A young student stopped me at services to ask if we could pray to God that the Yankees would win the World Series. Clearly this was a ridiculous question from an unschooled, theologically naïve youngster. I had to keep from laughing at him. Of course, had he phrased his question differently, say, “Could we pray to God that the Red Sox would win the World Series?”, now that would be a serious inquiry worthy of our time, attention, and theological consideration.
As my daughter would type JKJK (just kidding). Yet as I sat in front of the television watching game 2 of the ALCS as the Cleveland Indians trounced the Red Sox in an 11 inning game, I caught my heart veering into a prayerful place. Can we pray to God that our favorite professional sports team will win? I turned to some rabbinic colleagues for their answers. Read on…
Rabbi #1: Yes, But…:
Dr. Jerome Groopman, in Anatomy of Hope, said it’s good to hope for a miracle but not to count on it. To me, prayer is often a way to bolster our inner strength, and to set eyes on the ideal moral behavior. When it comes to baseball or serious illness, prayer seems to be a way to help us keep going in the face of sometimes insurmountable difficulties.
Rabbi #2: Why Waste Your Prayers?: My stock answer to such questions is, “If prayers work, which I hope they do, I wouldn’t waste them on weather or sporting events.”
Rabbi #3: That’s Not Why Jews Pray: [This question points to] what is the purpose and function of prayer in Judaism. My answer is that Judaism is far more of an Eastern religion than a Western religion, which is why they call it the Middle East, and not the Middle West. Eastern prayer utilizes prayer as Mantra, as a means to change the one who prays, not to change the mind and actions of G-d. Prayer is used to focus, so that we can transcend that moment and that place. Jewish prayer is sing-song and lends itself to movement and davening (moving back and forth while praying). Jewish prayer is meditative in order to transcend. The only line in the siddur (prayerbook) that one is supposed to actually think about as one says it is the shema. All else is rote, and therefore lends itself to being meditation that transcends. But that is, IMHO (in my humble opinion), the purpose and function of prayer in Judaism. Western (read Christian) prayer is “gimme-gimme-gimme-now-now-now,” the expression of what we want, need, as if G-d cannot know without our asking. Magic is defined as when something is recited, like an incantation, like a magic word like Ev-ra-K’adabrah (I will create as I will speak), which becomes abracadabra, and which forces the gods, or G-d, to act according to our will, my will, and thus changes G-d, rather than changing my will. Prayers like the Mi Shehbayrach, are meant, again IMHO, to express a hope, to state something out loud and thereby gain strength from it, inspiration from it, and not to force the hand of G-d to do my will. Can G-d respond to my prayer by changing G-d’s will, and do what I ask? Of course, that is up to G-d. But that is not, IMHO, why we Jews pray.
Rabbi #4: Does God Sit in Front of the TV on Sunday Afternoon, Remote Control in One Hand, Beer in the Other? Adapted from Rabbi Andy Vogel, Praying for the Ball to Go Through the Uprights: [From a football metaphor] …Does God really sit in front of the TV set on a Sunday afternoon, remote control in one hand, beer in the other, wearing His team’s colors, hoping, praying to… Himself (!) for a first down on the next play? If enough people pray, will God push the ball through the uprights, regardless of the skill of the placekicker? Or, to put it another way: Does God hear and answer our prayers in such simplistic terms? What is the point of thanking God after we get what we have prayed for? What can we expect from God? …
I’ve watched enough last-minute kicks to know that God does not always answer our prayers. God does not do what we want simply because we pray for it. That is what a child wants to believe. We do not get everything we ask for, like mailing in our wish list to Santa Claus at the North Pole. God is not mechanistic. God has God’s own plan, and that we may never know what it is…
The Jewish tradition depicts God as knowing everything. God knows all that we pray for, all that we want, all our desires. Why do we pray, then, if we know that God knows? Perhaps it is that we hope that someone, maybe God, is really out there listening. Perhaps it is that we feel the need to give concrete expression to what is deep inside our hearts. But as Rabbi David Wolpe has taught, God doesn’t need our prayers, but instead, “they are for us, so that we might connect to each other, to ourselves and to God.” [“Musings,” in the New York Jewish Week.] God knows what we want, but we need to voice it anyway – even if we think we don’t. But this question misses the (extra) point. The purpose of prayer is not necessarily “to get what we want.” To think so is to misunderstand the purpose of petitionary prayer, those prayers we say when we ask God for stuff…
The purpose of prayer is to take the opportunity to meet God, to unite our hopes with God’s plans. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Rabbi Nechemiah Polen have taught: Prayer can be a time for us to say, “in effect, I now want what God wants… We don’t nullify our will, our desires, but we seek to unite them with God’s… The innermost desire of the worshiper is… to be with God, just as the innermost desire of God is to be with us.” [In The Amidah, p. 160.] That might mean, having the courage to accept when God’s will isn’t identical with our own. [Read Rabbi Vogel’s Complete Article]
Rabbi #5: Maybe, But God May Answer “No”: … the theological answer may be simply to pray to God that each baseball player play to the fullest of his potential; that he treat the game and his opponents with dignity and respect; that nobody gets injured in the course of the game; that the umpires have vision to call plays correctly; that the players have strength to hit the balls well; that the players are filled with the spirit of determination to do the best they can. And, if in the end, your team loses, it isn’t because God cursed them, or because life is unfair, but simply because the other team played better that game, and reached its potential better that series. (Although, perhaps God does hate the Yankees these days. . .) In general, when people ask if God hears prayers, I sometimes give the answer that I think [Rabbi] Harold Kushner [author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People] has shared: “God hears our prayers; God just doesn’t always say yes.” This may be effective for someone who has a deep and abiding faith in general, and is going through tough times. I don’t use this theology on those whose faith and belief are shaky to begin with, especially with matters of life and death, which baseball, of course, is not.
Rabbi #6: If You Pray That No One Is Injured: One night at services, the senior rabbi of my shul prayed for the Lakers to win. [A teenager] was so offended that he scheduled an appointment to speak to the rabbi. The God that he didn’t believe in, the teenager was sure, would not choose sides in a human endeavor of no moral import, and it trivialized the idea of God to ask God to do so. He would be OK with a prayer that no one be injured in the game and that both sides play their best, however. I think the original prayer had been somewhat jokingly offered, which more or less illustrates [the] point that it trivializes both the idea of God and the idea of prayer – no matter what team is involved!
Rabbi #7: Prayer Is Not Magic! [Adapted from Rabbi Harold Schulweis on Is Prayer Magic?: …To convince people about prayer, show that it’s a winner. Blaise Pascal the 17th century philosopher understood the bettor’s mentality. He devised a wager that contended that it is smarter to pray than not to pray: If there is a God and you pray to Him [sic], you’re going to get something. If there is a God and you don’t pray to Him, you’re going to lose something. If there is no God and you pray to Him, what have you got to lose? And that’s not a bad argument for religious gamblers. It may explain why in certain circumstances people still do pray. Who knows what people on the death bed may calculate that after all to pray now, who knows, there really may be a God and if not, what have they got to lose? But when we are healthy and normal and things are going all right prayer seems to be a waste of time and energy….
…We want prayer to work. In fact, for most people prayer is closest to magic. Magic is practical. You want certain results and you want to be able to get it. To get results there are certain formulas, certain chants, certain incantations and that magic is going to be a shortcut to your desire. In magic you have to use certain words. You have to say open sesame and only then will the cave open. If you forget the right word and use another word the cave will not open. There is a formula to magic, a name to magic – abbr cadabbra is a word that has a magic of its own. According to some scholars abbr cadabbra can be traced to a form of gnosticism and the word abbr cadabbra is made up of three words. The first word is “aba” which means father, the second is “bar” which means son and the third is “ruach” for the holy spirit. This word was written over and over again on a parchment in various geometric forms and folded into a cross. Abbr cadabbra is a talisman hung on a string around the neck of an afflicted person. Magic is formulaic, it is a shortcut and it has power. The magician has power and he has the wisdom to know the secret word that will give him that power. Significantly in Judaism God is nameless. God has no name. The name of God is ineffable. One cannot pronounce His name (4 consonants – tetra grammatic). The reason for that is that if you know the name of God, you think you can control God, you can manipulate God, you can use the formula of His name for any purpose that you want. But the namelessness of God, the fact that throughout the Bible Moses tries to find out what God’s real name is and God avoids telling him what it is. He gives him an enigmatic answer like “I am that I am”.
That illustrated the opposition, of Judaism to magic, sorcery, witchcraft, shortcuts to God. What has this digression to do with prayer? Everything. Magic is not prayer and prayer is not magic. In magic you are concerned with getting the end and you don’t care about the meaning or character of the means. Magic is impersonal. In prayer you have to be concerned with the means to achieve that end and those means that achieve the end invariably depend upon you, your attitude, your mind, heart and soul.
Let me give you an illustration. A child asks “Can I pray for an ‘A’?” That child is interested in the end and she expects that in prayer she can touch some secret occult power that will give her the result that she wants. So the proper answer to the question “can I pray for an ‘A’?” is “no”. You can pray properly for the means for getting that A. You have to pray to pray to that within you that can achieve that A. This is the beautiful prayer that we recite in the morning. “Imbue us with the will to understand, to discern, to hearken, to learn, to teach and to obey. To practice and to fulfill all the teachings of Thy Torah.” The child must be taught that prayer must be worthy. The worthy end is not getting the A. The important thing is the growth and learning for which you may receive a sign of accomplishment. Just get an A, just to get on the Dean’s list without any effort, without any growth, without any maturity, without any knowledge, is to miss the whole point of life and education. … [Such] prayers are not “worthship,” the original spelling and meaning of “worship.” …
You can’t pray for anything that you want. You can’t, for example, pray that this amputated limb should suddenly spring to life. You can pray for courage. You can pray for the acquisition of prosthetics. You can’t pray for things which violate the laws of logic or the laws of nature. You have to respect nature and nature’s laws.
…In prayer you pray to move God. But the way you move God is through moving the divine in yourself. If you divide God from the image of the divinity within you, if you separate the two, then you speak about moving God without it affecting you at all. You ask “can I move God”? without asking whether you can move yourself. You ask “does God listen to prayer?” instead of asking “am I listening to my prayer?”. All your questions are directed toward somebody totally other than yourself. But the purpose of prayer is to activate the godly in and between ourselves. To put it more bluntly, we cannot pray for anything that doesn’t call on us to do something whether it’s in terms of our attitude, our will, our energy or our intelligence. You can’t pray for health however earnestly by expecting God to say yes or no. To pray for health means that you take seriously the means and meaning of health. You can’t properly pray to God for health with a cigarette in your mouth or a hot pastrami sandwich in your hand. You can’t pray to God for peace with folded arms, crossed legs, and unopened hands. As Rav puts it in the Talmud “man’s prayer is not accepted unless he puts his heart in his hands” (Taanit 8a). Prayer is meant to move you, otherwise you depend upon magical thinking. You cannot pray for peace and do nothing about it. You cannot pray that God should love the Jewish people without expressing your love for the Jewish people, nor pray for the rebuilding of Israel without personal involvement.
Does prayer work? Only if you do. If you expect magical results it’s foolish to pray. Prayer works only if you are willing to work with it. It is dangerous to confuse prayer and magic. So when the child or yourself asks can I pray for anything, the answer really has to be thought out very carefully.[Read Rabbi Schulweis’ Complete Sermon]
Talk Back: What do you think?
- Do you think it is appropriate to pray to God that your favorite sports team will win?
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