Praying with empathy and love

Chief Rabbi Goldstein

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

Rosh Hashanah has arrived at a timely moment. After all the trauma we have experienced, we can draw deeply on the power and comfort of prayer as we prepare for the year ahead.

Having lost access to our shuls for weeks and months at a time during the pandemic, we have learned to appreciate them anew. Thank G-d our shuls are open again — albeit with strict health protocols in place — and we are able to experience the mutual love and support of praying together as a community.

When we pray together, empathy comes easier to us. We are able to truly open our hearts to those around us and pray for them in their moment of need. Hashem gives us the power to help others, as well as ourselves, through our prayers.

There are academic studies that bear this out. In 2001, a study conducted at Duke University Medical Center on a group of 150 cardiac patients uncovered some extraordinary findings. The patients, all of whom were receiving post-operative therapy treatment, were split into two subgroups — one subgroup had people praying for their well-being, the other subgroup didn’t.

The findings showed the subgroup that was prayed for had significantly better treatment outcomes than the group that received the treatment alone.

Most notably, the study was double-blind — neither the researchers, nor those being prayed for, knew about the prayers. And it wasn’t a once-off either. A comparable double-blind study conducted at San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit demonstrated very similar results.

If done with intentionality and sincerity, prayer can be a transformative experience. At its essence it is about cultivating an emotional connection — a real relationship — with G-d. The Talmud describes prayer as ‘service of the heart’. If we put our heart into it, prayer can be a direct encounter with Hashem. When we aren’t just mouthing the words and going through the motions, we can have a private audience with the Creator of the universe. This transporting emotional state is true ‘service of the heart’.

When we pray, we need to articulate the words so that only we can hear them — that is why we pray in a whisper. There is an intimacy in whispering. When we whisper our prayers to G-d, we feel close and connected to Him. We feel His love for us and we express our love for Him, and that transforms our relationship with the Torah, ourselves and the rest of creation.

Whispering also signifies G-d’s closeness to us during these intimate moments. And the fact that we have this private audience with G-d is not something to take for granted. Consider the difficulty of securing a private audience with someone in high office or a venerated public figure. And yet, through prayer, we have privileged access to the King of all kings, the Creator of the universe. And we have it whenever we want!

Prayer is a deep emotional and spiritual experience. It can inspire and invigorate every aspect of our lives. And we need that in the year ahead more than ever if we are to confront all the challenges of our world with strength and peace of mind.

As we form our new year’s resolutions this Rosh Hashanah, let us ensure that prayer is high on the list. Let us make davening a daily part of life. Let us recite the heartfelt, holy words contained in the siddur — crafted by our prophets and sages, and uttered by Jews for generations — with renewed sincerity and intentionality. And let us return to our shuls in numbers to pray as a community with empathy and love.

In the merit of our doing so, may Hashem bless us all with a year of healing and growth and renewal.

• Published in the PDF edition of the September 2021 issue – Get the PDF here.

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