Friday, September 11, 2009

How Does God Know We're Praying?

By Susan Esther Barnes

On the home page of our synagogue website is something that has caused a small amount of controversy. Over the word “prayer” is a picture of a young man, head slightly bowed, his chin gently resting on one hand curled around the other. What is this? Jews don’t traditionally clasp our hands when we pray, nor do we necessarily bow our heads. Is this a true representation of how we pray? On the other hand, this is a person, authentically immersed in a conversation with God, not bothering to think about decorum or tradition or what praying is “supposed” to look like. This is a prayer on a personal, fundamental level.

It got me to thinking: If we’re not generally bowing, kneeling, or holding our hands together in a particular way, how does God know when we’re praying? Many of our prayers start, “Baruch ata Adonai” (Blessed are you Adonai), but they don’t all start that way, especially the spontaneous ones. I suppose some of us may start our prayers by getting God’s attention: “God, could you help me out a minute here?”

There is a tradition that for certain prayers, we must have 10 Jews, called a minyan. There is also a tradition that even for private prayers, we say them out loud, with just enough volume so we can hear what we are saying. Does this mean God only hears the prayers we say out loud?

That doesn’t feel right to me. Certainly, whenever I address God directly, I get a response. For instance, if I just think, “Hey, God,” I get the feeling of at least a “Hey” back. Sometimes, I’m not even thinking about God; I’m thinking about something (or someone) else. Suddenly, a great idea will pop into my head, or I’ll suddenly remember something important that I’d forgotten. Where did that thought come from? Was it God helping me out? But I wasn’t even praying! Or maybe I was.

If God can hear our thoughts, then maybe everything we think is a prayer. Maybe that is how God knows when we’re praying.

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