Prayer is one of the most ubiquitous practices we find in society but it is also the most misunderstood and malpracticed. Over the past several months I have followed the attempts of religious practitioners in Israel pray for the much-needed rain in Israel. The drought has been plaguing Israel for the last eight months and this past week, tragic and deadly fires raged in the Carmel, no doubt more damaging and ferocious because of the eight month drought. Religious practitioners have become so frustrated with the lack of results from the conventional prayers of “mashiv haruach u’moreed hageshem” that they have resorted to creative tactics such as interdenominational services with ministers and imams organized by Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa. When that didn’t yield results Rabbis Menashe Malka and Reuven Deri went up on a hot air balloon to deliver prayers, as though God was hard of hearing and approaching the upper atmosphere might get His attention. It also assumed an objectified god, a god of Job proportions scheming alone or with ministering angels “up there” somewhere. When that didn’t work, world Bnei Akiva emissaries in 30 countries inserted into the liturgy a special prayer for rain by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
What all these and other attempts have in common is the misconceived notion that God is out there somewhere waiting to be beseeched in order to dole out favors at will. All you have to do is hit on the right formula at the right moment and presto, walla, your prayers will be answered. It is based on the assumption that god in the tradition of Job is the “grand puppeteer” manipulating humans at will for some cosmic satisfaction and it is up to us to beseech God into granting us a reprieve. This approach to God assumes that He isn’t omniscient, otherwise why would we have to ask Him for favors. Surely He knows that there is a drought. It also assumes that God plays favorites. After all there is a decades long drought in Africa and there are on going chronic droughts in parts of Asia as well. Why wouldn’t he help his children there, if the assumption were that if “one asks one gets”. This approach to God, this kind of prayer and its practitioners remind me of the classic medicine man of the North American Indian tribes, who performed a rain dance with special incantations and ritual as intercessors to the spirits in order that it rain.
Jewish prayer is different than that, it ought to be different than that. In its original form, prayer is not asking God for anything; it is not a request. It is as Eliezer Berkovitz wrote, “a cry, an elementary outburst of woe; a spontaneous call in need. It is a call of helplessness to God. So man brings his sorrow before God, knowing perhaps that although God isn’t changing his circumstances he needs the reassurance of His love and that He is near”. This is the essence of prayer. Interpreting the words of David “I pour out my complaint to Him, I declare before Him my trouble” the midrash comments “thus the men of faith declare their troubles before God”. To pour out one’s trouble before God means simply to tell God about one’s troubles; to make God the confidant of one’s sorrow. Man is able to do this because God is felt as being close to him and is the natural and most intimate confidant of man’s soul. Assuming this to be correct, prayer, Berkowitz maintains presents us with a conundrum: asking God for something is in reality self seeking. So whether we ask for wealth or health we are asking for ourselves. “This approach of “give - give” isn’t prayer and hasn’t the quality of prayer unless it comes out of intimacy with God”. If prayer is to have meaning and purpose it ought to be to redirect people, to have them focus not on what God can do for us, but what can we do for each other. The purpose of prayer is to strengthen man, to elevate him and cause him to be elevated, whereby man can transcend his current predicament and in the process resolve the issue.
Droughts have been one of the plagues of mankind since time immemorial. It is among the earliest documented climatic events, present in the Gilgamesh story and tied to the biblical story of Joseph's arrival in and the later Exodus from Ancient Egypt. Hunter-gatherer migrations in 9,500 BC Chile have been linked to the phenomenon, as has the exodus of early man out of Africa, and into the rest of the world around 135,000 years ago. Praying to God as the rainmakers of the North American tribes is really no different than a rabbi praying in an air balloon. What makes the rabbi think that his prayers will be more effective than the rainmaker? They can be if he uses prayer, not for beseeching, but for strengthening his resolve for solving the problem, not by fighting nature but understanding nature and working with nature. Israel is no more exempt from natural catastrophes than any other nation. Flooding, tsunamis, hurricanes are all the bane of humanity as is drought. They all wreak terrible damage to people and property, but standing there and praying won’t change anything.
Jews have been chanting “mashiv haruach u’moreed hageshem” for a very long time. Has it solved the problem? Drought is an incessant problem, not only for Israel, but also for countries throughout the world. So beseeching God for yet another favor doesn’t seem to work. I believe it was Einstein who commented that if you have made the same mistake a hundred times why would you think that by doing it one more time it would work? That’s not to say that one shouldn’t pray. It does mean however that prayer for it to be meaningful will have to be transformative to he who prays.
Transformative means that man understands drought in different terms than he did prior to transformation. In a post transformative mentality he understands that he has to conform his culture and its needs to his climate; what may work for other countries may not work for Israel. It may mean that while private houses with a garden is beautiful in climates that have little shortage of water, it may mean that in Israel private houses ought to be discouraged, as well as gardens and car washes. It may mean that hotels develop better, less wasteful ways to serve their guests. It may mean that technology devote more assets to developing a waterless society; i.e. waterless washing machines. There is no end to the possibilities to what a society can do when it is in a transformative mode, and here prayer can help.
Unfortunately, Israel today is in a gordian knot mercilessly applied by the Chief Rabbinate who themselves are drowning in the minutiae of rabbinic ritual and medieval custom having little meaning or relevance to the people whom they serve. In this environment it seems difficult to imagine a transformative culture that would make Israel soar to new heights.