Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Prayer is in Your Heart
Open up your TaNaCh, your Hebrew Bible, to Numbers 12. It’s one of my favorite portions, because it begins with the familial conflict between Moses, Miriam and Aaron, and ends with the prayer that Moses offers on his sister’s behalf. To me, the prayer that Moses offers is one of the most beautiful in Torah. The conflict begins when Miriam and Aaron speak against their brother, Moses, “because of the Cushite woman he had married.” God punishes Miriam and Aaron. Miriam is “stricken with snow-white scales!” At first, Aaron pleads on her behalf to Moses:
“O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as a one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.” (Numbers 12:11-12)
Then, in the simplest of words, Moses turns to God and prays for his sister, “O God, pray heal her!” (Numbers 12:13). In Hebrew, the prayer is beautiful and alliterative, “El nah, r’fah nah lah!” The Hebrew is also poetic and simple. It makes its point. The English, while terse, also teaches us that prayer is not always about poetry. Sometimes, it’s about our gut reaction and direst needs. “Please God, heal her,” is one of the shortest and most demanding prayers in Torah. It’s remarkable in its brevity and its efficacy. Though Miriam is shut out of the camp for seven days to heal from her infirmity, the camp does not move on until Miriam returns to it safely and cleansed.
The ease with which we can come to prayer is a stunning invitation that comes to us even in adulthood. Far from the pews where we recited prayers by rote for our teachers when we were young, prayer is available to us in the pew, but also at home, in the hospital, and anywhere we may be. If we choose to use them, written prayers and services provide structure and focus that can be familiar and helpful. They’re welcome because we recall them from memory and they serve our purpose. But they’re not and cannot be our sole source of prayers. Prayers of the heart or “Tefilat HaLev” are the prayers that grow out of our personal, immediate, and soulful needs, which may relate even more deeply to our relationship with God. Sometimes, without knowing where else to turn, we utter what is in our hearts and souls. This is when, as it was for Moses, poetry isn’t required and sincerity, alone, is needed.
Spontaneous prayer or personal prayer is welcome in Judaism. In some religious faiths, only a lexicon of prayers is permitted with no room for personal prayer. I can’t imagine such a tradition that doesn’t provide for efficacy in prayer unless it’s from an “authorized” source. Rachel, Moses, and Hannah are just a few Biblical examples whose personal heartfelt prayers and pleas to God were not only heard, they were heeded.
God is “Shome’ah tefilah,” One who hears prayers we find in the prayer book and in words we discover in our hearts. As you wrestle with challenges that are unresolved, consider your own need to plead, to shout, and to pray to the One who hears prayer. Immediacy and honesty, even without poetry, can reveal the struggle and the helplessness. So plead for God’s presence to nurture and sustain; pray for God to guide the hands of those who help in physical, emotional and spiritual healing; sing aloud for understanding and never fail to shout for peace.
Excerpted from “God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime” Rabbi David Lyon (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011).
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST. Listeners around the greater Houston area, and now the internet, tune in to hear his words about life and its meaning from a Jewish point-of-view. Each radio program is available as a Podcast, called “Heart to Heart with Rabbi David Lyon”. Click here to listen online, or download the iHeartRadio app.