The problem with Jewish prayer books is that they are full of the statutory prayers, such as the Amidah and Alenu. To be fair, that is their job. But most Jews come to synagogue with other matters weighing on their minds, whether business, family or health issues. It is to fill this vacuum that a book of specially-written prayers has been produced by the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK to cover specific everyday situations from miscarriage to bankruptcy, insomnia to retirement, suicide attempt to drug addiction. They offer words to say when you don’t know what to say, or pray.
After a quarrel
One of the most difficult tasks we all face is to admit that one is in the wrong and to look into the eyes of the yetzer hara (evil inclination). To resolve a quarrel often requires just that. We are taught that the greatest mitzvah is making peace between one person and another and doing teshuvah. The words of the prayer that I composed below came to me at a time of great personal struggle; they helped me to stay with God and not surrender to my anger. The words speak for anyone who has ever felt wounded and wanted to retaliate.
“I pray to You, O God, from this most confused place and I entreat Your help in these terrible moments. I feel hurt and angry and confused. I have felt attacked and have attacked back. Hurtful things have been said to me and I have said hurtful things back. I have needed to be right and I have let my anger run away with me.
“Sometimes I have not listened to what was said to me. I have wanted to hurt and I have wanted to punish. I have needed to be right more than I have thought about the person with whom I quarrelled, and I have not always been completely true. It is very hard to speak to You because I still feel these terrible feelings in my heart, but I struggle to pray now because You are my support.
“Help me to see through all this confusion and listen to myself and listen to the one with whom I have quarrelled. Let that which can be healed, be healed and give us both the strength to be wrong. You know me, O God, for there is not a word on my tongue that You do not know.”
Rabbi David Freeman
Prayer, like poetry, can offer us a fresh perspective on life, a new angle of vision. And there are certain times in our life, particularly when facing difficulties, when we might need help in seeing our circumstances in a different, more optimistic, light. So, for example, during a period of unemployment — which can happen to any of us, and is an immediate and pressing concern for so many — what are the words of encouragement and support that might lift our spirits?
Firstly, we need to have an acknowledgement of the reality of our situation: “Now that I am without work I realise how much meaning it gave to my life. And how bereft I feel without its routines and rituals...”
In addition, it felt important to convey the idea that in Jewish thought, “work” has a larger meaning, a broader horizon, than formal employment alone. It refers too to our “work” here in the world as human beings: “No encounter in our lives lacks hidden significance: whatever the frustrations we face, there are opportunities for doing Your work at every moment of our lives. Our daily acts of kindness, of generosity and care, bring You into the world. This too is work, avodah, the service of God.”
This prayer offers traditional believers and modern doubters alike a form of words that opens out the notion that, from a religious perspective, we can live lives filled with meaning, dignity and a sense of personal value, independent of how we earn a living. So the lines above conclude with the thought: “The work of redemption is never complete. It is our task amidst the vicissitudes of life, woven into our days, while our search for employment goes on.” I hope the prayer can offer renewed hope when times are tough.
Rabbi Howard Cooper
While receiving chemotherapy
It is the day for the chemotherapy. You are relieved that something, anything, can be done to fight the cancer. But you are afraid of the chemo, afraid of the life-giving, and life-destroying, nature of the drug. You have to sit for some time watching the medicine flow into your body. Both the illness and the cure are now part of your body. You want comfort, protection and hope. You want to fight, to survive, to ask for help, to pray. The prayer below incorporates several sources: friends who described their chemo experiences, traditional Jewish prayers for healing, and pastoral experiences of myself and others. It includes the protective imagery of angels, who are frequent messengers in the Torah and are part of Kabbalastic mythology as well. They are supposed to surround us with strength and be a light guiding our way. I hope that this prayer will bring those who need it a feeling of being surrounded by a circle of God’s love and well-being.
“I sit here and I wait, while the medicine drips into my body. I am afraid, and I am hopeful. May the medicine that has the power to heal or destroy be gentle within me. Give me strength over the next few days, weeks and months to endure the effects of the drugs and illness. While this disease is part of my body, help me to feel powerful and in control of how I live my life.
“Give me compassion for my doctors, nurses, carers and most of all for my own body. May I know that I am encircled by Your love. May the ancient spirit of the angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael bring me a sense of Your presence, strength, a light at the end of the tunnel, healing and hope.”
Rabbi Marcia Plumb
“Really Useful Prayers”, edited by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, is published by the Movement for Reform Judaism, £9.99
Rabbi Freeman was a congregational rabbi for 25 years and now works as a Jungian analyst
Rabbi Howard Cooper is director of spiritual development at Finchley Reform Synagogue
Rabbi Marcia Plumb is part of Southgate Reform Synagogue’s rabbinic team