When I was a little girl, I heard a story about prayer. I can’t remember if it was directly taught to me in Hebrew school or something I just picked up. In the story, a small child did not yet know how to pray, yet she knew the letters of the alphabet. So she would simply recite the alphabet aloud, and God would put the letters together to create words.
I always loved this story. While I was at home in a synagogue growing up, I was more captivated by the beautiful melodies, the smell of challah, and the people-watching—I especially liked to count hats on the High Holidays. But I never felt as comfortable with the praying part. My prayers landed on the customary clichés: you know, the happiness and health of my family. Like a birthday wish, I never wanted to get too greedy and just stuck to the basics.
However, I did have an unusual habit.
When I wasn’t paying attention, but was looking for some higher source of comfort, I found myself extrapolating on the prayer we say over wine. 11-year-old me, calling on this as I played goalie for the first time and watched the ball cross the field. “Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, borei p’ri ha soccer goal.” I was desperate for some intervention to prevent the ball from going into the goal, and although I didn’t know how this prayer would help me, I remember thinking it would act as a type of force field around me. It was not a conscious decision, but just came out when I needed some backup. It appeared again and again … “borei p’ri ha pass my vocab quiz, borei p’ri ha college essay.” It was like my own Hebrew hashtag of the ’90s.
Today, decades later, prayer is not in my daily life. I do not include it with my everyday routine or pray with my children before bed. I have three children. They are beautiful, delicious, vibrant children, but the litany of things we have to endure is not small. Whoever said “small children, small problems” never met mine. As parents, we have learned to be resilient and find strength where we can, And you would think I would return to my religion to find support. However, I tend to lean more on the customs–the people, the stories, the food. Definitely, the food.
Yet sometimes brisket and kasha varnishkes are not enough to get you through a crisis. So, this tendency from my childhood has resurfaced during the times in my life when I needed something but didn’t quite know how to articulate it. I have learned with time, of course, that prayer is individualized to the person. It is not about getting it right, but a provision of comfort. This transcends religions, languages, and cultures. It is a universal human need to speak our pain, to name our desires.
About two weeks ago, I was holding my baby in the doctor’s office. It was just the two of us. He was grinning from ear to ear and pointing at cars in his book. I had bribed him with a lollipop to get through the latest battery of tests, another never ending appointment. I was clutching him with fear, awaiting some serious results, but smiling at him without a blink of worry in my face. No matter what, I would keep him protected from whatever realities we might face and keep him in the innocent baby bubble as long as possible.
But this was hard to do. I know I have a world of support system, but standing there in that moment–I felt very small. Before I knew it, I heard myself humming–and then the words came out, “Barukh ata Adonai Eloheniu melekh ha’olam borei p’ri ha, you are going to be okay.” And I smiled to myself. Here it is again. I know, like the young girl who cannot form sentences yet, that my message is getting across.