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On Prayer

I have never stayed at a Motel 6. In the world of cookie-cutter highway motel institutions, I’ve frequented many a Best Western, more than a handful of Hilton Expresses, and even a La Quinta Inn or two. But nary a Motel 6 have I even entered.

And yet, despite my presumption that their beds are not all-too comfortable, that their towels are rough and their coffee watered-down, there exists in my imagination a feeling – a gut emotion – of something homey, something comforting and ever-welcoming about Motel 6. When I close my eyes and imagine myself on some rural interstate late at night with nowhere to sleep, I picture Motel 6, and feel a sense of calm, a sense that there’s a place there for me.

Why? It’s something about that un-ending ad campaign with tacky music mixed with the tag line, “We’ll leave the light on for you,” which, over too many years of much too much television watching has been engrained in my mind. I cannot shake it! “We’ll leave the light on for you!” At all times, throughout the country, on any given night, if I’m without place to go, if I’m stranded, or traveling, or just need the comfort of some other bed, there’s Motel 6, waiting, light on, for me to come. Motel 6 is everywhere. Motel 6 is always. Motel 6 is ever-ready to welcome my return.

And that is such a striking picture to me, because that is precisely the image I want us to hold onto of the Holy One. In the dark of night, God is the far-away light offering us comfort if we seek it. God is there, waiting. God is here, waiting. Always.

In Masechet Rosh Hashanah of the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis grapple with the implications of the destruction of First Temple. “How could this have happened?” they wonder. It seems, at first glance, to be a theological impossibility. If God’s home on Earth were destroyed, they conclude, God must have let it happen for a reason, and certainly God’s presence must have been there no longer.

By means of explanation, Rabbi Yochanan tells the story of ten journeys taken by the Shechinah, God’s presence, as she moved slowly from her abode within the Holy of Holies before the Temple’s Destruction. Ten journeys. With each one, God’s presence moved further and further from its former physical accessibility.

And so the journeys began. The Shechinah moved from atop the ark, to an ornament on its side, a cherub, from there to a second cherub, then to the threshold outside of the Holy of Holies and from there it filled the Temple courtyard.

The fifth journey was from the Temple courtyard to the altar. The Shechinah moved to the roof of the Temple, to atop the wall surrounding the Temple complex, and from there filled the entire city of Jerusalem. The residents of Jerusalem were enveloped by God’s awesome presence, kavod Adonai, yet they did not even know it. The Shechinah moved to the Mount of Olives, and from there journeyed to the desert, into the wilderness. The tenth journey: the final journey. In the wilderness God waited for Israel to come and join Him. They never did.

What is the meaning of this midrash? Why did God’s presence move around from space to space preceding the Temple’s destruction?

Picture the image of the midrash. Together, these ten steps form a direct and deliberate journey of God, slowly removing God’s self from the Holy of Holies, and retreating ever further from the focus of Israel’s prayers. Each journey of the ten moves God’s presence further from its center in the Holy of Holies while also allowing God’s presence to fill more space – an ever larger area amongst Israel. With each step, God stops momentarily. God waits to be noticed. God waits to be sought. At all times, God is there, ready with the light on for each of us.

At each stop of God’s ten journeys, God invites Israel to seek Him, to realize that they are surrounded by the Holy presence, yet they do not. And so God’s presence ends up far away, in the wilderness, waiting to be found.

We may be so foolish as to hear this midrash and think to ourselves, “How could the Jews have been so misguided? If I were surrounded by God’s presence like they were, surely I would realize it!” I would be lying if I said I did not think precisely this the first time I studied this text. But that is exactly the point. We too are surrounded by God! God is here! God is silently screaming out, begging us to hear God’s voice. God’s presence is no longer confined to a single chamber in a far-away Temple. God’s Being fills all there is, awaiting companionship, friendship, and dialogue.

The story of God’s departure from the First Temple is one of a God ever present, yearning to be sought. God’s presence hovers, waiting to be noticed. God is persistently inviting us to join with Him in conversation: to praise God, to beseech God, to listen to God. God is our eternal, infinite Motel 6.

Now, there are many vehicles through which we can engage in dialogue with the Divine One. “Al shlosha devarim ha’olam omed: On three things the world stands,” we are taught in Pirke Avot. “Al haTorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al gemilut Hasadim.  On Torah, on worship and on loving acts.” Each of these is its own unique Jewish path to God.  Each has its own utility, its own strengths and rationales. Prayer is just one. But it is what I focus on today.

Prayer speaks to the emotional coldness of life. It’s not hard to feel abandoned by the Holy One – to feel alone, in the desert, with God long-since departed. Our world is filled with billions of humans ever-overcome by feelings of loneliness, apartness, separateness. We live on one rock, surrounded by empty space, in an infinitely large universe created billions of years ago.  Prayer can fill the space between those light years of emptiness. Prayer has the power to comfort our discomfort; to make us joyful when the world makes us sad; to push us toward better states of being. Prayer is a seemingly inward practice focussed entirely on that which is emphatically outside of ourselves.

Let me be clear though: I do not want to give the impression that prayer is easy, or that it is straightforward, or that it should come naturally. Prayer – especially traditional Jewish prayer – is an entirely counter-cultural act. It requires patience, and trial and error. Prayer pushes back against the most basic of American values: individuality, autonomy, idolization of the pursuit of happiness. Jewish prayer encourages us to join with community, to cede our own autonomy, and to focus not on what may seem most fun in the moment, but, rather, on what will most challenge us to be a better individual. Prayer runs contrary to everything that our society and lives tell us is normal, good and useful.

Prayer is difficult.

Let me say that again: Prayer. Is. Difficult.

I remember the first time I visited the Kotel. I was sixteen years old. As we drove towards the Old City, I was reminded of the tradition of writing a note to place within the cracks of the wall’s stones. I quickly pulled out a piece of scratch paper and a pen. I was ready to write out my prayers, but I was stuck. What do I write on a note to God?

Everything I could think of sounded trite, at best. Please give me this… please help me with that… Really? This is what God wants to hear? I was frozen in myself, unable to figure out what to write. So I scribbled down all I could think of: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, I wrote in broken Hebrew, and left the rest of the page blank. Does God mind that my spelling is atrocious? I wondered.

Minutes later, I walked up to the imposing white Wall, inserted my note into a crack, and closed my eyes. Time to pray, David, I thought. I stood there, and waited for the words to come. I waited for prayer to happen, for that transformative feeling to erupt inside me as I was overcome with emotion and devotion. It never came. Are you there God? It’s me, David. I could not even meek out those words from the classic Judy Blume novel. One minute passed, then another, until finally I made my peace and walked away having done nothing.

Prayer is difficult. Prayer is not magic; there is no hocus-pocus to davening. It doesn’t just happen. The spirit of God doesn’t just overcome you. You cannot snap and make it transform your whole being. Prayer takes practice; it demands patience and perseverance.

Prayer is an existential conversation with He-Who-Does-Not-Speak-Back. Prayer is tsim tsum of the self – pulling back the ego and the id and making room for God to enter. It is something we are born wanting to do, but without the instinctual knowledge of how it is done. It demands transcending our very being. And that, my friends, ain’t easy.

The only way to get better is to start trying. What do you have to say to the Creator of All? What words are you holding back from the Holy One of Blessing? Say them. Open up. Sit uncomfortable with the silence that follows, and then say them again. One conversation leads to another; one step makes the next easier. The difficulty of prayer is only overcome by praying, training yourself to speak with the silent Divine One with each try. A blessing today, leads to a few blessings tomorrow.

God is here, waiting, with the light on. Now, today, tomorrow, next year. If only we know the right words to say when we walk inside.

Esa einai el he’harim, m’ayin yavo ezri? I life my eyes up to the mountains, from where will my help come? Ezri m’im Hashem, oseh shamayim va’aretz. My aid comes from God, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

The mountain tops can seem imposing. And yet they are empty. God is here, God is imminent. And God is listening, waiting, inviting us to see God’s presence around us, and respond.

Three times daily, we conclude the weekday blessings of the Amidah, saying, “Barukh ata Adonai, shomea tefilah. Blessed are You, God, who listens to prayer.”

God is listening, what do you have to say?

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