On holiday in August, I read two wonderful books. One was Jo Saxton’s book Influential. The other was ‘Understanding Jewish Prayer’ by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (in The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth). Here are some excerpts from Sacks:
‘In prayer we speak to a presence vaster than the unfathomable universe, yet closer to us than we are to ourselves: the GOD beyond who is also the Voice within. Though language must fail when we try to describe a Being beyond all parameters of speech, language is all we have, and it is enough. For GOD who made the world with creative words, and who revealed His will through holy words, listens to our prayerful words. Language is the bridge joining us to Infinity.’
‘Through Torah, GOD speaks to us. Praying, we speak. Studying, we listen.’
‘Faith lives in these two acts of listening: ours to the call of GOD, GOD’s to the cry of humankind.’
‘...why pray? The classic Jewish answer is simple but profound. Without a vessel to contain a blessing, there can be no blessing. If we have no receptacle to catch the rain, the rain may fall, but we will have none to drink. If we have no radio receiver, the sound waves will flow, but we will be unable to convert them into sound. GOD’s blessings flow continuously, but unless we make ourselves into a vessel for them, they will flow elsewhere. Prayer is the act of turning ourselves into a vehicle for the Divine.’
‘Prayer changes the world because it changes us. At its height, it is a profoundly transformative experience. If we have truly prayed, we come in the course of time to know that the world was made, and we were made, for a purpose; that GOD, though immeasurably vast, is also intensely close; that “though my father and mother may reject me, GOD will gather me in”; that GOD is with us in our efforts, and that we do not labour in vain. We know too that we are part of the community of faith, and with us are four thousand years of history, and the prayers and hopes of those who came before us. However far we feel from GOD, He is there behind us, and all we have to do is turn to face Him. Faith is born and lives in prayer, and faith is the antidote to fear: “The LORD is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?”
It makes a difference to be brushed by the wings of eternity. Regular thrice-daily prayer works on us in ways not immediately apparent. As the sea smoothes the stone, as the repeated hammer-blows of the sculptor shape the marble, so prayer – cyclical, tracking the rhythms of time itself – gradually wears away the jagged edges of our character, turning it into a work of devotional art. We begin to see beauty in the created world. We locate ourselves as part of the story of our people. Slowly, we come to think less of the “I”, more of the “We”; less of what we lack than of what we have; less of what we need from the world, more of what the world needs from us. Prayer is less about getting what we want than about learning what to want. Our priorities change; we become less angular; we learn the deep happiness that comes from learning to give praise and thanks. The world we build tomorrow is born in the prayers we say today.’
Jonathan Sacks has also written one of the most insightful reflections on 9/11, here.