Contemplative Prayer: Praying for Others (July 2010)

The Torah reading this week is called Va-etchanan. Its first words are “I pleaded with God at that time.” (Deuteronomy 3:23) Moses is presented as begging God to allow him to cross over to the Promised Land. The response he hears is “No, You have enough. Speak to me no more of this matter” (Deut 3:26). This rather distressing moment may teach us many things: that though we may plead with God-we may receive negative replies; that we may not expect our prayers to be answered in the affirmative if they do not fit in with whatever “plan” God may be said to have for creation; that negative replies may actually be there to encourage us to see a positive somewhere else and that despite all this, along with Moses we make “pleading” for ourselves and for others a part of our prayer lives because it comes to us naturally.

As Jews, we accept that our petitionary prayer is always conditional upon the will of God. We are not spiritual wizards or cosmic manipulators. When we plead for the welfare of others we accept that our idea of the best outcome may be mistaken. Sometimes, though it grates on our soft-heartedness, we have the naivety smashed out of us by the realisation that God also created pain and the things we call “evil” to do His “will” even though all that is surely way beyond our merely human comprehension. Sometimes, out of impudence and sheer stubbornness, we employ our prayers with the very best of intentions to attempt to manipulate and force the Hand of a God who will not be so manipulated. Prayer is not magic. But again, as humans we hope that we are motivated by compassion, by what we believe to be “the greater good”, and by the noble desire to help our suffering friends in an “imperfect” world in whatever way we can. Moses praying for the healing of his sister Miriam, Abraham for the citizens of Sodom, and Hannah begging for a Nazirite son are models of Jewish prayer which we should not be ashamed to emulate.

In the Beit El Community of Jewish Contemplatives, we hold that our principal task is to be personally engaged in prayerful and attentive dialogue with God. The Jewish mystical tradition often calls this devekut (cleaving to God). This, above all else, is what we “do” as “Jewish Contemplatives” in our small dedicated Community. Perhaps our action in contemplative prayer is our own group’s distinctive way of actuating a part of God’s “will” or “purpose”. There is a sense in which our lives of dedicated prayer are themselves intended as a form of prayer for others. Some would say that our worship of God in contemplative prayer is one of the channels through which God may become “more” present in the world. Our task is to cleave to God and hope that in doing so we are performing a stand-alone task which has an unseen but nonetheless real effect on the worlds around us. With such a perspective, seeking specific outcomes in prayer becomes almost rude.

But this does not mean that we are so wrapped up in our contemplation that we never make requests in our prayers, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we are unconcerned about the needs and concerns of other people. We “hold them in the light” in and through our prayers.

In recent weeks we have seen how Moses’ prayer for Miriam to be healed (Numbers 12:13) and His prayer for God’s mercy on rebellious Israel (Numbers ch.14) were both “heard on High”.

In the first prayer Moses employed simple direct appeal. The appeal of a loving brother and a forgiving leader expressed succinctly but with feeling. In the second, he argues rabbinically with God and dares to remind God of His merciful and forgiving “Nature”.

The fact that both prayers were answered positively should give us hope. Though we are not Moses, we can employ both “techniques” in our prayer “in the merits of our ancestors” and hope that God will see our sincerity and our good intentions.

Then in Parshah Korach we saw another example of intercessory prayer. In Numbers 17:13 we see Aaron as High Priest, standing between the “wrath of God” and “the People” with a cleansing censer praying that plague be averted. This is significant to us as “dedicated contemplatives” as the argument presented is neither a simple plea nor an argumentative is an act of “pure prayer” as a ritual.

In Haftarah Korach “the People” certainly seem to believe that petitionary prayer is effective...and again they ask someone else to pray “for” them. We read: “And all the people said to Samuel- Pray to the Lord your God, for us your servants, that we may not die” (I Samuel 12:19)

These are the prayers of Prophets and Priests. We are neither. We pray because we believe that prayer is a form of action and activism as well as worship. As contemplatives, we hope to bring God’s Love “down”, not because we are conjurors but because He has promised to “dwell” and “walk” in our midst as a Divine Presence.

That depends not on our rank, or our privileges, or on our bloodline, or even on our own personal merits.

It depends on our living justly as a People and- for us especially- it also depends on our sincerity and love in individual and community prayer. God provides such “virtues” if we ask for them, and if we allow them to take over our souls--- He will act through our prayers in whatever way He chooses.

We have just commemorated Tisha B’Av. It is a day on which we remember tragedies in our history but is also the day on which “Messiah” is born. Rather than becoming paralysed in grief for the past or diverting ourselves by frittering away the present in waiting for the advent of some external personage or future event or era... perhaps we should begin by embodying the saviour-principle itself and thus become individual  Messiahs ourselves?

We are told that God “listened” to Abraham, and that he “responded” to Hannah’s request. We are told that the plague stopped “because” Aaron prayed. (Incense being a prayer symbol.) Like Aaron, we stand between Life and Death every time we stand before God in prayer, and though we may not understand how it might all “work”.... if we truly believe in the value of our prayers we must not allow our persistence in prayer to become diverted. God will deal with the outcomes, but our service is not optional here. In Va-etchanan we also read that the prime instruction of our religion is to love God “ with all our heart, with all our spirit, and with all our strength." (Deuteronomy 6:5). Petitionary prayer is not a dribble. It is a flood.

Our “prayer-lives” can be as effective as the arguments of Moses the prophet and the incense of Aaron the priest. What we need is focus and application to the task at hand: cleaving to God, and remembering in active and intentional humility that our task is to bear the needs of others on our shoulders when we stand at the threshold of the sanctuary. But on our shoulders and not as “frontlets before our eyes.” We take them with us, but we ought not to become pre-occupied with our own problems and needs, nor to become overwhelmed by the pain or sorrow we wish to help heal in the world.

We ought to hold them in the light of our God.

Our petitionary prayers are requests to an all-seeing, ever-present God. All that happens is, as it were, known to Him already. God is indescribable despite such attempts to express our experience of “Him”. But if we are to consider ourselves as being part of God’s mind in the world: our prayers are, in some sense, causal. If that is so we have a duty to pray for “God’s intentions” above all else. We may not often be able to identify them, but our sense of compassion is not an accident. Nor is it coincidental that contemplatives and mystics of all persuasions have identified Compassion as a prime motivator of common human spirituality.

We are not expressing a transient mawkish sympathy or empathy with others in their misfortune only to forget them and move on to some other diversion, some other page on the internet, some other hobby awaiting our rapt attention. We are “holding” them close to our central focus in sustained compassion. For a Jewish Contemplative that central focus is God. There is to be no other.

If we do this we can perhaps identify with the Psalmist who declares: “But as for me, I am all prayer” (Psalm 109:4) and hold that by cleaving to God we are praying for the needs of others and quietly but determinedly doing our bit to increase compassion in our world.


Shortly after writing that commentary, I came across a passage from the Zohar which sparked off the following little postscript:

The text is a commentary on the verse “And Abraham went down to Egypt” (Genesis 12:10) and reads:
“The verse hints at wisdom and the levels down below, to the depths of which Abraham descended. He knew them but he did not become attached. He returned to face His Lord.  He was not seduced by them like Adam nor like Noah. He went up and did not come down. He returned to his domain, the high rung he had grasped before."

The text speaks of descent into “lower worlds” and  though it is referring primarily to “lesser” states of awareness and practice (wisdom), it might also apply to the descent  into the sad and distressing world of “empathy and sympathy for those in pain or profound distress” which we make during our petitionary prayers. It seems that the Zohar too is suggesting a way that this can be something “borne on the shoulders” of one cleaving to God and not something at the “centre or forefront” of our consciousness.

There is a sort of feel-good effect to praying for others. This can actually be “seductive” and distracting. On the other hand it can be a way of proving that the “reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah” as it can represent an overflowing of compassion and a stimulus to further compassion.... but the place of a contemplative is standing before God with attention on His Face.... and the way to balance both activities: the contemplative and the redemptive, continues to present me with a knotty problem.

We want to serve God and be useful to Him.

We may feel more useful if we flap about and jump up and down making a fuss - But it is perhaps humbler to stand in His Presence and let Him make use of that in any way which suits Him.

That we may rarely (or never) see or feel the results of our prayer ourselves may actually be to our advantage in becoming truly generous servants.

And yet, in seeking to "draw near" to God, we are human keruvim not angelic ones so perhaps I am being a little too demanding? As contemplatives we are vocationally predisposed to suffer crises of faith both in our own abilities or mission and also in our very belief in God. Could it not also be argued that we ourselves might need the accompanying and consoling “seduction” of feeling useful and feeling that we are sharing our light with others even if this might make us feel self-satisfied. Perhaps. To a certain degree.

An image comes to mind.

During this baking hot summer I climb the steep hill which leads from the town to my house with many kilos of “shopping” in the rucksack which is strapped to my back. The ascent takes about thirty minutes. I walk deep in prayer. I never think of the destination for that would only make the climb seem endless. I never focus on the difficulty of the weight on my back for that would cause me to stop moving altogether while I caught my breath and rested my bones. The days on which the climb passes most rapidly and with least stress are those when I am most deeply focussed in my prayer. Of course, the awareness of the weight is always there...but it does not debilitate or weigh me down.

By deepening our focus on God we carry the burdens of others more efficiently. We help those we are praying for best if we lift their pain and grief and distress from out of our minds and into the realm of Light Itself. Perhaps the “light” which is then reflected back to them is not ours but God’s.

Norman R Davies
22 2010

(being an expanded version of the June 6 2010 commentary from the "Beit El Community of Jewish Contemplatives" website)