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Some Angry Prayers

What follows is my Yom Kippur Evening Sermon

With the Cards knocked out of the post season I was not sure what to pray for this fall. Should I pray for the Mets to defeat the Giants? A Mets win would have certainly made a lot of people I care about really, really happy. Then I realized that if the Mets were to have defeated San Francisco (why not dear God!), the fourth game of the series against the Cubs—that is of course assuming that all of the prayers for the Mets to sweep in three games went unanswered—would have occurred this evening on Kol Nidre, and at Citi Field no less. So many of those whom I love would have been really, really happy but would have also been faced with an excruciating Sandy Koufax like dilemma. Kol Nidre Services or the Mets game? The religion of baseball or the tradition of our ancestors? What should a rabbi prayer for? As you know, I don’t have to answer that question until, we hope and pray, next year. Go Cards! Still the question remains, what do we really pray for? Let’s talk about prayer. What are we supposed to pray for? And how are we supposed to pray?

Most of the time we think about prayer in the terms I just described—asking for something that would mean alot. We think of prayer as a request. We want something, we need something, so we pray for something. To be sure this is one form of prayer. We most especially ask God for health. “Please God cure me. Please God grant healing to those I love.” We are acutely familiar with this prayer. In fact it remains one of the most powerful parts of our Shabbat Services, when we call out the names of those who are sick and in need of healing, and then together we pray for their healing. We lean on the words of the Jewish composer, Debbie Friedman, who wrote our Mi Shebeirach prayer not too long ago, in 1987. The occasion was a healing service for a friend who had endured far too many tragedies. From there it quickly became part of every liberal synagogue’s prayer tradition. “Bless those in need of healing with refuah shleimah, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit, and let us say, Amen.” Written in the shadow of the AIDS crisis the concluding lines of this prayer were left intentionally vague. They knew that many of those they prayed for could not be granted perfect healing so they wrote, let them at least know solace—a renewal of the spirit. This is a good prayer. This is an understandable prayer. We are unified in our requests. Who among us does not want everyone to be granted health? Who in our community does not want those we love and care about to be granted long life?

That is one of the reasons why we pray together, as a community. We are strengthened and lifted up by those who sit beside us. In addition praying with others serves as a hedge against asking God for the wrong things. Our tradition counsels us against praying for something that might be to the benefit of one person but to the detriment of another. “Please help get me that job.” is not an ok Jewish prayer because someone else won’t get the job if you get the job. So sorry, praying for the Mets (or the Cards) might in fact be out. People in San Francisco might be saddened; those in St. Louis might become disheartened. Still we get these kind of prayers. We understand the “Please I am begging You!” Such prayers make sense. “Oh God, give me strength and healing” are necessary prayers. But they can’t be our only prayers. And so this evening I wish to expand our definition of prayer. I wish to meditate not so much on the content of prayer but instead on its emotion. I want us to recover the feelings of prayer. I wish to suggest something that might even seem outrageous, that maybe we are need of some angry prayer; perhaps we require prayers of protest.

This thought occurred to me this summer when in Jerusalem. Susie and I once again joined our friends at the Western Wall. Women of the Wall had organized a prayer service to protest the lack of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. Several hundred like minded women, and I don’t mean only Reform, but instead Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and even secular, gathered in the women’s section for a Rosh Hodesh service. Given that the ultra-Orthodox authorities forbid women from reading Torah at the Wall, a small Torah scroll was smuggled in. Actually two were smuggled in but the police discovered one and took it away. The Reform prayer books that we carried were also nearly confiscated. A young girl became a bat mitzvah. The Torah was lifted in the air. The women sang psalms. The men and I gathered around the perimeter, attempting to join our prayers with theirs. We were met with shouts and screams. Ultra-Orthodox women screamed and whistled in an attempt to drown out the prayers. An ultra-Orthodox man called us Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people. Another told us to go back to Tel Aviv. I am still not sure how that is a punishment in anyone’s book, but such is his worldview. I wanted to say, “Sure thing, I will take the Mediterranean.” And still another cursed at us and tore up the prayer book we used.

It has taken me many years to make peace with what masquerades as holiness at the Western Wall, with the venom of Jew against Jew. This summer, on that July morning, it occurred to me that prayer might not only be words of thanks and the heartfelt requests but could also be angry protest. There is a lot to get angry about in our teetering and imperfect world. If I am supposed to have an honest relationship with my God then it might not only be “Thank You for the bread I am about to eat” and “Please restore those I love to health.” But “How did You allow us to make such a mess of things!” I am not only guided by the Torah but also by the words of the prophets who railed against their contemporaries, who championed the weak, who refused to remain timid in the face of injustices. I am also the inheritor of the words of the psalmist who shouted (or so I imagine was his tone), “How long O God will You hide Your face from me? How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day?” (Psalm 13)

During the 1960’s civil rights struggle, Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Conservative rabbi, was criticized by his colleagues for marching with Martin Luther King Jr. Why? Because he marched on Shabbat. He said in response, “I was praying with my feet.” I too was praying with my feet. And I am by the way going to keep praying with my feet to make sure that all Jews, women and men, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and everyone in between, can pray as they are comfortable, and in a way they find meaningful, at the place that belongs to all of us. I will pray with my feet to fight the religious intolerance that makes no room for other forms of worship and other forms of belief. And you know what? That might take some anger; that might take some indignation. That is what I am going to fill some of my prayers with. Perhaps some anger might start to get some of the job done.

And that should not make it a bad prayer. Prayer can sometimes be angry. Forgive my chutzpah, but God can take it. Sometimes you need to scream. Sometimes you need to get angry. Sometimes the pain you feel, or the loss you have endured, or the injustice you have witnessed, tears at you and you need to say with the psalmist, “How long?”

People have sometimes said to me, “I am angry at God.” Not that I asked but it is often offered as a reason why I have not seen them too often in synagogue. And this is what I say in response. “That makes perfect sense.” I don’t offer up platitudes that struggle and pain make you better. We should never say things like God only gives you what you can handle. Clich├ęs never offer healing. Every answer to real pain falls short. And so sometimes you need to throw some anger. And maybe that can be a good prayer too. Who among us feels only gratitude at every minute of every day, or even every time we walk into this sanctuary? But we walk in. We pray with our feet.

Sure if you are all anger it is going to gnaw at your soul. But a little anger now and again might be good for the spirit. You need some fire in those prayers—not just thanks and requests. The great 18th century Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav said: “Be strong-willed and stubborn if you want to get closer to God.” I do, by the way, recognize the irony in quoting a Hasidic rabbi when it is in fact his modern day followers who were cursing at me. Nonetheless, his philosophy is instructive. You need some agita, some angst, some anger, some chutzpah to draw close to the Almighty. You need some of what the rabbis called chutzpah klapei shamayim—audacity in the face of heaven. Why not? Is the world perfect? Does everyone live to 120 years? Is everyone blessed with a life of ease? Who among us thinks that a debilitating illness, or life threatening disease, is deserved? Is everyone fortunate enough to have our loved ones by our side for all the years we planned or all the years we rightly deserved? On this Yom Kippur evening I confess, sometimes the pain I have witnessed, the suffering I have seen with my own eyes, makes for some angry prayers. And you know what? Perhaps that is not such a bad thing.

We pray on these days: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.” We are frightened and distanced by these words. Perhaps this is why so many Jews see prayer as irrelevant. We spend so much of our time fixated on the inherited words of our prayerbook. First we rise for the Barechu, then the Shema and so on. Sit down. Stand up. Turn to page 253. We march through the prayers. We become slaves to the order. Perhaps the reason why prayer, or at least organized prayer, is no longer central to the vast majority of American Jews is because the script does not represent their true feelings. Prayer does not reflect our emotions. We have become like theatregoers watching some old play that we heard was really, really popular centuries ago. But prayer is not Shakespeare. It requires each of us to join in. Too often we forget that prayer must first be about feeling. It must be about our relationship with God—and like all other relationships it too is uneven. Sometimes we feel love. Sometimes we feel gratitude. Sometimes we feel sadness. And yes sometimes we feel anger.

Now I recognize that such talk from the bima might strike some as blasphemous or might even make others uncomfortable. The rabbi is supposed to express in each and every moment emunah shleimah—perfect and complete faith. But today is the day of confessions. One time I shared such feelings with a close friend. He was surprised to hear me say this because he figured I believed every word of every prayer because I am most often the one reading them out loud. To be honest I wonder if all the praying matters, if all the words we recite week in and week out, make a difference. Sure they are soothing. Joining together in song and prayer is healing. It is a balm for the soul. There are some weeks in which I am rescued by our prayers. “It is good to give thanks to God.” the psalmist also wrote and we often sing. There are weeks when our tradition, our script, does offer us a respite. We are uplifted by our tradition’s music.

But I am actually asking this question, do our prayers make a difference to God. “Dear God, how are You still letting us make such a mess of things?” Give us one of those miracles from of old. Blot out the hurricanes. Turn the hearts of enemies toward each other in peace. Come on, we are ready for “Let nation not lift up sword against nation.” How much war can our world still endure? How many more terrorist attacks before You say, “Enough!” Bring healing to our world! I have been doing this praying for a while, actually we have been doing this for a really long time now, and I am not sure You, God, are listening. So God I am throwing some anger Your way. And you know what? That is going to be a good prayer.

I am not giving up on prayer. Never! I am just adding some different emotion to it. Elie Wiesel tells a story about what happened in one of the camps. There, devout Jews put God on trial for neglecting the Jewish people. They chose prosecuting and defense attorneys. They selected a jury. Arguments were made in defense of God, but the prosecution’s case was strong. His arguments were the most persuasive. There in the camp the jury could rule no other way. God stood guilty of abandoning the Jewish people. Their anger carried the day. The time for evening prayers arrived. They joined together in reciting their prayers. They sang Barechu and then Shema. Perhaps we too need such emotion. Perhaps this could help to rescue prayer for our contemporaries. Perhaps this could help to rescue our world. Perhaps if we put some anger, and stubbornness, and chutzpah into our prayers we might make it more important. Prayer is first about God. And then it is about feelings.

I want prayer to be about connection with God. I don’t want so much to regulate its content. Instead I want to instill some real feeling into our prayers. I suspect that the reason why prayer is no longer central is that we can no longer find our true feelings in our tradition’s prayers. So let’s add some protest. Let’s pray with our feet and with some real emotion. Let’s even allow for some anger. God can take it. How can I be so sure? Because we need it. Our world demands protest. Our lives sometimes feel like we are trapped among weeds rather than beautiful flowers.

Mary Oliver, my new favorite contemporary poet, wrote a beautiful poem, entitled “Praying.” She writes:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

It’s the weeds as much as the beautiful flowers. It’s not the words as much as the feeling. With our focus on content, with our fixation on the pages of our prayerbook, we are in danger of losing sight of the most important teaching about prayer. It is about connection, it is about relationship, it is about drawing nearer to God. And sometimes you might need some anger. Sometimes when the world appears slipping toward chaos, you may need to shout, “How long O God will You hide Your face!” How long will You hide Your face! Anger should not mean you are giving up on prayer or giving up on God. Anger is not only ok but may in fact be necessary.

That morning in Jerusalem began with anger. But it concluded in gratitude. Following our protest service Susie and I walked to the egalitarian prayer area where we met congregants so that a student could become a bar mitzvah at the Wall and have an aliya there. In the place where 2000 years ago the Romans destroyed the Temple a young American Jew stood, alongside the ancient rubble, but in the sovereign Jewish state. He sang: “…Baruch Atah Adonai notein ha-Torah—Blessed are You Adonai who gives the Torah.” Blessed are You who gives the Torah.

What begins in anger can be transformed into gratitude.