Todd Berman

How can we pray? Abraham’s answer

I’m dedicating this in memory of Samantha Woll z”l, who was murdered this past Shabbat, and in the name of all the murdered and captured Israelis hy”d.

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Over the weekend, I spoke to a friend in the US. He faced many serious difficulties over the past two years. Despite it all, he showed incredible resolve and positivity. He has been a model of bravery in adversity. His Holocaust survivor father witnessed his father murdered by Nazis, and recent events in Israel have brought theological challenges which lay below the surface. “I know you are an Orthodox rabbi, but I don’t understand. I wanted to throw my prayer book out the window. Where was God when my grandfather was burned alive and where was God when the terrorists slaughtered all these Israelis.”

Theodicy, the question of why bad things happen to good people, presents one of the oldest and most significant challenges to religious thought. As medieval thinkers would say, the problem is deeper than the deepest ocean and taller than the highest mountains. I cannot offer a new answer and struggle with the issue myself. Where was God when Hamas terrorists barbarically raped, murdered, and kidnapped innocent Israelis?

In his Sefat Emet, Rav Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter suggests that the voice of heaven calls out to all of humanity constantly. Most people don’t listen.  Abraham headed the call because he attuned himself to hear God’s voice. Abraham’s search for God enabled him to hear the divine. (See Sefat Emet Lecha Lecah 1872)

The rabbis spell out this search in a well-known midrash (Bereishit Rabba 38:13). The sages recount that Abraham looked around the world and saw a “bira doleket.” Scholars debate the meaning of these Hebrew words. “Bira” is often understood to mean a palace or large building. “doleket” can mean either lit up or burning. If it means the former, then the story goes that Abraham saw lights on in the palace. “Can it be, said Abraham, that the palace [with lights shining] has no owner? At this point, God peeks out at Abraham and declares, “I am the owner of this palace.”

Those like Maimonides read the story this way. Abraham was a budding philosopher. He saw a world of beautiful design. As the classic teleological argument goes, every watch must have a watchmaker. The “argument from design” led Abraham to realize that there must be a God who orders our world.

Yet “doleket” can, and most likely does, mean “burning.” Abraham, according to this reading, sees a building in flames. He recognizes a world, not in perfect order but on fire. The world is chaotic, damaged, a raging blaze. In this version, Abraham screams out in horror – “Can there be no one here who owns this world? Are we left to our devices as the inferno surrounds us?” And God responds, seemingly from inside the blaze, “I am here; I am the master of this house.” The rabbis are not presenting a historical claim but a theological one. Who set the world on fire? And why doesn’t God do anything about it?

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits discusses the horrors of theology after the Holocaust. In the introduction to his Faith After The Holocaust, Berkovits laments that some lost their faith when confronted with the crematoria of Auschwitz. Who can judge them? We who did not see people go into the gas chamber have no right to question the lack of faith of those who did. On the other hand, Berkovits wonders about those who maintained their belief in God despite the horrors of the Holocaust. Who are we to judge their faith? We who did not experience the Nazi crimes can only stand in awe of those who maintain their faith. We are at an impasse. As Berkovits suggests, “I am not Job. I am only his brother.” (p. 4)

For Israelis and many Jews worldwide, we experienced the repeated trauma of centuries. The world went up in flame. Undoubtedly, the families who experienced the murders, torture, and have loved ones swept away in the raging ocean of Hamas terror are indeed Job. We who live in constant threat of rocket fire, home invasion, and worse, are perhaps somewhere between Job and a brother. The world is burning, and humanity lit the fire.

How can we pray?  

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked, “prayer may not save us, but prayer makes us worthy of being saved.” Heschel’s idea that prayer makes us worthy of saving reflects Jewish tradition from Hassidic masters such as Rav Tzvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov to the great medieval philosophers such as Rav Joseph Albo, and one could argue Maimonides.

Once, a rabbi friend asked what I thought about people gathering to recite psalms in the wake of a tragedy. “What is the point?” he asked. I responded that I thought reading Psalms was a Jewish way of crying. Our hearts respond in the ways we know. Prayer is our way to call out to God, the world, and ourselves that the world can be better. Our prayers are tears of sadness, tragedy, hope, and, at other times, joy. Prayer is the Jewish reaction to existence. 

The rabbis consider Abraham to be the father of authentic Jewish prayer. He inspired our morning prayer service. Yet, Abraham did more than pray. Abraham’s response to the horrors and chaos of the world was to act. According to tradition, he erected a tent with four openings to greet wary travelers. He ran to save others and offer sustenance and solace. The rabbis paint Abraham as the model of how to perform acts of loving kindness called “chessed” in Hebrew. The response to darkness is to shed light, to act. When marauders took his family captive, something we understand too well today, he gathered his soldiers and rushed to battle, risking life and limb, to save his nephew against raiding kings. And when angels dressed as humans approached, he ran to them to offer them food and drink despite his own pain from circumcision. Abraham was the paradigm of prayer and action. He saw the world burning. He did not lose faith in God but worried about his faith in Man. God doesn’t act in history any more. He waits for us to make things right. Abraham’s response was to make the world a better and safer place.

Every act of kindness, every attempt by us to create a better, safer, kinder world follows the model of Abraham. He was open to hearing God’s voice just as he was open to helping repair the world. That may be the secret to the divine call. As the Sefat Emet wrote, God is always calling every human being. Like Abraham, we respond to the divine through prayer and action.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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