An Atheist Tefilah

An Atheist Tefilah

I do not generally pray. I recite the Shabbat prayers each Friday, on holidays, Yarzheits. I say the Shehecheyanu on special occasions, I respond to news of poor health with a mi shebeirach, to deaths with a mourner’s kaddish. But when it really comes down to it, I do not pray.

To me the liturgy is not so much an appeal to God, it’s a way to connect with my own feelings, my own understandings about the importance of my loved ones, and the comforts of routine and tradition to help cope with the complex situations life throws my way.

The meaning of the prayers is nearly irrelevant. It’s the practice of them that matters to me. The fact of the thousands of years behind those words, those gestures. That tradition, all on its own, is a comfort for me. And there is no comfort for me in the idea of a personal appeal, a prayer specifically from me to a higher power.

The idea of asking some kind of god to intercede in the universe on my behalf seems to me the height of hubris. There are millions of people, billions of people, probably, praying for conflicting things every day. What would make me think that my problems are worth the attention of a being that powerful? What meaning could I possibly find in a universe in which the petty wishes of any random person could sway what is and must be for the rest of the universe? How selfish would it be to believe my own desires, my own life, means so much to anything in the face of eternity? How could I possibly see myself as more deserving of my desires than any other person, any other thing? When I recite the Shema, when I sing the Amida, I ask for nothing. I take comfort, and it is all I expect.

But when it comes to my husband’s brain cancer, I pray.

I don’t pray for a cure for cancer. I trust the doctors and researchers who are working tirelessly for that. I have known too many neuro-oncologists, neurosurgeons, and neurologists, seen too many high-profile celebrities succumb to glioblastoma, to believe for a minute that they will never find a way to combat this disease.

I do not pray for a miraculous recovery. I have absolute faith in my husband’s flexibility, strength, motivation, and dedication to believe he is not and will not achieve everything that is within the realm of the possible.

I don’t pray for miracles. I don’t believe in miracles. I believe that every moment I have with my husband, with my children, with my life is its own miracle, but that everything that happens does so without the intervention of the divine, and that in no way diminishes it.

What I pray for is my husband’s happiness.

There are so many things that have kept him from being as happy as he should be. So many big things, so many small. Life, however wonderful, is also unrelenting in its abuses. I am not always good at keeping the vow I made when we were wed, to do everything in my power to help him be happy. But when I pray for myself, in my own way, ad-libbing, this is what I pray for.

For his happiness, I would do anything. I can say that without hesitation because I cannot imagine anything that could be asked of me to secure his happiness that I would not do. He’s a good man, and in many ways very simple. He loves family and friends and good food. He loves laughter and affection and to relax. He loves to feel useful. He loves to feel needed.

And these last, these critical things, are what I cannot do for him. I can throw him a party every week, can cook feasts upon feasts, surround him in comforts, smother him in my kisses, but I cannot make him feel anything he does not feel. And right now, I know he does not feel useful or needed.

The transition from a nearly completely able-bodied person, even one with over a decade struggling with brain cancer and his limp and his surgeries, to the survivor of a stroke, of surgical complications, to somebody with a significant physical limitation that simply didn’t exist two months ago, has been a difficult one.

I can’t pretend to understand it, let alone my role. I don’t know what I can do to show him how useful and needed he is, without taking out the trash, without lugging storage bins up and down the basement stairs, without driving the kids to their appointments or going to the grocery store or picking up medicine at the pharmacy. All I can do is love him, hold space for him, encourage him to find the other roles in our family, shuffle around our chores, remind him how amazing he is.

But I cannot make him happy. I cannot force any amount of acceptance or peace upon him. I cannot make him feel a damn thing.

And so, sitting in shul on Yom Kippur, or silently meditating on the sabbath, in the quiet moments when the potential for personal prayer is open to me, this is what I pray for.

I want to say I don’t give a shit how long he has, but we all know that’s a lie. I care deeply, even if I have no way to understand what it is I want for him in terms of years, quality versus quantity, meaning versus plenty. What I care about most is this, that my husband spends every day of his life as happy as he can be. We should all be so lucky, but for most of us, this priority isn’t immediate. There is so little urgency in our desire for happiness. We are always delaying, we are always bargaining with ourselves, our lives, our circumstances as if there were a calculus for joy.

Maybe there is. And so I pray to understand what I can do to help him be happy. Not to make him happy, to help him be.

I know of no other prayer I would dare make on own behalf other than this, and in all the words of prayer I know for such thing, the only one that applies is the same prayer I would say upon his death. Baruch dayan ha’emet, blessed is the judge, who or whatever that may be. The words of the prayer can be interpreted to mean, “Everything happens for a reason,” but that isn’t how I see it. I understand those words to mean, “You have been judged, and you have been judged to be loved, and worthy, and important, and deserving of bliss.”

To the enormity of the universe, to the continuum of my ancestors reciting the same prayers for millennia in their shtetls and ghettos and prisons and tenements and tents, spanning into the decendents of my ancestors who will repeat these words when I and my trivial wishes are dust, to the abyss of the listening unknown when I am weak and alone in my fear, I pray, baruch dayan ha’emet; please let him be happy.



Read about our life with glioblastoma here: What Nobody Warns You About When Your Husband’s Recurrent Glioblastoma Returns

Read my most recent post here: Stop Telling Me to Put On My Own Oxygen Mask First

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