How on earth does prayer make you a mensch? Is prayer not something you do for yourself? They say, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” so if the cruel soldier who has lived a life of evil prays to a god he never believed in, is he suddenly transformed into a mensch? And what about the “pious” people of all religions who are busy running to prayer services and then hurry to get back into the “real world” where they behave unscrupulously? We’ve all met or read about folks like that.
When I contemplate prayer as a route to menschiness, I like to think back to the first time I floated in the Dead Sea. Over the years, I have seen countless photos of people who appear to be sitting in a chair in the middle of the water, or reading a newspaper or a book. I loved those pictures, but the truth is, I wasn’t sure it would work for me. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to try it. What if for some reason the water didn’t hold me up? What if I sank like a stone! After all, with an ego like mine, it was quite possible that the laws of nature would not apply and the saltwater would not be buoyant. I would be the exception!
I finally went to Israel for the very first time and had my chance. I waded into the salty water with my usual trepidation, crouched down, and then bravely lifted my feet. I effortlessly flipped onto my back, and there I was, floating under a blue sky, delighted and amazed at how something as gentle as water could hold the weight of me!
It was bliss unlike any I had ever experienced, and it reminded me of something else: One of the first stages in learning to swim is to master the art of floating. It is perhaps the most terrifying step because in order to float, one must totally let go. There is an element of trust involved of course, but the real job is to master stillness and not agitate ourselves or our environment.
I was contemplating all this the other day when I was trying to fall asleep. It can be so difficult to shut off my mind. To just float. To just be. I used to pray like crazy for my kids to reach certain milestones, accept certain values, become a reflection of what I believed was best for them. I prayed so hard and for so long, I was sure that God would answer my prayers if I was persistent and did it just right. And He did. It’s just that sometimes the answer to my prayers was “no” because “no” is also an answer. And no is a complete sentence.
I think I misunderstood the concept of prayer in general. I thought it was like a vending machine: If I just said the right combination of words and focused long and hard enough, then the candy bar I wanted would drop down. I would get what I prayed for, what I paid for, regardless of whether it was right for me or not.
I have since learned that prayer is more like a rope that the Almighty throws at a drowning swimmer. By pulling on it, we are yanked out of the prison of our fears and the delusion of control. It can remind us that we don’t run the world, despite our best efforts, and it can help us float just long enough to make it back to shore.
In some ways learning to pray is like floating in the Dead Sea. You must trust that if you lift your feet, you will be held up. You will need to relax a little and take in the scene around you without agitating fruitlessly. That refreshing pause often gives us the space for some new thoughts to drop in – a gift from above. Prayer is sometimes just grabbing the rope and allowing ourselves to be pulled out of the crowded space of our mind. In 12 Step programs, they say, “Let go and let God,” which takes me back to my original question: How does praying make us into mensches?
One tremendous quality of a mensch-y person is that they do not see themselves as the center of the universe. They do not believe that the world revolves around them, their desires or frustrations, or their sense of timing. A mensch can let go of the misguided perception of control that weighs on us and everyone around us down like stones in our pockets.
When we learn to pray the traditional prayers – although your own words work great as well, and don’t worry, God speaks every language – the first three words are Baruch Ata Adonai, blessed are you God, and there is a particular choreography that goes with that.
We bend our knees at Baruch and lower ourselves, admit that we need to make space for something greater than our will, our delusion of control. We bend over as if bowing at Ata, “are you,” an act of subordination to the divine. Even if we are not sure that God exists, at least we can admit that we are not God. We stand straight again at Adonai, one of God’s names because when we are able to diminish our egos, bow to something greater than our own will, and recognize we are not God, then we can stand tall through our connection to Divine wisdom. We can let go and let God.
A person who knows that they don’t run the world connects themselves to a higher standard, wisdom, and supervision. And that person follows the motto of those old school Hebrew National Hot dogs that advertised, “We answer to a higher authority!”
A mensch does not believe that they are the higher authority, and that makes them a joy to be around!