Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Prayer in a Twitter World

Prayer in a Twitter World
Rabbi Phyllis Sommer
Yom Kippur Morning 5770

Do you know how long it takes for the giant Chinese bamboo to grow to over 90 feet tall? First, it is planted as a tiny seed. Then the seed is watered and fertilized for a whole year, and nothing appears above the ground. Then the seed must be watered and fertilized for a second year. And a third, and a fourth. Still, nothing happens. Finally, in the fifth year of its care, the bamboo shoots up to the sky – growing 90 feet in just six weeks. The question is – how long does it take for the Chinese bamboo to grow 90 feet? Is it six weeks? Or is it five years…
If the farmer leaves the plant untended, unwatered, for any time during the previous four years, the plant would have died. Can you imagine working on a plant and seeing no growth for four full years?

Another story:

We planted tomatoes this year in our back yard. The day after they were planted, Sam, my three year old, wanted to go outside and get a tomato to eat. I took him out and showed him the baby plants, and explained that it would take a long time for them to grow. Later that day, he asked to go get a tomato NOW because hadn’t it been a long time already?

We are in a society that expects instant gratification. Fast food, fast cars, fast internet connections. If the page doesn’t refresh when I want it to, if the email doesn’t go through right away, if the person in front of me doesn’t hit the gas the minute the light turns green…Every activity has to have a purpose and a goal. A few spare minutes in the carpool line? Send an email! A ride in the car? Listen to an audiobook or a radio program. A chance to have a quiet lunch alone? Read the newspaper! We multi-task our multi-tasking.

I adore the internet. Many of you know that I love to blog, to use Facebook, even to Twitter. I am a product and a child of the Internet age. I love that the world moves fast, I love that I can see what’s going on all around with the click of my mouse or the touch of a button on my blackberry.

One of the reasons people like using the internet is because it “Gets things done” quickly, easily, and without a lot of fuss. Need to know the answer? Google it, of course. Need an answer right away? Send a text message. It helps us get stuff done. But I know that it has its downside. After all, if everything is a “trending topic” – if everything is important enough to share with the 700 or so people I consider “friends” on Facebook, if the news is coming at us constantly, all the time…how do we figure out what’s really important?
I want things to happen quickly, I don’t like to wait for people to check their email. How many of you have followed up an email with a phone call just a few moments later? I don’t like to “sit around and wait.”

And then there’s prayer. The ultimate “sit around and wait activity.” Nothing seems to happen right away, nothing gets done while I’m doing it, I can’t multi-task it.

Prayer is generally thought of as a “non-expedient activity.” What do I mean by this? Praying as long and as intensely as one likes or is able to has absolutely no immediate visible response. Well, as far as you can see or feel at that moment. God may or may not respond affirmatively to the prayer – and either way, a response is not instantaneous. And even over time, it’s not always totally clear if there’s a direct correlation between the prayer I’ve said and the response from God. And to top it all off, the hours we’re spending here today for example – nothing has moved from the in-box to the out-box. No physical goods have exchanged hands. No stocks or bonds went up or down because of what we are doing here.

Let’s face it: our world tends to measure all activities based on productivity. Professional productivity, financial productivity, even personal satisfaction is measured on the same standard! We measure life by what we have accomplished with the time we have spent. We measure each moment of our lives by “what we got done” or “what we didn’t get done.” Even on vacation! How many of us fill our vacation and down-time hours with activities that “get stuff done” – different certainly than the “work” stuff we’re getting done, but equally active and goal-oriented. Even the simple act of driving home from work is often filled with music, talk radio, or phone conversations.

For most of us, this constant need to surround ourselves with stimulation and input means that we do not allow ourselves the time or the quiet to open up ourselves to a connection to prayer and to God.
Prayer does not work when measured by its productivity. In fact, it’s just the opposite – prayer is a total suspension of the other activities and a chance to remove one’s need and one’s desire to be productive at all! Instead, it requires handing over the reins of our lives to Someone Else – opening ourselves up to the potential change that can bring.

Many societies and cultures pray early in the morning. When we first wake up, we thank God for having gotten us through whatever dangers may exist in the nighttime, in the dark, while we sleep. Jewish tradition upholds this as well, with the morning prayers.

Many cultures also have nighttime prayers, asking for protection in advance from the same dangers we were grateful to have escaped in the morning. Judaism also has evening prayers, a set liturgy.

But Judaism has something different from other cultures – we were the first to invent the idea of midday prayer. The prayer service known as Mincha falls in the middle of the day and has a unique requirement – in order to truly pray, one must put down one’s work, right when the going is good. In order to pray the midday service, you have to stop what you’re doing, and in some way acknowledge a relationship to God. Perhaps even say – hey, this connection to God is more important than the productive and speedy work that I’m doing right now. In fact, it is this connection that makes everything else possible. Even if midday prayer isn’t a part of your regular routine, the very idea of taking a pause during the middle of the day can be.

When I first moved to Israel, I was shocked – shocked – by how rude all the store clerks seemed to be. Inevitably, I would walk into a bookstore or clothing store in the middle of the day and the young woman behind the counter wouldn’t greet me or even speak to me. Instead, she would be on the phone, talking in loud Hebrew phrases. When I’d come to check out, she might say “rega, Ima” – hold on, Mom – and take care of me. For a while I was really annoyed by this. Until someone explained it to me in a different way. Israelis see their family as paramount. You never know what each day will bring. Something as unimportant as a browsing customer couldn’t possibly demand putting aside a family member! It changed my outlook and reminds me of the idea of prayer. Just as I answer the phone for my family above all – so do I have to take a few moments each day to stop the work that I’m doing and answer the spiritual phone to connect me with God.

I know that prayer can be a difficult subject for Jews. In fact, I know that most of us cringe when someone says “I’ll pray for you,” or “you’re in my prayers.” It’s not our way of doing things, it’s not our way, necessarily, of thinking. And it’s not a new problem in the Jewish world, let me tell you. You may be even saying to yourself, “Um, yeah, rabbi?…prayer is not my thing.”

But I’m saying – prayer is our thing. It’s a Jewish thing.

You might have heard the old joke about Jews and prayer. Mr. Shapiro sees his two friends, Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Cohen, coming out of the synagogue one morning. Mr. Shapiro turns to Mr. Cohen and says, “What were you doing in there?” and Mr. Cohen says, “I go there to talk to God.” Then Shapiro turns to Mr. Goldberg and says, “and you? I know you don’t believe in God!” and Mr. Goldberg says, “You’re right. Cohen goes to temple to talk to God. I go to temple to talk to Cohen!”

It’s not just about the prayers we say. Sometimes it’s about being there in the first place. Wait, though, do we have to be there at all? Can’t we just “phone it in” or email our prayers, though? Wouldn’t that be simpler? So thinks Alon Nir of Tel Aviv, founder of Tweet Your Prayers, the Kotel on Twitter, a micro-blogging service that allows users to write short bursts of 140 characters or less. He’ll take your most important prayers, 140 characters or less, and put them into the Western Wall for you. Their website’s mission statement explains: “Tweeting only takes a few seconds; it’s substantially easier, quicker and cheaper than hoping on a plane to Israel.”

Maybe it is all those things: easier, quicker, and cheaper. But is that what prayer is really about?
Look, let’s face it, prayer is a long term investment. It’s much more like the Chinese bamboo – years and years of watering without a lot to show for it. And it’s not particularly easy to follow along all the time, is it? After all, we are all relatively accomplished in our lives, we all have skills and abilities, degrees and awards. But prayer doesn’t work quite like that, does it. There aren’t any awards, there aren’t any balance sheets at the end of the day. It’s not even a timed activity!

Prayer is hard work. It’s not at all like texting or emailing. It requires way more interaction between the sender and the receiver. It requires patience, practice and even humility. Doing it “well” means that we have to get used to it – and to sometimes feeling a little awkward, a little uncomfortable or strange at times. It means struggling, sometimes without immediate reward, and sometimes it means finding rewards right away at the beginning. It means that sometimes you’ll feel like you’re growing and sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you’ll feel all of this over the course of one single service! And sometimes it will take years.

Prayer isn’t about “getting it done.” It’s more like undertaking any other rigorous pursuit – learning to play the violin or practicing yoga or perfecting a golf swing. In fact, it’s even more difficult than any of those things. Would you attempt to run a marathon or complete a triathlon without any training? Would you expect to play a concerto after only 2 violin lessons?

I think we have a slightly imbalanced expectation of ourselves when it comes to prayer. The words are all in the book, for goodness sake! How hard can it be? It’s deceptively difficult. It takes practice and training, it takes a regular interaction with the words, with ourselves, and with God, to make it feel worthwhile.
On Rosh HaShanah we gave a sermon that was very much in the here-and-now, in the idea that we could walk out of the sanctuary with a plan, a goal, a direct result of our being in synagogue.

Yom Kippur isn’t quite the same. Today I ask you to consider that there may or may not be any great big change from your experience here today. You may leave the sanctuary feeling the very same as you came into it. But I invite you, I ask you, I might even beg you, to consider that this isn’t the be-all end-all, and it doesn’t need to be the end of your interaction, your connection to prayer and to God. We live in a quick-fix world, and Yom Kippur seems like it would fit in great with that. One day, absolve the sins, wash ourselves clean with a little fasting, and we’re done. It’s tailor made for how we live our lives.

But it’s not, is it.

There is a reading in our prayerbook, attributed to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.

Prayer invites God to be present in our spirits and in our lives. Prayer may not change the world, but it does change me and gives me the power and the possibility to change the world. Prayer cannot mend a broken bridge, but it can mend my troubled and wounded spirit.

Prayer isn’t about a one-time deal. Prayer isn’t about fixing the world with one fell swoop, or fixing ourselves and our needs in a quick-and-dirty solution.

But prayer is about finding the time to turn off the cell phone, the blackberry, the email, Facebook and Twitter. Prayer can be mysterious, elusive and also strangely rewarding. The words are there for us in the book or written in our hearts, in the moments of silence between the set liturgy. The music and poetry are a part of our service, the up and the down, the movement and the gestures. We are entirely, for this moment, outside of the rush of the world around us.

As this Yom Kippur draws us near, draws us close, may we find the possibility to continue our work, to continue the practice and the process that is prayer. May we accept that our results may not be chartable or graphable, that our answers may not come today, or tomorrow, or the next…and may we find peace and wholeness in the pursuit, in the time spent, in the wrestling and in the weeping, in the joy and in the delight, in the words and in the non-words…in the prayer that is a part of the very fabric of our lives.

And may it truly be a blessing for each of us.
Keyn yehi ratzon, may this be God’s will.

With gratitude to the inspiration of aish.com, Rabbi Adam Allenberg,
Rabbi Barry Freundel, Rabbi David Thomas, Craig C. Roshaven, and Teresa Bell Kindred.