Sermon given January 18, 2002, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Jews are often confused about God. We all believe in one God, but our agreement may end right there. Some have faith in a literal interpretation of the Torah, and affirm that God created the world in six days, exactly as written in Genesis. Others worship a God who pervades the entire Universe, but is neither separate nor above it. Some follow the dictates of a commanding Deity, while others find God inside themselves and every human being. Many of us pray, with the expectation that God hears our prayers and may answer them. Many others of us pray with no thought whatsoever that God will actually respond, but with the hope that our petitions will stir up the Divine presence within us. Some would claim that prayer is altogether futile.
My own spiritual search was profoundly developed during my years of rabbinical studies, learning from my Talmud Professor, Dr. Michael Chernick. Last month, at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations Biennial Convention in Boston, over a Shabbat lunch, I took the opportunity to learn with Dr. Chernick once again. Tonight’s message is largely based on his teaching that day.
One of the most interesting selections in our prayer book is a meditation to introduce the Amidah. We read: “Prayer can not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” I do find these words inspiring, but I’m also troubled by them. Who are we to say that prayer absolutely can not bring the rain? Some of us do pray for rain, with faith that God may answer us in times of drought. Fully faithful and equally well-meaning Jews may disagree about God’s might to direct tangible and mundane activities, and still more of us are likely to be unsure, even bewildered by any attempt to limit or explain the power of the Lord.
Perhaps greater wisdom is found in the words of our liturgy, calling upon us to “pray as if everything depended upon God, but act as if everything depended upon ourselves.” This exhortation is in keeping with a wonderful story told of our sage, Rabbi Levi of Berdichev. Rabbi Levi taught that everything in God’s creation has good in it. A student challenged the Rabbi, asking him what could be good about atheism. Rabbi Levi responded: “The atheist can’t look at a poor person and say, ‘God will help you.’” The atheist knows that we must provide for our fellow human beings in time of need. We who believe in God, on the other hand, pray that God will bring an end to all forms of want and deprivation. We are tempted to let God feed the hungry or clothe the naked. And yet, we must act as if God has absolutely no power in this realm, giving freely of our own resources and time to alleviate poverty and inequality, illness and loneliness.
The lives of the faithful, then, are confused: If we are both righteous and pious, we ask God to repair the world, while we perform the very same mitzvot that we are asking God to do. We may ask: “Why am I working so hard, if God could perfect the world so much more easily?” Alternatively, we may wonder: “Why bother praying, if we are taking upon ourselves to do God’s work?”
These days, the latter question is more likely. In the modern world, we tend to think that we can accomplish most matters on our own. Therefore, we don’t consider that we need God’s help as much as we once did. More importantly, we have come to doubt God’s power in this world. We are acutely aware of the evils of our world. The Holocaust is the most stark example, but the events of September 11 are at the forefront of our minds. The untimely death of a loved one, our own personal suffering, the misfortunes of the people we love, all lead us to question God’s capacity to rule the world. We may assert that an omnipotent God, Who is also a good God, would not let such terrible things happen. While still clinging to faith in God’s existence, and affirming the goodness of the Lord, we may conclude that God is not sovereign in the universe.
Our wise and devout ancestors, the Rabbis of the Talmud, did not know Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden. And yet, they, too, knew evil and deprivation. They did not question the historical accuracy of the Bible, with its stories of a Pharaoh who murdered Jewish babies and enslaved our people for over 400 years. To them, the Book of Esther was gospel truth, telling of the wicked Haman, who wished to wipe out the Jewish people. Each year, on Tisha B’Av, they actively mourned the destruction of the first Temple.
And our ancient Rabbis tasted devastation quite personally. Many of them lived through the demolition of the second Temple by the Romans. Others survived the rebellion of Bar Kochba, who unsuccessfully attempted to reestablish Jewish sovereignty in Zion some 65 years after the Temple’s destruction. After this insurrection, our Rabbis were subjected to cruel persecution. In the days of the Emperor Hadrian, our sainted martyrs among them were put to death for no crime other than the study and teaching of Torah.
Our Rabbis were no strangers to the evils of the world. Like us, they might have asked: Would an omnipotent God not stop these atrocities? Like many here, they might have concluded that God lacks the power to control the world.
And yet, our ancient Rabbis retained their faith in God’s might. They did not doubt God’s existence or God’s capacity to control events. And they certainly did not question God’s goodness. Instead, our Rabbis imagined a God with human frailties. They contemplated a God who does not always live up to God’s own standards. They conceived of a God who prays.
Interestingly, the Rabbis of the Talmud do not ask the question that forms the title of tonight’s sermon, “Does God Pray?” That much, they apparently take for granted. Instead, they ask: “How do we know that God prays?” And they wonder, “What does God pray?” (Berachot 7a)
To answer the first question, the Rabbis point to the Book of Isaiah (56:7). The prophet offers a universal vision of foreigners, not just Jews, coming to worship at God’s holy mountain. God says: “I will let them rejoice in My house of prayer.” In Hebrew, though, that last phrase, “My house of prayer,” literally reads, “the house of My prayer.” In other words, the Temple may be viewed, not only as the place where God is worshiped, but also as God’s very own synagogue, where God goes to pray.
And what is God’s prayer? “Rabbi Zutra ben Tobi teaches in the name of Rav: [God prays:] ‘May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, . . . so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.’”
What a remarkable prayer! These words seem to suggest that God may lack full control over God’s own actions, even over God’s own emotions. God seems to recognize that God is occasionally too strict, too tough on humans, causing or allowing bad things to happen, instead of overriding the wicked with mercy and love. God may be omnipotent, except that God lacks full power over God! God sometimes doesn’t live up to God’s own desire to be a loving and merciful God.
Some of us will be troubled by a God Who must pray for Self-control. We fear that the world itself may be without direction. We wonder how we can trust in the Lord, if our heavenly Sovereign is unsure of just exactly how God should act.
Others, though, will be inspired and comforted by this image of God. After all, we are created in the Divine image. God becomes more real to us, more available to our individual spiritual search, if God is a little less perfect, a bit more vulnerable, even in need of inspiration.
Perhaps most importantly, we may offer a prayer similar to God’s. Too often, our own demand for justice is without mercy. We look to punish the criminal, more than for rehabilitation. We justify our family feuds, when we could work to restore relationship. We nurture our grudges, emphasizing the slights we have suffered, rather than searching for a better future. The faith that God struggles along with us, hoping to become just a little more merciful, may direct our prayer. We may ask God to help us to forgive those who have hurt us. We beseech the Lord to direct our own hearts to make peace where there is strife.
Ultimately, we may come to an understanding of the efficacy of our own prayer. In the Talmud, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest, tells a story of having entered the Holy of Holies, the most sacred enclosure of the ancient Temple, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. There, he sees God, enthroned on High, crowned in glory. God appeals to the High Priest: “‘Bless me, my son.’” Ishmael then blesses the Lord with the same words of God’s own prayer: “‘May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger, . . . so that Thou may deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice!’” Rabbi Ishmael further asserts that, after the blessing, God nodded to him, approving of the prayer!
This teaching is profound, for it suggests that the prayerful words of a human being may have a profound effect on God. Our prayers do matter to God. Our petitions may move the Lord to action. Indeed, our supplications may inspire God to pray, just as we pray. Perhaps God can bring water to parched fields, can find a way to mend a broken bridge, can work to rebuild a ruined city. At the very least, God may add Divine prayers to ours, with faith that our thirst will be slaked, our spirits will be healed, our nations may find peace.
Rabbi Levi of Berdichev is said to have been asked how an omnipotent God could permit bad things to happen to good people in this world. Rabbi Levi taught that the situation is analogous to our dropping a Bible on the floor. We never wish to let a Bible fall. Sometimes, though, we are careless. At other times, even when we are careful, an accident may occur. More rarely, in an unjustified fit of rage, we may through the Bible to the ground, temporarily disregarding its sanctity. So it is with God. Our Creator does not want us to be in pain. And yet, sometimes, God misses the mark. When we drop a Bible, we pick it up and kiss it, before returning it to its place. Rabbi Levi of Berdichev taught that, when we are stricken by pain and misfortune, God has dropped us, as it were. And yet, in our time of distress, God lovingly picks us up, and kisses us.
May we ever pray with faith. May we live with trust in the Lord, Who loves us, cares for us, and only wants goodness for us. Let us not see our misfortunes as evidence that God does not exist, or is callous to our needs. Instead, through each of our trials and tribulations, may we hear God’s prayer for us. And may God hear our prayers for God.