May 20, 2001. Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors. With two seconds left, game on the line, Raptors guard Vince Carter took a shot. It was, considering the circumstances, a pretty good shot. For that fraction of a second while the ball was at its apex, all of Toronto held its breath. Happened to miss. Happened to be just a little too strong. Bounced off the side of the rim.
Prayers go unanswered.
Then the cheers came. Fans rushed the court. Confetti fell from the ceiling. There was a brief flash of a moment when I thought, “Wait—did it go in?” I had forgotten the game was in Philly. My prayers weren’t answered. Theirs were.
You really get a sense of what it means to worship when you watch your home team playing an away game. Every shot your team hits, silence. Every shot your team misses, cheers. Every mistake your team makes is an act of God done for the sake of the home team. Your team never loses on the road; the home team wins.
Even more so, go to a sporting event that you care nothing about. Watch the crowds of people stake everything on something they have absolutely no control over. Watch people jump out of their seats, yell at the referees, throw their peanuts. Watch them laugh and clap and whistle. Watch them cry. Watch them pray.
Two people stand side-by-side in shul on Friday night. One is a travelling salesman. The other is a farmer. The salesman has not been able to feed his family. He is setting out on his longest journey of the year, starting Sunday. He prays to God that the weather will be good. The farmer has not been able to feed his family, either. There has been a terrible drought and his fields have not produced any fruit. He prays to God for rain.
We assume, perhaps, that there’s something capitalistic about this. You pray your prayers, I’ll pray my prayers and we’ll let the Invisible Hand of God settle it. But there’s a problem:
When the Kohen Gadol emerged from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he would recite a short prayer. Included in the prayer was the following supplication: “May the prayers of travelers not enter before You.” Travelers would ask God to withhold the rain. This would be bad for almost everybody else because rain was necessary if there was to be food. The Kohen Gadol, therefore, prayed that the travelers’ prayers not be answered. (See TB Yoma 53b.)
Why not just leave it up to God? Farmers pray for rain, salesmen pray for sunshine: we all pray as we see fit and God does the tally. Why does the Kohen Gadol pray that certain prayers go unanswered?
Maybe because it’s true. If I pray that Carter hits that shot, I’m praying that the Philadelphia 76ers lose, that a stadium’s worth of people are disappointed, that all over Pennsylvania, basketball fans sit still, in shock, watching replay after replay, saying, “If only…if only…”
If I pray for sun, I’m praying that it doesn’t rain; if I pray for rain, I’m praying that it isn’t sunny. There is no form of worship that can escape this. All of your prayers, if answered, will have consequences; those consequences may mean unanswered prayers for others. In the very moment of prayer, the Kohen Gadol notes, to the best of his knowledge, who will suffer if this prayer is answered.
The gemara (TB Taanit 24b) tells of one time when the Kohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur prayer was not answered and God heard the prayer of a traveler. The traveler was Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. When it started to rain, he prayed to God, “Master of the Universe, the whole world is at ease but Chanina is in distress.” The rain stopped. When he arrived home, he prayed to God, “Master of the Universe, the whole world is in distress but Chanina is at ease.” And the rain started again.
Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was aware that his prayers would mean suffering for the majority of the population. He did not deceive himself into thinking that he was alone in the world. Still, he prayed for a temporary pause in the rain as he made his way home. This is honest prayer, sincere worship, matching the kind expressed by the Kohen Gadol. Perhaps it is, at least partially, because the prayer matched the Kohen Gadol’s in form, because Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was cognizant of his prayer’s negative effect on others, that it was able to override the Kohen Gadol’s prayer. Was it wrong for Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa to pray for something that would result in loss for many people? Obviously not—his prayers were answered and he is considered a great man. But would it have been wrong of him not to recognize their loss?
Implicit in almost any prayer is the prayer for someone else’s prayer to go unanswered. There’s no escaping this, yet visualizing it as you pray can be troubling, not to mention overwhelming at times. If not for the obligation to worship God, I would leave it up to my subconscious to communicate to God my desires and my needs. That way I would not have to think about who will go hungry as I eat, who will be poor if I am rich, who will mourn when I rejoice. And I would not have to think about all those fans in Philadelphia, cheering as the ball bounced to the floor.