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.

 

After the Days of Awe, the echoes of teshuvah continue to be heard

We have spent the last month in a frenzy of Jewish Festivals, from Rosh HaShanah on through the Ten Days of Teshuvah through to Yom Kippur, the full week of Sukkot and finally ended with the revelry of relief that is Simchat Torah.

In a sense we barely draw breath as we navigate our way through what one colleague terms “the autumn manoeuvres”, and while we reel from one festival to the next the tropes of repentance and return, the familiar tunes in minor keys, the moments of introspection, the food and the fasting, the sensation overload that is Sukkot, and finally the celebratory extravaganza as we complete the cycle of Torah readings and begin again.

So here we are at the new beginning, the post yamim noraim moments when we face living in the new year and the challenge of putting our resolutions into practise. And suddenly there is no obvious structure leading us through the process of Teshuvah – we are on our own, left to find a way to live our lives aspiring to be better people, hoping to become the best people we can

The first time a driving instructor suggested I signal, look in my mirror, remove the handbrake and move into the flow of traffic, I remember the surge of adrenalin fuelled panic as I realised I was in charge of more than a ton of moving metal. There seemed to be a huge stretch between learning about it in theory and actually driving a real car among real people. I am sure that each of us can remember a moment of realisation that life was expecting something from us, and there could be no going back. Be it the first moment in a new job when someone mistook us for a seasoned professional, or the first time we understood that a new baby was totally reliant on us, or even the first time we read Torah or agreed to sit on a synagogue committee – suddenly the world is different, and we rise to the expectation rather than admit that we don’t really know.

Well Teshuvah is rather like that – God expects something from us, we expect something from ourselves, we have thought and reflected and vowed to change our behaviour in the quiet of a synagogue service or in a moment of honest self awareness and now we have to step up and live our lives according to that aspiration.

The period of festivals just past take the title of Yamim Noraim – Days of Awe; and Awe is an emotion we tend not to be so comfortable with these days. A mixture of reverence and fear, of overwhelming amazement and intense connection, the whole idea of awe is one we tend to edge away from. Yet according to the neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall, Awe should be recognised as the eleventh emotion, added to the list of ten that researchers already use to describe states of being.

In his book “Awe” he describes the emotion as “The valuable, irresistible fascination, the highest elation and sometimes most profound sadness that leaves us in a state of puzzled apprehension, perplexing dread, yet appreciative wonder and hope regarding the vast mysteries of life”.   Later on he talks about Awe being the emotion that “causes us to feel more completely alive than we ever thought possible”.

This is the feeling we need to take with us into the new year ahead. Not as intensely as maybe we experienced it throughout the Days of Awe, but as an awareness, the resonance of an echo, as we continue in our lives. When God speaks to Job after the thunder and whirlwind, what he hears is “a voice of slender silence” (often translated poetically but less truly as “a still, small voice”. When the voice of God comes to prophets and even to some rabbis in the Talmud they hear a “bat kol” – the daughter of a voice, again a poetic reference to the echo of a sound when it has already passed. This is the closest we can get to God in our ordinary and everyday worlds, the closest we can experience beyond our own world, and as the prophets and others found, it was enough to enable them to keep going.

So as we leave the intense, profound, formal and ceremonial Days of Awe, let’s try to hold on to the echo of the awe, the appreciative wonder, the mystery, the understanding that there is more in the world than we will ever comprehend, and that this does not need to make us feel fear or that we are hostages to some random universe. The lessons of the past month tell us that while we may reel from one event to another, journey in an instant from profound sadness to great joy (and back), sometimes feel out of control or else out of energy, we move onwards in our live, we have opportunities to change in so many ways, possibilities to grow and learn, and this is good.

Shanah Tovah – may your year be new and filled with possibilities