Dreams, hopes and fears: The problem with prayer

What if God says "No", or He says nothing? Maybe He is undecided?

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple ,

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Jews are in a high state of busy-ness. The new year is imminent. We think over all that has happened in the last twelve months. We hope this year will bring us life, calm, peace and faith. The Ashkenazim echo the Sephardim and say, "May the year begin with its blessings".

God is part of the action even for those who don’t even mention His name on other occasions. We don’t just mouth an exclamation, "O My God!" In their own way the words are a prayer, "O my God, be with us and hold us tight!" We have so much on our "O my God" list.

But there is a "but". What if God says "No", or He says nothing? Maybe He is undecided?

Presuming that He is patient and forbearing and isn’t really insulted if most of the year we leave Him to His own devices, what has He to say now when we inform Him that we are praying and expect an answer?

The problem of prayer is many-sided:
· Prayers for something, petitionary prayers, are not the only kind of prayers.

· They should not seek material handouts but spiritual and ethical support.

· They should say, "God, make us better people!"

· They should say, "God, help us even when we don’t know what we really want!"

· We should utter prayers of praise: "God, what a wondrous world You have made!"

· And prayers of penitence: "God, we have wasted so many opportunities!"

· Prayers of hope: "God, help us to make the future better!"

· Prayers of probity: "God, share with us Your goodness, truth, love and mercy".

· Prayers of priority: "God, train us to put our souls before our silver and gold!"

· Prayers about prayer: "God, teach us how to keep in touch with You!"

My mother told me when I was a little boy that there was someone called God to whom I should speak every day. In time I realised that the "someone" should have an upper-case S but I also encountered non-personal notions of God as a Something rather than a Someone.

I did try but found it difficult to speak to a Something. What was I to do – envisage a vague ideal and begin, "To whom it may concern"? Was I to think of God as a greater version of myself (what spiritual egotism!)? Was I to understand God as a force without consciousness and personality? It was becoming all too complicated.

William Temple said that we cannot hope to define God, but we can certainly aver that He is a Someone, more (not less) than personality. When we pray we need not know precise details of His nature. The philosophers said, Lu yedativ heyitiv – "If I knew Him I would be Him".

What we can all do is to sense His Presence and say with Job, "My Redeemer liveth!"


DREAMS, HOPES & FEARS – THE TORAH READINGS & HAFTAROT

The Torah readings and haftarot for Rosh HaShanah deal with human yearnings, dreams, hopes and fears.

All the readings arise out of events in the Biblical past, but we do not read them for the sake of historical nostalgia but for the sake of destiny, constantly concerned with what the future will bring.

On the first day the theme is hope, the yearning for a new generation. In the Torah reading that day we read the story of the hopes evoked by the birth of Isaac; in the haftarah we read about the hopes evoked by the birth of Samuel.

After the first day the mood changes. On the second day we read about how our heartfelt hopes can be dashed in a moment.

The Torah reading poignantly describes Abraham’s anguish over the Binding of Isaac, with its message that the son that the patriarch and his wife so desperately yearned for might be lost forever. The haftarah that day presents a similar theme – Mother Rachel’s tears when her children go into exile.

Both days focus on dreams that might never succeed in coming to fruition, a theme that countless parents understand only too well when they yearn for the future but are apprehensive that that future might never come to be.

The lesson for us to take away is that parents should never cease to dream but should also have trust and confidence in God that He will support us and help us to make the dreams come true.


THE TEN TRIALS OF ABRAHAM


The Akedah (Binding of Isaac) is the last and greatest of the ten trials which Abraham underwent.

Tradition is certain (Pir'kei Avot 5:4) that there were ten trials. Perhaps the number ten is a symbolic round figure, easy to remember.

The sages took the number more literally though they have various versions as to what the ten actually were; the Midrash has several lists whilst Maimonides has another.

Why the ambivalence?

Because none of the first nine is specifically called a trial in the pages of Scripture and only the Akedah is specifically described as such in the Torah (Gen. 22).

According to Samson Raphael Hirsch the common feature lies in the word nissayon, a trial, which he says conveys the sense of movement: a trial is a stage in one's progress towards a higher position.

In the case of Abraham, all the trials indicate moral progress towards becoming The Friend of God.

The sages in Pir'kei Avot explain that the trials prove Abraham's love for God: when God asks increasingly difficult things of him, Abraham responds out of love and loyalty.

As Dr Meir Tamari writes in his series, "Spiritual and Ethical Issues in the Bereshit Stories", "There is no hint of any tortured discussion by Avraham, or of the inner conflict envisages by Kierkegaard and other non-Jewish philosophers or secular Jewish scholars, between morality and God's command".

Kierkegaard can ask why God asks Abraham for the apparently ethically impossible; Dr. Tamari responds that whatever God commands is by definition (since God is the origin of morality and ethics) moral and ethical, so there is and can be no conflict.



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