AS we go to press, people around the world are praying for the safety and release of the three boys apparently kidnapped in Israel on June 12.
What do we expect to happen from these prayers?
If the boys are released, does that mean that we manipulated G-d?
If the boys are not released, does that mean that G-d does not listen to our prayers?
What is prayer, exactly?
In this column, I concentrate on petitionary prayer, leaving for another time prayers that constitute praise of G-d and gratitude to G-d.
KORACH is the most vexatious rebel in the Torah, threatening Moses’ authority and leadership, and, by extension, the destiny of the entire Jewish people.
Prayer is part of the the mix in Moses’ complex strategy for dealing with Korach. G-d tells Moses and Aaron: “Separate yourselves from amid this assembly, and I shall destroy them in an instant!” (16:21). Scripture then records:
“They [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces and said, ‘O G-d, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and You take it out on the entire group?’” (16:22).
The point of Moses’ and Aaron’s prayer is this: Blame the guilty party, not the entire group; and You, G-d, can do this because you know everyone’s spirit — You know who, in his innermost heart, is rebellious and who is not (Rashi 16:22).
G-d seems to yield to the prayer of Moses and Aaron because G-d then directs Moses to act in a way that divides and punishes the guilty from the innocent (16:23-35).
Does this mean that Moses and Aaron, through their prayer, manipulated G-d?
THE great temptation in Jewish society from its founding until the destruction of the First Temple in antiquity was idolatry.
This seems incomprehensible to us today. A human being fashions an idol — then worships it? It just seems nonsensical. Yet, it is said that had we lived during that period of Biblical history, the almost irresistible allure of idolatry would have been viscerally clear.
Maybe it’s this: The gods that human beings fashioned ultimately fulfilled the will of the fashioner. In our post-idolatrous, monotheistic, Jewish society, it might be philosophically difficult to achieve a precise definition of the omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence of G-d, but look at a god — an idol — without these attributes. It may be manipulated. Ultimately, I, the worshiper can get what I want out of this idol god. I can manipulate it if I am clever enough.
Which means that monotheism — the replacement of idol gods with the one and only G-d — tells me: I cannot manipulate G-d. It is G-d’s will, not mine, that prevails. I may or may not understand G-d’s will, but I do understand that it is His will that is determinative, not that of an idol, and not that of a personal will of mine that I attribute to an idol.
Within this monotheistic conception, is there any room for prayer?
PRAYER is a philosophical quandary that, in my judgment, has no completely satisfactory resolution. A. J. Heschel once famously wrote: Aristotle’s G-d is the “unmoved Mover,” while the G-d of Israel is the “most moved Mover.” It’s a beautiful phrase, but I don’t know exactly what it means and still less do I think it resolves the philosophical quandary of an omnipotent G-d responding to human prayer.
That said, the fact remains that in Judaism’s monotheistic understanding of G-d, prayer is real, is commanded and is valued. In Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith, right after the third principle — that G-d is not physical and is not affected by physical phenomena — Maimonides states in the fifth principle: “To Him alone is it proper to pray, and it is not proper to pray to any other.”
There’s the paradox: G-d is not affected by anything physical, yet it is proper to pray to G-d.
That is why, besides the Jewish daily prayers, there is the traveler’s prayer, the prayer for livelihood, the prayer upon entering and existing the Torah study hall, and one’s private prayers, not to mention the book of Psalms, with their passionate and poetic addresses to the Alm-ghty for His understanding and favor.
Well, then, is there any basic difference between the idolater's approach to prayer and the monotheist’s?
The difference is radical. The idolater, if clever enough, convinces himself that he can manipulate his god. The monotheist knows otherwise. The premise of prayer in absolute monotheism (i.e., Judaism) is that my request guarantees no particular response on the part of G-d.
I, as a praying person (a pray-er, so to speak), can make requests of G-d. I can ask. I cannot expect a certain answer.
Receive, not necessarily.
Enter kavvanah, “intention.” One may pray with great feeling, concentration, sincerity, depth. That is the ideal way to pray. This is all to the good. However, there is an occupational hazard in praying with kavvanah: an assumption that if I pray with the proper kavvanah, my prayer will be answered; and if it is not answered, this means that I did not pray with the proper kavvanah.
This is false.
No matter how purely one prays, there is no guaranteed answer. Prayer does not manipulate G-d.
G-d is beyond us, beyond our expectations of Him and even our purity of intent. That is the distinction between idol worship and worship of the one and only G-d.
In idol worship, ultimately one does not submit to the idol. In the worship of the one and only G-d, one submits to G-d. This submission does not preclude prayer; but it does preclude certainty about a positive answer from G-d, no matter how pure my kavvanah, my sincerity, my need, my emotion, my daily commitment to prayer might be.
Some 20 years ago, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped Nachshon Wachsman, his parents asked that all of Israel light Friday night candles and pray for Nachshon’s safe release.
At the Western Wall alone, some 100,000 people gathered to pray for Nachshon. The intensity of the prayer, the purity of the prayer, the sheer sound of the prayer, the righteousness of the request, the community solidarity, led some of the people at the Wall to believe that this deep kavvanah guaranteed Nachshon's safe release.
Actually, he was killed right around the time of those prayers.
The next day, Nachshon's father was asked what had happened to all those prayers. The question presumed the right to anticipate a positive response to prayer offered with supreme kavvanah.
Nachshon’s father responded: Our prayers were answered. The answer was no.
Nachshon’s father understood the nature of prayer in Judaism.
IN the case of Moses and Aaron in this week’s Torah portion, their prayer was answered. G-d did not destroy the blameless along with the blameworthy. Only Korach and his 250 cohorts were destroyed. Does that mean that Moses’ and Aaron’s prayers were on a different level from ours? In philosophic principle, no. After all, Moses’ prayer to enter the land of Israel was denied.
Moses, to be sure, was on a completely different level from any other human being before or since, but he was still a human being. He did not, could not, manipulate G-d with his prayers. Sometimes G-d says no, even to Moses.
Bottom line: Some of our prayers are answered; some are not. We know how beautiful the feeling is when a prayer is answered, but we do not know why one prayer is answered and why another prayer is not.
We should also know this — the striking statement I heard from Rabbi Soloveitchik one Saturday night in Boston more than 40 years ago: “Thank G-d for the prayers that were not answered!” Our perspective may be limited; only much later do we realize that our earlier hopes were unsuitable for us.
We also know that Maimonides’ fifth principle — to G-d alone it is proper to pray — remains valid if our prayers are not answered. True faith in the power of prayer is to continue to pray, unshaken, after a prayer of ours is denied. This acknowledges the dual assumptions of prayer: Our submission to the omnipotence of G-d, and our passion for petitioning G-d.
Both constitute a relationship with G-d.
Related coverage & commentary elsewhere on IJN.com:
- Rocky Mountain Jew, Links to...#BringBackOurBoys
- News coverage, Global community condemns kidnapping crime
- IJN editorial, First fruits of PA-Hamas unity
- View from Central Park, The three kidnapped teens
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