Talking to God Through Prayer

Endings are hard. I have often found it curious that we end our tefilot singingAdon Olam. The prayer can be sung to virtually any tune and many have been tried throughout the ages at Camp Ramah. When I was a Rosh Edahat Ramah in Canada in the ’90s, there was a big tzevet (staff) basketball game between Shabbat tefilot and lunch. Our edah, with the oldest chanichim (campers), had the longest service, so I tried to be very efficient so that I would be on time to play ball. My chanichim – good naturedly – would pick the longest and slowest Adon Olam tune they could think of to slow me down. I always made it to the game, but I have to admit I rarely thought about this prayer back then. The prayer is pretty amazing in that the first two-thirds describe God as an awesome, all powerful, king of the world that is inaccessible to us mere mortals. The last third, however, describes a very personal God who is there for each and every one of us.

The first three stanzas read:

The Lord of the Universe who reigned
before anything was created.
When all was made by his will
He was acknowledged as King.

And when all shall end
He still all alone shall reign.
He was, He is,
and He shall be in glory.

And He is one, and there’s no other,
to compare or join Him.
Without beginning, without end
and to Him belongs dominion and power.

This type of God feels very inaccessible to me. God is all-powerful, an eternal king who will reign well beyond the human race. If this God is meant to scare me, the prayer works. Even though, when sung to Yankee Doodle, it doesn’t quite have the same effect, I feel that the opening stanzas are reminding us that we are small and insignificant. The best interpretation that I have for that approach is that if on some levels we fear God, perhaps we will be more inclined follow God’s laws and behave in a moral manner. I just don’t think that fear alone is the best way to do this.

Then, the prayer does something surprising. It talks about a personal God. This personal God is the one I first encountered in watching Fiddler on the Roof (the play that Machon and Amitzim performed brilliantly on Wednesday). I remember Tevye walking along the road with his lame horse having a conversation with God. The God he was talking to can be found in the next two stanzas.

And He is my God,
my living God.
to Him I flee in time of grief,
and He is my miracle and my refuge,
who answers the day I shall call.

To Him I commit my spirit,
in the time of sleep and awakening,
even if my spirit leaves,
God is with me, I shall not fear.

In times of distress or difficulty, it is comforting to end our tefilot thinking that God is there and listening. Although I don’t expect that my problems will suddenly be fixed by Biblical miracles, I do feel support and strength from the idea of talking to God through prayer and the community God provides through communal prayer. Life can be scary and hard. The last line, “God is with me, I shall not fear,” gives me strength, comfort and lifts up my spirit.

Just as Adon Olam ends our tefilot, this Shabbat marks the end of the kayitz (summer). I offer these final thoughts to end my summer drashot on tefilah. Prayer is hard. Understanding God is complex. Prayer for me is a journey of trying to encounter the infinite, to ask tough questions and to consider how I should act and behave in this world. I don’t always feel spiritual when I pray. Sometimes I just recite the words. Other times, I sit and ponder a word or a phrase. Often, I just join in the song with my community. It is an acquired taste and skill that takes practice. At Ramah, we try to teach these skills, provide the community and give everyone an opportunity to go on his or her own journey. For some, the payoff is immediate. For others, it might very well come some day in the future. In either case, I have always thought the journey was worth the effort.

Shabbat Shalom from Palmer.