Last week I had one of the most frightening experiences of my life when I was bitten by a poisonous spider on a camping trip with my family. My leg swelled up something awful, and by the time I went to the hospital to check it out, the doctors insinuated that there was a chance the leg might not make it, God forbid.
By week’s end, after three days in the hospital, the situation had improved, although my leg still has a lot of healing to do.
The curse of being human is appreciating our blessings only when they are on the verge of being lost. Every day I rush through the Jewish morning prayers with their magnificent declaration of thanks for "He who arranges the steps of man."
To walk is a miracle, to have two healthy legs an incomparable blessing. But humans seem condemned to overlook that which is truly valuable, focusing on that which they lack instead of that which they have.
Happiness involves an appreciation of life’s true blessings and a sense of contentment at their presence. As I sat in genuine panic thinking about my leg, I thought to myself of all that I would trade in for just two healthy legs. My aspirations for TV success would easily be traded in. My desire to write best-selling books would be readily forfeited.
And yet, every day of my life until that day, I had had the blessing of two healthy legs but had never appreciated them. I took them for granted. Does it really take the threat of loss for us humans to grow wise? Can we not find a more positive mechanism for appreciating a blessing, one based on life rather than death?
As I pondered this dilemma, it suddenly hit me. This is the real purpose of prayer. To provide the means by which humans can be reminded — on a daily basis — of what is truly valuable in life without having to first lose it.
The Jewish prayer book provides a set formula, a set text, wherein we beseech God for fulfillment of our daily needs and give thanks for our most basic functions. We give thanks for everything from the ability to digest food and excrete to being able to see and breathe.
Some maintain that the purpose of prayer is communication with God. There is, of course, truth in this. But much more important is the fact that the Hebrew prayer book is designed as a conversation with ourselves, a mantra that humans utter to themselves over and over again about all that is important in life, until the message is internalized.
Whereas some pray for riches and wealth, the Jew thanks God for giving him ears that can hear and the means by which to clothe his naked children. While some ask God for world dominion, the Jew asks God for the power to heal his shattered heart. While some ask God for domination over markets, the Jew prays for the courage to embrace goodness and reject evil. While some pray for prosperity, the Jew raises his glass and prays simply for l’chayim, life itself.
Many find Jewish prayer stifling. They would prefer something akin to Christian prayer, where there is no real set text and where prayer is spontaneous, simply stemming from the heart. I disagree.
The prescribed formula of Jewish prayer is designed to achieve precisely the opposite of spontaneity. We pray not for what time and circumstance would deem important, but for what eternity deems valuable. Through the Jewish prayer book we come to appreciate the most important gems of life and existence.
Even without prayer we would eventually know that having a healthy heart is critical. But we would probably know this only after the tragedy of a heart attack. Likewise, we would know that having people who love us is much more important than having bosses who appreciate us. But again, we might come to this knowledge only after we have lost our families through divorce or alienated children.
There is something further that I have discovered about life- and limb-threatening emergencies. Human arrogance melts away and our hearts become open to the common humanity shared by all of God’s children.
As I was wheeled from the emergency room to my hospital room, I passed a little girl with a swollen and bloody eye, and a man in his ‘0s whose arm had been attacked by a dog. Although I was very concerned about my leg, my heart went out to them. I had my wheelchair attendant stop the chair and I asked them how they were, and I invoked God’s blessings upon them.
I had no hatred or anger in my heart toward any person. Rather, the mercy I wished for myself I invoked on all whom I met.
But the same question returned: Did I need to hurt in order to feel another’s pain?
And here prayer provided the response again. By and large, Jews do not pray alone but in a quorum. They pray as a community.
There is a recognition that a prayer offered only on one’s own behalf diminished the purpose and value of prayer. For prayer is about opening the heart to the collective needs of humanity.
We are not the only ones who need healthy hearts. And we are not the only ones who require food with which to feed our families. And we are not the only ones who require two legs with which to explore God’s beautiful earth.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is on an RV trip to Alaska, which is being filmed for his television show "Shalom in the Home." His travels can be followed at www.shmuley.com.