When it comes to personal prayer, Tevye the Milkman broke the mold. Shalom Aleichem’s beloved protagonist, best known through the musical adaptation, Fiddler on the Roof, spoke with God very plainly and directly. Perhaps in the synagogue, Tevye faithfully recited from the Siddur (tradition!), but he also had an ongoing personal dialogue with the Almighty. When his horse went lame, Tevye moaned:

“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”
Jeremiah 33:3

Dear God. Was that necessary? Did you have to make him lame just before the Sabbath? That wasn’t nice. It’s enough you pick on me. Bless me with five daughters, a life of poverty, that’s all right. But what have you got against my horse? Really, sometimes I think, when things are too quiet up there, you say to yourself, “Let’s see. What kind of mischief can I play on my friend, Tevye?”

We probably all feel that way at times. But we may not feel we can—or should—address God in that familiar way. After all, in the synagogue, prayers are corporate. Even those who wrap tefillin generally do so in preparation for the weekday morning services, where they will recite the prayers corporately. In the Talmud, Abba Binyamin declared, “A man’s prayer is heard [by God] only in the synagogue.”[2] Rashi said that a person is obligated to pray with a minyan.[2] Moses Maimonides expressed a slightly less strict view, “A person should include himself in the community and should not pray alone whenever he is able to pray with the community.”[3] Nachmanides agreed with Maimonides.[4]

What do the rabbis say today? In Chabad’s “Ask the Rabbi” web column, a reader asks:

Due to my work schedule, it is impossible for me to attend morning prayer services in the synagogue, so I plan on praying at home. However, I’m somewhat confused as to which specific prayers I should recite. I understand that some require a minyan while others do not. I was hoping to attain further guidance on these matters. Thank you.

After the rabbi details which prayers should not be recited alone, he concludes, “Other than the above mentioned prayers, you can recite everything which is recited when praying as part of a congregation.”[5] Even when praying alone, the expectation of the inquirer and the rabbi seems to be that the prayers will be recited from the Siddur.

But for many, those prayers have become rote. In the Introduction to The Daily Prayer Book, Philip Birnbaum notes, “It is regrettable that the Siddur, over which many generations have brooded and wept, has never been sufficiently appreciated as a vehicle of Jewish knowledge. People have learned to recite it by heart without giving adequate attention to its fine beauty and deep significance.”[6]

Certainly, reading the Siddur thoughtfully is not just a matter of appreciating Jewish knowledge; it can be a deeply meaningful way to approach God. The Siddur contains half the book of Psalms. Although most of the included Psalms are best suited for congregational reading, some are quite personal. In Psalm 6, King David cries out: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord—how long?” (Psalm 6:2–3). The writer of Psalm 94 says, “If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. When I thought, ‘My foot slips,’ your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul” (Psalm 94:17–19).

If the Psalmists speak to God in such an intimate manner, why don’t we?

Perhaps we feel it is the rabbi’s job to pray. Or that God listens to the rabbi, but not to us. But King David wrote:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139:1–4)

Tevye may have been puzzled by tradition:

Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything. . . . For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. . . I don’t know.

But he knew how to talk to God.

So did people whose stories are told in the Hebrew Scriptures.

King David was in regular communication with God, especially in times of trouble: “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice” (Psalm 55:17).

When Jonah was swallowed up, he ” . . . prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.'” (Jonah 2:1–2). God heard his prayer: “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10)

David and Goliath

Does God still respond to desperate cries for help? Consider Holocaust survivor David Bako (1913–2005). In 1943, Bako, a Jewish resistance fighter in Czechoslovakia, ran for his life, just minutes ahead of his Nazi pursuers. He found a farmhouse, protected by a fierce German Shepherd. Bako eyed the dog house as a hiding place, but the Shepherd, barking loudly, blocked his path. Bako put his finger to his mouth and the dog, as if sensing Bako’s distress, softened and stepped away, allowing Bako to enter the dog house. Bako sat in the corner and silently, fervently prayed to God for protection. When the Nazis arrived, the Shepherd again turned ferocious. When they tried to approach the dog house, he got so aggressive they turned away. The dog then curled up with Bako in the dog house! Later, the farmer who owned the property went to check on his dog and discovered Bako. The farmer, who was German, and his Czech wife fed Bako and helped him escape.[7]

Journeys of Faith: Oded Cohen

Prayer is talking to God, but it also involves listening to him. Sometimes God may communicate directly with us. God’s interaction with Moses is probably the most prominent example of this in the Scriptures. But even today, God seeks to get through to us, and sometimes he seems to do so in ways that are unique to the particular individual, as in Edward Brown’s “burning bush” story. Or in the case of Oded Cohen, born and raised in Israel on a secular kibbutz. Like Edward, Oded wanted to know the truth about a very specific issue. And, like Edward, he asked God for a sign. Here is his story:

After serving in the Israeli army, I came to America and later married my wife, Bimini. A few years later, she wanted to convert to Judaism. She began reading the Torah and this inspired me to read the Bible also—I didn’t want her to know more about my Bible than I did! However, to my dismay, she “turned Christian” on me.

I vigorously opposed all Bimini’s attempts to share Jesus with me. Eventually, she flagged down a Jews for Jesus missionary handing out tracts on Market Street in San Francisco. She said we needed help.

I didn’t think that I needed any help, but since it was so important to my wife, I eventually allowed a Jews for Jesus missionary to visit. When he came, I asked him to show me in ‘my Bible’ where it says that Jesus is the Messiah. To my surprise, he showed me many Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and pointed out how Jesus fulfilled them.

After several meetings, he told me to ask the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to reveal to me who Jesus is. And I did. I prayed.

Amazing things began to happen. Our pet bunny was paralyzed in her rear legs and had been for nearly a year. One evening, I laid my hand on her and said, ‘Jesus, if you are who they say you are, let’s see you heal her!’ Before I even finished, she began hopping around the room on all four legs! [8]

After other answers to his prayer for God to show him who Yeshua (Jesus) is, Oded received Yeshua as his atonement for sins and his Messiah.

Karol Joseph: God Was Not for Me

The ways that God chooses to communicate his reality can touch on deeply personal issues. Karol Joseph was in her early thirties, self-disciplined and competent in most areas of her life—except for food. She had been on the weight loss/gain roller coaster for years, sometimes borderline anorexic, but mostly overeating. At an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, one of the steps was to turn her will and life over to the care of God, as she understood him. Karol, raised in a Conservative Jewish home, knew that God existed, but she wasn’t sure that he would help her. She had recently been talking with a fellow student in her Ph.D. program at Brandeis who believed in Jesus. Karol continues the story:

The next day I asked God for his help. The people at the program said that I’d need to abstain from sugar and flour to break the eating cycle. So that is what I asked God to help me do: abstain from eating sugar or flour for one day, just one day. At the end of the day, God had answered my prayer—talk about a miracle!

Day after day God continued to answer my prayer and help me do what I could not do for myself. I soon realized that God could and would restore me completely, if I would turn my will and life over to him. I began to pray every morning, “God, show me your will for me and I promise I’ll do it—no questions asked.” It was during one such prayer that I felt a tug on my heart: “What are you going to do about Jesus?” [9]

There are less dramatic ways that we can hear from God. The most common is by reading his Word and letting him “speak” to you through it. The Psalms say, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).

If, like Edward, Oded and Karol and countless others, you are ready to try personal prayer, talking to God—you are ready to hear from him. Be assured of the promise found in Psalm 145:18: “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” We can ask God to show us the truth, and we can trust that he will.


 

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 6a

[2] Alfred J. Kolatch, The Second Jewish Book of Why (Middle Village, New York: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1985), p. 217.

[3] Mishneh Torah, Tefilah and Birkat Kohanim (sometimes cited as Hilchot Tefilah) 8:1

[4] Kolatch, loc. cit.

[5] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/541770/jewish/Which-prayers-are-omitted-when-praying-alone.htm

[6] Philip Birnbaum, translator and annotator, Daily Prayer Book [Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem], (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949), p. x.

[7] http://www.kqed.org/arts/programs/imagemakers/episode.jsp?epid=272479

[8] http://www.jewsforjesus.org/publications/havurah/v08-n01/twosides

[9] http://www.jewsforjesus.org/files/pdf/ebooks/joseph.pdf