A couple of months ago I was speaking with local community activist Wil Sherk at a meeting, who shared the following anecdote: A pastor friend once told him he only needed two prayers: In the morning before his feet hit the floor–help me, help me, help me. At night before his head hit the pillow, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Help me, help me, help me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I have been thinking about that interaction and Wil’s pastor’s two prayers a lot since then, at that meeting a few months ago. I think about it as I watch activists and organizers work themselves to the bone, trying to serve increasing needs in our community and beyond: housing the unhoused, feeding the hungry, helping children and teachers and people of reproductive age and LGBT+ individuals who all feel unsafe, even in a benighted state as our own. I think about these two prayers as I watch teens consumed with a sense of anxiety over the world, as meaningless internet fights and misinformation consumes the brains of people otherwise kind and loving and thoughtful, as so many of us wonder—in a world that feels out of control, what are we supposed to be doing?
Help me, help me, help me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
There are, of course, equivalent prayers in Judaism, though their wording is, shall we say, more formal. In the evening, we offer gratitude for the day that was, for the night and its rest, as the prayerbook used to say. We pray for peace, and we remind ourselves of God’s hesed, God’s graciousness, in all things in creation. In the morning, we remind ourselves that our bodies are holy, our souls sacred, and give thanks for the everyday miracles we encounter, for looked at a certain way, everything is a miracle: waking up, preparing for the day, cleaning our bodies, even cleaning out the eye boogers, the dry crusties at the corners of our eyes, is a moment of blessing in our tradition. And the theme throughout those blessings is—we are only able to do this not due to our own strength or fortitude, but through God’s generosity, through God’s blessing, or if we prefer, through the blessing and generosity of others beyond ourselves.
What would it mean if we started each day asking for help and ended each day with an expression of gratitude?
It is easy to wake up already lost in our tasks, overwhelmed. Our phones demand our attention from the moment we open our eyes. Our calendars reveal opportunities for stress as we think about all that we feel we ought to be doing in this world, in our work, for our families and ourselves. Our expectations of what is enough are skewed to the farthest extreme. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, in his address to the URJ more than a decade ago, talked about our frantic race toward a finish line that never comes, and we retire at night to our beds, mentally and physically exhausted. It has not gotten any better.
But what happens if we start by asking for help? Difficult words on our part—we expect to be experts, to have all the answers at our fingertips, to be self-sufficient. More than that, to be perfect, immune to critique and feedback. But we are not. What happens when we begin our days acknowledging our vulnerability and fallibility, our imperfections. Not beating ourselves up, not claiming to be worse than we are, or better than we are, but to simply acknowledge I cannot do it alone. I do not have all the answers. I am vulnerable in so many ways. And if I am vulnerable, so are others. How, then, am I being of service to them? How am I reducing pain? How am I helping? If I am imperfect, then so are others: how am I giving loving correction—without sharpness, without hostility, but with a hope that they might be better? How am I forgiving people their imperfections, their pain, their fallibility?
What happens when we say, help me? We acknowledge that we are servants of a higher power. That is not an idea many of us are comfortable with, exactly. After all, we have free will! We can do what we want! We make choices! We are our own selves! Of course, but so often, in our rush to affirm our independence, we find ourselves wracked with doubt, placing too much authority on ourselves. Asserting our free will, we cannot understand why we are unable to bend others to out understanding of the world, why we cannot control for outcomes. But what happens when we affirm our covenant with the Divine, the wisdom of our people? What happens when we acknowledge that we are part of something greater—a community that loves us, a past that nourishes us, a future that we cannot yet see but to which we are beholden? What happens when we are able to, as the Psalmist wrote, serve God with JOY: IVDU ET ADONAI BSIMCHA? To be patient with ourselves, to forgive ourselves for not single-handedly fixing everything we see. To wake up and say: I know I have responsibilities in this world—to myself, my family and friends, my community and beyond. I know my responsibilities sometimes seem overwhelming and sometimes contradictory, as each aspect of my life pulls me in a different direction. And I know I only have so much time, and energy, and capability, and sometimes the right choice will evade me, or will evade the people I interact with. I cannot control others’ choices; I can only do my part. Let it be enough. Let me be enough. Help me, help me, help me.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. What would it mean to say those words at the end of the day. Certainly, as we’ve just reflected, not everything in our days will go well. Indeed, there will be plenty of challenges each day; our pandemic has proven that. In fact, our first instinct might be to curse the day at the very end, reflecting on all that went wrong, every mistake we made, every injury thrown our way, no matter how petty or small. And certainly, our daily news reports remind us of all the myriad ways our world is spinning off into the void. And let us be clear, those anxieties are true, about our discourse, our climate, our friends who are most vulnerable to bigotry and hatred. And yet, what good does that do to us? How can we be of service to others and ourselves, to God and this world, if we spend our time cursing away, unable to rest our bodies or our minds? We must pause to remember the good we do and that others do. Not to paper over the myriad problems we face. Not to pretend all is well. As the prophet Jeremiah warned us, beware those who go about saying ‘all is well’ when nothing is well! No, we remind ourselves so that we have the strength to do what needs doing. That is the simcha, the joy that comes from ivdu et adonai b’simcha, serve Adonai with joy. Rejoice in the acts of service we were able to accomplish for other people. Rejoice in the acts of service people do for others—and us. Lay our heads down in gratitude for what did go right, for those who did right, knowing that our gratitude fills our hearts with generosity toward others in action and spirit, and allowing us to truly be in service to others.
Help me, help me, help me. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Simple words of modesty and gratitude to begin and end each day, words that remind us of our power in the world and the limits of that power, words that hold us accountable, but also forgive us for our limitations. Many of us in this room are not the praying type; at least, that’s not the language that many of us use to describe ourselves. Even so, as our new year begins, as we reflect on who we are and how we can do differently, as we wonder what actions we could take to improve our own lives and the lives of others, consider what it would mean to begin each day and ending each day with those two prayers: Help me, Thank you. And through those words, may we, in fact, live up to our expectations of ourselves, helping others, and, in gratitude for what we have and who we are, be renewed in generosity