At the moment, I'm reviewing the Talmud Tractate of B'rachot. It contains a tapestry of thoughts which touch on the heart of what Jewish prayer is.
A revealing episode concerns the king, Chizkiyahu, and the prophet Y'shayahu (Isaiah, son of Amotz). The Gemara relates (B'rachot 10a) that Y'shayahu came to inform the ostensibly righteous king that he would die, and additionally would have no place in the world to come. Chizkiyahu suitably affronted questioned the possible cause of such a dire punishment. Y'shayahu replied, "Because you did not try to have children." Chizkiyahu, in turn, retorted that the reason he decided not to have children was because he had seen prophetically that his children or their descendants would not be good people. Y'shayahu's response is searing, "What have you to do with the secrets of G-d? You should have done what you needed to do, and let the Holy One, blessed be He, do that which pleases Him."
Suitably chastised, Chizkiyahu requests Y'shayahu's daughter in marriage but in a twist of prophetic irony, Y'shayahu says, "Sorry, it's too late, G-d has decreed that you'll die." And here it is Chizkiyahu with the acid, "Son of Amotz, finish your prophecy and go. I have a tradition from the house of my ancestor that even if a sharp sword rests upon a man's neck he should not desist from prayer."
This teaching is blisteringly clear - yes G-d has His ways and plans, but they're not human plans. Humans need to act in this world and that action includes prayer. Neither Chizkiyahu not Y'shayahu can practise a justified apathy. One may not shirk one's practical duties even with prophetic certainty - one may never stop praying and doing.
But, why, one may ask. Surely if you know that G-d has decreed something, that G-d has planned something, surely acting contrary to this is saboutaging G-d's plans? The answer which the Gemara is giving is quite clear - we are part of G-d's plan and it is not set in stone or prophecy. Good deeds and in particular, prayer, expand our horizons, remind us of the grandeur to which we should aspire and rise; and that is our duty, to aspire, to ascend. Humans do not have the excuse of saying "I'm going to stop trying."
Success of the President
This morning, I saw the following post (http://www.jta.org/2017/01/19/life-religion/orthodox-rabbis-anti-trump-prayer-causes-a-stir) regarding Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz decision to stop praying for the US government or to alter the weekly prayer for the government due to the election of a man whose behaviour and values he finds abhorrent. He wrote on his Facebook post, "Because of my commitment to the integrity of prayer, starting this week, I can no longer recite or say amen to the Shabbat prayer for the success of the U.S. President." He then goes on to offer an alternate prayer which requests from G-d, amongst other things, "Guide the incoming leader of this country away from his basest instincts, thwart his plans to target certain groups and strengthen white supremacy; for You know, God, that all were created in Your image."
The Power of Prayer
Writing from sunny South Africa, one cannot but be struck by four thoughts:
The tremendous trepidation accompanying this presidency: the fear that minorities will be targeted and the weak and vulnerable will be harmed. As a spectator to the previous US election, I'm undecided on what Trump actually is and what he will actually do, but I am struck by the real dread (perhaps some of it self induced?).
The earnestness with which Rabbi Yanklowitz approaches this. This is a man, a father of two, who has donated a kidney to a complete stranger! One cannot simply claim this man is a showman (which did occur to me initially). He is a true spiritual activist.
The privilege Jews have living in countries where their rights are protected. South Africa included.
His belief in the power of prayer for change.
It is the last point which speaks to me.
I live in a country where some of our trepidations have materialised in the person of our president, Jacob Zuma. Whilst I am more than slightly reticent about changing a prayer we were saying under the Tzar and other leaders who were not friendly at all to minorities, including Jews (and surely asking for G-d's guidance for such despots includes the obvious moral imperatives which Rabbi Yanklowitz explicitly adds); I am struck by the bold move. Who does Rabbi Yanklowitz think this change in prayer will affect? Will G-d start messing with Donald Trump's choices to ensure he is more sensitive to minorities?
The answer is clear - first and foremost, the prayer is meant to change us. It is easy to say we all want "peace" and "prosperity" and "the eradication of poverty", but do we pray for it? Do we look each week at the prayer for the government and snicker up our sleeves while billions go missing and the poor and hungry of our country become poorer and hungrier? Or, do we actually pray for change? And are we part of that change?
As we begin this Shabbat to read of the Exodus from slavery, perhaps we can also look at the prayer we make and the actions we take.
Rabbi Widmonte is an author, educator, Rabbi, social innovator and activist. He is the founder of the Thirst For Hope and Ride4AfricaIsrael programs which aim to feed 1,000,000 malnourished children in South Africa using Israeli agri-tech and education. See more from Rabbi Widmonte at www.ravramon.net.