Whispering in the Cosmic Ear

The Amidah’s final petition, in the 16th paragraph, concludes שומע תפילה/shome’a tefillah, “Blessed is God who hears prayer.”

Oh, really now? How fortunate.

In subsequent posts I will take up the language of this paragraph and try to explain it in ways that I hope enhance davvening. For this post, I want to consider the theological frame of this blessing.

Perhaps this blessing is the logically necessary capstone to the Amidah. Once we’ve implored heaven for wisdom, forgiveness, sustenance and healing, it only makes sense to affirm that after all, God can and, we hope, will deliver on those requests.

But, carried too far, this is a trap. And spiritually scanty besides.

There is nothing wrong with articulating your dreams, hopes and needs in prayer. And nothing naïve in finding heaven is the source of your thriving. But it is all too easy, by heaping up petitions, to fool yourself into thinking of God as the cosmic vending machine. You insert your dollar and push the buttons, and Barukh Atah Adonai, shome’a tefillah! Blessed is God who hears prayer!

Do you believe this is how it works? What happens when you don’t get what you long for or even deserve? What happens when the righteous suffer, the wicked prosper and your loved ones get sick and die? Does that mean God ignored your prayer? That is a religious blind alley.

When I davven, even reciting petitions, my heart does not focus on asking and getting. My deepest worship comes when I seek and find a sense of divine nearness. That’s enough. My only real prayer is that I strip away my blinders, I open my heart and attain the awareness that God is near. As Psalms 73 says: קרבת א’להים לי טוב, “intimacy with God is the greatest good for me.”

This divine nearness emerges in the language of this berakhah: “Blessed are You, God, who hears prayer.” Not necessarily “who answers prayer,” or “who gives me what I want.” But who hears prayer, who absorbs it, who sits beside me, who holds my hand as I pray. Again to the splendid Psalm 73: תמיד אחזת ביד ימיני, “You have been grasping my right hand all along.”

As a davvener, I read the terrifying Lamentations 3.44 as an inversion of that presence: “You covered yourself over with a cloud, to block out prayer.” The simple meaning is surely that when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, God denied Israel’s prayer, allowing the Temple to be destroyed. I imagine that in certain terrible moments of hester panim, divine occlusion, God withdrew the divine hand from mine, screening out prayer like a hand can block the sun. In that rare crisis, the hiding God did not hear prayer.

But in my typical experience as a davvener, I perceive the presence absorbing the longings of the human heart and hearing the prayers we utter. We can’t always get what we want. But if we try, sometimes, we find that God is shome’a tefilla after all. Every heartfelt prayer reaches heaven and leaves its imprint. None goes to waste.

This phrase, shome’a tefillah, can broaden out our store of theological images. From the Bible, rabbinic and mystical literature, we may be accustomed to imagining God as warrior, king, lover, friend or sage, as a sheltering rock or safe refuge, as an eagle bearing young, as a healing ray of sun. As I davven this blessing, a different theological figure arises to me: I imagine God as cosmic ear, infinitely sensitive to detect our love and longing and hope, registering those heartfelt prayers and inscribing them in the divine book of the human spirit.  Again to the Psalms [56.9] for a touching expression: נדי ספרתה אתה שימה דמעתי בנאדך הלא בספרתך. “You counted up all my wanderings. Put each of my teardrops in your flask, written in Your book.”

When I davven to the “One who Hears Prayer,” all I want to do is whisper. In the magnificent phrase of the Holy Zohar [2.138b], worship is like “whispering your secret in the King’s ear.” The One lingers beside you as long as you keep on speaking. The cosmic ear is listening. Barukh Atah, shome’a tefillah.