Most of the time I am pretty sure there is a God, or at least some kind of order to the universe. Most days, it just seems impossible that we are pointlessly existing here on Earth.
But there are days, more and more of them lately, when my ability to believe is compromised. News headlines about children buried alive in Aleppo, too many police shootings of unarmed Black men to count, earthquakes that devastate communities, all lead my belief to wane. I ask the questions we all ask: how can a good and just God, the one I learned about as a child in Hebrew school, allow so much evil into the world? If God is the reason I have such a good life, then why is that same God allowing so many other people to suffer?
I don't know how to make sense of any of it. And as I prepare to spend a whole lot of time in synagogue when Rosh Hashanah begins the Jewish High Holy Days next week, I've been feeling increasingly uneasy about how I will enter into all those hours of prayer. While every year I look forward to the ritual of coming together with my community, uniting in song, and sharing special meals (or, in the case of Yom Kippur, uniting in our day-long hunger), I can't help but wonder: if my belief is fractured, is there even a point to my prayers? Without steadfast conviction, aren't prayers simply expressions of one's desires, fears and intentions? Isn't that just an exercise in selfish ego?
And yet, I cannot deny that expressing intentions is activating in itself. When I take inventory of my desires and needs, I feel motivated to make choices that help make them a reality. When I think about what I am grateful for, I feel happier and more able to face challenges (a phenomenon that has been scientifically proven). When I lean into the feeling of awe that quickens my breath when I see a mountain or the ocean, or that first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge when I exit the Robin Williams Tunnel, I feel the rush of connecting to something much bigger than myself.
There is a Jewish concept called kavanah, which is translated as "intention" or "direction of the heart." It's typically used to describe the fervor with which one should pray. But I wonder if, for purposes of this dilemma, I could think about kavanah in a more literal sense: as actual intention. Because even when I don't feel the passion for God that kavanah is meant to refer to, I can always set an intention.
So maybe this year, when the initial freshness of the service starts to fade, and I find myself growing bored and questioning the purpose of praying to the concept of a God I'm not completely at peace with, I will try to remember that the power of prayer doesn't have to be as literal as an old man in the sky hearing my requests and granting them, like an oil lamp genie. For those moments, when I struggle to believe in that which I cannot see or understand, I will try to focus instead on the things I can see, can touch, can feel.
Maybe then, my belief will start to flutter back into grasp. Or maybe it won't. But either way, my prayers will indeed have power.