope surreptitiously and I really hope, respectfully.
I returned home and expressed some worry to my wife that I was perhaps sprinkled with holy water. “And?” she exclaimed. “Well it’s not what we do. It’s not what we believe.” I shouted. “That’s exactly the point,” Susie said. “You don’t believe it is holy water. What are you worried about? You believe you were just sprinkled with plain old water.”
Without sounding disrespectful to my Christian brethren, I then realized that ritual and prayer hinge on belief. It is only holy if you believe it is holy. And perhaps it is as simple as that. God listens if you believe God listens. That is the crux of the spiritual enterprise, whatever faith one adheres to. We have to believe in order for it to work. And it only works if you think it works.
Do you have to understand the words to make it work? What about all those Greek prayers? Why then all that Hebrew? But how can I pray in any other language? What is Hebrew mumbo-jumbo to others is the root of my prayer experience. I must approach God using my language, with my inherited words, and my community’s vocabulary. What may seem off-putting to others is the lingua franca of my spirit.
That, of course, is not what I imagine Pastor Rudy believes or how the Greek Patriarch feels, but it is where I begin. We each begin with the words we were taught, with the vocabulary we share with those standing near us.
The beginnings of faith emanate from a common, shared language. When we enter it, or better yet, when we decide to enter it, is when prayer starts to do its magic. Prayer works when it starts from that place of familiarity and comfort. Language unlocks that. Everyone begins with what they grew up with. They begin with their familiar words. For Jews, that is the essence of praying in Hebrew. We sing, “Baruch Atah…Blessed are You…”
Say it enough. Say it frequently. Say it, perhaps, as if you mean it. And the heart begins to follow.
The other night I attended a Squeeze concert. (Again not where one might think I was headed, but it is actually where all this came together.) I was transported back to my high school days as the concert goers sang, “Tempted by the fruit of another, tempted but the truth is discovered…” As I sang along with others, I began to wonder, “Is anyone here thinking about the meaning of this song?” I reached out for Susie’s hand. And then I realized, “The words do not matter.” We were all just singing a song–together.
We bought tickets to this concert because we grew up listening to Squeeze’s songs. We became fans. We continue to listen to their music well after the end of the 1980’s. We came to this concert because we wished to be transported back in time. We wished to experience those feelings of yesteryear. Surrounded by like-minded concert goers, we jumped up and down and sang in unison, “There’s a stain on my notebook, where your coffee cup was…”
Everyone was singing. Everyone was dancing. Every heart was celebrating.
Is it the meaning of the words? Or is it the singing?
No matter. For a moment we were all believers.
I started singing again, “Every praise is to our God, every word of worship with one accord…”
Prayer does work. God does listen.
Rabbi Steven Heneson Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor, a vibrant synagogue on Long Island’s North Shore. His writing appears in a variety of publications including Reform Judaism and The Times of Israel. He also blogs at rabbimoskowitz.com