Prayer, I have discovered, is like an art form. Particularly if one of your limitations happens to be one of mine: outside of shul I happen to be unable to use a prayer book to say them. Yet I have devoted some time to prayer this week. I am not really good at it, but I went to the word documents and wrote down a prayer each day, or every other day. The prayers are not very inspired. Yet I did discover that if you pray intensely, and for other people instead of yourself, then it is like having a diamond carved out of the earth which is your soul. I hope it is not egotistical to write about it. Yet somehow the intensity of the experience mattered to me, and I… have never been a very private person.
So it was that towards the end of my praying, I wrote the following:
The devout one’s tears are like precious pearls;
like the conch shell on the beach where it swirls;
God will take up the one whose teardrops swell,
embracing these as if the heavens dwell
in God’s great ocean where he keeps His pearls.
Yes, to pray intensely is to cry… I am reminded of an I.L. Peretz story where a Jewish soul who has lived an indifferent life found three Jewish saints to make up for its own lack of merit. One of these souls is a rabbi’s daughter who refused to marry a non-Jew. This rabbi’s daughter was burnt at the stake, and she took needles and pinned her dress down so that it would not fly upwards while she died. These needles were one of the prizes that the indifferent soul took God. God expresses contempt for the gifts even as God grants the soul the right to go to Heaven.
The story is cynical, and I admit I get nervous reading it as a convert (having once been a non-Jew) but the sacrifice of the rabbi’s daughter is so moving that I ignore its flaws. The fire which burns the daughter is a purifying fire; though it would be painful to experience, it is reminiscent of the Ten Martyrs we read each Yom Kippur. We imitate the Ten Rabbis who died for the sake of the Torah while hoping–and probably expecting, given the religious freedom the United States grants Jews–that we will not be meeting their fate. This part of the ritual is my favorite part of Yom Kippur, second only to the portion regarding the Holy Priest and his preparation to going into the inner sanctum of the Temple.
Yet Jews even today are not all safe. The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh illustrates this. And there are Jews who fight by their compatriots of their peers–like Vladimir Zelensky in Ukraine. All Jews should keep these Jews in their hearts and prayers–but we should also keep non-Jews in our prayers, or we are not doing our duty. We should pray for the migrants who want to come to America. We should pray for the people suffering in Syria and throughout the Middle East. We should pray for the Chinese Uyghur population and the Tibetans living in exile from their country. We should also pray for animals–tigers, elephants, wolves, prairie dogs–so that they shall not go extinct. All of this seems like too much–and perhaps it is–and yet we should pray for these and other causes.
Then when we have prayed, we should do what we can to follow up our prayers. We should write to public representatives about the Chinese Uyghur population and Tibetans; give money to organizations like HIAS and UNHCR for refugees to the United States and abroad; become a member of the zoo, as well as give money to Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Fund and World Wildlife Fund; and perhaps work once or twice a week at the homeless shelter. Or at least, shoot for this as a goal. I also recommend a Catholic book: Something Beautiful for God, the book that discovered Mother Teresa. And of course the Jewish Symphony of Creation, which I learned about first in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets.