By Laura Seymour
“I learned to make brachot at the dining room table. I learned to pray on the ballfield.”
— Joel Lurie Grishaver
In his simple statement, Jewish educator Joel Grishaver admirably outlines the differences between blessings and prayer. Blessings are easy to learn and to say, time and again. Prayer, not so much.
Now, the Talmud tells us: “A person should say 100 blessings every day.” There are rules for everything in Jewish life, but why 100 blessings a day? Let’s look at it another way: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have 100 things every day we were thankful for? Perhaps this law suggests that we find things, even everyday common things, to be thankful for.
Much like Grishaver suggests, the first place to start the brachot is at our dining room tables. There are blessings over bread, wine, washing our hands before we eat, upon concluding our meal … we can increase our daily blessing total easily by simply eating. From there, we find lots of things to bless — there is even a blessing we say after using the bathroom! Here it is, and it’s certainly an important one:
“Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe, who fashioned man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if but one of them were to be ruptured or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. Blessed are You, our God, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”
Blessings are easy to understand — but what about prayer? For many of us adults praying is a natural activity: We pray for good health, for good things. And if something bad is happening to us or a loved one, we pray that the pain or problem will be short-lived. Even while we pray, we struggle with the questions about why we should pray and if our prayers are answered. Additionally, Judaism has many rules for fixed prayer and prayer books filled with specific prayers — and sometimes we ask why we should say formal prayers, especially when those prayers are recited in Hebrew (a language many of us don’t understand, even with a transliteration/translation offered).
Praying is not just about asking God for something — it is first and foremost about building a relationship with God which we do through communication just as we build any relationship.
One thing we need to remember is that prayer is at its best when it is done on behalf of others. In “The Book of Jewish Values,” author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote a chapter entitled “Pray for Someone Else Today.” In this chapter, Rabbi Telushkin tells of a Talmudic text praising Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, who offered a prayer to God for delivering the Israelites from the Egyptians. Moses also offered a similar prayer — but his praying was not praised. The difference? Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter explains that Moses thanked God for what was done for him and his people, while Jethro thanked God for what He did for others.
Prayer is an ideal way in which we can express our caring and compassion for others. Prayers can be simple words spoken spontaneously from the heart or can be special ones, recited for certain times, occasions or individuals.
Prayer is something we can all teach to our children, but answering the question about whether God answers prayers, or even hears them, is a little trickier. Personally, I think about my work with children, parents and staff; when they approach me with a problem, concern or even a question, my response is “I hear you.” I can’t always guarantee that I understand or that I can do what is requested, but I can guarantee that I hear and that I am listening. As such, when we pray, I believe God hears us. We may not receive an answer or even an answer we expect or want. But God is listening while we pray.
Laura Seymour is director of Camping Services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center in Dallas.