Prayer: Service Of The Heart

Abraham's servant teaches us the power of spontaneous prayer, a concept that challenges our contemporary focus on consistency and conformity.

Commentary on Parashat Chayei Sara, Genesis 23:1 - 25:18

One of the universals of human culture is the need to commune with something larger, something that extends beyond ourselves. We all feel the desire to speak, to create, to perform. One aspect of the human urge to communicate is worship–the simple act of noticing the awe of existence, the staggering marvel of the world and its order. Awe moves us to a silent expression of gratitude and wonder. Awe moves us to worship.

What Is Worship?

For many Jews, worship means the formal ritual of reading from a printed Siddur (prayer book), listening to the chanted words of the Torah and the Haftarah (weekly reading from Prophets or Writings), and absorbing the insights of the rabbi’s sermon. Worship is public, planned, and cyclical. What we did last week we will do again next week.

Today’s Torah portion illumines another aspect of Jewish worship, one sadly neglected by too many Jews today. While most of us are familiar with reading the stirring words of prayer composed by other, earlier Jews, few of us are comfortable approaching God with the simple outpouring of our own hearts. The whole notion of just speaking with God sounds strikingly un-Jewish.

Yet consider Abraham’s nameless servant, given the assignment of traveling to a distant land to find a bride for the Patriarch’s son. Overwhelmed by the gravity and seriousness of his mission, the servant creates a new religious form. Without the possibility of sacrificing an animal, unable to summon a special revelation, the servant simply sits and speaks.

Without any elaborate introduction, stripped of the appropriate formula or poetry, the servant just shares what is on his mind:

O, LORD, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with master Abraham.

The servant speaks to God with directness borne of necessity. Filled with a sense of the uncertainty of his task, aware of his own limitations, he turns to the Source of Life and shares his fear.

Note also that the servant establishes criteria for judging the successful accomplishment of his mission, and then prays that his standard should be God’s as well. Those standards are themselves an insight into the human heart–he asks for a woman who is generous, compassionate, and willing to act on behalf of others. Such a person is indeed a fitting mate.

Modern people are no less in need of pouring out their hearts than were our ancestors. We, too, are daily sent on missions which test our limits, which force us into territory we have not previously explored, and for which the stakes are very high indeed. Sustaining a marriage, cultivating a friendship, raising children, or pursuing a career all test us every day.

With as great an emotional burden as Abraham’s servant faced, with no less a need to cry out (and to absorb the comfort of having been heard), we have nonetheless cut ourselves off from God’s listening ear.

Are We Just Superstitious?

We worry that speaking to God is superstitious. We feel that God doesn’t answer prayer. Or, that God doesn’t hear prayer. Or that there is no God. Or that we simply dare not address God for fear of being hypocrites.

Part of the price we pay for living in our age is that we are plagued by the illness of consistency and weighted down by the power of conformity. Both would have us deny a need simply because we don’t always feel it.

Our discomfort with spontaneous prayer does a disservice to our sacred tradition, to our deepest needs, and to our relationship with God.

Prayer is not philosophy–it need not justify itself at the bench of reason, consistency, or sophistication. Prayer, what the Talmud calls “the labor of the heart,” is answerable to the heart alone.

Our discomfort with spontaneous prayer can lead us to the very first prayer we need: “Help me, Lord, to pray.” Or, in the words preceding the Shabbat Amidah (the silent, standing prayer), “When I call upon the Lord, give glory to our God.  Open my mouth, Lord, and my lips will proclaim Your praise.” If you are uncomfortable praying with words teach yourself to sit with silence. Let your awareness of your need become your prayer, let your awareness of God’s love be your answer.

If you need to pray, if your sorrows or your joys move you to speak–from a simple “thank you” to an elaborate speech–then pray. If you rise from your prayers a more sensitive and aware person, then your prayer was worthwhile.

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

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