I pray every day. I know prayer is not for everyone, but it’s for me. Others might find solace and escape in TV or sports, which is great, but for me it’s the rituals of faith. I don’t expect others to believe or behave exactly the way I do (I’m long past judging others for their ritual choices), but as a teacher I see what I have to offer as an invitation to experience the poetry I find every day in my life.
At the heart of my prayer is a beautiful paradox.
One the one hand, I feel very small when I pray. I live in a valley in the largest city in the most populous state in a country with more than three hundred million people. All of us, all of humanity, inhabit a blue jewel of a planet beset with plague and climate change and chaos and uncertainty. We revolve around a sun that is in the back corner of a galaxy embedded in the vast networks of stars and galaxies among a billion other galaxies. It’s amazing to experience your own insignificance. When you sit quietly and hear the yellow jacket buzz in your ear as it makes its way down to earth only to be savaged by the open maw of the Venus Fly Trap. Or to be awakened at night by the rumble of the house, when all of your precious things loudly clatter against each other as if shaken in fright because something deep and uncaring in the earth shifted slightly. In my prayers every day, I confront the smallness of my life, “You who creates day and night, rolling light back in the face of darkness and darkness in the face of light, and yet separates day and night, LORD of Hosts is God’s name.” Who am I, deciding between black or pinto beans on my burrito in the face of such sublimity? “It’s not about you,” God says to Job from the tempest. I, like Job, sometimes “clap my hands over my mouth” and do not speak. (Job 39:5)
On the other hand, I feel very big when I pray; a son and a father, a descendant and an ancestor. I’m a husband and a partner, a teacher and a student. All of us, all of humanity, know what it means to matter to someone and to have them matter to us. When we feel the warmth of the lover’s caress, when we laugh so hard with our friends our body hurts. When we take in the smell of our child sleeping on our chest, when we watch them grow and struggle and succeed, when everything just seems to flow, in these moments of connection, subtle, overt, in a crowd that cheers or in a shiva house that is silent, each time, we can point to a moment and say, “this matters.” That’s because the connection of love is the antidote to loneliness and shame. Love is what makes you feel big and helps you make others feel big. Every day in my prayers I meditate on this love through the giving of the life-affirming paths of Torah. “God, give light to our eyes in Your Torah, so that we shall not be brought to shame.” In my prayers, it is as if God says, “It’s all about you, and the choices you make, to learn and to teach, to watch over and to fulfill the precepts of life.”
In solitude we are small, in relationships we are big. We need to be insignificant, and we need to feel significant. Every day the universe shows us our humility; every day, the covenant gives us a path towards greatness.
This is what Moses is trying to teach the people (and us) at the end of his life in this week’s Torah portion, Ekev in relating the past to this new generation, including the days at Mt. Sinai when God gave the Tablets of the Law to the people. Moses comes to the following point, saying, “What is it that God really wants from you? Only to have reverence for God and to walk in God’s ways in love.” (Deuteronomy 10:12) Concluding that, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring God, who shows no favoritism and accepts no bribe. He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10: 17-18)
Here is the paradox at the heart of the spiritual self. The power of the universe, a force that undulates through time, breaking down mountains into sand long before our lives and will be here long after, full of fear and awe, still cares about your life. God’s power is not derived solely from creation, teaches the Torah, but from compassion. The rabbis of the Talmud (Talmud Megillah 31a) notice this pattern over and over again in the Tanakh – here in the Torah, again in the Prophets (Isaiah 57:15) and again in the Writings (Psalm 68:6). Every corner of the Bible testifies to the paradox and partnership of God’s greatness and humility.
This is what God wants from all of us – to live small and to live big. To know that it is not about us, and it is all about us. At the center of spiritual life is the paradox to walk small but to act big, especially for those who only feel small. What God wants is for us to know that we are entitled to nothing and deserve everything, and to know that we are not God’s gift to the world, but we are to be God’s gift for other people. We are small and we are big. We walk every day with reverence and act every day out of love.