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Miriam Kosman is a lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, an outreach organization that teaches Torah to secular Israeli university students. The ideas in this article were drawn from the seforim avoda Shebelev and Alel Shor

G-d, I prayed, just like I was supposed to, just like they told me to. I asked You for something. I begged you. I cried my heart out. But you said no. They say You hear prayers. They say You are kind and You are good. But still You said no. That makes no sense to me.

My request wasn't a selfish request. It was a reasonable request, a good request. I wasn't even asking for a miracle, just for something that millions of other people take for granted. I was sure it was what You would have wanted for me. I thought that what I asked for would make it easier to come close to You. But still, You said no. Maybe You don't want me to come close to You. Or maybe You don't even care. You are G-d, and I know you are allowed to say no; obviously You don't have to give me what I want. I accept that, but I feel rejected and alone, facing a force that appears cruel and callous.

Puny little man standing on the beach gazing at the unrelenting, endlessly crashing waves is awed by the power and mystery; he is also frightened by the sense that he is not much more than a speck of sand before that force.  He feels lonely and small, vulnerable and exposed before this dispassionate power.

So what does a Jew do when he feels like this? The Kuzari points out that it is exactly at this point that we see the difference between the god of Aristotle and the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. For the Jew, G-d is not an abstract concept--a fearful, awesome Being, who exists intellectually, but remains ultimately irrelevant to me. "My soul thirsts for You", I yearn to experience You, not in my mind, but in my soul--in my very self. 

Standing at the foot of the mountain, the Jew did not hear about a distant abstract G-d Who had created heaven and earth. He heard, 'I am the L-rd, your G-d who took you out of Egypt.”  Har Sinai was lightening and thunder but it was also a voice of intimacy talking straight to us from amidst the fire. “Taste and see that Hashem is good.” Don't know Hashem is there. Feel it with every fiber of your being.

What do I do, when intellectual knowledge notwithstanding, I don't feel loved and cared for, but rejected and abandoned?

It is at this moment, where intellect meets heart, where abstract meets concrete, where theoretical meets reality, that the Jew meets his G-d.

As a Jew, I remember that I am not alone in this experience. I am a child of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. I am a child of Avraham who looked with wonder at the star studded sky and heard about the glory of his as yet unborn progeny. But I am also the child of Avraham who stood at the Bris Bein habesarim in dread and trembling, hearing that before this glorious destiny would be theirs, his children would have to go through four hundred years of darkness, suffering, and pain. I am the child of Yitzchak, who stretched out his neck, the child of Yaakov, who fought the angel in the darkness--and who left that encounter limping. I am called Yisrael. I struggle with G-d.


Unlike the impression that we got as children, the three parts of prayer, shevach (praise), bakasha (request) and hodaya (thanks), are not a way to manipulate the Keeper of the Keys into giving us what we want. From a childish perspective, we figure that since it is not nice to just ask for something, first we praise. Then we get to the point: please, please, please, pretty please give me what I want; and last of all, we say thank you. It is important to say thank you because we all know what happens if you don't say thank you. Next time you don't get!

But prayer is not something a Jew does, it is what he is. Rav Wolbe tells us that Lashon Hakodesh is the only language in which the word life is plural; Chaim, in its literal definition means lives, not life. Relationships, reaching out and bonding with others and ultimately with Hashem, is not the means to an end. It is life itself. Mankind is on a constant journey towards love--towards being in a relationship. Oh chavrusa, oh misusua, either there is connection--or there is death.

In an awareness that the Shulchan Aruch, in its very first line, tells us to cultivate continuously, Shevach (stage one of prayer), creates that mysterious Other standing knegedi-oppposite me. In His vastness and greatness, Hashem is clearly 'not me.' And that is the first requisite for a relationship between two--to be aware of an other. Hakeil hagadol, hagibor, vhanora crashes me into an encounter with the Awesome Otherness. The human reaction to the awesome may be to run in the other direction. The Jew, though, knows that life is about reaching out, and despite his trembling, steps into the chasm.

“Pour out like water your heart before the Face of Hashem.” Pouring out one's heart is the willingness to acknowledge the hole in one's life, the intrinsic loneliness of one's soul locked away in a human body. More, it is about pouring out one's soul to a Being Who seems unfamiliar and impersonal. The Jew courageously refuses to hide behind bluster. He is willing to acknowledge his very human hungriness, his constant yearning for something out there, his persistent search for the fruit of some tree. He knows G-d is there, knows that no human relationship can assuage this pain--not the most loving spouse, not the dearest children, not the closest friends. "For my father and mother have left me, and Hashem gathers me in", No one else can step on to this lonely island where I grapple with myself before G-d.

But when the Jew has the courage to enter that vulnerable state, when despite feeling diminished by the Greatness, he leaps into the abyss and reveals his soul, suddenly, he finds himself “present before the Face of Hashem.” Panim- face shares a root with the word pniya--turning towards. Through having the courage to pour out my soul before that intimidating Other, by asserting that despite the illusion, I know He is there, I stand, not only in His Presence, but in the Presence of His Face, which is turned towards me inviting me to let Him into my world.

And since my world, like the world of most human beings, is prosaic, earthly, and fairly humdrum, I turn to this exalted Being, and ask for plain, ordinary human things: health, prosperity, understanding, peace. This is not an abstract esoteric experience. This is understanding that relationship means bringing Hashem right into the brass tacks of my life.

And within that vulnerable, bare-bones prayer lies my entire essence as a human being. The thirst in my soul is quenched not so much by getting what I want, but in knowing that He is there.

When circumstances force me to face the fact that instead of sailing the seas in an ocean liner, I am, in fact, floundering in the depth on a fragile piece of wood, I may discover my deepest, most innermost bakasha.

A friend's child was sick with a life-threatening illness and had to undergo surgery. My friend spent hours doing research--finding out who was the best doctor, which was the best hospital, what was the best procedure. It was hard work.

But sitting outside the operating room, with no more arrangements to make, she was suddenly faced with the biggest challenge of all--opening her siddur. “Believe me,” she told me, “it would have been easier for me to go in to that operating room and assist the surgeon. I think I would have rather been doing anything at all, rather than facing the fact that I had no control over what was going on in the operating room--or anywhere else for that matter. But, there was no where to run anymore, no more action to hide in anymore.

  “Strangely, it was in that moment of total surrender that I suddenly felt at peace. Not because I knew Hashem would make my daughter better. But because I knew Hashem was there. “

In an unexpected dynamic, it is the not knowing and the not understanding that grants Hashem Presence in my world. When I am writing the script, when life is running along merrily just as it is supposed to, when I feel secure knowing why this or that tragedy happens, or which button to press to bring this or that result, in the end, I stand all alone. There is only me and the shadow I project on the screen.

It is only when I stop trying to put Hashem in my pocket, when I do not try and recreate Him in my own image, that I meet Him. It is only then that I am in relationship with someone other than myself.


“I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence will come my help?” Ayin means 'from where,' but it also means 'nothing.' When we are full of ourselves there might not be room for Hashem in our lives. Salvation will come when I see myself not in my pitiful attempts to run the world, not in a false sense of superiority that I, unlike them, have it under control, not in my running, running non stop on the tread mill, drugging myself by over-activity into thinking that I have the whole world in my hands.

Salvation will come when the person can strip himself of all façade and bare his aching soul before the One being who can contain all that pain and misery. All the dashed hopes, the expectations that never came to fruition, the despair of things ever being what we wished, the searing pain of disappointment in others and most of all in ourselves, the pettiness, the pathetic attempts at control, the crushing, aching disappointment of being human, all come together in one cry of ayin--I am not. And into that empty space I have carved out, there is room for You.

According to the Maharal, this is why we look at pain and suffering as something positive, (or in common parlance, a 'kappara'). Not as people think, because life is supposed to be miserable and too much happiness is a sin, so when something bad happens it is good for you in some sort of masochistic way. Pain is good because when life does not go as planned, when failure and difficulties catapults me into the awareness that this world can never really deliver, that is when I discover myself as a Mevakesh who hungers not only for food but for You.


Shevach may be objective, but the third part of prayer, Hodaya--gratitude--is entirely personal. When that great, awesome, and unfathomable Being responds to my vulnerability, to my tentative reaching out, despite the distance, and touches my life--when I discover my personal G-d-- the wave of gratitude I feel is called Hodaya.

Sometimes, this sense of all encompassing gratitude comes because Hashem gave us what we asked for. This kind of gratitude is simple and uncomplicated. It is the joy of closeness, the feeling that He is Kind and Good--just as we thought.

But sometimes, the hodaya is there even when we didn't get what we want. This is when, like Iyov, whose soul was finally quieted after his protracted, painful struggle against his fate, we hear two clear messages. One: you will never understand. Two: I am here. The Jew walking away from this prayer may still be bruised and aching, may still be wishing and hoping that things could be different. But, he is not alone.

There is real heroism in the person who keeps going, even when he feels unheard and ignored. One can't help being filled with admiration for the steadfast, faithful, but hopeless plodder who gets up every day, and goes through the motions, because that is what he knows is the right thing to do--even when he feels abandoned by his G-d. But a Jew is never confined to a life of grayness. Waiting in the wings is always the sparkling joy of relationship. There is a way out. Maybe not out of the technical hole we find ourselves in--it is a painful truth that some of life circumstances are not changeable--and some types of pain never go away. But there is a way out of the dark and lonely place of estrangement.

Avraham changed Hashem from a G-d of the heavens to a G-d of the heavens and the earth. I, the one to whom he was charged to pass on this legacy, can perhaps also find the courage inside me to step into the darkness and invite Him into my life.

Pain is a fact of life--there are no perfect solutions, no way to tuck the human experience under the blanket and smooth out all the wrinkles. Hashem is Shomeia Tefilla. He hears our prayers. He hears our prayers begging Him to fix our lives--the nitty gritty aspects and the cosmic aspects. And He hears our prayer begging that we be taken out of the narrow, dark place of concealment.

We, simple human beings, struggling along, not understanding very much, can still echo Dovid Hamelech and say, Vani Tefilla--I am my prayer. I define myself by my yearning for You.

Miriam Kosman is a lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, an outreach organization that teaches Torah to secular Israeli university students. The ideas in this article were drawn from the seforim Avoda Shebelev and Alei Shor.

©Miriam Kosman

Dean of Students, Ort Braude College


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