Unify our hearts

In the old days, I was healthy, strong, and oblivious to the terror that lurked inside me.

Every morning, I would put on my tallis (prayer shawl) and tefillin (hard to explain) and recite an abbreviated version of the Jewish morning liturgy. I dutifully included all the elements that are considered essential to fulfill the commandment of daily prayer. I stood when you’re supposed to stand, sat when you’re supposed to sit. Sometimes my mind wandered, but I tried to focus on the meaning of the Hebrew words, which I sort of understand.

Those words speak of gratitude and appreciation: for the morning light, a functioning body, clothes to wear, sun and moon, rain in its proper time. They speak of God’s attributes: mercy, kindness, compassion. They ask for divine help in the form of forgiveness, health, prosperity, and aid in fighting our battles.

In the old days, I focused on the gratitude and the attributes.

I read the plea for healing as thanks for good health; the plea for prosperity as thanks for my comfortable life. And I read the traits ascribed to God as directives for how I should live: as God is compassionate, I should be compassionate. As God cares for us, I should care for others. I was unsure what I thought about God — I still am unsure — and it seemed best to read these prayers as an instruction manual: This is how I want to live my life. This is how I’m supposed to live my life.

It was a good approach. Jewish religious practice is, for me, a program for life. Morning prayer was a way of setting my daily intention to get with the program. It was a way of directing not only my thoughts but my actions. Although many of the prayers address God directly, I really was talking to myself.

A good approach — but it was missing something.

Then came The Crash: my protracted skid along the cliff’s edge of grief, stress, and chronic illness, trying all the while to follow that instruction manual for living my life. Eventually I skidded over the edge. But instead of a free fall, I tumbled down the mountain in slow motion, collecting injuries without realizing that I was absolutely, inevitably, headed for rock bottom.

Praying became different then. I wasn’t so much talking to myself, telling myself how I’m supposed to live. I started talking to God, or the universe, or whoever or whatever is out there.

I stuck with the gratitude where I could find it. But I also started asking for help.

I asked for healing. I asked for compassion, for mercy, for help in fighting my battles. I was pleading, really, even though I don’t believe in a God who answers prayers in the way we usually think of.

And this shift in how I prayed was part of my healing. Not because a supernatural being heard me and responded, but because I was acknowledging my weakness. My vulnerability. My desperation. My need for help.

It took a long time, but eventually my brain and body responded to this shift in my outlook. And it transferred to — or reflected — other parts of my life, where I began acknowledging my vulnerability to actual human beings. And asking for help. And saying no to requests and invitations and my own list of things I should be doing. Even though saying no went against my interpretation of the instruction manual for how to live my life.

I couldn’t follow the program the way I used to. I needed a new program.

Yached l’vaveinu b’ahava u’l’yira et shemecha.

That’s a line from the morning liturgy. In English, it reads, Unify our hearts to love and fear Your Name. It’s a prayer that ahava, love, and yira, fear or awe, come together in our hearts, working toward a unified purpose. (In prayerbook Hebrew, God’s “name” connotes divine essence and power.)

In this one line, I see my two different approaches to prayer.

In the old days, I followed the yira, a combination of awe and fear. Reminding myself how to live, I did not realize how terrified I was of falling short. I set impossible ideals and then, naturally, couldn’t live up to them. But I kept trying. My fear was not of God’s punishment but of failure — or, you could say, fear of being human.

I was missing the ahava, the love.

In my darkest days, I turned to ahava. I could no longer act upon the motivation that fear produced. I simply needed love, compassion, mercy. I needed to let myself feel the unconditional love of my friends and family, to realize their love did not depend on what I could accomplish. I needed to love myself.

The line I’m quoting, Yached l’vaveinu, comes from a prayer called Ahava Rabba, or “abundant love.” It begins: Ahava rabba ahavtanu: “You love us with abundant love.” The prayer also ends with ahava. In between, the word repeats three more times.

In addition to love, Ahava Rabba stresses God’s compassion and grace toward human beings. It asks for discernment and understanding. And it predicts (or demands) that, through God’s deliverance, we will rejoice and be happy.

Yira, the word for fear and awe, appears only once. That’s in the line quoted above, where it is paired with — and, crucially, follows — ahava.

So this is a prayer about love — love abundantly bestowed, not love that has to be earned. The prayer asks that in our hearts, in our intentions, we bring together the love and the fear. But love comes first, last, and in between.

In recent years, as my physical and emotional healing progress, my prayer practice has shifted again.

As in the old days, I’m using the prayers to remind myself of what I need to remember. But now, instead of directing my actions, it’s more about directing my thoughts and feelings — directing my heart.

Yoga teachers say the rest period at the end of each class is a time to “integrate” everything the body, mind, and spirit have done during the poses and meditations. The hypnotherapist I work with says the same thing about the last part of each session.

In a way, that’s another form of yached l’vaveinu — unifying our hearts, integrating, allowing everything to come together.

My prayer practice these days is much less consistent than it used to be. That’s to my detriment. I know the daily morning practice is good for me, especially when I’m able to unify my heart with love and with awe.

But as so often happens, what’s good for me becomes a should: a source of pressure, a poke in the gut to get with the program. And too often, when I’m not with the program, a source of shame.

The very next line after yached l’vaveinu is: V’lo nevosh l’olam va-ed: “And then we will not feel shame, eternally, forever.”


What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

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