EKEV, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
Recently I came across a website offering a list of reasons why our prayers go unanswered. Perhaps, claims the author, we've fallen out of fellowship with God, taken God's teachings lightly or have acted in ways that displease God.
Our prayers might be prompted by unworthy material motives or we might not have fully confessed our sins. We might not know how to pray correctly or are out of alignment with Divine will and authority. Our faith might waver or be inadequate and we may lack perseverance.
If we make the proper adjustments, claims the author, "we have the promise of God's Word, be patient and persistent — keep believing, and don't quit, no matter how long it takes! God has a 'due season' when He will bring the answer to pass."
When reading this selection I was reminded of an insight attributed to the late Dr Louis Finkelstein, a former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He cautioned against relating to God is if God were a "Cosmic Bellboy." Often we offer God a "tip" in the form of prayer, charity or a pious act and then expect God to figuratively carry our bags wherever we want.
While such a view might be appropriate for children, mature people learn that the universe unfolds with a mysterious complexity far beyond anything our puny egos might seek to control.
What purpose, then, might prayers or other pious acts serve? This week's sedra, Parshat Ekev, offers an interesting clue.
Along with recounting occasions of Divine favor and Israelite failing during the previous 40 years, Moses presented the following description of God: "the great, mighty and awesome God, has no favorites, accepts no bribes; executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger with food and clothing. So you too must befriend the stranger, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt."
Why, if God is beyond all material need, do these verses associate bribery with God? The 18th-century Hungarian rabbi, Samuel Benjamin Sofer, wisely indicated that bribery comes in many forms. Rather than undertake the arduous, life-changing tasks of self examination, repentance and making amends, there are those who think that a large donation to charity, by itself, is enough to square their cosmic accounts.
Therefore, we are reminded that even generous support for the most vulnerable in society cannot symbolically bribe God and thus erase our shortcomings. The Torah teaches that helping the dispossessed should not be motivated by thoughts of personal advantage or of escaping the consequences of our previous actions. Instead such aid should arise from the historic empathy that we Jews, having been strangers in strange, often inhospitable lands, should feel toward those who now similarly suffer.
The Franciscan spiritual teacher, Richard Rohr, observed that the goal of religion is not piety but transformation. While recent studies have demonstrated certain links between prayer, healing, longevity and physical well-being, none of them can prove any direct causal link between a specific request and its expressly desired outcome. Thus prayer's ultimate goal is not to ask God for what we lack, but for help to amplify those resources that already exist within us.
In turn, we should not use those resources in vain attempts to bargain away past indiscretions but to benefit others and to ultimately refine and reshape ourselves.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham.