Learning from Jewish Prayer

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Some passages in the Bible are like family arguments.

Take, for instance, Jeremiah—not someone we’d call a polite person. He stomps and shouts not only at the ways of the people, but also at God. A brief example:

You are always righteous, Lord… yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? Drag them off like sheep to be butchered! Set them apart for the day of slaughter! (Jer 12:1-3)

That’s basically telling God how to do his own job. God answers:

If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? (Jer 12:5)

In the world history of put-downs, that ranks high. Comparing himself to a stallion, God matches the prophet’s colorful language to show him that Jeremiah’s out of His league. Or, in another famous passage known as “Jeremiah’s Confession,” he says to God:

I never sat in the company of revelers… I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails. (Jer 15:17-18)

Ouch. God replies:

If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me; if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman … For I am with you to rescue and save you.” (Jer 15:19-20)

Full of love, but a stern sort of love. These arguments are really a form of prayer. Prayer is conversation with God, and this certainly qualifies as open lines of communication. Another prophet with no filter, Jeremiah tells God exactly what he feels. He shows us that we don’t have to watch our words and be careful around God, as we are around other people. God is not only okay with that, He loves it, and He uses even our shouting against him to humble us again and calm us down.

Even when Christ teaches us the Our Father—a prayer which covers every aspect of our life and in which we can place every need—he begins with the intro: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:8). We don’t have to hide certain thoughts or feelings from God. He already knows. He wants us to share them, to come to him absolutely “as is.”

Another aspect of Jewish prayer—different from the first—is to identify God first in prayer, before we rattle off our own list of needs. This is the method of David, Solomon, and Daniel. They begin their great prayers not with We, but with You: “You who keep your covenant and show mercy toward those who keep your commandments and your precepts…” (see Daniel 9). And this first step in the right direction—God’s mercy, not our sins—then colors the rest of the prayer:

Your servants the prophets… spoke in your name… Our God, who led your people… let your anger and your wrath be turned away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain… open your eyes and look upon our desolate city upon which your name is invoked… we rely not on our just deeds, but on your great mercy. Lord, hear! Lord, pardon! Lord, be attentive and act without delay, for your own sake. (Dan 9:6-17)

Our prayer should begin with a strong, simple effort to turn ourselves towards God first. We begin by remembering who He is to us before we go any further. We should do the same with other people, not approaching them only to accuse them or fix a problem… but because of who they are to us: “You are my brother… you are my mother… you are my true friend.”

A final parcel of wisdom we can gain from Jewish prayer is that it must be constant, like breathing. Both Jews and Christians pray the psalms every day, and the first line of the first psalm begins:

Blessed is the man… who ponders his law day and night.

Our prayer must be as constant as the rhythms of the earth, of the day and night. And if at times life makes us desperate, we might need to “up it a notch” with a heavier bombardment of prayers, as Isaiah says:

You who put the Lord in remembrance,

   take no rest, and give him no rest

   until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth. (Is 62:6-7)

So, we should pray to God: with our most honest words, by focusing first on Him, and with constancy.

Anselm Moynihan, an Irish Dominican, has the perfect closing words about prayer.

[It is] a simple conversation of the heart comparable to and taking the place of the intimate conversation we tend to carry on with ourselves when alone… [It is] the expression to ourselves of our inmost loves, longings, hopes, disappointments and joys of our heart. . . . It requires no great mental effort but a frequent, quiet pondering on the simple fact of his presence and the habit of directing our inner conversation to him as to a friend who is with us in the dark. (The Presence of God)

Image: Israel Tourism, Western Wall (CC BY 2.0)

By | 2016-08-28T13:53:17+00:00 August 29, 2016|Prayer, Theology, Virtue|

About this Brother:

Br. Timothy Danaher, O.P.
Br. Timothy Danaher entered the Order of Preachers in 2011. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he studied Theology and American Literature. Before Dominican life he worked as a life guard in San Diego, CA, and as a youth minister in Denver, CO. On DominicanFriars.org