Listening as Prayer


There is a story from our tradition that I used to find kind of puzzling. King David, who was known as a great musician and poet, asked God, “What do you think of my music?” God said, “They are good, but not as good as the croaking of a bullfrog.” I thought God was being harsh to David, trying to keep his ego in check.

My understanding of this changed when I was at a retreat in the Catskill Mountains. It was late at night, and I was sitting by myself at the edge of a lake. I soon realized I was listening to some of the most beautiful “music” I had ever heard. It was the croaking of bullfrogs and the rustling of the water and the swaying of the trees, all in perfect rhythm and harmony. This was the music God was talking about. It was a true psalm, a true prayer to God.

Rabbi Nachman tells us that the entire world and the universe itself makes wonderful music, if we would only listen to it. I think this is the key to understanding what the prayer “Shema” really means. It is usually translated as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” What is the significance of “hear”? This is clearly a significant declaration of faith, but even The Ten Commandments do not start that way.

I prefer to translate it as, “If you listen, then you will know that God is God.” If we pause for a moment, and sit in absolute quiet, then we will hear the world that God made, and the prayer that the world offers.

I think it is easiest to do this in nature, even in a park, but it can be in a city, as well. There are beautiful and strange sounds in the world, sounds that harmonize with and reflect each other. The next time you go for a walk, even in a mall, listen to everything around you. You will be amazed by the wonderful rhythms. It will no longer feel like noise, but a prayer.

Favorite Teachings: Rabbi Nachman Part Two


Judaism for me is a home, a religion and an identity. At the most crucial times of my life, those moments that it seemed darkness would reign over me, Judaism has been my refuge and salvation. This is not the easiest thing to share, but I feel that it is important that people know that even rabbis face crises of faith and purpose. Judaism means so much to me, precisely in these moments.

I want to share a teaching that has meant a great deal to me, and has been a comfort in some difficult moments. It is one of the most famous of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who is one of my primary spiritual guides.

The teaching is taken from the second half of a verse from Psalm 146. In Hebrew, it is “Azamra Leilohei B’odi.” This is normally translated as “I will sing to God with all of my strength,” implying that we should serve God with all of our might and ability. This is a good thought when you are feeling strong and confident. It is not as helpful when you are feeling weak, or depressed, when you feel as though you have nothing left.

Rabbi Nachman was concerned that we never give into despair, something he struggled with himself his entire life. He translates the verse from Psalms differently. He said, “We should sing to God with what we have left.” That is to say that even when we are feeling at our worst, and that we do not have anything to offer God or anyone else, God will count what little we have and what little we can do as a complete prayer and offering. God will view us as 100% worthwhile even when we feel worthless.

This is particularly important to remember when so many people are going through difficult times, not just financially, but emotionally. So many of our identities are wrapped up in our professions or our ability to provide for our loved ones and the community. We feel bad about ourselves, because we many not be able to do what we used to.

Rabbi Nachman said that we should never give up on ourselves, because God never does. We can always find what is eternally valuable within ourselves. Even one kind deed to another person can change their world, and maybe the whole world for the better.

This teaching has helped me find myself when I felt lost. I hope you never need it, but if you do, that it gives you comfort and hope.

Favorite Teachings: Rabbi Nachman Part One

This is the first of a series on the thought of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of my favorite rabbis, and one who has had a tremendous impact on my thinking and spiritual life. He taught me that one of the most powerful forces we have in creating a better world is by having empathy for others, even for those we may not like or admire. We also have to have empathy for ourselves. Understanding the joy and pain of others, and accepting them for who they are, is a great way to help bring real change to the world. We reduce the suffering of others through our empathy, allowing them to develop the strength, courage and insight to become the kind of loving and integrated people they want to be. By showing ourselves this same kindness and understanding we reduce the suffering in our own lives and increase the potential for joy and wholeness.

This does not mean that we think everything a person does is good or acceptable. There are some very destructive behaviors that we need to struggle against. It is important, though, that we do not demonize the person, but look carefully at what they are doing.

This teaching of Rabbi Nachman is from his collection Likutei Maharan:

“You should judge each person favorably. Even if someone seems to be a thoroughly bad person you need to search for and find something in them, no matter how small, that is good. When you do so, you can start to eliminate what is bad in them, and start to transform that into good. This applies to ourselves, as well.”

A question that often arises from this is “What do we do with someone like Hitler?” I really don’t know. I hope God has a special place just for him and others like him. I believe, though, that Rabbi Nachman is talking about everyday people, some who make worse choices than others, or those who aggravate us, or even those people who seem to have no apparent redeeming value. Looking for good in others might give them a spark to do better, because someone, maybe for the first time, believes there is something worthwhile in them. If nothing else, developing this empathy can help us reduce our own anger and find greater inner peace. Maybe we can find what is truly good within ourselves.

I will share more about Rabbi Nachman in the coming weeks, both his teachings and his life.

In the mean time, here is any easy exercise. The next time someone cuts you off in traffic, try to think of a good reason they might be in a hurry. At the least, you will be less angry yourself, and less likely to take your anger out on the next driver. You can then feel good about dealing with a stressful moment in a better way than you normally might.

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