Parasha VaYishlakh

Is prayer a waste of time? According to Reverend Tim Keller, many people do not pray because they feel that they are not being “productive”. I heard Reverend Keller as he was promoting his new book,  Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with G-d on a morning television interview show.  Reverend Keller said that people feel good when they feel productive, but “when you are praying, you are not ‘doing’ anything. Prayer confronts the need we all feel to be productive, he said. Yet, he maintains, the solitude of prayer and the practice of prayer are crucial if you are to know yourself in relation to G-d. The interviewer, with a twinkle in her eye, asked, “Given the need to be alone with G-d in order to get to know yourself – would it be OK if I made the case that this is productive?” Reverend Keller responded, “In the short run prayer makes you feel less productive; but in the long run, absolutely, it makes you more productive”. I was struck by the fact that when speaking of prayer in this interview, Reverend Keller, a Presbyterian minister, spoke primarily about praying in solitude. The emphasis in Judaism tends to be on public prayer. Yet the practice of solitary prayer is also deeply rooted in Judaism. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, told this story from his childhood. "I was drawn to walk the fields and the great, deep forest near our village. Often I would spend the night in the field or forest. One morning in the forest I heard a human voice- a Jew in tallit and tefillin, praying with a passion I had never heard…'Aren't you afraid to be alone in the forest?' the man asked me. I answered him: 'I like the field and the forest, because there are no people…'" Chassidism teaches that aloneness can help us to explore the mysteries within and above us, much like Reverend Keller teaches from a Christian perspective in his new book. In our Torah reading for this week, we may have an instance of this kind of solitude and encounter. Jacob is returning to meet his brother Esau after a twenty year absence. The last time they saw one another, they were both living at home.  Jacob impersonated his brother Esau and stole his blessing from their blind father, Isaac. Enraged, Esau threatened to kill Jacob. Jacob fled to Haran, with only the shirt on his back — Haran, the city in Mesopotamia where his parents had family. After marriage, children, and acquiring great wealth it was time to return to the Land of Canaan. Jacob is afraid of how he might be greeted by Esau. He sends Esau gifts to try to appease him. He prepares for war, in case Esau wants to fight. He prays to G-d, to help him. The night before his meeting with Esau, Jacob separates himself from his family, his servants, and all that he owns and crosses the river Jabbok to sleep alone. He encounters a stranger, with whom he wrestles throughout the night. Who is this stranger? Some think it is Esau himself. One commentator [Rashbam] thinks that Jacob separated himself from his family that night because he planned to run away before dawn.  G-d sends an angel to wrestle with Jacob and force him to stay. Others think it is Jacob, who is wrestling with himself, with his conscience. Jacob’s tendency throughout his life was to meet life’s challenges with trickery, deceit and evasion. Here he decides to meet a challenge directly, with honesty. He decides to face a difficult situation head on. It is not easy, and Jacob engages in solitary prayer throughout the long night. “G-d answers a person’s prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his own opponent,” according to Rabbi Benno Jacob. One does not have to worship alone to have a life altering experience through prayer. G-d can choose other ways to send an angel. I am thinking specifically about a visit Middy and I made to the Sons of Zion synagogue in Holyoke, Massachusetts, last Monday to lead their morning services. I had been their rabbi for three years. I was anxious to return and see people I had not seen in ten years. Congregation Sons of Zion was at one time a thriving place. Due to the economy and demographics, the synagogue had fallen on hard times, and when I arrived in 2001 it had under a hundred, mostly elderly members. One of our regular worshippers was Bill. He was 82 years old when I met him, and had lost his beloved wife three years prior to my coming to the synagogue. Bill went to the cemetery every day to visit the grave of his wife. Now, our tradition discourages excessive mourning, but Bill didn’t seem to be in mourning. His was cheerful, energetic, open to new ideas and not at all depressed. He just liked to visit his wife’s grave. In fact, I like Bill so much I did something I never did before and never did since. I tried to fix him up with my mother!  He graciously declined, which was fine. A year after I arrived at the synagogue, Mollie moved from Florida to be closer to her daughter, who taught at a local college. Mollie had been very happily married for over fifty years and had lost her husband recently. One day she appeared at the synagogue wanting to talk to the Rabbi about her loss and the transition she was going through. She was now 84 years old. After hearing her story I encouraged her to come to services as a way of connecting to our community and rebuilding her life. She began to attend regularly during the weekday and on Shabbat. Lo and behold, Mollie and Bill fell in love! When I left the synagogue in 2004, the office manager, Nancy, who had been there for 20 years, retired. Mollie and Bill volunteered to take over the office duties. The President of the synagogue, Steve, loved the idea, because it would save the temple money. The office manager was also responsible for compiling the monthly newsletter, so Mollie and Bill would take over that task as well. I argued against the idea. How are Mollie and Bill, 87 and 85 years old, going to fulfill the responsibilities of the office manager? Steve just smiled. They can do it, he said. As I said, I have not been to the Sons of Zion synagogue in the ten years since I left. Mollie and Bill are now 97 and 95 years old. They are still going to services on weekdays and Sabbath, still running the office, still putting out the monthly newsletter. They have even taken on more responsibilities. Since the synagogue has been having difficulty getting a minyan on Monday and Thursdays, Mollie and Bill took it upon themselves to set up a breakfast twice a week in the social hall to encourage people to attend on weekdays. They get up on Mondays and Thursdays at 5:45 in the morning so they can get to Temple by 8 am and have breakfast ready by nine!  So, Middy and I joined the congregation for breakfast following services, and got to visit with people over coffee and bagels prepared by Bill and Mollie. Jacob encountered himself in his solitary prayer the night before he met his brother.  Mollie and Bill encountered one another as they each prayed with a minyan in a small chapel in a small town in Massachusetts. Who said that prayer was a waste of time?  The moral of these stories for me is that prayer has the capacity to change one’s life. However, one never knows how exactly that is going to happen or what that change will be. One never knows how prayer will affect one.  Jacob was planning to run away, but, through the power of prayer, he stayed and faced his brother. Mollie and Bill were certainly not planning to find partners in their lives when they joined with others in prayer.  But through prayer they found partners, and it enriched each of their lives, and ours, immeasurably. As Bill says, if you don’t take the time, you miss out on the spiritual side of life. Shabbat Shalom