Friday, February 25, 2011

Language of prayer comes from the heart

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today, let's explore the concept of talking with your heart.

Caught up recently in my semi-annual let’s-go-through-the-house-and-throw-away-everything-we-don’t-need cleaning spree, I came across a book that my daughter Lauren had used decades ago in Hebrew school.

I flipped quickly through the text, thinking I would toss it into the out pile. But something caught my eye, and I rested a moment to study a story that piqued my interest.

The book, Basic Judaism for Young People, examines God from a religious, spiritual and historical perspective. It mixes straight-forward text with midrashem and stories from and about rabbis through the ages.

What initially caught my eye was a painting of a couple of guys, one playing a saxophone, the other a set of drums. The caption running next to the drawing explained: “In music as in prayer, the ability to avoid distraction can mean the difference between a routine performance and a great one.”

I looked at the preceding page and stumbled onto a story that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak told his followers in the town of Berditchev every Rosh Hashana. The story deals directly with prayer and those who pray, and in a more subtle way with arrogance and humility. The story:

“Once I had to stay overnight at an inn away from home. Also staying at the inn were many Jews who had come on business. In the morning, I joined the prayers of the other Jews. To my dismay, the merchants’ prayers sounded like a baby’s babbling. It seemed to me that all their words were either swallowed or pronounced badly.

“At the end of the service, before the merchants left on their business, I thought I would teach them a lesson by speaking in nonsense syllables like a baby. When the merchants looked at me with surprise, wondering if I were a madman, I explained myself: ‘The way I just sounded to you is the way you must have sounded to God.’”

“One of the merchants then spoke up, ‘You were wrong to make fun of Jews who never had the chance to learn Hebrew properly. But you were right to compare our language to that of a baby. A baby’s parents understand what its nonsense syllables mean, even if no one else does. And I’m sure God understands our prayers, and knows we spoke them with Kavanah, even if you don’t.’”

“How right this merchant was to put me in my place! I remind you of his words today, on Rosh Hashana, my friends,” said Levi Yitzhak, “to reassure you that your prayers will be accepted. When people address their prayers to God with love and Kavanah, God understands them, whether or not they pronounce the words correctly.”

I often stumble through the Hebrew during services and wonder what the point is. I hear similar words of frustration from family and friends. But Rabbi Yitzhak’s story has the ring of truth, and his message is clear: If you want to pray you can. If you want to reach out to God you can. Open your heart. God will hear.

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