Reprinted with permission from To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking (Little, Brown and Co.)
Jewish prayer is not a matter of informing God as to what we believe and what we need, but of seeking His presence and being transformed by it. We don’t ask God to change the world to make it easier for us. We ask Him only to assure us that He will be with us as we try to do something hard.
Jews worship God through study. The central moments of a Sabbath morning service are dedicated to reading aloud not merely a brief passage from the Bible but several chapters of the Torah, so that in the course of the year, the entire Five Books of Moses will have been studied aloud [or, in some communities, over a three-year cycle].
In the autumn, on Simchat Torah after the High Holy Days, we begin “In the beginning,” with the Creation story, and week by week, chapter by chapter, omitting nothing (who are we to pass judgment on God’s word, deciding that the story of Joseph and his brothers is edifying but the laws about leprosy and menstrual flow are not?), we come to the end of Deuteronomy just as we are running out of year and preparing for the Holy Day season again. At that point, we are ready to start all over again, finding new insights in the Torah, not because it has changed but because we have.
Why this emphasis on study? One of my seminary professors used to say, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study Torah, I keep quiet and let God speak to me.” If worship is the effort to connect with God, Judaism affirms that we don’t have to do all the work ourselves. God is prepared to meet us halfway. By immersing ourselves in Torah, we transport ourselves back to Sinai, to the presence of God. Some people have used fasting, drugs, or forms of self-hypnosis to summon up the presence of God. We have never had to resort to those measures. Like the wife whose husband is away on a business trip and who conquers her loneliness by rereading his letters, we turn to the Torah and feel God’s presence.
A second reason for this unique emphasis on study is the Jewish perception that what is uniquely human about a person is his mind and his conscience. Our physical self is the part of us that we share with the animals. Our mind and conscience are the dimension we share with God. When we exercise our minds and consciences by studying God’s word on how a person should live, when we occupy our thoughts with questions of how to carry out God’s will rather than with matters of finance, fashion, or sports, we feel that we are developing our uniquely human aspect.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.