I start with the premise that it's all Torah. All of it, all of us-- we are all wrapped in the scrolls of Torah, playing out the glory of life. And because it's all Torah, I take my truth wherever I find it. I find it everywhere (after all, everywhere is Torah, right?) I just need to notice it, recognize it.
A bunch of years ago, I was locked in fierce combat while angels danced across ladders and I dreamed of God and slept on a rock-strewn bed. The battle raged for a small slice of forever. Sometimes I danced with the angels, sometimes I wrestled with God. It all but consumed me.
And then: truth. Just like. Truth and I slept and did not dream and found the gates of heaven, and finally knew they'd been there all along.
Truth then (and now, because this remains the most profound truth I have ever kept, and it has changed my life forever) came from a movie. Shadowlands, to be exact. It's a great movie about the author of the Narnia books (and others), a flawed man who finds love, and God, and himself. See it, if you haven't. I will not bore you with the details, except to share one scene. C.S. Lewis is leaving his wife's hospital bed. She is dying, and he is bereft. He meets a few colleagues, Oxford dons like himself, who, in a singular act of cruelty and contempt, stop Lewis-- who had made a name for himself as a charismatic Christian, giving lectures throughout England with the basic premise "everything happens because God made it so; therefore, anything that happens must be good and right-- and ask (in effect) "How's that prayer thing working for you now?" Lewis looks up at them, and with profound sadness and weariness, says "Prayer doesn't change God. Prayer changes me."
That simple statement may have saved my life. It certainly changed my life, and changed my relationship to prayer and God.
I don't pray to a Santa Claus God. I don't pray to a God who may or may not listen, who mostly stays silent and aloof. I can whisper, I can shout, I can raise holy hell in my prayer. I can take God to task, I can plead and question and struggle and doubt. I can even croon a bit, and sing lullabies and love songs to God. Because, what I finally discovered, when I finally heard that truth, that prayer changed me, not God, I realized that it doesn't matter what I pray. What matters, ever and always, is that I pray. Because when I pray, I am changed. The world shifts and the light bends and I can hear God's voice, God's answer. A still small voice deep within me, though more often than not, I hear God's voice in the voices of others.
When I pray, I open myself up to hearing answers and finding comfort.
How do I know this works? Ha. Today, at morning services, I had a tantrum. Not attractive in a woman who is old plus two. People were not behaving the way I thought they should. People were disturbing my prayer, my service, my time with God and the soft, golden light of a Saturday morning. I had, as it were, a fit of pique.
One woman, in particular, was pressing every button, standing on every nerve. This is not new. She is old and mean and demands to be the center of attention, even in the middle of a service. This week's parasha is filled with blessings and curses. I was cursing plenty. And then, in the middle of the Amidah (the silent part), I remembered that this week's Torah portion also reflects on a prayer-- for a heart that knows and eyes that see. So I prayed differently today, and asked for an open heart.
And this is what I saw: an old woman, alone and in desperate, perhaps hopeless spiritual pain. So much so that all she can give to her community is a portion of that pain. How incredibly sad-- to be looked at with pity and disdain by your chosen community. And as so often happens, my prayer did not change God, but , when I ask and seek with even the slightest bit of humility and humanity-- my prayer changes me.
As a result, in the middle of the Amidah, I went from petulant child to something quite different-- I am trying to understand what we as a community, what I as a part of that community, can do to ease her pain. I know that I cannot fix her. That's not my job. But how do I respond to her and her pain? How do I satisfy my need to pray and connect in the face of her rage and despair?
I'm not trying to be codependent about this, but there has to be a balance-- doesn't there? True, she is disruptive and explosive, she will not listen; nor does she (apparently) care what her actions do to the flow of the service. It is also clear, I think, that she feels apart from, separated from. She feels that she is The Other, the stranger in our midst. We are commanded to remember the stranger, for we were strangers once. We are commanded to care for the stranger, for he is us.
I fear I did not act very Jewishly in this. I fear I did not act very humanly-- or maybe the problem is that I acted all too humanly. I will pray, and be changed, and I will hear the voice of God. And I will know, when I ask for a heart that knows and eyes that see, I will reach out, b'tzelem elohim - in the image of God - and make a holy space next to me for everyone, even this bitter woman, this stranger who is, after all, me.