Barukh ata Adonay, Eloheynu Melekh ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’zivanu al s’firat haOmer.
Blessed be the Eternal God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy through Mitzvot and has commanded us to count the Omer.
Hayom yom shloshim ve ehad laOmer shehem arba’a shavuot ve shlosha yammim laOmer.
Today is day thirty one of the Omer, which is four weeks and three days of the Omer.
tiferet be hod – beauty within gratitude; grace within humility.
Words are my high on my list of amazing things, because not only do I like counting, but I like writing too. And words are really wonderful and beautiful. You can say so many things! Words can connect people, can describe a far-away place, can convey information, can share humour, can bring about joy. Words are fun, exciting, dramatic, creative – they’re what makes life more than just a game of survivor which everyone loses.
And thank you’s can be very beautiful. There’s something inherently lovely about “I really appreciate that, you’ve made my life easier.” Or “I’m glad you were here, I couldn’t have done this without you!” There are prayers and psalm written just to offer praise. I think it’s incredible, what one can do with words. However, as with any other materials for making beauty, one can use them badly, spill the paint, throw the clay, hit all the piano keys at once to make noise, and use your words to hurt and offend, to trick and destroy, to make ugliness.
It seems like such a waste. Wouldn’t it be better to make music? Today, I’ll use words to add beauty to the world. I’ll remember that gratitude is beautiful.
It’s the most vulnerable place in the world, asking. ‘Would you go out with me?’ ‘Can you forgive me?’ ‘Can you help me?’ ‘Can I help you?’ You risk a ‘no’, and that is terrifying. It implies that you haven’t heard or been heard well enough, that you need something that another isn’t willing to give, that you’re imposing or being demanding. A failed question denies so much more than the immediate request – it denies the depth of understanding and acceptance in a relationship. It’s hard to ask.
It’s worthwhile, of course – and people are very pro asking. Community and connection are essential in the Jewish faith, asking God even more so. ‘If the answer is no,’ we reason, ‘at least we tried.’ If we don’t ask, we’ll never get a yes.’ Asking opens the door to communication, to relationship, to that connection and intimacy that many of us desire, some of us fear, and all of us need for growth. All we can do is use our words and strive to cope with the answers.
Sometimes, the ‘no’ is just too bitter, though. When the answer is ‘no’ to questions of love, of attention, of self-worth – then it’s not easy to take. So, we go it alone. We don’t ask for help, thus admitting no weakness. We don’t ask for attention, thus admitting no desire. We work out our own answers, creating meaning for ourselves. It may be a cold, lonely place to be, but at least there’s no risk of rejection. In so many ways, not asking is safer.
So, too, is not answering. Answering is also fraught, after all. Who wants to destroy someone else’s world? That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone! On the other hand, committing to something one doesn’t want to do just to make someone else happy? Well, that leads to dysfunction and abuse, quicker than one would have thought possible. Here, it’s harder. How can one not answer? The question has been asked, hanging in the air like a sad little half-filled balloon. Will it be filled and fly away? Will it flop limply to the ground, the air having been let out of it in a quiet woosh? One has to say something.
People do a lot of tricky things to avoid answering questions. They say, ‘ask me later, I’m busy’ or ‘that’s a possibility’. They turn the question back on itself, with a ‘well, what do you think.’ They give a vague could fit anything answer, along the ‘that sounds good in principle but I’m not sure…’ or ‘let’s do that…when we next have time.’ These answers get rid of the question, yes. They don’t do much to improve communication, though. Really, best to go back to not asking the question.
Of course, no question = no communication, and one is stuck in a loop which is difficult to work with. I don’t have a way out of the loop, really. There was a time when I knew the answer to this question at least, and could say, ‘ask!’ Ask though it’s hard and embarrassing and leaves you crying because growing love is all there is, and the most important thing and so ask. Now, I’m less sure. The asking can so easily become demanding, begging, nagging, or whining – all of which are very unappealing. Maybe it’s better to make the space, and stay safe.
Now, I have fewer answers and fewer questions. I’ve become more quiet. Maybe that’s part of growing older. I still ask, just more rarely. I hope it means that the questions I do ask are more worthwhile. It’s that balance that’s the real challenge. How to ask the right questions, with courage and strength and even with joy, how to answer the questions clearly and accurately even when the answers break expectations, and how to be OK with any answer given? How to take the space when needed and not ask when asking would result in pain and unnecessary work for others? Today, I acknowledge the need for distance, for quiet silences, for spaces without words. For everything there is a time, it says in Ecclesiastes. There is a time for asking and a time for staying quiet. Today, I accept and honour those who chose not to ask.
I’ve been told to pray to know God’s will for me, and for the willingness to do it and nothing else. It’s a tall order. I prefer the other kind of praying. You know, that desperate ‘please God, let me …’ You left for the meeting late, and you must be there on time, so there you are, praying for green lights all the way, for the bus to be there just as you get into the station, for easy-to-find parking, or for an elevator that arrives right on time. You’re making deals. ‘Let me pass the test, and I’ll totally study from now on’. You’re providing explanations and making excuses. ‘I couldn’t work on that project – there were people over and I had to entertain them. I had no time at all!’ ‘This is a really important date – I have to make it on time! Don’t let me be late or my life will be totally messed up.’
I try to avoid the orders and self aggrandization of ‘God, you had better get me that raise! I had worked so hard on that task!’ I know that I don’t do half the things I say that I will do, and that I could do better on the other half. Still, prayers are a thing. I try to do the prayers I’ve learned, be it the Sh’ma or the Amida or any of the others. Sometimes, that helps. Most of the words we say are words of thanksgiving, praise, and very ‘give me strength to do your will and clear the obstacles in my way’ style petitions. They can get very formulaic, though and stilted. I find my mind drifting away from my prayers back to everyday concerns.
How do I get my ego out of the way enough to hear God’s will for me? There are ways I get into the right headspace – singing, being outside, walking. I think my prayers are purer when I do that than they are when I say any words. Sometimes, I can consciously clear my head enough of thought to actually connect to God (to love, to myself, to the universe – whatever works for you; don’t let the words get you.) Sometimes, it just happens – a strong enough emotion, and I cry, laugh, and pray truly from the heart.
Those are real prayers. Whether I’m asking for help or thanking God, whether I ask to succeed at something I’m doing or request God’s will for me, it’s when emotion overwhelms thought, when my mind is finally defeated in its effort to rationalize everything that I pray.
So, I use words – to say what words cannot:
When I’m feeling lost and broken
And I weep from ache and grief
When fear overwhelms, unspoken
When pain drowns out all belief
When each day is long and weary
And no one can tell me why
When the tasks seem pointless, dreary –
God, please hold me when I cry
When I yell with rage unbending
And cast stones instead of bread
When I swear a grudge unending
When the redness fills my head
When I cannot fix the error
And shards mock my broken dream
And frustration leads to terror
God, please hold me when I scream
When I laugh with friend and brother
And success comes like a treat
When we see God in each other
When a triumph ends defeat
When with firm determination
I find joy in every thing
When I smile with elation
God, please hold me when I sing.
You know, words are a special sort of thing for me. I like words. I like writing them. I like reading them. I like playing with them (please come over and ask for a game of boggle any time.) I like working with them. It’s why I blog after all. So, I like prayers. Prayers, after all, are words that I say to God. They are words worth playing with – the best game ever, really. I like the words in prayers and I like what I hear in them, because it’s something different every time and it’s always exactly what I need.
Take the Shma for example. I’m going to just look at the first line – so much in it. “You shall love the Eternal your God with all your hear heart/mind, with all your soul, with all your might/ strength/ being/ possessions.” So, when I come to it fretting about a person in my life, I hear “you shall love the *eternal your God* – and not a person, so think bigger than so & so and focus on God instead. When I am uncertain of my next choice of action, I find clarity and simplicity in an instruction to love God and do things that God might approve of. If I find myself depressed and defeated, not feeling like I can get through another day, I see the prayer as hopeful, with an emphasis on the *shall* – not as a command, but as a promise that soon I will be able to. I can simply resonate and celebrate with it, then, when I am feeling positive, hopeful, or optimistic. Yes! I shall love God, and it will be easy to do so!
I turn to the prayer to deal with anger for when I am angry, I remember that I should love God, and the people made in God’s image. It’s a reminder to do tzedaka, for the word m’odekha can be translated as belongings. On the other hand, it can also be translated as physical self or being, reminding me to take good care of my body, for how else can I love God with it? I know, when days are busy, that I need to take time for spirituality – to love God with all my soul. Should I have much work to do – well, mind, body and soul need to be doing it in honour of God, as the prayer says.
Always, it is a call for balance – too much work, and are you really being loving with all your heart and soul? Take time for study, so that the heart/mind can love God as well. However, don’t spend all day in a library, or your soul and your might don’t get their opportunity to love God. Wherever I am, whatever I’m working on, I can take a second to dedicate it to God, says this prayer. It’s a good reminder, an added spiritual dimension to what I do, and a necessary part of everyday life.
This of course, is just the first line. I can (and have, and do, and will) make the same analysis of each of the others. (In fact, here is a thought for you, my readers and followers – give me your favourite line or prayer in the Siddur, and I will do a blog about it. How cool is that? And no, I’m not smarter than you. If you want to write the blog, I’d be happy to feature it.)
Words – prayers – are fun. That’s why the facebook games of looking at the first line of page 45 of the book closest to you to understand your love life – or putting together your favourite flower and ice cream flavour to find out your magic fairy name (I’d end up being Forget-me-not Sweet cream – try to say that with a straight face) work. Words are powerful and prayers, even more so. As the people of the book, playing with words is our heritage and our destiny. I, for one, intend to embrace it.