Is there such a thing as engaging in an act of optimism? We often talk about feeling optimistic. I can feel hopeful. I can generate a positive outlook, if I am not already blessed with a cup-half-full feeling.
Jewish prayer, though, fits into an optimism category of its own. Prayer can enhance our outlooks, allowing our minds directional signals and propensities to sail upon seas of brokenness, bleakness, bliss and existential ecstasy or angst. Though it is challenging and sometimes difficult to arrive at a place of wonderment and supernal delight, or conscious recognition and appreciation of our place in the universe or in relation to our neighbors, or to God, Jewish prayer helps our internal compasses point to a magnetic north of being-ness.
Whether praying in a minyan or alone, invoking blessings from the Hebrew tradition helps to build ladders to more optimistic heights. Chanting and reformulating the equations of the liturgy are invitations to sense the wonder of our existence. We get clues as to the purpose of our lives. Sparks of understanding may shine, so that as we walk through the revolving door — the liminal moment that prayer provides — we feel as though we are walking through a gateway to the positive.
On Yom Kippur, we sing and admit our wrongdoings in the plural language of our poetry. Some redeemer will come, please! So there we are, holding on to the seat. We ask: “Are You in this with me?! Will you help me find the strength to articulate the sense I have, that we all have a profound purpose here on this Earth?”
Jewish prayer provides insight; it’s a daily act that allows us to bear witness to what is good, to testify that we will contribute to the cycle of goodness that abounds. That which has unfolded and all that will be, and the deepest sense of presence and the present, are wrapped up in Adonai. This is why we repeat the name so often.
God’s names, according to Jewish tradition, are many. Some that repeat themselves time and again in traditional Jewish prayers and more modern liturgy focus on aspects of divinity that we can emulate. The One Who Gives Bread — we can help feed those who are hungry. The Peace Maker — we can find ways in our daily lives to create the sense of wholeness and still waters that ease our hearts and minds. And another name is Adonai, yud-hey-vav-hey, in Hebrew, from the root “to be.”
When Moses asked God what name he could share, so that a sense of hope and not despair could bless the Jewish people being taken out of slavery, away from their oppression, the name “I will be what I will be” was made known to him. As I see the letter combination yud-hey-vav-hey, the vav being interchangeable with the yud, nodding to ancient grammar, it spells the word y’hiyeh — what will be. So we can re-frame the ever-popular beginning of so many Jewish blessings that begin: Baruch Atah Adonai (yud-hey-vav-hey being Adonai) — we say: Blessed are you, our Future!
Even while we are in the shadowy valleys, and all the more so when there is radiance and even a sense of divine presence, being in the act of prayer is an act of optimism. Through this act we bring our physical selves to the realm of hope. To be standing in the ocean of the universe and know that you are part of something grand! That you matter in the infinite universe, that God wants to know your name, like you want to say God’s. To recite the poetry of those who came before you and conduct the symphony at your own pace. Wandering into the familiar landscape of liturgy and the construct of “going to minyan” can be compared to readying ourselves for a hike that either feels too much like a steep incline or takes us to a transcendent place in space and time. Whether we struggle through prayer or find glory in words rising up from our souls — and how often is that? — our openness makes possible a new vantage point.
For our futures to be blessed, as individuals, as a people, as a race, we must consciously engage in mining the potential in our hearts and souls. Our actions must bespeak our abilities and desires to promote harmony, unity, individual fortitude and understandings of our places in the world. The Jewish prayer environment makes this statement. Even when we may not arrive to the “think therefore I am” telling ourselves that all is bright, to be in the act of making the minyan, chanting Shema, answering “amen” to someone’s Kaddish, these acts are metonyms, symbols of the great positive potential within ourselves.
For creativity or the ability to innovate and remake the world, to choose our words more carefully, to recognize all that is good so that we will flee from despair, we could pray. Yet, praying itself is the cosmic weaving of fabric made of past, present and future. The act of crying out or pronouncing sacred poetry is to create aesthetic beauty and an electric, salient and soaring humanity, or just to be a part of the great chain of history. In prayer, we are mining our potentials, individually and collectively, to make tikkun olam — in the moment and for the future. We pray to become the agents of all that was, is and should be good. Through the act of prayer, our optimistic stories are written and go on forever.
Rabbi Scott Bolton is head of the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School in New City, N.Y., and a consultant to nonprofits about meeting their missions. He is working on a documentary called “Why Pray?” and leads artist beit midrash seminars called Omanut LaEmunah – Art to Inspire.