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You Can't Always Get What You Want

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Relating to God can't be reduced to magical formulas or good luck charms.

When our children are young we teach them a very simplistic view of God. We show a very black and white world to minds that can't process complexity and nuance. And we teach the power of prayer. You ask and God answers.

In fact this year it was pouring rain Erev Sukkot (in LA of all places) and my youngest son was disappointed that he wouldn't be able to go to shul. So he prayed for the rain to stop in time. And just after candelighting there was a quiet break from the constant downpour. The skies were dry. Everything worked as it should in his world.

Perhaps a simple faith leads to simple results...

As we get older we have to come to grips with a more subtle and complicated reality. We need to recognize that we have influence on the world but not control. We can't compel the Almighty's will. When we pray the only person we are sure of impacting is ourselves. The only person we can really change is "me."

If we believe that there is one magical prayer or "good luck" charm or even mitzvah that will guarantee the desired change of fate, we are engaging in magical -- and false -- thinking.

The Almighty's involvement with the world encompasses an infinite amount of factors -- what we need personally, what our family needs, our friends, the Jewish people, the land of Israel, the world... (and who knows what else!) We have no tools or ability to understand the complex interplay of factors that leads to our individual experience. We don't know all the reasons and implications for the "answer" we are given, but we do know that it's not magical or formulaic.

Sometimes well-meaning friends offer suggestions based on this illusive strategy for whatever it is that others are "missing" or desirous of. Someone will say, "Just say this psalm, get a blessing from this rabbi, drink from this cup of wine, or even see this particular doctor" as if the world were run on mathematical equations and it were only a matter of finding the x variable.

Not only is this a misunderstanding of Judaism, it diminishes both the giver and the recipient of the advice.

The giver seems stuck in his limited view of the world and his empathy for the circumstances of others is compromised. If you believe that there is a mechanistic solution to every problem (pray harder, check your mezuzah), then you communicate a certain disdain for others. They aren't as clever as you; they don't realize how to improve their situation and how easy it really is! There are a lot of people in tremendous pain who I'm sure would like to benefit from this quick fix.

And it diminishes the listener. While we could all benefit from the wisdom of others, the "help" referred to here seems to imply that the listener just isn't trying hard enough or hasn't been engaged in all these clever ways of self-improvement until now.

It's hard to accept that "you can't always get what you want," that there really isn't some special button to press that will automatically resolve the situation.

An adult relationship with God demands confronting reality, and accepting our limitations in our actions and in understanding the complex nature of God's actions. And perhaps accepting the surprising wisdom of the song, "If you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need."

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