When G-d Hears Our Prayers
A few months ago, we were at Friday night services, and everyone was praying and singing together. Then my 2 ½ year old daughter piped up, and as loud as she could, she started singing the ABCs. In any other context, I might have been mortified and tried to shush her. But, her singing the ABCs made me think of a story told by the great Hassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov. One Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov was praying in a small synagogue. A poor Jewish boy, a shepherd, entered the room, and stood quietly at the back of the room for a while. He looked down at the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, but he was illiterate, and couldn’t read the letters on the page. The boy was deeply moved by the service, and he, too, wanted to pray. He started to whistle, to offer his whistling as a gift to G-d since the one thing he knew he could do beautifully was whistle. The congregation was horrified at the desecration of their service. Some people yelled at the boy, and others wanted to throw him out. The Ba'al Shem Tov immediately stopped them. "Until now," he said, "I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court. This young shepherd's whistling was so pure, however, that it broke through the blockage and brought all of our prayers straight up to G-d."
Every once in a while, we, too, are blessed with that feeling of knowing that our prayers have reached G-d. A few years ago, in the middle of Rosh Hashanah morning, I knew that G-d had heard my prayers. It’s impossible to fully articulate what such an experience feels like, but I will share with you a poem that I wrote to describe what I felt happen to me, though your personal experiences may be quite different:
“Back Door Praying”
Surrounded by a sea
of faces clustered
at the throne’s foot
to the King on high,
and red robed;
I slip away
to another room
bathed in clouds
devoid of jewels
and cry at the feet
of a chestnut-tressed maiden.
Hug me with love
as a mother
embraces a toddler
amidst the shards of her best vase.
Fulfill my longing
read my bursting heart
in Your womanly wisdom
understand my plight,
The stars in Her eyes
reflect the moonlight smile
and we are alone
a cotton oasis
for just a moment
my heart hopes
the prayer’s been kissed,
my petition acknowledged
and I return exhausted
to the self
swaying with the crowd.
Even if we don’t use the liturgy set down for us in the siddur by the rabbis, we all have many experiences of praying. After all, we’ve all heard the saying “there are no atheists in foxholes.” All of us experience moments in our lives when prayer rises out of us unbidden. As kids, we may have begged G-d for a coveted toy. As adults, our prayer moments are more likely moments when we are scared and plead with G-d for our lives and health or the lives and health of those close to us, or even moments when we are overwhelmed by the beauty of nature. And yes, we still have moments when we barter with G-d, promising to give up something we love if only things will work out the way we want.
Usually, however, unlike the experience described in the poem, we pray with no knowledge what-so-ever of whether our prayers are heard, let alone answered.
In codifying how to pray, the rabbis were trying to create a system designed to maximize the efficacy of prayer. They wanted everyone’s prayers to reach G-d’s ears and at least be heard, even if they weren’t answered in the way that people wanted. In tractate Brachot, the part of the Talmud where the rabbis discuss prayers and praying, they talk about how the Shechina, the Divine Presence, is present whenever ten gather together to pray. By praying together in a group of ten, then, the rabbis believed that their prayers could not help but be heard by the Shechina, the Divine Presence.
Consequently, in Judaism, there is great emphasis placed on praying together as a community. Some of our prayers can’t even be said without the minimum ten people required to make up a minyan, a community, a count of ten. In an effort to raise our prayers up to heaven, praying together became a requirement encoded in halakhah, Jewish law.
Unfortunately, we all know how easy it is to physically be somewhere and still not really hear the conversation going on around us. Similarly, just because the Shechina is present, there is no guarantee that a prayer will be heard. And even if a prayer is heard, there’s no guarantee that it will be answered, much less a guarantee that it will be answered in the affirmative. And while the rabbis place great emphasis on communal prayer, lauding it as the ideal, the Tanach itself is full of examples of G-d not just hearing but responding to individual prayers. In fact, we read two of them today: one in our Torah reading, and one in our haftorah reading. Not only do we read them on one of the holiest and most important days of the year, but the same rabbis of the Talmud that taught us to pray in a group, also taught us that Hannah, whose story we read this morning, is the model of prayer (Berakhot 31a).
So, how do we make our prayers heard? Rav Hamnuna says that Hannah teaches us that prayer requires devotion of the heart, since Hannah prayed in her heart; and since only her lips moved, one must articulate the words of a prayer by moving the lips. Furthermore, the priest Eli’s dismissal of her as a drunk teaches us that we must be sober when we pray. The Yalkut Shimoni, a collection of aggadic midrashim compiled in the 13th century, says that Hannah’s prayer teaches us that women are just as obligated to pray as men are. So we, men and women, free of any intoxicating substances, pray by letting our lips move to speak the words in our heart. Hannah is indeed a powerful force in teaching us about the art of prayer.
But, the work of modern biblical scholars such as James Kugel suggests that Hannah teaches us something else about prayer, too. Hannah, if you noticed, prays twice, once before Samuel is born, and once after. In looking at Hannah’s second prayer, the one she said after Samuel was born, James Kugel looks closely at the words that she used, and noticed an odd discrepancy in Hannah’s story. In her prayer (1 Samuel 2:5), Hannah talks about having seven children: עַד-עֲקָרָה יָלְדָה שִׁבְעָה, וְרַבַּת בָּנִים אֻמְלָלָה, “while the barren woman bears seven, the mother of many children is forlorn”. But, it says something different a few verses later (in 2:21)
כִּי-פָקַד יְהוָה אֶת-חַנָּה, וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שְׁלֹשָׁה-בָנִים וּשְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת;
“So the LORD took note of Hannah; she conceived, and bore three sons and two daughters”. Last time I checked, 3 sons plus 2 daughters equals 5 children! So, which is it, did Hannah have 5 children or 7?
Modern biblical scholars such as James Kugel suggest that this discrepancy in the number of children ascribed to Hannah supports the idea that her prayer and the surrounding narrative were originally independent compositions that were combined only later on. These modern critical scholars propose that the text we refer to as “Hannah’s second prayer” should be view as a poem or psalm that exemplifies what liturgy one should employ in a situation like Hannah’s. Not only does Hannah teach us the form of prayer: from the heart with lips moving, she also teaches us the words of prayer, and how to use them. She exemplifies for us the way in which we turn to psalms or poems, to words composed by others, to express our own deepest emotions. She is the paradigm for using the words of a set liturgy to articulate what we personally feel and experience in life.
But, Hannah’s first prayer is of an entirely different nature. In her first prayer, Hannah calls out to G-d with all of her heart and soul. (1 Samuel 1:10) וְהִיא, מָרַת נָפֶשׁ; וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל עַל-ה', וּבָכֹה תִבְכֶּה. “And she was bitter of soul, and prayed to G-d, and surely cried”. The rabbis picked up on the odd participle used in this verse. Typically, the verb to pray doesn’t even need a participle, and when it does take one prays either for l’hitpalel l, or to lhitpalel el something or someone. In fact, the only type of communication that employs the preposition al is licos, to be angry. Using this logic, the rabbis concluded that Hannah must have been very angry at G-d. We don’t know the words that she used in her prayer, but we know that she flung her prayer at G-d with all of her anger and other emotions. Despite the depth of emotion behind it, Hannah’s prayer was so personal that it was between her and G-d alone.
In contrast to Hannah’s silent prayer, our foremother Rachel cries out her prayer aloud: (Genesis 30:1) הָבָה-לִּי בָנִים, וְאִם-אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי. “Give me children and if not, I will die”. Both Hannah’s silent prayer and Rachel’s anguished outburst express the same pain and desperation of a person desperately seeking something that seems beyond her grasp. And we know that G-d hears both the cry of the heart and the cry that escapes from the lips, because both Rachel and Hannah have their prayers answered affirmatively. Both give birth to the sons for which they prayed.
While, like Hannah, Rachel has a lot to teach us about prayer, we did not read Rachel’s story today. We read about a different prayer that G-d heard:
וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר, וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל-הָגָר מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה-לָּךְ הָגָר; אַל-תִּירְאִי, כִּי-שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל-קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא-שָׁם
(Genesis 21:17) “G-d heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of G-d called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for G-d has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” Clearly both Hagar and “the boy” (i.e., Ishmael) cried out to G-d, and, like Hannah, they each did so individually even though they were praying for the same or similar things: survival, particularly for Ishmael. Their prayers, though, must not have been identical, because the angel tells Hagar that “G-d has heeded the cry of the boy.” But what about her prayer? Was her prayer answered? Was it even heard? The fact that the angel appears to Hagar would seem to indicate that her prayer, too was heard. Why else would G-d send an angel to reassure her? But, the fact that that G-d heard Ishmael’s prayer implies that Hagar’s prayer was not heeded. It was heard, but either not answered at all or answered negatively.
If both of them were praying for the same things, then why was one prayer heeded and the other not? Maybe the answer is simply that G-d answered the one that G-d heard first. Once one prayer to let Ishmael live was heard, any further prayer on the same subject was redundant and superfluous. But, since G-d didn’t want Hagar to worry, an angel was sent to reassure her that the boy would live. Another possibility is that Hagar and Ishmael weren’t actually praying for the same thing. Whatever it was that Ishmael had cried out, G-d heeded. But, Hagar’s prayer, though it was heard and acknowledged, was not answered positively. The 11th century French commentator and rabbi Rashi offers yet another possible explanation of this scene. Rashi thinks that the fact that G-d heeded the dying boy’s prayer and not the mother’s teaches us that it’s better for a sick person to pray for him (or her) self than for another person to pray on behalf of the sick person. It’s not that praying for someone else isn’t beneficial, or even that those prayers aren’t heard. What Rashi is saying is something with which we are all familiar. A person needs to want to get better for the cure to be effective. He understood that an addict who does not want treatment will not be helped by the best facility around, and the strongest pills will only work if they actually make it into a patient’s body. G-d heeded the cry of the boy, Ishmael, because he was ready to be helped.
Sometimes, like Ishmael, we need to pray for ourselves. Sometimes, like Hannah and Hagar, we need to pray on behalf of others. And sometimes we need to let others pray on behalf of us. Sometimes, we need the space to say our own words, as Rachel cried out, and as Hannah did in her first prayer. And sometimes, as in Hannah’s second prayer, we need the comfort of turning to a liturgy that has already been written.
There are lots of different ways to pray, and each of them is ok, each is a way to connect with G-d. You can pray silently or scream out loud. You can pray in despair, anger, joy, or simply out of habit. You can use the fixed words of the liturgy or compose your own private prayer. You can pray when you are alone, or within the embrace of the community. Our tradition has room for all forms of prayer. The important thing is that you do pray. Not just today and next week on Yom Kippur, but every day.
The Zohar, our classical text of mysticism, teaches that there is an angel responsible for each and every one of our prayers. And that angel responsible for the prayer embraces it and kisses it before raising up the prayer into a higher world. Upon reaching this higher world, this next level closer to G-d, another angel stands ready to hug and kiss the prayer before sending it up even further. In this way, each individual prayer is sent higher and higher and higher until it reaches G-d.
For all those times that we open our hearts and our minds and our mouths in prayer, we know that only a handful of times have things turned out the way we have prayed. Not every toy that we prayed for was there on our birthday, and not everyone we pray for gets better. And we do not see divine messengers who let us know that G-d heard the prayer, and just couldn’t make things turn out the way we wanted. That doesn’t mean that the prayer wasn’t heard. It doesn’t mean that that prayer that came from deep inside wasn’t raised up and kissed by angels. When you pray like Hannah, and pray from your heart, whether you use your own words or the words of the prayers printed in your prayer book, you better believe that your prayers are kissed by angels and delivered straight to G-d. And when we don’t know the words of the psalms, or the words to fully express our emotions, remember that it was the shepherd’s whistling that brought the community’s prayers to G-d’s attention.
Whomever we are praying for, whichever words we utter with our lips or our hearts, when we ask G-d to remember us, our friends, and our family this Rosh Hashanah, we are asking not only that G-d remember us as G-d remembered Hannah, but also that G-d heed us as G-d heeded Ishmael.
May all of our prayers today, throughout this high holiday season, and the whole year through merit the blessing of being heard by G-d.