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Determining Our Prayers


Shabbat Haye Sarah 5778 | November 11, 2107

This Shabbat in our sanctuary, our sacred space for prayer and celebration, we humbly pause as our hearts ache for the victims, for their families and friends, for their community and our society after what happened at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. This disturbed act of violence hurts all of us deeply.
The assault on Sunday morning church goers, the deaths of 26 innocent people ranging in age from 18 months to 77 years is senseless as it is so sad. You and I do not live in this world to grieve and to suffer, though we do both too often. We are here to love, to nurture, and to fulfill the purposes of our creation. That’s precisely the meaning and vision of our prayer and gathering this and every Shabbat morning.

Each time we witness one of these tragic events, in reaction, we hear lots of noise and opining. Rarely, though, do we see any activity to prevent the next one.

David French, a Harvard Law School graduate, an Iraq war veteran, a best-selling author and opinion writer comments on last week’s church shooting in his piece at the National Review. David French calls prayer, “the most rational and effective response in the face of evil as manifested in mass shootings.” Among other things, he claims, prayer “includes the clear mind to consider and enact policies that might make a difference.”

I deeply appreciate the reflective and introspective value of prayer. I do hope prayer motivates us to consider our choices and direct our actions. I don’t appreciate turning to prayer as a substitute for taking personal or collective responsibility. If we want things to come out a certain way, whether or not we choose to pray, we have to behave accordingly.

Abraham’s servant Eliezer understands this. Sent by Abraham to find a suitable wife for Isaac, Eliezer defines the woman he is looking for and then asks God to confirm his decision. His prayer to God is not for guidance or that God fulfill his quest, but rather that God’s blessing be a confirmation of Eliezer’s will. It is a powerful way to understand the meaning of our own destinies and our relationship with God.

My own view is that things don’t happen to us because of some external controlling force or fate. No mass shooting or other tragedy is God’s will. Neither are our achievements. Rather, God is present through us, through our responses to life’s challenges and joys, and through the world’s wonder.

God's reality is not that of a genie granting our personal wishes. Instead, through our plans, and as a result of our reactions to every day’s surprises, we make progress. My faith is a trust that God grants our world and each one of us the resources, talents, and gifts to succeed. My prayer is for inspiration and encouragement. It is an exercise in evaluation, and a moral check on my purpose.

Listen to Eliezer’s words. “Eternal, God of my master Abraham…let the maiden whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.”

In other words, Eliezer determines that Isaac’s wife must demonstrate character traits of kindness and compassion. He knows what he wants and how he will attain it. His prayer is for God to affirm his choice.

Eliezer’s demeanor troubles some voices in Jewish tradition. Who is he, rather than God, to decide who is right for Isaac to marry? What if the woman who next approaches the well is less than everything a Biblical matriarch should be? His request of God is inappropriate, even though God’s graciousness extends to him and Rebekah is the one to appear first.

Yet from another perspective we are taught to see “that the servant does not ask for a miraculous divine intervention or for a revelation that would designate Isaac’s bride to be. He prays, rather, that the rational criteria of suitability that he himself determines might be in accordance with God’s will and be effective.”

These two interpretations are our life options. We can leave it up to others, feeling that we’re not qualified to guide our own futures; worried that we won’t be resilient enough to overcome any unintended consequences of our choices.

Or, we can see in our lives the blessing of God’s trust in us, a convergence of our best instincts and life’s greatest opportunities. Aware that we can’t know the future, we can still imagine its promise and potential.

Let’s pray in memory of the victims who lost their lives last Sunday in church. Let’s pray for all those injured and grieving to heal as they are treated, embraced, and helped to reclaim their lives.

Prayer is not a substitute for responsible debate and determination to figure out how to minimize or even prevent these tragedies that plague our society. Through what we actually do to make right what’s wrong, we pray.

May the memories of those who died direct their loved ones toward comfort and goodness. May those who ail know healing. May all of us be safe and secure whenever and wherever we gather. Like Eliezer did, may we see in our prayers confirmation of our decisions and blessing for our behaviors.

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784