Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim
Once upon a time, 1987 to be exact, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi had been invited to a New York seminary to teach a session on prayer and spirituality. But on the way up to the classroom on the second floor, Reb Zalman and the dean who had invited him to speak got stuck in the elevator. When they tried the Emergency Call button, they were told a maintenance person wouldn’t be able to come for hours. “I’m so sorry,” the dean said to Reb Zalman. “Perhaps you have an idea?” Reb Zalman looked up and, in his resonant voice, said: “Ya’aleh v’yavo!” – a reference to liturgy meaning may our prayers rise up and incur God’s favor. The echo of Reb Zalman’s booming voice had hardly finished reverberating when the elevator began to move! Moaning and groaning, it managed to make it to the second floor. Reb Zalman was able to teach his session, beginning with living proof of its lesson: the power of heartfelt prayer to bring help in any situation.
Friends, Yom Kippur is the time for confession, and I have a confession to make. In the past year, chatati, I have sinned: I turned away from prayer. In fact, there were times in 5777 when I all but gave up on it. Not all kinds of prayer, mind you. Prayers of gratitude? No problem. Prayers of awe and amazement? I was moved to offer those, as well. But words of supplication – asking for things, praying for divine intervention and involvement – this is where I went astray. Which is to say, had it been this rabbi stuck in a rickety elevator – we may very well still be stuck there today.
I don’t know precisely when petitionary prayer and I began to separate. But I know when I first realized we had. It was right before a CAJM meeting, when members of our justice ministry were standing outside City Hall, about to meet with the mayor. I was still co-President at the time, and my fellow co-President and friend, Rev. Charles Heyward, was gathering a group together who would stand outside praying for the success of our meeting. And the whole thing suddenly struck me as absurd. Either the mayor would be moved by our conversation or he wouldn’t. What did prayer, much less prayer taking place outside the room where it happened, have to do with it? I was convinced we’d look ridiculous.
And so I pushed back – and that’s when it happened. I had this sort of out-of-body experience and heard a rabbi (who couldn’t possibly be me) tell a minister on the steps of City Hall: “There’s no point to praying and we shouldn’t be doing it.” A far cry from Reb Zalman in the elevator. As I said: Chatati, I have sinned. And I’ve been wrestling with why ever since.
It’s not that I haven’t seen prayer work. I’ve been blessed to be part of many awesome, holy, powerful prayer moments with several of you. I’ve felt the change in a hospital room as words of prayer brought, if not healing exactly, tangible relief to inscrutable pain. I’ve held hands with those who were dying and watched their features relax as we sang songs for peace. I’ve witnessed the fact that words of prayer truly can release someone who desperately seeks release, whether from anger, anxiety, or guilt.
Yet I can also identify specific moments that have pushed me away. Perhaps you’ve felt them, too. When politicians and leaders of all kinds asked us, time and time and time again, to pray for victims, pray for their families – and then did nothing else of consequence to help or protect against another tragedy in the future. When offering invocations at community events or prayers at meetings, and not a single item addressed on the ensuing agenda – nor, often, the way in which it was addressed – fulfilled the goals I had been asked to outline in prayer.
But there’s more to it than that. Sometimes I think I’m afraid of what we might look like to God when we pray. How chutzpadik to turn to God for a solution when we surely haven’t done everything we can to try and address the situation ourselves. In these moments, I still remember the disappointment of my first grade teacher when instead of trying to sound out the spelling of a word myself, as she had asked me to do, I snuck out to ask the school librarian how to spell it for me instead. I don’t want God to find me guilty of taking shortcuts, at best; of hypocrisy, if my actions don’t match my words, at worst.
Then there’s guilt. I like to think I’m a reasonably informed person. I have at least a small sense of the greater problems and suffering in the world – and I know that many are far more devastating than my own. Like the congregant who hesitated to put her name on the Mi Shebeirach list, saying: “Rabbi, there are so many people who need prayers far more than I do” (as if prayer were a finite resource), I too worry about seeming insensitive, naïve, self-absorbed in God’s expansive sight.
Still other times, I think I’m afraid of what God might look like to us – if our prayers are answered, or if they’re not. As we all braced for Hurricane Irma a few weeks ago, and the storm changed course a bit to the west, I read a post from someone who wrote that she had been “davening” for it to do so, to miss loved ones who had been in harm’s way – and was so relieved it had worked. As I read this, I found myself growing tense. So God controls hurricanes?, I thought. Had to be reminded that those for whom it was headed would suffer? What about the other communities where it’s new path took it? God didn’t care about them? Or they just didn’t pray? Or not hard enough?
All of these feelings intersect and I find myself concluding: Best not to pray at all. Let me do what I can do in more concrete action, and God will do God’s thing, as well. What does God need to hear from me anyway?
But then, as we approached the High Holy Days, I read this story.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram was driving through a dicey neighborhood. She’d been on the road for five hours and hadn’t yet stopped to eat. So she pulled into the parking lot of a small Jamaican restaurant. Inside, the take-out line was short, but growing. Only one customer sat at the old diner-style tables; a large, powerful-looking man in a red T-shirt with tall white letters that read: “Did I give you permission to talk? Shut the ___ up!”
“Where the %@# is my refill?!” he bellowed, and the counterwoman brought him his bowl of soup. “Reggie, it’s so nice to see you again,” she said softly. “Let me know should you want anything more.” Reggie responded kindly, “Thanks, Alinda, thanks.” Alinda returned to the counter and everyone’s shoulders relaxed at Reggie’s polite response.
Orders were taken and the eat-in tables filled quickly. Alinda hustled as best she could. Twenty minutes later, Rabbi Milgram was debating leaving without her food when, “suddenly, from behind,” she writes, “I feel a light shove.”
It’s Reggie, pushing past all of us, holding up a ten-dollar bill. Instead of handing it over, he balls the bill up in his hand, lifts his thick, muscular arms on high, and then smashes both fists down on the counter. “I am so worn out, defeated, and lost,” he declares. “I would rather be dead.”
Everyone backs up about three paces. The fellow to my right fingers what might well be a gun tucked into his waistband. Big Reggie looks at me and, with head slightly lowered, eyes fixed on mine, says: “Sister, did you hear me?! I’d rather be dead, girl, dead.”
Considering the situation, the many church store-fronts in the neighborhood, and the fact that he’s addressing me directly, I respond softly: “Have you… asked God to help you?”
Reggie glares. “I’m so tired of that crap… (pause). I’ve been a Christian all my life, and it’s all completely useless.”
So much for my projections. I note the chef’s hands are now under the counter and wonder if he’s surreptitiously reaching for an alarm. I respond as I would to any congregant: “You’re suffering and lost, worn out and defeated. You feel betrayed by God.”
“All that prayin’ and believin’… and nothin’ comin’ of it,” he says.
We sit down at a table that just opened up. No one argues that it’s really their turn.
“Reggie, what happened that’s got you so low?” I ask, as kindly as I can.
Reggie places his warm, thick hand over my small fingers, and I consciously bid my hands not to tense up. “Thing is, lady,” he shares, in a quieter voice, “I’m a simple man, and I lost my job twice this year to companies downsizing. You tell me ‘pick that heavy thing up,’ I can do that. You tell me, ‘put it over there,’ I can do that. But you want me to figure a good or right place to put down what you told me to pick up? I can’t do that. I need a job, a simple job. I bartered my good old Pontiac car this week for money to live. If I miss my next rent payment, I live on the street. God don’t deliver. God don’t care.”
Just when we’re getting somewhere, the chef calls out my order: “Goldie, curried fish and plantains!”
I rise reflexively, but Reggie lifts his index finger in the language of “hang on a sec” to the man at the counter. I return to Reggie: “You’re a simple man, and you want a simple job, and God does not provide.”
He looks into my eyes the way you know you’ve got a friend for life and asks: “Are you some kind of Christian?”
“Actually,” I reply softly, “I’m a rabbi.”
“A rabbi?! No way.” He looks around as though expecting a surprise TV crew to pop out. Then Reggie takes both my hands in his and passionately pleads: “Rabbi, what am I gonna to do? I’m scared. It’s too tough now out there to make it. I know lotsa folk got no job. I’m two minutes from sleeping on the street. What am I going to do?”
Indeed, that is the 30 billion dollar question. So I do the only thing left inside. In a strong, firm voice everyone in the shop can hear, I pray: “Holy One of Blessing, this man needs a job. Right now.”
Folks turn and stare at me. I’m aware of their surprised, but not frightened, faces. I’m aware of feeling angry – at God, at government, of a glowering impotence that just isn’t acceptable. The prayer, my clear petition, pours out again, louder: “Holy One of Blessing, this man needs a job. Right now.” The restaurant is completely silent; even the two children in the place fold their hands in prayer.
The chef clears his throat. “Ma’am, your order’s getting cold. $11.50, please.” Reggie lets go of my hands in an incredibly tender way, his huge brown eyes brimming with tears that don’t fall.
As I shift to my purse, trying to focus on securing $11.50, the chef’s voice turns thoughtful: “One more thing. Reggie. You can work for me. I’ve got a bad back these days. You pick it up; I’ll tell you where to put it. Every morning be outside at 7 am for deliveries. You can also push a broom and bus tables; Alinda can’t cope since Orly quit yesterday. You can work a full day. Free meals, minimum wage. But – and it’s a big but – you have to keep it together, stay on your meds, and treat folk respectfully.” He tosses a sky blue shirt with the restaurant’s name and logo on it to Reggie. “Get rid of that darn T’shirt for starters,” he says.
It’s a beautiful story and, by all accounts, true. But, See!, my inner prayer critic responds. God doesn’t answer the prayer; the chef does! Yet even as I say it, I realize the gaping hole in my logic. Since when can’t God use instruments?
I imagine we’ve all heard the story of a man whose house is being flooded. As the waters rise, someone drives by in a truck and offers him a ride to escape. “God will provide,” he declares, and declines. As the waters rise higher, he stands on his porch. A man paddles down the street in a boat and offers him a ride. Once again he declines, declaring, “God will provide.” When the waters inundate his house, he climbs to his roof. A helicopter comes and lowers a basket for his rescue. “God will provide,” he still declares, and yet again declines. Eventually the water overwhelms his property and he dies. When he gets to the pearly gates and meets God, the man is incensed. “God, I’ve been a man of faith my whole life,” he says. “How could you not provide for me in my hour of need?” But God was angry, too. “Not provide? I sent a truck, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you need?”
God might use any instrument as a response to prayer, not least of which are you and me – our hands, our hearts, our minds, our mouths. Perhaps our very act of prayer is God’s instrument itself.
So, as we make our way into this New Year, let’s not be afraid to open our lips and give voice to our strongest desires, our deepest anxieties, our greatest needs. On this holiest day of the year, let’s not be afraid to just put it out there. Maybe something like this…
Holy One of Blessing, these people need a break – a break from the roller coaster that was 5777. There’s just been so much.
God, enough with the super-storms. Perhaps You can’t alter the course of a hurricane any more than You could the path of the sun or stars, but enough is enough already. Help us find the determination to do what we can, not just to prepare for storms, but to live in such a way that we might reverse the global changes our careless living have brought, and keep the storms from happening in the first place.
And God, we need strength in the face of illness. Strokes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer… We need cures. Help medical professionals and researchers build on the discoveries of the past year and unlock even more understanding and answers that can bring healing, life, and hope. And, by all means, where medicine and treatment do exist, help us ensure that everyone has easy and affordable access to the care they need.
God, this one is really important. We need our leaders – of all stripes and at all levels – to think before they speak. And not to tweet. Not. At. All. Give our leaders the courage and compassion to put our most important priorities – peace, health, equality, education – above the distractions of any given day. May they listen before they talk, consult before they threaten, and practice restraint in everything except the pursuit of justice.
Holy One of Blessing, there is so very much more. Each person in this sanctuary has their own personal needs and challenges. There are finances to be restored, relationships to be repaired, broken hearts and broken dreams to be mended. And the New Year will bring its own share of difficult decisions; who knows what new challenges await. So, perhaps, above all else we need this: We need You to help us keep talking, God. Don’t let us turn away from prayer. Help us to know You’re there, like the confidante and friend to whom we unburden ourselves without expectation or guilt; the simple act of opening up helping us feel both stronger and lighter.
And, if it’s not too much to ask, O God – where it feels fitting to do so – give us each the chance to be the answer to another’s prayer. That might be the greatest blessing of all.
Y’hiyu l’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegyon libi l’fanecha – May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable prayers. Ya’aleh v’yavo – May they rise up to You.
 Adapted from “The Elevator that Wouldn’t Go,” Shohama Harris Wiener, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.
 Adapted from “The God of Curried Fish,” Goldie Milgram, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.