Va’era: Does God hear prayer? Does God appear to us when we pray?

When God speaks to Moses at the beginning of the sidra, God says to him “And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant (6:5)

 וְגַ֣ם אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַֽאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַֽעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָֽאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי:

In Bible, God hears prayer and frequently is recorded responding to the request. Be it Isaac’s prayer for a child for Rebecca (Genesis 25:21) or Jacob asking for deliverance from the avenging Esau (Gen 32:12), be it Moses and Aaron asking for the healing of Miriam’s skin disease (Numbers 12:13) or the desperate request for a child from Hannah. Be it David asking for God’s blessing and support (2Sam 7:18ff) or Solomon asking for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5ff) It seems that people prayed for what they wanted or needed and God reacted.

Jewish traditional texts assume that prayer comes from the heart and finds its way to a divine hearing. Later in rabbinic Judaism, prayer was more formalised, the wording more fixed (or at least the themes of the prayers, their introductions and endings were organised and prescribed) and while there was room for spontaneous prayer there was also a structure of community prayer, with the underlying assumption that the prayers of a community together would somehow strengthen the power of the words, that God would more readily listen to the combined communal prayer. Hence the minyan, the minimum of ten people for some prayers to be recited, and the extraordinary effect it has of creating community and awareness of the needs of others. Jewish tradition teaches that our communal prayer reminds us not just to think of ourselves, that our prayer must be broader, and when we pray in the right way, with our hearts and minds fully engaged and within the community of our peers, that God will hear our prayer.

But this all begs the question – does God hear all prayer? And if so does our prayer make a difference to the outcomes we seek? What does it mean for God to hear our prayer? And what does it mean if it appears that God does not hear us, or at least does not give us what we want?

The Hebrew verb le’hitapallel, from which the word for prayer –tefillah – comes, means in essence to work on oneself and to judge oneself. So the language of prayer is reflexive, we do something to or for ourselves in prayer, albeit in the gaze of the divine. Prayer is not so much for God as it is for us. In one form, alluded to in the English form of the word, prayer, it is indeed about asking for something, usually for God to influence and outcome, but tefillah is much more than this – it is about stepping outside of the normal stream of time and busyness and looking at ourselves in order to decide for ourselves.

And yet we persist in praying as if our prayer is heard by someone outside of ourselves who has the power to effect change for us. Our core texts all assume this to be true, even while our lived experience shows no real evidence. And we continue, despite everything, to pray to God as if such prayer is heard, as if it matters, as if God will be impacted by our words and the world will be different.

The later books of the Hebrew bible record many prayers uttered in desperate times. The book of Psalms can be read as a liturgical resource bank, and it is no coincidence that so many verses from this book are the building blocks of our liturgy and prayers. Prayer is seen as a natural and human response, and Maimonides reminds us in the Laws of Prayer that “It is a positive commandment to pray each day as it is stated, “And you shall serve the Eternal your God (Ex. 23:25) … They taught that “serve,” means prayer, as it is stated, “And you shall serve God with all your heart” (Deut. 11:13). The Sages asked, “What is the service of the heart? This is prayer” (Ta’anit 2a).”

Prayer is understood in tradition as being rooted in the behaviour of our founding Patriarchs, has the status of being a mitzvah, a commandment, and is one of the spiritual pillars upon which the world stands, taking the place of the sacrificial system of Temple worship that brought God closer to our world.

Right up to current responsa, prayer is seen as being the obvious and most basic demonstration of belief in God. R. Moshe Feinstein wrote that “The essence of belief in God is that only God can ultimately guarantee our livelihood or cure our diseases. And when a person does not trust in God and does not pray to God, it is as if he is denying belief in God for the sake of belief in something else…” (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. II, Chapter 24)

Yet if asked, many people of faith, who pray regularly and with kavannah (focus/intention) will still hesitate to sign up to such an idea that it God has such activity within our daily lives so that our livelihoods and our health are entirely at the mercy of the divine. How can we live with a God who can capriciously save some and condemn others? How can we live with a God who sees the righteous suffer, when by an act of will they would not have to do so? How can we live with a God who demands praise even while the world is in pain?

Like so much of Jewish experience, we seem able to live with two contradictory ideas both being true, to be comfortable with the cognitive dissonance of both/and, of eilu v’eilu – that many ways of being can be ways to live a righteous and blessed life. We pray because we have to pray, it is hard wired in our souls. We call to a God we don’t always believe in, a God we are sometimes uncertain might be there. We act ‘kiv’yachol’ – as if our prayer will be heard and answered, and yet at the same time we call it the act of le’hitpallel, of judging ourselves, of working upon ourselves.

Does our prayer change God’s mind? In many ways it is simply the wrong question. Our prayer is essentially the internal dialogue that keeps us true and keeps us aware of the direction our moral compass must direct us towards. Whether God hears and responds, hears and takes note, hears and ignores, or does IMG_1791not hear – who can tell? It is enough that we believe ourselves to be in God’s presence when we judge ourselves and we work to change ourselves. And sometimes, rarely, we suddenly have the encounter, we recognise the presence of God and hear the voice of slender silence resonating in our soul and we know that God is listening, that God is there. And we have the strength to go on.

 

Parashat Vayakhel: how do you make a community?

How do you make a community?

In classical Hebrew there are three different words for community: eidah, tzibbur and kehillah, and they each describe a different way of being a group together.

Eidah is the political body, the whole group of people with like minds and values, who have a shared sense of identity and purpose. It comes from the root to witness and in bible it is used to describe the whole Israelite people who travelling together having had, and continuing to have, a shared experience and a shared destiny.

Tzibbur, a later post biblical word for community, comes from a root that is to do with heaping up or piling up, and is generally used to describe the praying community. It is the descriptor of the organising principle of the Jewish religious community, the minyan, the group within which prayer is shared and heard. The word tzibbur implies that there are diverse individuals who are joined together for a particular purpose and time – normally understood to be communal worship activities. The laws of the tzibbur form the conceptual framework of community living; they are predicated on and sustain the spiritual life of the community.

The third word used to describe community – ‘Kehillah’ is something that contains both the meanings of Eidah and Tzibbur and more. It goes beyond being a community of shared prayer and shared mission, and looks towards caring for the health, educational, social and welfare needs of individual Jews. It is what we now think of if asked to define what a community should be, providing not just for our practical and functional needs, not just for our spiritual needs, but for our social activities, our diverse interests, our wellbeing.

The sidra vayakhel begins with Moses assembling the people, causing them to become a ‘kehillah’. From having led them out of Egypt and through the Sea of Reeds, from having caused them to be fed and given water, from having been the stern Lawgiver to the people, approaching God on their behalf, and bringing rules and judgments, Moses now does something quite different for them. He brings together the whole ‘edah’ as a ‘kehilla’ (Vayakel Moshe et col adat bnei Yisrael vayomer alei’hem: eleh hadevarim asher tziva Adonai la’sot otam” – Moses brought together as a kehillah all the eida of the bnei Yisrael and said to them, these are the things which the Eternal has commanded to do them)

He then instructs them about two things – firstly about Shabbat, a day of rest to follow six days of work, a day when no fire shall be seen in their homes. And secondly about the mishkan, telling them that col nediv libo – everyone whose heart was willing, (ie everyone who wanted to do so) should bring offerings to God, and then he lists an extraordinary number of objects and materials – gold, silver, acacia wood, rams skins, onyx stones…..

The people go and then come back laden with offerings. There is a strange phrase here – ve’ya’vo’u ha’anashim al ha’nashim – literally the men came upon the women. – and midrash tells us that this phrase tells us that the women came to make their donations first, and the men followed them, a lovely inversion of the story that the women had not wished to give their gold and jewellery for the building of the golden calf, demonstrating that they understood the importance of the mishkan and the abhorrence of the golden calf as a worship focus.

Whether this gloss on the verse is a good one is a moot point. I personally do not like it but I find hard to make any other sense of it. But what it does do is draw attention to the individuality of the givers – both men and women, each bringing what they have, what they can do, what they can make. They each use their skills and their materials to the best use of the mishkan. The focal point for the community is being made of the diverse skill sets and abilities of the entire community, freely giving above and beyond what was needed. The creation of the mishkan is a collective act, a symbol of the diverse community, a representation of its shared beliefs. Building it is an event that creates more than a powerful and beautiful edifice – it is an act that organises a people into a community.

How does one build a community? One recognises that a community is different things at different times, and it is different things to different people, and yet there is a golden thread that holds it together through time and space. Moses uses two different techniques to cause the community to come together – he creates sacred time and sacred space – or rather he brings the community to come together to create sacred time and sacred space. From being an eidah – a body of people with shared experience and destiny who may have nothing else in common, Moses used time and space to make a kehillah – an eidah that encompasses individuality and diversity and shapes it into shared and sustaining community.

Dedicating time and space to something one values is always the only way to develop it, to learn about it, to grow it. Making sacred space and making sacred time are the lynchpins of making sacred community. But doing in such a way that everyone who wants to can be involved, can give their skills, their time, their interests, their knowledge, their labour – this is the lesson we learn from the ultimate community building project of the book of Exodus, the building of the mishkan, the place where God did not dwell per se, but which reminded the people that God was among them.