Wednesday, 17 December 2008

5. Worshipping God

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.


Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

"Implicit in almost any prayer is the prayer for someone else’s prayer to go unanswered."

I have to disagree! First of all, this is only true of petitionary prayers. If we pray for a reason other than to request things (to thank God, to praise God), then our prayers are not a Zero Sum game.

Similarly, prayers which involve our own growth can be had without someone else suffering. If I pray for wisdom and understanding, or strength, or discipline - this is also not Zero Sum.

In fact, I'd argue that the very idea that God would grant one petitionary prayer over another - would answer Raptor fans over Philadelphia fans - shows just how problematic this kind of prayer is. Maybe we're just better off praying in ways which can't hurt someone else.

Anonymous said...

But why wouldn't God grant one petitionary prayer over another? It doesn't have to be basketball related: if I pray that person A get the heart transplant he needs, I may not be directly praying for the violent death of person B, but as there's really no other way for A to get the heart otherwise...

One could also read the idea of "All of your prayers, if answered, will have consequences; those consequences may mean unanswered prayers for others" as an encouragement to temper one's requests and think twice before petitioning.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Yet it is prayer as a petition that brings God into one's life in a most serious manner. This is my way of understanding why Rambam amongst others maintain that the essence of prayer is the bekasha, the request. On the surface, this may sound selfish or self-serving; "we approach God to get what we want." The fact is that it is when we approach God with strong desire, believing that praying to Him will affect the outcome that is when we take His Existence most seriously. We are saying that He can make a difference.

The fact, though, that prayer from different individuals may be contradictory is not a bar to this conclusion or the recognition that He does and can make a difference. As Rav Solovetchik pointed out, the bracha is 'Shome'ah Tefilla" not "Oneh Tefilla." In the end, all we can pray for is that God hears our request and considers it but still what God does must be left to His Will. The idea that a prayer will necessarily result in a specific conclusion, reduces God to to a link in a realm of cause and effect - if you do this, God will do that. God is independent to this type of cause and effect. (I will not get into the cause and effect of din which God has agreed to be bound by and is the reason that one can demand the reward for doing a mitzvah as that is part of the agreement.)

So people pray, even contradictory prayers. God still makes a decsions and this decision may reflect many considerations beyond the prayers and the ones praying. Prayer still has a value in tha mix -- and most importantly it brings God into our real lives.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Chai Hecht said...

Thank you for your comments.

Rabbi Rosenberg: If the prayer for wisdom (or understanding, strength, discipline, etc.) is not 'zero sum' then the individual should not differentiate between praying for personal wisdom or universal wisdom. But we know that some people pray for personal wisdom and some people pray for everyone to be wise--these are different prayers, with different costs.

There is also a more generic cost involved in any prayer: it is not a prayer for something else. In the time used to praise God, the individual could have been praying for world peace.

That's why I'm not sure if there are any prayers that don't, in some way, hurt someone else.

Mich: I agree that thought before prayer is essential, but I don't know if we're supposed to temper our requests. God knows what we want, anyway. Maybe the point is that by focusing on the potential result of our prayers we may grow as individuals and the very things that we desire will be different.