Of Prayers and Potholders
Most weekday mornings I hang out with a great bunch of guys. They are down to earth, come-as-you-are, non-judgemental and yet also passionate about and committed to their Judaism. They appreciate differences. They accept people for where they are in the Jewish spectrum.
They also pray like a heavy machinery auctioneer hopped up on a combination of Jolt Cola and 4 shots of triple-espresso.
By contrast (at least at this stage of my Jewish growth), my prayer is thoughtful and heartfelt. It is also halting, clumsy and slow.
Praying with these guys is an exercise in creative editing. I’ve learned that there are parts of the service I can skip. I’ve been told I can meditate on the theme of each bracha with intense kavannah, sending the avodah (work) of my heart heavenward like the sacrifices of old. And of course God speaks English, so I shouldn’t feel ashamed to do so as well.
Are you buying any of this? Cause I’m not. In real life, those sincerely-offered instructions equate to some prayers only half-said (because I have to jump ahead lest I become irrevocably lost), some prayed in jarringly-out-of-sync English, and moments when my “mediating on the theme” leaves me feel disconnected from the group, from myself and from God.
When you are surrounded by people all praying with confidence, fluency and familiarity – in Hebrew – it’s very very (did I mention “VERY”?) frustrating to be doing anything but.
I confided this to a Rabbi recently. “God knows what’s in your heart,” came the answer. “and no matter how insufficient you feel it is, you have to believe that it is cherished for what it is, coming from the person you are today.”
His words were less than comforting. I feel – quite acutely at times – that I am standing before my Creator, pouring out the best I have to offer, and it is an incomprehensible babble of half-uttered thoughts and disconnected ideas. I feel that God has asked for the intricate tapestry of my prayers, and I’ve shown up with a potholder.
I get it. I honestly do. My kids all made potholders at various grades in school (it must be part of the art curriculum). Each one is uniquely cute, funny and adorable. They were given with great ceremony and enthusiasm. They are cherished.
They are also useless, even as potholders. They are knotted, uneven, garish and full of holes. Very much, I fear, like my prayers.
My wife likes to knit. She makes intricate, useful and extremely gorgeous things. We’re talking people-on-the-street-offer-$200-for-the-sweater-off-my-back kind of gorgeous. I want my prayers to be like that.
I know that prayer – like life – is a process. It’s not a single product nor is it a race or a contest. I know that I’ll look back in a month or even just a week and realize that I have, in fact, improved. In my less whiny moments I recognize that it’s happened already, and (God willing) will continue.
I also have had chances to glimpse the journey of others, and take comfort in the knowledge that they weren’t simply born with a talent I lacked. Like me, they started learning on a particular day in their life, and that learning continued.
The other day, as we continued the (seemingly endless) work of unpacking ourselves into the new house, my wife pulled out a ratty, pinkish, mis-shapen square.
“It’s a potholder.” she explained. “I made it the day Grandma Hetti taught how me to knit.”
There may be hope for me yet.