Magazine article Tikkun

Subversive Prayer

Magazine article Tikkun

Subversive Prayer

Article excerpt

One of the major concerns of this column has been the creation of a politics imbued with the Spirit, with a sense of the Unity that connects all life. A politics able to assert, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did after marching for voting rights at Selma Alabama, that "our legs are praying."

What of the reverse: creating forms of prayer that in themselves repair the world? The same Heschel lyrically, joyfully, prayerfully praised prayer as the song the universe sings to itself-and then wrote, "Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods."

How can we shape prayer, contemplation, meditation, and celebration themselves so that not only what we pray for-the intended result-but also the process itself more fully connects each of us with the human race and the planet as a whole?

I have joined in celebrating Tu B'Shvat, the Jewish Birthday of the Trees, by "trespassing" on "private" property to plant redwood seedlings to replace ancient trees logged by rapacious corporate owners. I have helped turn Passover into a reconciliation for the Abrahamic peoples. I have helped turn the bar/bat mitzvah service into an opportunity for two generations, young and old, to turn their hearts to each other, lest the earth be utterly destroyed. In these moments, we can fill unusual occasions with prayerful power to heal the world as well as ourselves. We can also do this in more daily, weekly prayer. Though many think of "breath" and "visualization" as belonging to the Buddhist tradition, these techniques also appear in the Jewish prayerbook.

Each morning, traditional Jews pray, "Elohai neshamah sheh-natatah bi, t'horah hi. My God, the breath you have given within me is clear." This prayer goes on to celebrate reawakening in the morning with a breath, a soul, a life that is renewed and clarified from whatever confusion or despair has beclouded it during the day before, leaving it opaque and troubled as sleep came on. The rest of the prayer is full of words that end in "ahhh," an extended breathing sound. The prayer itself is a breathing exercise.

In another passage we read: "Nishmat kol chai, tivarekh et shimcha, YHWH elohenu. The breath of all life praises/ blesses Your name, YHWH our God." The meaning of this prayer is profoundly enriched by sensing that the "YHWH" Name of God can be "pronounced"-or, more accurately, "non-pronounced"-only by breathing. …

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