When Prayers Go Unanswered

I had an interesting encounter at the barber shop last week. Just as I walked in, I was greeted with a “hi rabbi” by one if the stylists who knows me, and then proceeded to get my regular haircut. A gentleman with a pronounced southern accent was getting his hair cut in the chair next to me. He was just finishing up and paying his bill. He then said in a slightly raised voice: “I hear that man over there is a rabbi. Well I need all the prayers I can get, so let me pay for his haircut as well. Here’s a $50 bill to cover the both of us.”

Well, I’ve been a rabbi for 27 years, and that’s never happened to me before. I was taken by surprise and not quite sure how to react. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful by declining his kindness, so I thanked him profusely and wished him all the best.

But I had an uneasy feeling about the whole encounter. I wondered if perhaps he thought that rabbis take a vow of poverty (like Catholic priests do) and could use the charity. Or perhaps he thought that by helping out a rabbi, God would show him special favor and answer his prayers. It sounded to me more like the latter. I also got the impression that he was one of the many devout Christians who takes the verse in Genesis 12:3 literally. That’s the verse where God promises Abraham (and by extension the Jewish people) that “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” And as you may know, many Christians take that verse to mean that they have a religious obligation to demonstrate their kindness to the Jewish people by supporting the State of Israel.

But if that was the motivation for the gentleman’s kindness, I felt guilty about it. Perhaps that’s a knee-jerk Jewish reaction. But according to my religious calculus, I felt this man was getting cheated, since I don’t believe God works that way at all.

Nothing disturbs my theological sensitivities like seeing the way some people project onto God all kinds of things about their own lives. They get angry at God when misfortune strikes, and when spared from tragedy they are convinced that God took particular interest in their individual situation. It’s the ultimate question of: “Is God running the show down here on earth or are we?”

My personal belief is that God gives us absolute freedom of will; and vulnerability is the price we pay for that freedom. God may not alter the outcomes, but God gives us the wisdom, the strength and the ability to follow our conscience, and, through mitzvot, the ability to make the world the best that it can be.

It is a scene that gets played out repeatedly on the evening news. A tragic fire or devastating natural disaster destroys a residential area. One family manages to make it through unscathed and everyone they love is ok. Meanwhile, other families nearby are not so fortunate. Yet the person whose family has been spared gushes forth with praises to God for the divine intervention and mercy that miraculously spared their lives.

When I watch such an interview, my thoughts always turn to the direction of the family that was not spared. What is that family — the ones who just suffered such a tremendous loss — supposed to think at this moment? Does God somehow love them less? Did they not pray hard enough? Or did they simply not deserve to be saved? I hardly think so.

But if it’s the case that God directs all the outcomes in our lives, then should we not also blame God for every earthquake, plane crash and disease outbreak? I don’t believe that either. I believe that these tragedies are random, amoral events that simply happen. And God gives us the strength to heal the wounds and spread a little Divine favor around wherever we can in order to bring about tikkun olam; to help repair our often fractured world.

I would never claim to have the answers as to why things turn out the way they sometimes do. If we knew the answer to such questions we would have the mind of God, the Infinite. And those who claim to have all the answers, typically have none of the answers; at least none that are satisfying. As intelligent people, we know that our lives are often determined by factors over which we have little or no control. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know that things don’t always turn out the way they ought to. If they did, there would be no need for us to fight for just causes, give tzedakah, or strive to repair the world.

For those who firmly believe that God has a plan for everything, that everything is “bashert” and unfolds according to God’s divine will, I have the following reaction. I admire your steadfast faith. But respectfully, I have great difficulty accepting your world-view. One and a half million Jewish children perished in the Nazi death camps. That’s not a plan I can ever imagine my God endorsing. Ever.

The disciples of Rabbi Moshe Leib once asked their teacher: “Why are there atheists in the world? Why does God even permit atheism to exist?” The rabbi answered: “God has a need for atheism, one that is ultimately for our own good. If someone seeks your aid, you must act as if there is no God to help. In that way, even atheism can be exalted. Even atheists can be blessed.”

When our prayers are answered, let us show humility and remember that others are not always so fortunate. And when we are confronted with the opportunity to ease the burden of others whose lives have been scarred, let us respond in the same way we would hope that God would deal with us.

About the Author
Rabbi Zimmerman is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Atlanta, GA for he has served for over 25 years. He is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly SE Region, the Atlanta Rabbinical Association, a member of AIPAC National Council, and police chaplain in the Dunwoody, GA police department. In 2014 he became managing editor and publisher of "The American Rabbi", an online homiletic resource for rabbis across the Jewish denominational spectrum. Rabbi Zimmerman has also produced several widely used Jewish websites, including: www.sidduraudio.com and www.haftorahaudio.com to help the Jewish community become more proficient in Hebrew liturgy and haftarot. Rabbi Zimmerman is a 12th generation rabbi who received rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University.
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