So three Hasidim were bragging about their Rebbe. The first one said “It was Shabbat and the day was brutally hot and we were all melting from the heat and we said to the Rebbe, “Rebbe, it is too hot; you must do something.” So the Rebbe prayed and in front of us it was hot, behind us it was hot, on each side of us it was hot, but where the Rebbe stood, we had shade.
The second Hasid was not impressed, “We were walking on Shabbat and it started to rain and we said, ‘Rebbe, we are all going to get soaked, do something.’” So the Rebbe prayed and in front of us it was raining, behind us it was raining, on each side of us it was raining but where we walked, there was no rain.
The third Hasid was not impressed with either of the others. He said, “It was Shabbat and as we walked, we found a satchel of money, thousands of dollars, but it was Shabbat and we could not touch it. We said to the Rebbe, “Rebbe, there is so much money here, we could use it to feed our hungry students and buy new books for the yeshiva; Rebbe do something.” So the Rebbe prayed and in front of us it was Shabbat, behind us it was Shabbat, on either side of us it was Shabbat, but where we stood it was Monday.
What makes this funny is the way that prayer is used to make life easier. We pray and if we are pious enough and if we have enough faith, we will always get what we pray for. But we know, and we know full well, that we don’t always get what we pray for. From the time we are children, we realize that the universe and God are not at our beck and call. As one of my professors used to say, “God is not Santa Claus – giving us all the goodies that we ask for.” In the film, “Bruce Almighty”, Jim Carey gets a chance to be God for a while. He decides that everyone can win the Lottery, which means the prize is divided between so many people that everyone only wins a few cents. And nobody is happy.
But if that is not the purpose of prayer, then why do we pray? If we look at the siddur, it seems like we are often asking God for something and while we are asking and asking and asking every week, we never seem to get what we are asking for. Some people say that God does answer our prayers, but God also can tell us “No, you can’t have what you are asking for”. But that only makes our concerns worse; is God so capricious that God would deny us what we desire? How does God decide who gets answered and who does not?
So let us look to see what prayer can do for us. Most of the words we pray are prayers of gratitude. Every blessing we pronounce is a way of thanking God for the many different things we have in this world. We thank God for food, for wine, for bread, for peace, for friends, for rest, for our work, for wise people, for good leaders, for rain in its season, for courts of justice, for seasons of the year, for good health, and sometimes it seems like there is no end to our prayers for gratitude. Indeed, the Rabbis as far back as the Talmud understood that every person has 100 reasons to say blessings every day. Each day God does at least 100 things for us that we can be thankful for.
Sometimes we pray out of great need. They always say that there are no atheists in the foxholes during a war. When we are scared, when we are distressed, when we don’t know what to do: the Psalmist tells us, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will come my help? My help comes from God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.” This is perhaps a form of petition but it is not looking for a specific outcome; just to get us out of trouble…. Quick!” but here the result we are asking for is another reason to be grateful to God for what we get out of life.
In our Parsha today, after years of praying for a child, Abraham and Sarah are finally given the child they have yearned for. But it is not the idyllic life they dreamed about. Isaac’s half brother plays with him in a way that frightens Sarah and so Hagar and Ishmael have to be sent away. And you have to ask, would Abraham and Sarah have asked for a son if they knew in advance that God would ask them to sacrifice Isaac on the altar?
These kinds of prayer are prayers for guidance. Prayers that we will know what to do when we have to make a difficult decision. We feel like we don’t have a clue what is going to happen to us and we don’t know what we are supposed to do to face the uncertain future. We pause to pray so that we will have the time to consider what our options are and to choose the best option that is available.
What makes prayer hard is less the words we pray but where we are addressing our prayers. Before we can talk to God, we need to know who is this God we are addressing. Many of us don’t even consider this question. Prayer seems so strange because we don’t know to whom our prayers are directed. We gave up, as part of our growing up, the childhood vision of a man with a long white beard up in heaven. But what have we replaced this vision of God with? Is God somewhere out there? Is God somewhere in here? Does God have a place where God can be found or is God everyplace? Is God the most powerful thing in the universe or, as we see in our Parsha, does God have to obey the rules of Justice? Can God do anything or are there things that God can’t do?
According to the Talmud, you can’t see smoke from a fire and pray that your house is not burning; that prayer is too late. You can’t hear wailing in the city and pray that nobody from your family has died; that prayer is too late. Moses asks to see God, but God says that humans can only see God’s back. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that we can’t predict where we will see God but we will know when God has passed by.
Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, 60 years ago, would teach that “When I pray I talk to God, and when I study, God talks to me.” Prayer is a way we open our mind to the answers about life and its meaning. So often we are so caught up in our lives that we never pause to ask the important questions and ponder their answers. Once we know what we are really asking for, not more stuff, but when we are asking for understanding, patience or wisdom, our prayers prepare our minds to find the answers as we confront the world. The answers we seek are often right in front of us but we are too busy or too distracted to see what is before us.
There is a prayer that was composed, I am told, during the American Civil War that goes:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.
Maybe we need to have our eyes opened and our minds opened to see the beauty of life and the mystery of life more clearly. These siddurim that we have in our hands are composed of poetry, Psalms and prayers that are designed to open all the possibilities of life before us. We hold in our hands the record of God here on earth and more often than not, we look into this book and we don’t see anything important at all. It is all right in front of us, and we can see only our needs and our simple desires. God wants us to be so much more but we will have to see our prayers with new eyes and an open heart.
I am hoping, over the next few weeks, to spend some more time talking about how prayers works and how we can connect to the divinity that can be found in our liturgy. This morning we conducted a meditation service so that through Jewish chants and silent reflection we can become more aware of who we are and where we are going. Next week we will have a group for women to delve deeper into the meanings of the prayers collected in our siddur bringing together unique voices and perspectives. The following week after that is a Minyan where it is possible to ask questions about why we do what we do and why we say what we say in prayer.
I hope to be able to deepen our prayers and help all of us consider what our lives are about and what we can learn from our experience and from our encounter with living. I am hoping that rather than avoiding prayer, we will find something to love in the Siddur and that prayer will become a vital part of our lives.
May God be near us in our hours of need and may we open our hearts and always find God nearby as we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Randall Konigsburg.