The other night, I didn’t pray. I was upset, I was alone, I was looking for something to comfort me. But I didn’t open my siddur or my Tanakh to find a psalm or a blessing. I didn’t ask God for guidance, or invite God to witness my suffering. I lay in my bed and cried. I cried big tears, where my body shook and my jaw ached. My heart was crying out to nothing and no one.
The psalms are full of voices of calling out from a dark place, seeking comfort, strength, guidance. A well known line from psalm 118:
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽה,
In the narrow place, distress I called out to Ya; Ya answered me in the open space
This verse shows us how calling out can be met with expansion, with relief. But sometimes, we call out and are met with nothing and no one, like psalm 123, words which ask for mercy from God and express anguish without respite, without response.
My problem with calling to God for help is that my prayer may be answered, or it may not, or I might not know whether I have gotten what I prayed for. I have prayed in desperation for things that then came to pass, and then for things that were seemingly ignored, and I’ve come to accept that my asking didn’t make a difference in the outcome. I don’t believe in a God that is busy responding to prayers, like in Bruce Almighty, when Jim Carey answers a list of email requests, and prayers begin to overwhelm his brain, demanding he decides whose wishes to grant, and whose to deny. And yet we continue to petition for things we want, for health, for peace, for good weather. Like Noah, we send a dove out and hope she will bring back the sign we desire. Three times Noah sends her out—the first time she comes back empty handed, the second she brings a branch, and the third time she does not return.
Over time, my doves stopped returning, and my prayers began to feel like throwing petals to the wind. I tried a different approach in prayer, instead trying to uncover something internal, in search of transformation. I wondered if the whole purpose of prayer was to help me figure out what is going on inside of me emotionally, a kind of checking in, an internal thermometer. I tried praying just for the strength in myself to overcome the obstacles I faced, but these approaches felt internal, disconnected with a spirituality I felt beyond me. Although I may start with honest introspection and an invitation for my emotions to emerge in prayer, this was ultimately an uncovering of partnership, like what happens in good therapy, or when I am making amends with someone. More than making requests or a getting to understand myself, prayer is encounter with a truth beyond me. In our tradition, this exchange is modeled by centuries of conversations with God.
These conversations begin far before any structure of prayer was established—in fact, before the very concept of prayer emerged. The earliest prayer is simply a dialogue with an assumed and palpable divine presence. It occurs in Bereshit between Adam and God right after Adam and Chava have eaten from the tree of knowledge. They are hiding the Garden of Eden when God calls out:
:וַיִּקְרָ֛א יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ אַיֶּֽכָּה
And God called out to Adam and said, “where are you?” (Genesis 3:9)
The first voicing in this conversation is vayikra, and God called out. The same root that the psalmists use in reaching to God, God uses to find Adam. Because just as God’s face is hidden to those psalmists, Adam is out of sight, hiding in his fear and his shame. קרא is the word that yearns to pull closer what is out of reach. It is the word we use when we are alone, when we are in narrow straights and seek relief. In my own prayer, it comes from a pain and desperation where all I can do is blindly stretch my voice or my hand or my heart out into the space around me and see what, if any, help is there.
The rest of this conversation—beginning with the end of the verse itself—uses the root אמר. Amar is closer than kara, more intimate. Amar is a conversation between beloveds, with the one who knows you. Amar is an invitation to uncover what is beneath desperation. Adam respond in the spirit of amar when he says:
וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־קֹלְךָ֥ שָׁמַ֖עְתִּי בַּגָּ֑ן וָאִירָ֛א כִּֽי־עֵירֹ֥ם אָנֹ֖כִי וָאֵחָבֵֽא׃
I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid. (Genesis 3:10)
Although Adam was hiding, now he responds with truth and emotion. I am hiding, I am afraid, I am ashamed. I though I could avoid this moment but now I see this is no way forward but to uncover myself. These two verses are the most basic instructions for the transformative potential of prayer—to move from hiding to honesty. Being willing to sacrifice the thing that you believe is saving you, is protecting you, in order to connect: in order to pray.
We hide in all kinds of ways, and when we are suffering or feel we don’t have what we need, our fear tells us to tuck away our needs, our feelings, our beliefs in little pockets throughout our systems and our lives. We can call out and still be hiding things away, protecting ourselves from the response or lack thereof. This is sometimes the starting place of kara. But amar doesn’t allow for that, even in the darkest moments of our guilt and our sin. Amar is the emotional honesty that we must work to express, that empties our pockets and lays everything on the table.
After Cain kills Abel, God’s entire conversation with Cain uses the root amar. Like with Adam, we feel Cain’s emotional turmoil in this words: גָּד֥וֹל עֲוֹנִ֖י מִנְּשֹֽׂא, “My punishment is too great to bear” (Genesis 4:13). But Cain cannot engage in this for long. He announces to God, I must avoid Your presence, וּמִפָּנֶ֖יךָ אֶסָּתֵ֑ר, and become a restless wanderer on earth (Genesis 4:14). Perhaps Cain is mimicking the exile from Eden, assuming that expulsion from God’s presence is the only possible option after sin. Either from this modeling from his own shame, Cain chooses to hide, and that is the end of any more encounters between him and God.
At the end of parshat Bereshit, people begin calling in the name of God, לִקְרֹ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה (Genesis 4:26). They move from amar to kara, away from the intimate conversations of their ancestors towards something more removed, calling in the name of something, not to God, or with God. RaDak (Rabbi David Kimchi, a great 12th century rabbinic scholar) says that during this time, people lost faith that prayer would help affect their fate on earth, and believed that God’s decree was irreversible (Radak Genesis 4:26:2). It is in this world that the generations of Abraham and Sarah are so unique that they merit to fill the book of Bereshit—because they are still in dialogue with God in a world where the rest are calling in the name of, calling out. Even though humankind began with capacity for conversation with God, over time the masses turned away for other interests, and lost faith that our prayers would help us.
This marks the beginning of an expanding role and understanding of prayer. Our texts reveal prayers of praise, of rejoicing, of gratitude, of negotiating, and prayers which are not necessarily verbal at all. Masechet brachot teaches us that the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively) instituted the times of prayer through the verbs וישכם , to rise, לשוח, to wander, and פגע, to encounter. And the verb מִתְפַּלֵּל, which emerges in Tanakh as the Hebrew equivalent of the english word prayer, is used to describe all kinds of expressions and conversations with God.
And yet the prayer of the desperate, that begins with a calling out, is unique in that in those dark hours it may be all we have left. “My anguish, my anguish, I am in pain. The chambers of my heart. My heart moans within me,” cries Jeremiah, and we feel in our own bodies the world falling down around us (Jeremiah 4:19). We sing עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽה, and if we tune into the words on our tongue, we taste the relief of an impossible burden lifted. These ancient verses speak to us, but the question remains—does prayer serve me in my hour of need? Do I pray if I don’t believe in a God that is listening, if I don’t expect a response? How do I continue this earliest prayer tradition of an emotional outpouring into an intimate and honest encounter in a way that is authentic to me and what I believe?
Maybe, like me, you stopped turning to prayer when you truly needed help because of too many doves never returned. And yet, in anguish I still I called out for hours, hearing nothing, feeling no one. And then at a certain point something shifted and I began a conversation. I entered the prayer space of amar, where my heart was broken open and everything went on display, my guards down. But the conversation was not with a conscious presence, with One who could witness my suffering. My exchange, instead, was with a series of my own beliefs, with a Truth beyond myself.
The beliefs I held in the moment, of being abandoned and a victim of circumstance, gave way to a greater set of ideas which are larger truths that guide my life. I believe that it is okay to be alone, even though I often hate the feeling. I believe that I will adapt to whatever happens, even though I do not know how events will unfold. I believe that pain is not evil—pain is part of life, and resistance to pain creates more suffering. These beliefs floated around me on this night, waiting to be pulled in as I called out for help. But only when I was open to receiving their teachings was able to have a conversation with my beliefs. And as soon as I moved from kara to amar, my suffering subsided. I accepted my feelings, and thus I was able to share them with open ears, and that is when I heard a response—that my resistance to my situation and my pain were keeping me stuck, and if only I would accept my reality, I would find ease. My own beliefs, which are particular to me yet stretch beyond me into the very fabric of the world, offered the answers to my prayer.
Our tradition teaches that the more you practice speaking to God, the more easily your words will flow when you are in need, that you will feel the comfort of a divine presence. Like any relationship, you need to invest time and energy to develop intimacy. I find my relationship with my own beliefs to support me the best once I’ve invested thought and time in them. The more I develop my belief that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, the more readily I can stay motivated in the face of setbacks in our country and around the globe. The more deeply I know that I can birth this child with the strength of my body, the more I will be able to call on that truth in my hour of need.
In every prayer, there is a journey of belief, a seeking of something. If not God, then faith in a system, a truth. Discovering what it means to have an encounter with those beliefs is a journey unique to each one of us. It is a conversation—it is an amar encounter, where we uncover our feelings and see what our belief offers us in return. We begin with Adam’s response to “ayeka,” opening our mouths, or our hearts, or our hands, and speaking our most vulnerable moments and questions. The response may be not be the voice of God. If you are like me, you may hear a simple belief which sheds light on a dark hour, a truth that holds your emotions and draws you out of hiding, showing you a way forward.