Partnering with God through Prayer to Restore a Broken World
This presentation expresses the very important role for followers of Yeshua as partners with Hashem through prayer in his plan of redemption for the whole world. Further, it attempts to show that prayer involves every part of our being: body, mind, emotion, and spirit. In our capacity as individuals and in community by the power of the Spirit, those who covenant to join Hashem in this redemptive mission work in an integrative way for the healing of the nations. The command to pray is a critical action in our role as bearers and reflectors of his light in the world, and is an obligation that binds us jointly and severally as his people. It is my hope that this presentation offers a new perspective on the power of prayer that integrates all aspects of our humanity through the power of the Ruach, and that it inspires and motivates us in our prayer lives, individually and communally.
Hashem created us in his image. We are created with both body and soul. We bring all of this to bear in prayer and our communion with the Holy One. Adin Steinsaltz uses the four worlds of the Kabbalah to express this with more detail: we are physical bodies, with emotion, with thought, and with the capacity for the divine, which most within our movement describe as Spirit and many, including myself, also acknowledge as a “spark” of the divine. I attempt to describe an integrative prayer life that uses all these parts. This presentation is mainly a reflection, born from grappling with my personal role as an advocate before Hashem and my observations of miracles in the midst of prayers in acute care centers as a chaplain trainee.
As a small child, I read to lonely patients in nursing homes. My physician father would do his rounds, and I would read aloud at bedsides while I waited for him. I grew up in a multigenerational family setting, where the youngest was two and the oldest was 90 years old in a household of nine. My informal training in eldercare and dementia began very early, observing the angst of my elders letting go as disease removed reasoning and cognitive abilities. My great-auntie Margaret taught in a one-room schoolhouse at the turn of the 20th century in Perrine, Florida, and remained a teacher for her entire adult life. Her decline in health and accompanying dementia brought her to live with us in Washington State in her seventies. The two bullet holes from the .32 caliber pistol she fired into the bedroom door frame were a reminder of the struggle the elderly can have against fear, as independence slips away and dementia clouds the ability to distinguish between a child’s rustlings in the bedroom next door and a frontier intruder. Grandfather’s removal of her “protector” was the equivalent of the modern predicament families face as “Who is going to tell mom she can’t drive anymore?”
I learned as a teenager standing before the horrors of Dachau that I stood upon the shoulders of many who worked and died without the benefits I enjoyed, and knew at that moment that my life needed to reflect that privilege. As an acute-care setting chaplain trainee, I was frequently called to bedsides and waiting rooms to bear witness and provide comfort and hope to those in the midst of crisis. As a community chaplain I worked with at-risk populations of children, families, and isolated elders in the midst of substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, chronic life-limiting illness, and loneliness.
The need for us to intervene for the sake of Heaven is great. In Pierce and King counties in the Puget Sound area of Washington state, one of the most prosperous regions of the most prosperous nation in the world, 30% of the population must make a daily choice between medicine, food, transportation, suitable childcare, and housing. In many areas of this prosperous region, childhood adverse experiences (trauma) tops the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) scale, setting these children up for a lifetime of diminished physical and mental health if interventions are not available.1 I realize that we cannot begin to compare this to the plight of the boys of Sudan, the horrors of human rights violations in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, and the threat of Iran and North Korea. World wars, genocides, baseless hatred, famine, The Bomb, and the tyranny of ruthless leaders focus our attention: the world is a very broken place at the individual, community, and global level. As intercessors, the need can feel overwhelming. The choice for us as People of the Book, as followers of Yeshua, is binary: do something about it or don’t.
Once we decide to do something about it, the question is, “How?” I find the answer to this in the weightiest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul. To walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul (Deut 6:5, 11:1,13, 13:3, 30:6; Josh 22:5, 23:11; Ps 31:23; Matt 22:37; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27).2 We are to love our enemies and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 5:44; Lk 6:27, 6:35, 10:27). It is a commandment that involves our entire being with action, empathy, belief, and contemplation. In other words, it involves all parts of us as we are created by the Holy One. My concept of an integration of our prayer life may be expressed in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel following his march in the streets of Selma with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “It felt as if my legs were praying.” Heschel’s daughter Susanna explains, “He said it reminded him of the message of the prophets, whose primary concern was social injustice, and of his Hasidic forebears, for whom compassion for the suffering of other people defined a religious person.”3
When we approach our role in the partnership of the redemption of the world the task seems overwhelming and impossible. Our hope in this is that it is not up to us alone. The Apostle Paul tells us the Spirit helps us in our weakness. “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). In Messiah Yeshua, we partner in the miraculous power of the Divine Reversal, where “the foolish in the world shame the wise, the weak shame the strong, and the lowly bring nothing to the things that are” (1 Cor 1:27–28). Paul bears witness to this:
And I, when I came to you brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1–5)
When our words fail us and seem so inadequate, the Spirit is there to communicate for us. When our confidence fails us, we remember that it is beyond our understanding to know how we, the weak, can bring change through the power of the Spirit b’shem Yeshua. What a blessing to know that stepping forth to intercede on behalf of the world in earnest intention matters!
The remainder of this presentation briefly examines the means to integrate action, empathy, belief, and contemplation as an approach to integrated prayer to engage effectively with a very broken world.
Prayer at the Level of Action (Body)
What do Scripture, Kabbalistic philosophy, and Stephen Covey have in common? All have described a worldview in four elements: Action, Thought, Emotion, and Divine Love.4
We begin with action. Proverbs 31 is the inspiration for us to act for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven on behalf of those who are oppressed and distressed. The oracle to Solomon is this: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov 31:8–9). We open our mouths in prayer. We also open our mouths to speak on behalf of those who are afflicted, imprisoned, widowed, orphaned, and otherwise destined for destruction. These are two sides of the same coin. We speak with a collective voice for the sake of Heaven, and we speak collectively to Heaven on behalf of those in need. Like Heschel’s “praying legs,” our prayers are enacted in activities of social justice for the sake of Heaven as well as our contemplative life, which serves often to storm the gates of Heaven.
In his book A Guide to Jewish Prayer, Steinsaltz observes the connection between prayer and action, taking us back to the Temple sacrificial ritual. “From the very start, Temple worship included ‘hearkening unto the song and the prayer’ (I Kg 8.28).”5 The Levite choir accompanied the sacrificial rites performed by the kohanim so that their avodah (worship) was an integrated whole of offering. In the absence of Temple ritual, prayer became the sacrifice of our lips, and yet, the admonition of Isaiah 58:6–11 seems to ask for action for the sake of the world:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.”
Prayer at the Level of Empathy (Emotion)
Rabbinic literature gives us the example of Rachel weeping that exposes others to her raw pain of loss that may be interpreted as empathic intercession. This excerpt from Eicha Rabbah 1:23 has a literary style of repetition to highlight the emotion:
[Rachel] weeps and moves others to weep with her. Thus: She weeps and moves the Holy One, blessed be he, to weep with her, as it is written, The Eternal One, the God of hosts, called to weeping, and to lamentation (Isa 22.12). She weeps and moves the ministering angels to weep with her. . . . She weeps and moves heaven and earth to weep with her. . . . She weeps and moves mountains and hills to weep with her. . . . She weeps and moves the seventy nations to weep with her. . . . She weeps and moves the community of Israel to weep with her.
The repetition is significant, drawing our attention to Rachel’s weeping, which is so utterly painful that the ministering angels and heaven itself are drawn into it. Gottstein argues that this kind of repetition, found throughout rabbinic literature, signals the rabbis’ understanding of Torah through a hermeneutic of divine love.6 Midrash Eicha Rabbah incorporates the empathy of the Holy One, blessed be he, the angels of heaven, heaven and earth, the mountains and hills, and finally even the hostile seventy nations. They all weep with Rachel because of her weeping.
Why does Rachel weep? She is interceding for the sake of the nations: Said R. Pinchas:
On their behalf, Israel sacrificed seventy bulls on Sukkot corresponding to the seventy nations so that the world would not be depopulated because of them. Thus, she weeps and because she weeps, all Israel wept together, for it is written: The whole congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night (Num 14.1). (Lamentations Rabbah 1:23; see also b. Sukkah 55b)
The mashal (parable) of Rachel weeping is an example of empathy, not just individual empathy, but empathy of klal Yisrael (the community of Israel) on behalf of the nations. Rachel’s weeping is not just the release of wrenching emotion, it is effective mourning, a prayer, individual as well as communal, moving both heaven and earth, and even the Holy One.
In another aggadic midrash, Israel is on trial before Hashem for transgression of the Torah and all the 22 letters that compose it. The patriarchs plead with reason before Hashem about the injustice of the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Jewish people, about the slaughter of parents and children, even as Torah commands that the young and their parents shall not be slaughtered on the same day (Lev 22:28). They are arguing that Hashem is not being consistent with his Word! Compelling arguments from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses seem to have no effect on moving Hashem. Finally, our matriarch Rachel steps forth relating the plan she had set with Jacob in the event that Laban would substitute Leah for Rachel on their wedding night, but did not carry out because of her compassion for her sister. In detail, she argues that if she, a creature of flesh and blood, could overcome her jealousy of her sister and not expose her to “shame and disgrace,” how much more should the merciful and eternal King overcome his intense jealousy of idolatry.
Forthwith the mercy of the Holy One, blessed be He, was stirred, and He said, ‘For thy sake, Rachel, I will restore Israel to their place.’ And so it is written, Thus saith the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuseth to be comforted for her children, because they are not (Jer. 31.15). This is followed by, Thus saith the Lord: Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears; for thy work shall be rewarded… and there is hope for thy future, saith the Lord; and thy children shall return to their place. (Lamentations Rabbah Pesikhta 24)
Empathy is an emotional engagement in the ills of the world as part of our foundation for divine petition.
In the acute-care setting, in the face of inexplicable tragedy and loss, there are no words. There are simply empathy and reliance on the groanings of the Spirit. We may bear witness where there are no words of comfort by our empathic presence. Empathy is the foundation of our capability to engage with the terrible brokenness of this world at the most intimate level. It is what enables us to minister to the parents whose child is stillborn, and to the father whose teenager rode away in anger on a motorcycle, crashed, and is now dependent upon life support with a traumatic brain injury. It equips us to sit with the wife whose soul-mate suffered a massive heart attack on his way to work that morning. Our empathy binds us in the holy activity of spiritual accompaniment and sends our pleas to the gates of Heaven. Faced with the needs of our world, this may be our deepest prayer.
Prayer in the Context of Belief (Thought)
As R. Adin Steinsaltz describes Kabbalah, every soul is an emanation from the Ein Sof (Infinite God), unique in all time, yet sourced from the One, so also part of a collective. Mankind is made in the image of Hashem, and each soul is therefore an image bearer of the divine. Each soul reflects this image uniquely, yet shares a spark in common with every other soul because they come from the same source. When these connections are forgotten or obscured by the brokenness of this world, spiritual pain is the result. Our own liturgy of prayer reminds us of this daily:
Elohai neshama shenatata bi tihora hi
My God, the soul you placed within me is pure.
You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me,
And You guard it while it is within me.
One day you will take it from me,
And restore it to me in the time to come.
As long as the soul is within me,
I will thank You,
Lord my God and God of my ancestors,
Master of all works, Lord of all souls.
Blessed are you Lord, who restores souls to lifeless bodies.7
The prayer I offer for those in pain most frequently, regardless of their faith practice, is this Elohai prayer. Our belief that our prayers and our actions restore others in this world may be founded on the belief that they are made pure, with a soul that is right and true, that bears the lash marks and scars of a broken world. With this premise in mind, every single soul is created with the capacity for coming before the Holy One and for receiving the Holy Spirit, and our work then is to acknowledge that capacity, and reassure them that it is possible to overcome their unique scars. The power of belief in our prayer for ourselves and for others is incalculable, particularly for those who carry the belief that they are made impure and are therefore inherently incapable of experiencing restoration, let alone redemption, outside of specified religious practice.
Hashem speaks through the psalmist: “When he calls to me I will answer him, I will be with him in trouble, I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation” (Ps 91:14–16). When we bring our belief that Hashem’s presence is with us in time of trouble, we bring hope and where there is hope, there is life.
Spiritual pain is perhaps the most searing pain a soul can encounter. Research shows that beliefs that one is abandoned and unloved by God, that one is unworthy of a loving God, or that one is unforgivable, are damaging and can result in unrelenting physical pain that is not reduced by even narcotic pain relievers. Any of these beliefs is enough to make a human body react in intense pain and even prevent healing regardless of their religious preference. When we, as caregivers, have clarity of belief in the hermeneutic of love for the whole world, when we act in empathy, miracles happen: radical pain reduction, dramatically improved healing, and restored psyches. These are the moments when we join in the divine partnership of healing, stepping into the holy presence of Hashem.8
Rabbi Dayle Friedman describes the concept of “presence” as one of livui ruchani, or spiritual accompaniment.9 In the spiritual accompaniment of another, we cleave our soul to them, and journey together along their path. As intercessors and caregivers, it is not our journey, but theirs. Not our path, but theirs. Like Jacob contending with Hashem, it is the spiritual path of the other to wrestle the meaning out of their pain. And we can walk with them. It is in this empathic space, this cleaving of souls walking in HaShem’s ways (Mic 6:8), where healing can begin. It begins with the belief that every person carries the spark of the divine, that is, the capacity for connection to the divine, and as such is the object of divine love and purpose.
I have also come to learn that struggle and spiritual pain are not always something to be fixed. Struggle and pain may help us heal other parts of our lives or our community, that we cannot visualize without the stimuli of pain. We are not promised a world without pain. In our lives on this earth, we can struggle well in our pain, and contribute somehow to the elevation of the world. Our struggle may be for the redemption of ourselves and others. Like the men in the furnace in the book of Daniel, sometimes we are delivered from the fire and other times we are delivered through the fire. As partners in the redemption of the world, if we are so called, may we walk with them through the fire, and be strong enough to stand with them in the furnace for the sake of Heaven.
Prayer at the Level of Contemplation (Communion with the Divine)
Elijah’s contest with Jezebel brings him to a point of despair. We read in 1 Kings 19 that Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying:
“So may the gods do to me and more also if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life for I am no better than my fathers.” (vv. 2–5)
We can imagine the despair – that Elijah was uncertain of his mission, of his capacity to do God’s work for the sake of Heaven.
In his point of despair at the magnitude of what lay before him, Elijah was touched by the Holy One, blessed be he, whose ministering angel brought Elijah bread and water that miraculously sustained him for 40 days and nights. I imagine that he was in the deepest of connection with the Holy One. Then the Word of the Lord came to him and said, “What are you doing here? Go!” And Elijah went and did as the Lord commanded him and anointed kings and the Prophet Elisha. This story is one of deep communion with the divine followed by action.
After the Holy Spirit descended upon Yeshua at his baptism by John he went into the wilderness, where he was tempted by the accuser, to satisfy his great bodily hunger with bread. His words tell us that we will not live by bread alone. Yeshua’s ministry commenced after this event. His mission was to “go.” He was prayer in action following his deep communion with the Father.
It is our connection to the divine that enables us to carry on with the mission before us, to stay in the path that commits our efforts to be for the sake of Heaven. Our prayers require our body, our empathy, and our thoughts to be a coherent, integrated whole, working as seamless prayer in motion. When we encounter our modern Jezebel, the temptation to pull the covers up over our head and hide in bed is understandable. May we hear the Bat Kol (Voice from Heaven) saying, “Go!”
The Spirit binds us collectively to the source of all power. We are joined in a divine mission for the sake of Heaven and the healing of the world. Our engagement is not possible on an effective sustainable basis without divine power. Yeshua demonstrates his time alone as he retreated to a quiet place, alone to pray. Our prayers, both communal and individual, liturgical and spontaneous, are our spiritual food and water which miraculously sustain us, refreshing us, and enabling us to go out into the world and engage for the sake of Heaven. May it be so.
The World is Afire
In paraphrase, Matthew 28:19–20 reads: “Our Master said, Go! Go to them! Make them disciples, teach them to observe all my commandments, and baptize them into the partnership for the redemption of the whole world. I am with you.” It is reminiscent of Hashem’s command to Abraham: Lekh L’kha—“Go from this place, this place of all that is familiar, of family, of friends and go where I tell you. Go for the sake of the world, to be a blessing, and for the sake of Heaven, you will be blessed” (Gen 12:1–3). The world needs us and we must go.
Throughout the rabbinic writings, this imperative is consistent. Midrash Genesis Rabbah was redacted at a time when the hopes of the Jewish people seemed very dim, at a time when the hope of the world, perhaps, seemed dim. The compilers of the midrashim seem to have a contemporary message for us. A favorite of mine comes from Bereishit Rabbah 39:1, the segment corresponding to Lekh L’kha.
[The Lord] said to Abram, “Go you forth from your land. . . .” Rabbi Yitzchak said: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a . . . castle aglow/lit up (full of light/in flames). He said, “Is it possible that this castle lacks a [person] to look after it?” The owner of the building looked out and said, “I am the owner of the castle.” Similarly, because Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that this castle has no guide, no one to look after it?,” the Holy Blessed One looked out and said to him, “I am the Master of the Universe.” . . . Hence, God said to Avraham, Lech Lecha.10
How does this midrash apply? Abraham sees a castle in flames and wonders if the owner of the castle is aware that the beautiful building is burning. And the owner appears. He announces that he is the owner. He makes no effort to leave, nor to extinguish the flames. Could it be he is asking for help?
Yes, and it goes beyond that. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says this:
This is an extraordinary passage. Abraham sees the order of nature, the elegant design of the universe. It’s like a Palace. It must have been made by someone for someone. But the palace is on fire. How can this be? Surely the owner should be putting out the flames. You don’t leave a palace empty and unguarded. Yet the owner of the palace calls out to him, as God called to Abraham, asking him to help fight the fire.11
Abraham sees the beautiful creation of God, and it has been set afire by man. In this midrash, it is as if Abraham asks, “God, where are you?” God replies, “I am here.” It is as if mankind asks, “God, why did you abandon the world?” God asks man, “Why did you abandon me?”
The world is afire. Our bodies enact our prayers; our beliefs about ourselves and others empower our prayers; our empathy engages us with the world; and our faithfulness to the Word and the teaching of our Master enables us to partner with God as intercessors using our entire created being. Our prayers enact, empower, engage, and enable for the healing of the world, to extinguish the flames of evil. Let us pray, and do it, and thereby partner with God in Tikkun Olam.
Karen Worstell completed her chaplaincy training in both non-profit and VA hospitals, where she focused on spiritual support for end of life and palliative care. She is a licensed Madrikha through the UMJC and a public speaker, and has a private coaching practice focusing on resilience for women. She and her husband, Craig, have three grandchildren and recently relocated to Lone Tree, Colorado, from Washington State.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs), https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html.
2 All scriptural references are ESV.
3 Susannah Heschel, “Following in My Father’s Footsteps: Selma 40 Years Later,” Vox of Dartmouth, April, 2005, www.dartmouth.edu/~vox/0405/0404/heschel.html.
4 I am not a student of Kabbalah and am keenly aware of the difficulties with Lurianic philosophy. I limit my incursions into this space to readings from teachers like Philip Levertoff and Adin Steinsaltz. For this paper, I am specifically referring to Kabbalah as taught by Steinsaltz through his work in The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2010). This book was helpful to me in finding an expression of the unexplainable experiences in healing prayer. Stephen Covey structured his classic management philosophy and “Seven Habits” on the premise of physical body, emotion, thought, and connection to the divine. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Free Press, 2004). A study of Scripture reveals commandments to us regarding our bodies, our mind, our feelings, and our relationship to Hashem. The expression seems to be universal.
5 Adin Steinsaltz, A Guide to Jewish Prayer (New York: Shocken Books, 2000), 15.
6 Alon Goshen Gottstein, “Love as a Hermeneutic Principle in Rabbinic Literature,” Literature and Theology, 8:3 (1994): 247–267, www.jstor.org/stable/23925142.
7 Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2009), 6.
8 Amy Wachholtz and Suzana Makowski, “Spiritual Dimensions of Pain and Suffering,” in Handbook of Pain and Palliative Care: Biobehavioral Approaches for the Life Course, R. J. Moore, ed. (New York: Springer, 2013), 697–713.
9 Dayle Friedman, Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook from Traditional & Contemporary Sources (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005).
10 Bereisheit Rabbah 39:1, excerpted from
11 “Lech Lecha (5th)—On Being a Jewish Parent,” Office of Rabbi Sacks, http://rabbisacks.org/lech-lecha-5771–on-being-a-jewish-parent/.