Losing Prayer

8 06 2014

I don’t remember finding prayer. I think it was always there.

I started learning how to pray when I was three or four, when I started going to school. At first, it was something that I did only in school when required, and a little on Shabbat, when I went to synagogue with my father. There was some point when I prayed the morning service every day, when at home, but that waned throughout elementary school. At some point in high school, I returned to it. Perhaps it was out of a newfound sense of religious obligation, but it wasn’t religious obligation that drew me to pray seriously while in school, as my peers did their darnedest to avoid, skip, talk-through, or space out during our two-to-three times daily prayers.

I think that prayer may have been the glue that kept me together for some years. At the very least, it kept incipient depression at bay. I think that it did that by giving me a place where I was free to feel and express emotions. There was no other place in my life like that, and there wouldn’t be until I was eighteen and started going to therapy in the middle of my second episode of major depression.

And even that place was inferior to prayer. When I started going to therapy, I could answer the question, “How are you feeling?” only 5% of the time, and the rest of the time, I didn’t know how I was feeling. But God knew! God knew. I am so glad that I had access to a modality for expressing emotions starting at such a young age.

I don’t remember finding prayer, but I can trace how I lost it, step by step, until I could hardly pray at all.

When I started college and was very depressed, I managed to get myself to morning and evening minyan on campus. I moved a little further away from the minyan my sophomore year, and I struggled to get there for morning services and quickly gave up. I made some feeble attempts to continue praying on my own, outside of that communal structure, but couldn’t get myself to do it. I got a little bit into meditation and tried to do that instead, but no dice. I did manage to exercise every morning for a bit during my junior year of college, and that became my “prayer,” but it was fueled by body-hatred and self-loathing, and it was the polar opposite of prayer.

After college, I tried, on and off, to pray. I made commitments to myself. I broke them. I tried to pray just during the annual Selichot season, so that at least I wouldn’t miss out on those holy and wholly confounding liturgical wonders. I made it for a day, a week. I decided to forgo daily prayer but listen to songs from the morning shacharit service during my daily commute. It lasted a week or two, and then I couldn’t stand to listen to them anymore. I started this blog. I couldn’t work on it as I had hoped. I was regularly attending Shabbat services and at least managing to pray weekly that way, but that has waned considerably in the past few years. When I go, and stand in silence before God, whispering the Amida, I cry violent, unending tears.

I don’t think it should feel so hard to pray, so hard to open a siddur and say the words that my mind, at least, believes will bring comfort and/or stability and/or an inner, validating presence to my chaotic inner life. I don’t want to cry in synagogue, so I don’t go. Or, rather, I go for kiddush and skip the davening part entirely.

I really miss the daily comfort of ritual, of routine, of prayer that I started when I was three or four.





כִּי לֹא תַֽמּוּ חֲסָדֶֽיךָ: “For your kindnesses never cease.”

17 11 2013

From Lamentations (Eicha) 3:22:

כב  חַסְדֵי יְקוָק כִּי לֹא-תָמְנוּ, כִּי לֹא-כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו  22 Surely the LORD’S mercies are not consumed, surely His compassions fail not.

And from the Modim blessing from the daily Amida prayer, based on that verse:

הַטּוֹב כִּי לֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמֶֽיךָ

You are good, for Your compassion is never-ending.

וְהַמְֿרַחֵם כִּי לֹא תַֽמּוּ חֲסָדֶֽיךָ

You are compassionate, for Your kindnesses never cease.

מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּֽינוּ לָךְ

Our hope has always been in You.

[Translation by Rabbi Debra Orenstein.]

A friend called me up today. He was about to go grocery shopping with his kids and he asked if I need anything, since he knows that I’ve been down for the count, at least was down for the count on Friday and Saturday, with a migraine. (I didn’t go to a Shabbat dinner on Friday night that I had helped organize nor to Shabbat services on Saturday.) I thanked him for the offer and told him that I was all set for groceries.

His kindness made me cry, though. I feel like no one has ever been this kind to me in my entire life. And that makes me sad. Either it’s true, which is sad, or it’s not but I’ve forgotten the various kindnesses that people have shown to me during my life, which is a different kind of sad.

Even when God’s mercy and compassion on His creations seem very limited to me (here, I’m thinking specifically of young children who lose their parents and parents who lose their young children, rather than my own suffering), the mercy, compassion, and kindness of so many human beings never ceases to amaze me.

My prayer today is that one day, may I, too, merit to show such kindness, mercy, and compassion to myself and to others! Amen.





Hope and self-loathing

28 10 2013

I’ve posted some of my visual artwork here, but not too much. It’s time to post more. I’ve gotten back into drawing and painting in a major way recently, and it’s mostly a good thing. Maybe entirely a good thing.

There are water marks on these because I don’t want anyone to steal them. They’re also not incredibly in focus. I hope that doesn’t detract from your viewing too much. Thumbnails are below; click on each to see a full-size image.

This was one of my first (recent) efforts. It’s how I’ve been feeling about feelings/emotions lately.

Feelings

Feelings

The next two go together.

The first is how I feel so often, but I also feel like I need to put on a cheery, rainbow face and pretend that everything is just fine. I mean, really, why wouldn’t it be? The colors start out and end up straight, but bend into a rainbow in the middle on purpose. The straight, harsh lines of my life and mind often have to contort themselves into a rainbow to make myself presentable to the world.

The second is what I hear other people telling me about my life or their own, but it’s behind a thick screen of greenish, brownish, greyish gunk and I can’t access or feel it.

Life is Too...

Life is Too…

Ain't Life Grand?

Ain’t Life Grand?

Sometimes, I feel like this (piece not finished yet; maybe I’ll re-post when I’m done with it):

Hope

Hope

 

But, often, I feel full of this:

Self-loathing

Self-loathing

I adore this last one! I thought I might feel worse putting my thoughts down on paper in living color this way, but I actually feel better having drawn out those little furry monsters of self-loathing. It helps to externalize it. It is this thing that I feel; not something inherently a part of me that can’t be put down on paper because it’s so essential to my self. I was also able to hear the actual voices of various people in the little speaking bubbles that I put in there. Some are voices that seem to come from inside my own head, but others are things that I’ve heard others say about me or others and that (apparently) made a deep impression.

Future pieces may include:

  • “Desperation” (that’s what I wanted to do right after I finished “Hope,” but “Self-Loathing” reared its ugly head instead!)
  • “Anger”
  • “Failure”

I would also love to do some with explicitly Jewish content. The phrase “אִם אָמַרְתִּי מָטָה רַגְלִי חַסְדְּךָ ה’ יִסְעָדֵנִי” from Psalms 94:18 has been going through my head for some months now. (My translation: “If I say, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your mercy, God, will support me.”)





“The Gates For Tears Never Close”: Crying and God

24 09 2013

As we end this Jewish Elul-and-Tishrei season of intense prayer and God hearing us, I wanted to share this text from the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzi’a 59a and Berachot 32b):

א”ר אלעזר מיום שנחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי תפלה שנאמר (איכה ג) גם כי אזעק ואשוע שתם תפלתי ואע”פ ששערי תפלה ננעלו שערי דמעות לא ננעלו שנאמר (תהילים לט) שמעה תפלתי ה’ ושועתי האזינה אל דמעתי אל תחרש

R. Eleazar said: Since the destruction of the Temple, the gates of prayer are locked, for it is written, “Also when I cry out, He shuts out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8). Yet, though the gates for prayer are locked, the gates for tears are not, for it is written, “Hear my prayer, God, and listen to my cry; do not be silent in the face of my tears” (Psalms 39:13).

I love Jewish texts on tears and crying. I cry a lot and don’t pray formally as much as I once did, so I think about this contrast sometimes. I also sometimes find myself crying while praying, and I hope that no one sees me. Except God. I want God to see my tears.

There were a few such texts about God hearing our tears over the High Holidays, in the prayer liturgy. One of my favorites appears in the Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur. In a piyyut, or liturgical poem, called אזכרה אלהים ואהמיה (written in the 8th c. in southern Italy, according to piyyut.org.il) that is said towards the closing of the day, Ashkenazim say:

תָּמַכְתִּי יְתֵדוֹתַי בִּשְׁלֹשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה תֵבוֹת
וּבְשַׁעֲרֵי דְמָעוֹת כִּי לֹא נִשְׁלָבוֹת
לָכֵן שָׁפַכְתִּי שִׂיחַ פְּנֵי בוֹחֵן לִבּוֹת
בָּטוּחַ אֲנִי בָּאֵלֶּה וּבִזְכוּת שְׁלֹשֶׁת אָבוֹת

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שׁוֹמֵעַ קוֹל בְּכִיוֹת
שֶׁתָּשִׂים דִּמְעוֹתֵינוּ בְּנֹאדְךָ לִהְיוֹת
וְתַצִּילֵנוּ מִכָּל גְּזֵרוֹת אַכְזָרִיּוֹת
כִּי לְךָ לְבַד עֵינֵינוּ תְלוּיוֹת

The Artscroll translation reads:

I have placed my reliance on the Thirteen Attributes,
and on the gates of tears for they are never closed;
therefore I have poured out my prayer to Him Who tests hearts.
I trust in these and in the merit of the three patriarchs.

May it be Your will, You who hears the sound of weeping,
that You place our tears in Your flask permanently,
and that You rescue us from all cruel decrees,
for on You alone are our eyes fixed.

What is this flask of tears that God holds onto? Good question. Check out Psalms 56:9:

ט נֹדִי, סָפַרְתָּה-אָתָּה: שִׂימָה דִמְעָתִי בְנֹאדֶךָ; הֲלֹא, בְּסִפְרָתֶךָ

You have counted my wanderings; You have put my tears into Your bottle; are they not in Your book?

Finally, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to tell a story about the Vorker Rebbe and the Kotzker Rebbe, two hasidic rabbis. It’s called The Sea of Tears and is stunningly beautiful. You can read it here, among other places.

May the God who never closes the gates of tears hear and heal all of our tears.





Jewish texts that spark discussion about suffering in Judaism

9 09 2013

I co-taught a class recently at a private Jewish event, about Jewish life and suffering due to mental illness (broadly defined–not only depression). We did not really discuss theology. The purpose of the discussion was just that–to discuss mental health and suffering through a Jewish lens. In retrospect, we accomplished our goal of having a discussion, but perhaps it all could have been a bit more focused. Everyone has such different experiences with both Judaism and mental health that it’s really hard to pin down something specific to talk about, beyond sharing our own personal experiences and how we have been able to–or unable to–help others.

These were the texts that my co-facilitator and I shared with the group. We used these in various ways. I would love to hear any thoughts or reflections that you may have on these texts, or on the problem that I mentioned above (of narrowing the focus of the session).

The Biblical translations are based on the new JPS (1985).

Psalms 100:2

עִבְד֣וּ אֶת־הבְּשִׂמְחָ֑ה בֹּ֥אוּ לְ֝פָנָ֗יו בִּרְנָנָֽה׃

Worship the Lord in gladness; come into His presence with shouts of joy.

 Ethics of the Fathers, 1:15

הֱוֶי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת

Greet every person with a pleasant face.

Psalms 51

יח כִּי, לֹא-תַחְפֹּץ זֶבַח וְאֶתֵּנָה; עוֹלָה, לֹא תִרְצֶה.

18 You do not want me to bring sacrifices;
You do not desire burnt offerings.

יט זִבְחֵי אֱלֹקִים, רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה:
לֵב-נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּהאֱלֹקִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה.

19 True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.

Lamentations 1:16

עַל-אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה, עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם–כִּי-רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם, מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי

For these things do I weep, my eyes flow with tears. Far from me is any comforter who might revive my spirit…

ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשה ז:ב – Midrash Leviticus Rabba 7:2

וידבר האל משה לאמור: צו את אהרון ואת בניו לאמר זאת תורת העולה (ויקרא ו:א-ב)

[ב] זבחי אלקים רוח נשברה(תהלים נא, יט)

אמר רב אבא בר יודן: כל מה שפסל בבהמה הכשיר באדם. מה פסל בבהמה, עורת או שבור או חרוץ או יבלת אולא תקריבו אלה לה (ויקרא כב, כב), הכשיר באדם, זבחי אלקים רוח נשברה, לב נשבר ונדכה אלקים לא תבזה(תהלים נא, יט).

אמר רב אלכסנדרי: ההדיוט הזה, אם משתמש בכלי שבור גניי הוא לו, אבל הקבה כל כלי תשמישיו שבורין הן, דכתיב קרוב הלנשברי לב(תהלים לד, יט), הרופא לשבורי לב(תהלים קמז, ג), מרום וקדוש אשכון ואת דכא ושפל רוח להחיות רוח שפלים ולהחיות לב נדכאים(ישעיה נז, טו), לב נשבר ונדכה.

God spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons saying, ‘This shall be the law of the burnt offering…’ (Vayikra 6:1-2)
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise (Ps. 51:19).

R. Abba b. Judan said: Whatever the holy One, blessed be He, declared unfit in the case of an animal, He declared fit in the case of man. In animals he declared unfit: Anything blind, or injured, or maimed, or with a wen, boil-scar, or scurvy – such you shall not offer to the Lord (Lev. 22, 22), whereas in man He declared fit A broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:19) [to be true sacrifice]. R. Alexandri said: If an ordinary person makes use of broken vessel, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy One, blessed be He, are precisely broken ones, as it is said, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit He delivers (Ps. 34:19); He heals the broken hearts (Ps. 147:3); I dwell in the high and holy place; Yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit – reviving the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the contrite (Isaiah 57: 15). A broken and contrite heart

Psalms 6

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ בִּנְגִינוֹת, עַל-הַשְּׁמִינִית; מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the Leader; with instrumental music; on the sheminith. A psalm of David.

ב יְהוָה, אַל-בְּאַפְּךָ תוֹכִיחֵנִי; וְאַל-בַּחֲמָתְךָ תְיַסְּרֵנִי.

2 O LORD, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.

ג חָנֵּנִי ה‘, כִּי אֻמְלַל-אָנִי: רְפָאֵנִי ה‘–כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמָי.

3 Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I languish; heal me, O LORD, for my bones shake with terror.

ד וְנַפְשִׁי, נִבְהֲלָה מְאֹד; ואת (וְאַתָּה) ה‘, עַד-מָתָי.

4 My whole being is stricken with terror; while You, LORD—O, how long!

ה שׁוּבָה ה‘, חַלְּצָה נַפְשִׁי; הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי, לְמַעַן חַסְדֶּךָ.

5 O LORD! rescue me! Deliver me as befits your faithfulness.

ו כִּי אֵין בַּמָּוֶת זִכְרֶךָ; בִּשְׁאוֹל, מִי יוֹדֶה-לָּךְ.

6 For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?

ז יָגַעְתִּי, בְּאַנְחָתִיאַשְׂחֶה בְכָל-לַיְלָה, מִטָּתִי; בְּדִמְעָתִי, עַרְשִׂי אַמְסֶה.

7 I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed; I melt my couch in tears.

ח עָשְׁשָׁה מִכַּעַס עֵינִי; עָתְקָה, בְּכָל-צוֹרְרָי.

8 My eyes are wasted by vexation; worn out because of all my foes.

ט סוּרוּ מִמֶּנִּי, כָּל-פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן: כִּי-שָׁמַע ה‘, קוֹל בִּכְיִי.

9 Away from me, all you evildoers, for the LORD heeds the sound of weeping.

י שָׁמַע ה‘, תְּחִנָּתִי; ה‘, תְּפִלָּתִי יִקָּח.

10 The LORD heeds my plea, the LORD accepts my prayer.

יא יֵבֹשׁוּ, וְיִבָּהֲלוּ מְאֹדכָּל-אֹיְבָי; יָשֻׁבוּ, יֵבֹשׁוּ רָגַע.

11 All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.

Psalms 13

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ, מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the leader. A psalm of David.

ב עַד-אָנָה ה‘, תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח; עַד-אָנָה, תַּסְתִּיר אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי.

2 How long, O LORD; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

ג עַד-אָנָה אָשִׁית עֵצוֹת, בְּנַפְשִׁייָגוֹן בִּלְבָבִי יוֹמָם;

עַד-אָנָה, יָרוּם אֹיְבִי עָלָי.

3 How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

ד הַבִּיטָה עֲנֵנִי, האֱלֹקָי; הָאִירָה עֵינַי, פֶּן-אִישַׁן הַמָּוֶת.

4 Look at me, answer me, O LORD, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;

ה פֶּן-יֹאמַר אֹיְבִי יְכָלְתִּיו; צָרַי יָגִילוּ, כִּי אֶמּוֹט.

5 Lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him”; my foes exult when I totter.

ו וַאֲנִי, בְּחַסְדְּךָ בָטַחְתִּייָגֵל לִבִּי, בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ:

אָשִׁירָה לַיהוָה, כִּי גָמַל עָלָי.

6 But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in your deliverance.
I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, excerpt from “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 17:2 (Spring 1978), p. 65 (I have shared this text on this blog before)

Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person’s own need-awareness is dull, and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence, which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence. Need-awareness turns into a passional experience, into a suffering awareness. Dolorem ferre ergo sum — I suffer, therefore I am — to paraphrase Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. While the Cartesian cogito would also apply to an angel or even to the devil, our inference is limited to man: neither angel nor devil knows suffering.

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs.”

Wishing all of my readers a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year!





Study about prayer and mental health seeking Jews

28 07 2013

I am sorry that it’s been so long since I last posted something here. As those of you who have friended me on Facebook know, life continues to be something of a struggle due to depression and anxiety. I am not in crisis, but have embarked (or continued) on a journey of learning how to love myself and create a self-validating environment for the first time in my life. The support that I have received from all of you has been invaluable.

I am only breaking radio silence at the moment to share this request, which I received from Refa’enu, a community/listserv about Judaism and mental health [Facebook; Yahoo listserv; Twitter]. I thought that some of you might want to participate.

Shalom,

I am collaborating with a laboratory at the University of Louisville, Kentucky on a novel study about prayer and well-being, and we are looking to recruit 200 Jewish participants. So far we only have 170, so we am looking for 30 more Jewish adults (18 years or older) from anywhere on planet earth to complete a 20-25 minute on-line survey.

What’s new about this research, you may ask? Well, previous studies have linked private prayer to mental health and wellbeing, however it remains unclear why this is the case – in other words, the mechanisms by which prayer may impact health (or vice versa) have not been adequately studied. A second limitation is that most research in this area has focused exclusively within the Christian faith, whereas this study is recruiting other religious groups as well.

Please consider participating in this study – it should take fewer than 20 minutes of your time. To access the survey, simply click here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/prayerJ_Wave1

As well, please do pass this email along to others whom may be willing/able to participate. The success of this study is dependent on the worldwide Jewish community!

With appreciation,
David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D.





The First Fire And The Human Capacity To Banish Darkness

7 12 2012

As we prepare to go into the earliest Shabbat of the year (ugh) and then Chanukah (yay?), let us remember: God gave us both darkness and the tools for eradicating it.

“The Fire” – Rabbi Levi said: The light which was created on the first day of creation served for 36 hours after Adam ate from the tree: from Friday until Saturday night. […] Once Shabbat came out, [the first] darkness began to arrive. Adam became fearful and said: “This is what God said when he cursed me upon eating from the tree – the snake will come and bite me!”
Said Rabbi Levi: At that time God presented Adam with two flints. He struck them together and a fire burst forth. He blessed them saying: בורא מאורי האש – “the creator of fire.”
Shmuel said: Therefore we say the blessing for fire on motzaei Shabbat [Saturday night after Shabbat ends] – because that is the origin of its creation.

–Talmud Yerushalmi, Brachot 8:5

האש – רבי לוי בשם רבי בזירה שלשים ושש שעות שימשה אותה האורה שנבראת ביום הראשון. שתים עשרה בערב שבת ושתים עשרה בליל שבת ושתים עשרה בשבת

 [...]
כיון שיצאת שבת התחיל משמש החושך ובא ונתירא אדם ואמר אלו הוא שכתב בו (בראשית ג) הוא ישופך ראש ואתה תשופנו עקב שמא בא לנשכני ואמר (תהילים קל) אך חשך ישופני. אמר רבי לוי באותו שעה זימן הקב”ה שני רעפין והקישן זה לזה ויצא מהן האור הדא הוא דכתיב (שם) ולילה אור בעדני ובירך עליה בורא מאורי האש. שמואל אמר לפיכך מברכין על האש במוצאי שבתות שהיא תחילת ברייתה.

תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות דף ס,ב פרק ח הלכה ה–








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