Praying Without

I have been estranged from prayer since the pandemic began, the more so as school wound down for the semester. As much as I love prayer in real life, I kinda hate it in zoom life. Thus far, my shul here has not offered Shabbat broadcasts. These days on Shabbat, I tune into my hometown shul so I can see my parents, or to my favorite shul in New York. In either case, it’s hard not to feel more like a spectator than a worshipper. I’ve said it many times before: Rabbi Harold Kushner’s teaching that Jews don’t pray for, Jews pray with matters to me a great deal. How can I worship when I feel so alone in it? What does it mean to pray without?

Yet it’s dawned on me recently that as an aspiring spiritual leader, I need to take more ownership of my prayer life and sit more deeply and patiently with the question. I can’t continue to rely on the community around me to carry me along in prayer; this time is a hard but good opportunity to learn to carry myself in prayer. I need not only to develop more facility with the prayers but to develop more ballast for accessing the Divine when I am not riding the wave of soulful communal prayer. 

For right now, my focus is simply trying to get back some of the sense of connection I normally derive through prayer, learning to do it on my own. I resolved to spend some time every morning with the prayer book and let things unfold. This morning as I began, a grey cloud formed inside me.

I have cried more tears in these past weeks than I have in a very long time. The son of my college roommate, his only child and treasured beyond words, ended his life two weeks ago. He laid down in the woods he loved and went to sleep forever. There is no way to express the heartbreak.

Tachanun came early today. 

Long before I got to the moment of personal supplication I was (again) in tears at the soul-crushing effects of this loss. My friend and his wife will never — can never — be the same.

Last Shabbat we ended the book of Leviticus. Had we been in the synagogue and able to read from the scrolls, we would have closed the Torah reading with the words, חזק חזק ונתחזק (chazak chazak v’nitchazek). “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.” And this week we start reading the book of Numbers, which begins with a Gd-ordained census. Thinking about this tender young man who died, I feel in my core that the census is incomplete. Somebody is missing.

This is a loss that cannot be unlost, and my friend and his spouse are reeling, searching for a way to feel whole again as their center of gravity dissolves. I wish I had answers, some wisdom that could make this OK, but it cannot be OK. This sweet, brilliant, hilarious young man will not be counted in the census, but his life counts. He gave his parents twenty years of joy, he had friends and teachers and church-mates. He played the cello. Somebody is missing. 

I spoke with his bereaved dad last week. It had been a long while — we’d been in touch only sporadically after college — and he was shocked and bemused that I’m studying to become a rabbi. He isn’t religious, and said he doesn’t understand what Gd could be, or where Gd could be in all this struggle and sadness. I said it’s OK to have those questions; for me Gd is whatever it is that makes you feel less alone in this world. And we cried all over again. 

This prayer journey of mine: if I can just feel less alone, and develop the strength to help others feel less alone, that will be something. Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. 

May we never know such sorrow again.

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