A friend asked me the other day, “Why are we praying for the release of the hostages if we believe God could just intervene and bring them out? If God wanted to do that, wouldn’t He have done it already?”
I tried to pin him down as to whether he believed in such a God and was confused why God was behaving in this way, or whether he assumed I believed in such a God and was mocking my faith in the face of their ongoing captivity. And then dinner came, and the question went unanswered.
He picked a curious day to ask, though. Just a few hours earlier, a non-Jewish patient asked me how they could get a Jewish prayer. They had walked past the Chabad tefillin table in the heart of Squirrel Hill and couldn’t figure out how they could tap into whatever line to the Divine that might give them access to. It seemed like just what they needed, and completely inaccessible, at the same time.
“Would you let me pray for you?” I asked.
I say misheberach, the prayer for healing, for my non-Jewish patients alongside my Jewish ones, and alongside friends and relatives I don’t treat, all the time, and I insert names in the b’racha for healing (“who heals the sick of God’s people Israel”) whenever I say the amidah. Here this person was asking, and I had the tools to do what they wanted. There is always room for one more name.
So, the question in the dinner line stopped me in my tracks a little. What had I promised to do for this person? Was I offering to intervene for her with a Divine Being who planned to politely ignore my words? Was I making a magnanimous gesture that was worth about as much as a birthday party magic show?
A few months ago, I attended a scholarly lecture by two researchers from Indiana University on the power of intercessory prayer, the kind of prayer I think my patient was looking for. Drs. Candy Gunther Brown and Joshua Brown weren’t looking to preach. They were presenting hard data on whether prayer influences health and healing, perhaps even to the level of a “miracle” – and trying to empirically define what a miracle was, with a degree of scientific rigor.
I missed the tail end of the talk and had to email afterward, because I didn’t hear any mention of Jewish prayer. Were we, once again, not appearing in this film? Or is there something different about what prayer means to Jews than what it does to Christians?
I already knew the answer: yes, there are Jews who, like Christians, pray for miracles. But Jewish prayer does mean something different. My day school teachers, and much more recently, my teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman, taught that there are three types of prayer – God is great, please can I have, thank you for what I already have. The word for “to pray,” however, l’hitpalel, is a reflexive verb related to criminal prosecution. Prayer, in Judaism, is about taking yourself to task, exposing your behavior, your thoughts, your aspirations to criticism and holding yourself accountable.
That frame has an important consequence – namely, that prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind. It’s about changing ourselves. Jewish prayer is largely words of Tanakh and later Jewish texts – we pray by confronting our tradition and asking ourselves if we’re upholding it. In a post-Holocaust, seemingly absurd world, prayer can endure because it does not depend on belief in a Divine security blanket, but rather in a Divine Parent who looks at us flailing around in the world and says, “This is quite a mess you’re in. I’ll be very interested to see how you get out of it.”
We all end up in messes. The Israeli singer Hanan Ben-Ari has a hit song, “Dream Like Joseph,” in which he sings, “Gam ani holem k’mo Yosef, v’gam oti zarku la’bor.” “I, too, dream like Joseph; they also threw me in a pit.” And when Joseph ends up in a pit, he prays. Not once in this week’s parsha, but twice. Once in a literal pit, thrown in by his brothers who have had enough of his braggadocio, and once when falsely accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife. And unlike the iconic scene in The West Wing, no friend jumps in with him to show him the way out. Even Pharaoh’s two servants who are thrown in with him are interested only in what will happen to them; it takes more than two years for the butler to remember Joseph after his eventual release. What does Joseph pray for in the meantime?
My long-time mentor, Rabbi Larry Heimer, told me a story the first day we met about the first time he observed an autopsy. He was a new chaplain and the family of a just-deceased Jewish patient had reluctantly agreed to an autopsy of their loved one. He had died under circumstances that suggested his illness might be hereditary, and the family’s health might depend on learning more. Their condition was that a rabbi be present for this procedure, to ensure that the bare minimum needed to answer the questions was done, and not one cut more.
Not knowing quite what to do while observing an autopsy, Rabbi Heimer began reciting Tehillim, Psalms, as one traditionally does when standing shmirah, watch, over a dead body not yet buried. To his surprise, the pathologist, a religious Christian, began responding Amen at the appropriate times, even while continuing his dissection. As the Rabbi described the scene for me, I could almost experience firsthand the reverence that doctor must have felt for the met he was dissecting, and the extra care he must have taken in the act as a result. God didn’t need those Tehillim; the doctor needed them to create the proper kavvanah, spiritual intent, to treat this autopsy with a care not required in others he had performed.
Later events suggest that Joseph didn’t pray for God to rescue him; Joseph’s faith was such that he believed that rescue would happen when the time came. I look at the rest of the narrative and think Joseph must have prayed for perspective.
Joseph will eventually meet with the brothers who threw him in the pit in the first place. How will he react to them – and how will he behave himself. Perhaps his prayers in the pit and the prison asked God for the humility to no longer lord it over his brothers – even though, by that time, he will have every right to do so under Egyptian law, and his obnoxious dream will have become reality. Perhaps he asked for the power to forgive, and not to do to Judah exactly what Judah had done to him.
We’ll never know for sure what Joseph did at the bottom of that pit, or in that prison cell, alone with his thoughts. But we know what his father did. Facing his fears, the night before his encounter with Esau, he prayed to God, and began with that same key element of prayer, humility. “Katonti mi’kol ha-hasidim,” Jacob opened, “All of this kindness, and I am so small.”[i] It was a prayer not of validation, of an entitled person giving thanks for a reward well-deserved, but of surprise and amazement that God would do such things for one like him.
It is important to remember the context of Jacob’s prayer. Just before he begins to pray, we learn, “Va’yira Ya’akov m’od vayitzer lo” – “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.”[ii] In Bereshit Rabbah we learn, “Rabbi Yehuda ben Rabbi Ilai said: The fright and the distress are not the same. Rather, he was frightened lest he kill, and distressed lest he be killed. He said: ‘If he overcomes me, he will kill me, and if I overcome him, I will kill him.’ That is: He was frightened lest he kill, and distressed lest he be killed.”[iii]
Jacob isn’t praying for reward or riches, but for a way through what he expects to be a great trial of both his strength and his conscience the next day – not unlike his grandfather Abraham on Mount Moriah (for my thoughts on that, see “Finding the Sheep”). What kind of a person will he be when that trial comes? Apparently, he will be Yisrael, the one who strives with beings Divine and human and prevails.
So, to answer my friend, I guess prayer wouldn’t be necessary if I believed in the kind of God that went in and fixed everything for us. But I don’t, because I don’t believe in the kind of human who is so helpless as to need a God like that. I’m not that kind of parent; I don’t want that kind of Diety, either. I believe in the God who says, “I’ll be interested to see how you get out of this mess,” because God knows I’ve been handed the wisdom to figure it out. I’m only praying for God to open my eyes and heart enough to see it and use it.
It’s hard to know when a prayer like that has been answered, whether it is my prayers for the hostages, some of whom are now home even as others remain in the pit and the prison with the faith of Joseph, or my prayers for my patients, some of whom recover and some of whom decline. It’s much the same with these columns – I sometimes write and have no idea whether anyone has read what I’ve written. Is the world any different for the thoughts that I’ve shared, any more or less than for my prayers?
I thought “Finding the Sheep” was an unanswered prayer, a column feverishly written on a train from New York to Trenton on the day my son’s best friend, whom I’ve known since infancy and whose mother is like a sister to me, deployed to Gaza. I might as well have hollered it down a well. Then, a week ago, I received an email in Portuguese thanking me for those same words. It was as if I had written the column as a message in a bottle and it washed up on the beach in Brazil. Thanks to Marcelo, I know someone is listening.
I think I’ll keep praying.
[i] Bereshit 32:11
[ii] Bereshit 32:8
[iii] Bereshit Rabbah 76:2