"My Journey To Prayer" - speech by Rolf Gompertz
While this is a story in a Jewish context, it is one that I believe Christian readers can relate to also, for several reasons.
mention two Psalms that come out of our common religious tradition: Psalm 23 and
Psalm 21. Central to this story is
what Jews refer to as the sh'ma and what Jesus quoted when he was asked what
is the most important commandment.
said that there are two: "The most important is 'Hear O Israel the Lord our
God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul and with all your might." (Mark 12:30-31). He was quoting
lines 4 and 5 from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the Fifth Book of the Hebrew Bible (Old
Testament) where the "Sh'ma" appears.
It also appears in various places of all Jewish prayer books. Jesus also
quotes from Leviticus 19:18, the Third Book of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament):
"The other [commandment] is: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'
There is no commandment greater than these [two]" (Mark l2:30-31).
These two commandments are central to both Judaism and Christianity: The love and service of God and the love and service of our fellow human beings. "My Journey to Prayer" deals with a personal crisis that became the springboard to prayer. Readers may find a personal connection from their own life, journey, and experiences. - Rolf
MY JOURNEY TO PRAYER
at One Shabbat Morning (OSM) Service
Ari El, North Hollywood, CA
February 11, 2006
was 1964. My father-in-law, Philip Brown, lay dying in the hospital, with
congestive heart failure. I
was 36 years old.
mother-in-law, Lillian Brown, was desperate as we walked the hall.
"Do you know any
prayers?" she pleaded. "Do you know 'The Lord is my shepherd [Psalm
"The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul.
my mother-in-law pleaded, "What about 'I will lift up my eyes unto the
mountains [Psalm 121]!'"
I began again:
"I will lift up my eyes unto the mountains;
From whence shall my help come?
My helps comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven an earth..."
as far as I got.
about the sh'ma, I offered.
prayed: "Hear O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One."
you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,
and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon
your heart and ...and...and..."
did not even remember the sh'ma any more -- the central
statement of Judaism! Worst of all, I was not able to help someone who was
years later, in 1966, we joined Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in
North Hollywood, California. We joined for our children, but we also
joined for me. I had come to
a life-changing decision: I
wanted to attend services regularly from now on, Shabbat mornings.
Hebrew was rusty, but it was still there. Carol, my wife, gave me a big tallit,
a prayer shawl that covers the whole body, the following year, when I was
invited to be a darshan, a lay congregant who interprets that day's reading from
the Torah (the first five books of our common Bible) from time to time. I
felt self-conscious and lost in the big tallit.
I figured I would have to grow into it.
then I did something unusual: I began to pray in secret, every morning. I
locked myself in the bedroom, pulled out the prayer book, read three
prayers quickly, and came out of the bedroom, before anyone noticed or
could see what I had been doing!
does a man approaching 40 begin to pray? With great difficulty -- and in
secret! I felt awkward, foolish, embarrassed, before myself! A grown man,
approaching 40, trying to pray! In time, I began to realize that three
prayers are not enough to get to the heart of the treasure. Three prayers
just get you started. Soon there were more prayers, but not enough time.
So I made time. I got up half an hour earlier. I did not miss the extra
sleep. While the others slept, I sat in the kitchen and prayed.
didn't care now that Carol or the kids saw me, when they got up. And I
kept reading the words of the sh'ma.
"And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your
soul, and with all your might. And
these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart...And
you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for
frontlets between your eyes..."
over five years, the words penetrated; they came alive. They spoke.
And they disturbed me. Frontlets. T'fillin. Phylacteries. The leather prayer boxes and straps worn around
the head and arm.
talked it over with myself:
says to put on t'fillin."
it says to put on t'fillin!"
pray, I wear a yarmulke, I wear a tallit.
I don't have to do everything!"
how can you say this prayer and ignore its meaning. It says you should put
I have never put on t'fillin!"
have never prayed before, either!"
I don't know how to put on t'fillin!"
remembered my father's t'fillin
bag. It was old already when I was a child.
I never saw my father put on t'fillin.
But I remembered and knew that the t'fillin
were there, in the velvet bag, near the prayer books...waiting.
you know where the t'fillin
the t'fillin. May I have
father looked at me in surprise. He
jumped up and rushed to get the small, velvet bag.
he said, handing me the t'fillin.
thanked him. I didn't tell him that I didn't know how to put them on.
I didn't ask either. I didn't know if he knew how. I didn't wish to
you going to start putting on t'fillin?"
I said. "I have started to pray every morning."
said it almost defiantly and a bit smugly.
pray every morning, too," he said.
was now my turn to be surprised. I had never seen my father pray in the
morning. My father praying? A grown man approaching 80? How long had he
been doing this?
sure you don't want the t'fillin?"
no!" he assured me. "You keep them, you keep them!"
I thanked him again and took them home with me. I was eager to take them out and really look at them. The leather straps, which once were pliable, were stiff from years of disuse. How many years had it been? Fifty, sixty, a hundred?
picked up the hand t'fillin. I
knew it went around the arm and around the hand in some special way, but I
could not figure out how. Whom should I ask? Whom could
I ask? Who puts on t'fillin
doubt the Rabbi would show me! But I could not ask him. It's hard to be
humble. I would ask a fellow congregant, Meyer Sedowsky, of blessed
memory. "Look!" he said, as he took the head t'fillin
and showed me a Hebrew letter, on the right side of the leather box:
"SHIN." Then he
showed me the knot that sits on the back of the head, shaped as the
he took the hand t'fillin and
showed me the knot near the leather box. "The letter YUD!"
Almighty! One of the names of God!" He explained the four verses from
the Torah in each box. "They remind us of the unity of God, the miracles
and wonders God performed when He brought us out of Egypt, God's
kingship, and the command to put on the t'fillin."
he showed me how to put on the t'fillin
and declare the appropriate blessing. To what purpose? As a daily
reminder so that the work of our hands and the thoughts of our mindand the
longings and strivings of our heart be placed in God's service. I rushed
home that night, anxious to fall asleep, so I could wake up early and put
on the t'fillin.
have put on t'fillin every day
ever since - except Shabbat,
because on Shabbat you do not put
on t'fillin, because Shabbat is its own sign and symbol of God's presence and our
relationship to Him.
mother died in 1983; my father died in 1987. With their deaths, I came to
say kaddish, the mourner's
prayer, which does not speak of death but only affirms God's glory, at
the daily prayer service, the minyan.
I did so, I had to make one more change in my Journey to Prayer. I had
prayed at home daily for 20 years. Yet,
when the need arose, I found that there was a daily prayer service
available to me at the synagogue for saying kaddish.
was time now for me to move from private prayer to public prayer, so that
I could be there for others, as they had been there for me. I joined the
daily morning minyan, and I have
been there ever since.
final matter. My mother-in-law, whom I had failed when once she needed a
prayer, died in 1976. As she lay dying, she asked me to pray with her.
time I did not fail her.
Rolf Gompertz and his parents were refugees from Nazi Germany coming to America in 1939, after Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), the Night of Broken Glass. He has written about their story, which was also dramatized by the BBC (2003).
He is the author of five current books, including a spiritual self-help book, SPARKS OF SPIRIT: How to Find Love and Meaning in Your Life. His books may be found, browsed, a
nd ordered at www.amazon.com
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