To Pray and to Praise

Posted on August 19, 2022 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

One of the great misconceptions about religion is that people pray and perform rituals so that God will give us what we want — in essence, to manipulate God. This reminds me of the story about a man who prayed to win the lottery. When his hopes were dashed, he turned to God in bitter recrimination: “How could You fail me?” he complained. “Foolish man,” replied God. “You should have bought a ticket!”

As humor, this story scores high marks. As theology, it is absurd. When the Mega Millions jackpot recently topped $1.2 billion, millions of people bought tickets that were accompanied by at least as many prayers. Are we to think that the winner was more than just lucky? Was the winner’s prayer more powerful than all the others? Was the winner somehow more deserving than all the others, so that God bent the laws of nature and gravity to produce the numbers that appeared on the winning ticket?

That is not what religion and prayer are about. Yes, there is a causal chain that began with Creation and links everything that happens to God in some way. But our rabbis believed in both human free will and the immutable laws of nature.

A verse in this week’s Torah portion explains what most proponents of prayer and ritual expect from their devotions. In Deuteronomy 8:10 we are taught: “When you have eaten and are sated, you shall give thanks to God…”

It makes sense that we should express gratitude for our food when we have eaten and are satisfied. But how much food must we consume to be considered sated? As with most topics they discussed, our rabbis offer more than one answer. Some say, “as little as an olive.” Others say, “as little as an egg.” In either case, the sages agree that we should give thanks for our food, even when we are still hungry.

This is remarkable. If we imagine God as a cosmic gum ball machine, it makes no sense to express gratitude when inserting a coin produces no gum ball. Are we to express gratitude when we are unsatisfied? Complaints and recriminations might be more appropriate. Moreover, it is unlikely that we would persist in the practice of inserting coins into a machine that doesn’t release gum balls. If prayer and ritual were conceived of this way, we would have abandoned it long ago.

The broader context of this week’s parashah helps us to understand our rabbis’ teaching about reciting prayers and blessings. Moses is coming to the end of his life and is fearful for his people’s future. He is confident that they will claim the Promised Land and achieve great prosperity. But, he fears, their success will go to their heads and make them egocentric.

“Beware,” he warns, “lest you grow haughty…and say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’” Individualism and self-importance will breed callousness toward others, says Moses. And it will all be based on untruths, for none of us is truly self-sufficient.

None of us created the world we inhabit, with all its wonders and abundant resources that sustain us. We depend upon the gifts of God, and upon the efforts and contributions of countless people whom we will never know. Even the tiniest olive is worthy of praise, and every unseen individual is worthy of appreciation. As Ben Azzai taught: “Despise no one and call nothing useless, for there is no one whose hour does not come, and there is no thing that does not have its place.” (Pirkei Avot 4:3)

Prayer doesn’t change God; it shapes and influences us. It reminds us that we are not the center of the universe, not the sovereign of the world, and not alone. We are siblings and kin to all that lives, children of a loving God, eternally dependent upon a grace we did nothing to deserve. We don’t need to pray to hit the lottery, because we were all winners from the start, blessed with an abundance beyond our imagination. For this and so much more, let us give thanks and praise.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Arnie Gluck