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Rabbi, Pray For Me

Rabbi, Pray For Me

Why are so many Jews uncomfortable with heartfelt prayer?

by

She was sitting on the edge of her bed, waiting to be wheeled into surgery. She looked quite anxious. The nurse paged me to come as the on-call chaplain because the patient “wanted prayer” before her operation.

“Thank you so much for coming.”

“You are welcome. What is making you so nervous?”

“Well… it isn’t supposed to be such a complicated procedure, but they asked me if I had a Living Will and gave me some paperwork to fill out. Now I am thinking of the worst, and I have three young children at home.”

“I am so sorry. Having surgery can be very frightening and contemplating death doesn’t make it easy.”

“That’s exactly it. Could you say a prayer for me?”

“Of course. What would you like to pray for?”

“That I get home safely to my family.”

“Please God, listen to the prayers of Mrs. A. Please grant her courage and let her know that you are with her at this time. Please give guidance to her medical team to mend her heart. Please restore her to health so that she may quickly and speedily return to her family, so that she may raise her children to follow in Your ways, and so that she may continue to enjoy and acknowledge all of the blessings that You have given her.”

“Thank you so much. I am feeling a little more relaxed now.”

Related Article: How To Get Your Prayers Answered

As an institutional chaplain at a major medical center, serving critically ill patients, I am regularly called to the bedside of a patient with the request, “the patient wants prayer now” or “the patient wants prayer before surgery.” Most frequently, these requests come from my non-Jewish patients, who are eager to be led in prayer. From the most fundamentalist Christian to devout or even non-practicing Catholics, these patients are very willing to accept the supplication of a rabbi on their behalf. Kind of like a prescription for pain-killers or a curative pill, these patients see prayer as integral element of their course of treatment.

Interestingly, my non-observant Jewish patients seem much less comfortable talking about God. Prayer seems foreign to them, speaking to God unfamiliar.

Talking to God in my own voice was not something I grew up doing, let alone formulating something to say on someone else’s behalf.

To a certain extent, I understand this feeling of unease. Even though I am a rabbi, I grew up in a secular home. Prayer within the formula set by our rabbis was odd enough on a rare Friday night or on the High Holidays. Extemporaneous prayer would have been more odd. Talking to God in my own voice was not something I grew up doing, let alone formulating something to say on someone else’s behalf or accepting a personal prayer from another.

How ironic that we Jews, who brought an understanding of God into the world, feel so awkward talking to God and praying in our own words, while non-Jews converse with God with ease. Prayer should not be uncomfortable for us.

Indeed, there is a mitzvah, “When you go to war in your land against an adversary that oppresses you, you shall sound the trumpets and you will be remembered before H’ your God and you will be delivered from your enemies” Numbers 10:9. Based on this verse, our rabbis understand that just as when we are faced with war, we are commanded to call out to God with trumpet or shofar blasts, so too the community must fast and call out to God whenever calamity strikes it. And just as it is incumbent on the community to collectively cry out to God in times of need, so too, an individual is obliged to call out to God in times of personal need. This mitzvah is in addition to any obligation of set prayer.

Calling out to God in times of need acknowledges that ultimately He is in control of everything and that what is happening to us is not occurring by mere chance. In this way, we demonstrate our belief that not only does the world in general have purpose, but so too our lives. Individually, we have purpose as well. Recognizing this, we arouse our hearts to realign our lives.

The words of a person in need are potentially much more powerful than any words someone else could offer.

The gates of heaven are open to everyone; a person does not need a rabbi or anyone else praying for them. On the contrary, God counts our tears, so the words of a person in need are potentially much more powerful than any words someone else could offer. Most important are heartfelt and sincere words. They are what matter, whether a person is praying for themselves or for another.

When articulating a prayer, it is best to choose our words carefully; being specific is important. Yet, at the same time, through our prayers we are ultimately striving to connect to God and to have the clarity that God is always with us. Therefore, in my prayers, I always seek first a heightened consciousness of God's presence before proceeding to enumerate whatever the needs are of the moment.

When we pray for ourselves, we are expressing gratitude for our life and our desire to maximize it. When we pray for others we are acknowledging our love for our fellow human beings and recognizing the Divine image imprinted on them. As a result, we are brought into closer in relationship with those for whom we pray, and we are drawn closer to God.

Prayer is thus a curative act and it makes sense that it is part of our prescription for healing. When we pray, we do not change God, but we do change ourselves. In doing so, we affect an actual spiritual and physical change in the situation before us. In the end, our prayers may or may not result in the healing we seek. Ultimately, everything is up to God. We are limited in our ability to understand why things happen as they do. Still, with our prayers from our hearts in our own words, we are improved, the world is enhanced (even if ever-so-slightly), and we are drawn closer to the object of our prayer, to God, and to the purpose of our own existence.

Published: July 9, 2011


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Visitor Comments: 19

(13) Michelle, February 18, 2012 2:27 PM

thankyou

thankyou Rabbi for sharing so much here with us to help us understand and accept how grateful we are when we feel able and when we feel inadequate or unprepared to advance our relationship with G-d. i panicked and asked for others to pray for others and asked others to strengthen my prayers and perhaps to acknowledge that i beleived but felt my voice alone was insufficient... or my words inadequate or maybe... never good enough, always someone somewhere previously having or continuing to change me and what or how i tried to explain... you have helped and blessed me greatly with this sharing. as have all of you who have commented before me... who have helped me understand a bit more about myself, my commitment, confidence and trust in my spiritual relationship and the journey that brought me home. G-d bless you all and ... thanks.

(12) Nava, July 13, 2011 5:03 PM

Rabbis are doing their jobs per excellence

Rabbi, how to answer your question??? I don't ask others to pray for me, why, I do it myself. In the event I was going into surgery that could be life or death, and the nurse would ask if I would want to talk to a Rabbi, I may say yes, I may say no, but it wouldn't be about, oh, I need the man to pray for me. I'm comfortable with heartfelt prayer, coming from myself. Let's say, you are the Rabbi on duty. I don't know you, I don't know how you would pray, I don't know if we are in agreement. You may take one look and think, it's her time to die. I may know it's not my time to die. Once in the hospital, the nurse asked me if I wanted him to bring me the Torah. I said no, I really didn't want to read it at that time. I remained in heartfelt prayer, and didn't ask to speak to a Rabbi. Anytime you go into surgery, there is that chance you won't make it through. I felt no need to call up my Rabbi, and ask him to be there holding my hand. He is not my mediator between God and I. If I would've died, my Rabbi would still been here, not with me where my spirit would of gone. That's my Rabbi, that taught me well, and prepared me to come to God, face to face on this earth, preparing me to release myself fully to him, when it's time to go to his dwelling place for eternity. My Rabbi taught me to rely on God, not himself. Possibly my comment will help you to understand why you don't get asked by many Jews for prayer. Our Rabbis has taught us well. Don't take it personally, it's not that we don't need you, we need the Rabbis before such events, so in moments of crisis and death, we can stand alone with God. My Rabbi could rest (he didn't get a call in the middle of the night) that he has been a servant, placing his people in the right hands. Thanks to all the Rabbis, that has lead us to the right path, the path that went straight to God.

(11) Jack, July 13, 2011 10:24 AM

No mystery about why so many of us can't or won't pray

Why are so many Jews uncomfortable with heartfelt prayer? Rabbi Fine asks. No mystery: We don't believe! We're a pretty intelligent lot (if we may say so ourselves). No way to prove it, but my guess is that even many Jews (AND Christians AND Muslims) who say they believe--indeed, who THINK they believe--do not, really: not in anything remotely like the biblical God. Many cling to the HOPE that He exists (and is just, etc.), without BELIEVING the way people could in earlier times. Whether this is good or bad is another question; here I only suggest it is true. No offense, but it's obvious that the most heartfelt, fervent, genuine religious belief today is found among the world's poorest, least educated, and most desperate people. I'd add that--like our judgment in general--our beliefs when we're in pain or distress are less sound than when we aren't.

(10) Andy, July 12, 2011 8:12 PM

Confusion re prayer/Help wanted/ Divine and/or earthly input appreciated

As a Jew I accept my obligation to pray, but don't understand the reasons for requesting prayers,or for beseeching God myself with petitionary prayers. I believe that God knows what's best for me, and for others much more than I. Prayers of gratitude thanking God and affirming the relationship seem logical, but for me to request specifics such as a long life, good health etc seem like a mistake. God loves me and knows what's best for me much more than I do. I may be praying for what I think I need, but in reality it would be harmful if granted. One may answer that in those cases God will answer no, and therefore there is no harm in asking. Maybe God's world is designed in such a way that my asking triggers something. That's still strange because a loving all knowing parent will always wish to do right by the child even if the child, or anyone else does not request it. If it's a prayer that triggers the response it implies that God may do other than what is in the person's best interest if no request/prayer is forthcoming.That does not sound like a loving parent and as God is that, and much more, I must be mistaken.. Another possibility may be that God will always act in the best interest of the person, and prayer has no effect on the outcome, but people need to think that it does.That would imply God wants people to believe in a falsehood, which does not make sense. Another possibility is that God wants us to pray knowing that it has no effect on the future course of events whatsoever. The challenge is to request from God with total sincerity knowing full well that my prayers won't effect God's decision as he will always do what is in ones' best interest. One more possibility is that what is in one's best interest can be effected/changed thru prayer. That seems weak especially when praying for somebody else's recovery,success etc. Any comments which may be of help are most welcome.

Gila, July 15, 2011 9:35 AM

Prayer

My understanding and experience is that prayer is actually about changing us, and also about a relationship with our Creator. Yes, Hashem knows everything in our heart and mind anyway, but He wants us to communicate with Him, to grow and to trust Him. He is the one place where we can talk openly about everything we feel, want, fear and need. The fact that He is omnipotent and knows what is going to happen is irrelevant to where we are. We don't know from our finite perspectives, we have free will and we can change what might happen by our actions every moment of every day. He wants the best for us, and that isn't always what we think is best, but He does respond to our prayers. Always. Even if the answer is no. Like any human parent, He also wants us to stand on our own two feet and to take responsibility for our actions. As our King He wants us to worship Him and respect Him as well as love Him, from the bottom of our being. We are all different and therefore have different relationships with our One Creator, but the most important thing I believe is that He wants us to be completely real with Him. Just talk to Him as you would to a deeply trusted friend.

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