Years ago I taught in a program for Jewish teens. When we got to the class on prayer I said to one of the students, whom I’d taught in Hebrew school, “I’m sure you don’t see a reason to pray, because I know that you don’t believe in God.”
But he surprised me. “Of course people need to pray. It doesn’t have anything to do with God, it’s for ourselves.”
I think of him every time I thumb through my siddur and see this poem by Rami Shapiro:
It is good to give thanks.
Why? Does God need our praise?
To awaken to Wonder
It is good to give thanks
for through thanksgiving comes awakening.
For the most part, the Torah doesn’t tell us how to pray. It doesn’t even tell us that we should pray; it just shows us people praying in times of stress, or need, or thanksgiving.
But this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, has two very specific prayers, one to say when bringing the first fruits of one’s crops to the Temple in Jerusalem and a second when bringing a tithe. The first is a recap of what God did for the people in taking them out of Egypt to the promised land. The second takes place in the present, with a declaration that the pray-er has followed God’s commandments, and ends by moving from personal prayer to a communal one:
“I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done just as You commanded me. Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers.” (Deut:14-15)
It is a reminder that prayer is much more than a personal relationship with the Divine, much more than a balm for the individual soul. It is also an opportunity to include those around us, to remember that we are not alone, but rather part of something larger, part of a community.
May our prayers rise up and may our thanksgiving bring us to an awakening to Wonder, to Holiness, to God.