Prayer isnt Lets Make a Deal, rabbi says

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With Americans spending sweaty, sleepless nights preoccupied by thoughts of pending war amid fervent world opposition, terrorists armed with nerve gas and an economy hitting rock bottom and starting to dig, Rabbi Naomi Levy has a suggestion: Start praying.

But God, she reminds, is not Monty Hall.

And prayer, she adds, is not the same as driving a hard bargain with the Supreme Being.

"People I have worked with prayed because they couldn't conceive a child, and, at the beginning, they were praying, 'God, if only you can give us a child, we'll make a huge donation to the synagogue.' That's what I call the 'Let's Make a Deal' prayer," said Levy, a former pulpit rabbi in Venice, Calif., and now a full-time author, speaker and mom.

"With each passing month they were unable to conceive, and the husband told me he had started to get very angry at God. And one day he had an epiphany. Prayer wasn't about bargaining, it was about finding strength. When he prayed, he started to get the strength he needed. It didn't lead to the conception of a child, but it did lead them to open their eyes to the possibility of adoption."

Last weekend, the Conservative rabbi noted with obvious satisfaction, the couple named their second adopted child.

Levy, the author of several books about prayer and healing, including "To Begin Again" and "Talking to God," will be the keynote speaker on Wednesday, March 26 for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Women's Alliance 11th annual "Power of One" dinner. The evening event will be held at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

Levy refers to prayer as "a gift" and feels a troubled time such as this is a great time to unwrap that gift.

"We can pray for peace. Those of us who oppose the war can not only pray but strive for peace, take action to create peace or call for peace," she said.

"And at the same time, we can pray for the well-being of our armed forces and of all innocent people."

Prayer, however, is not enough. One must not only pray for what he or she desires, but, as Levy noted, strive to make it so.

In listening to our uncensored inner monologue, prayer allows us to know what we really want.

"I don't think that God is like a vending machine. You can't put a prayer in here and pop out an answer to your prayers over there," she said.

"My belief is prayer can lend meaning to our lives…I think that by praying we can add a whole new level of content and meaning into our lives."

A number of people Levy meets tell her they feel close to God but don't feel going to synagogue is a spiritual experience for them. Prayer, however, need not be at the synagogue, Levy reminds. You can pray in the shower, at work or in the car. (She's even penned a prayer for driving, imploring one not to be impetuous, ill-tempered or take others' lives in your hands just because you want to make a light.)

"My passion right now is teaching people that prayer doesn't have to come from siddur [the prayerbook] alone. And if you don't know how to pray in the traditional prayers, that doesn't mean you can't pray," she said.

"A lot of times people think they don't know the prayers so they can't pray. I think most Jews don't know the prayers, so they feel cut off from God. But you don't have to be able to speak Hebrew. You don't have to believe in God in order to pray."

Oh really?

"If I tell people I don't believe in God, it doesn't mean I can't say in the morning, 'May I be patient today, may I find strength today and treat people in a way that is kind and generous and keep my eyes open to all possibilities.' There are many ways to pray that don't involve facing God," she explained.

"If you literally take a minute out of your morning to prepare spiritually for the day, I believe doing that can truly transform the way we treat our children and spouses and colleagues, the way we drive, the way we face inconveniences and frustrations."

Naomi Levy will speak on Wednesday, March 26 at the Jewish Community Federation's Women's Alliance 11th annual "Power of One" dinner at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, 335 Powell St., S.F. Registration is at 5 p.m. The event is for women making a $365 donation to the 2003 campaign (new attendees may donate $180). Tickets: $78. Information: Shany Chinsky, (650) 919-2107.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.