Not long ago, a friend of mine called me and said, "Naomi, I need your help.
I want you to teach me how to pray to God." She told me whenever she goes to shul, she tries to sing along, but she feels nothing. Just words. She said she's been trying to meditate in a quiet spot, hoping for some kind of communication with God, but she feels nothing. Just silence. My friend's problem is a familiar one. So many of us sit in shul on Yom Kippur feeling lost or bored. We want to pray, but we don't know how.
The Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva, because on it we read the haftorah that begins with the moving words of the prophet Hosea: "Shuva Yisrael" -- "Return, Israel, to the Lord your God." But returning to God is no simple matter. How can we return to God when we don't know how to reach God? Like my friend, so many of us long to feel God's presence in our lives, but we feel cutoff from God. We don't know where to find God.
In our Haftorah, Hosea offers us a path to God. The prophet says, "Take words with you and come back to God." I told my friend, "This problem you're having, tell it to God, and you'll be praying." There are many forms of prayer we can learn, but the one we can all start with is the prayer of our souls. We don't have to introduce ourselves to God; God already knows us. Notice that Hosea doesn't say, "Come to God." He says, "Come back to God." We aren't strangers to God. We don't need to begin a relationship with God. God is already in a relationship with us, God already loves us. Every day, God is waiting for us, calling out to us: "Return to Me." We don't have to say anything profound; we don't have to sound smart. God doesn't care. We don't have to be sitting quietly in a state of prayerful devotion; whenever we speak, God listens.
Many people tell me that they feel overwhelmed by the depiction of God on Yom Kippur. They are frightened to approach a mighty King on a throne who sits in judgment over us, who knows all our misdeeds and decides who shall live and who shall die. But our haftorah this Shabbat offers a much more intimate picture of God. God is the One searching for us. God is lonely without us.
When we return to God, our lives start to open up. Answers start to appear. We begin seeing things we never noticed before. Days that used to feel empty are suddenly infused with meaning. Anxiety gives way to calm, despair gives way to hope, fear gives way to faith, frustration gives way to peace, sadness gives way to joy. Most of all, through prayer our indifference gives way to action.
Prayer reminds us that we are connected through God to one another, to all those longing for our help. Our souls are tied to the souls of all people. Our souls are tied to the souls of all those who have come before us. We are not alone. We are not cut off. We have not been forgotten: God is with us. God has filled us with enormous potential. But God has given us only limited days. God is praying for us, hoping we will learn how to take care of one another. The world is waiting for us to bless it.
Each of us has a prayer in our hearts, a prayer of singular importance. Chances are, we will find it only by opening our hearts and speaking it directly to God. This Yom Kippur, as you are sitting in shul, when the moment is right, close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and, as you breathe out, relax. Without censoring or editing, look inside yourself. Look deep down inside. Find the prayer of your soul. Find it and speak it to God. Tell God your pain, your hope, your joy. Share your deepest longing. Express your anger. Ask for God's help. Tell God your secret. Thank God for your blessings. Shout, sing, whisper, talk to God. And listen closely for a reply.
May you receive an answer that will bring you joy and peace. May God be with you, may health and strength sustain you, may nothing harm you, may wisdom and kindness enrich you, may you be a blessing to this world, and may blessings surround you now and always.
May this be a sweet year filled with health, joy, blessings and peace. Amen.