Mayanot on Prayer #4: Negotiating with God
God is interested in our plans for the world and He wants to hear from us.
Most people have uttered a prayer to the Almighty at some point in their lives. Some pray daily. Others reject the notion of prayer altogether. One thing is certain: praying is an essential part of being Jewish. Frequent contact with God is of such critical importance to Jews that the practice of daily prayer was instituted by the world's very first Jews. Our Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not only felt the compulsion to pray daily themselves, but incorporated the practice of daily prayer as one of the basics of the spiritual training they provided to their descendants. The practice of daily prayer forms the epicenter of traditional Jewish life down to the present day; Jewish social life is still largely organized around the synagogue.
The fact that there are three Patriarchs and three daily prayers is no mere coincidence; as we shall see, each of the Patriarchs instituted his own particular prayer and each of these prayers is inextricably intertwined with the particular spiritual character of its author. The Jew who prays today not only maintains the most hallowed of Jewish practices, he integrates the full range of the connections the Patriarchs established with God into his own spiritual essence.
We propose to explore the relationship between the prayer, the author and the time of day. In the process we shall glean many insights into prayer in general, and attain a deeper understanding of each particular prayer.
Abraham established the practice of Shacharit, the Morning Prayer, as it is written: ":Abraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before God [Genesis 19,27];" 'stood means stood in prayer, as it is written: "And Pinchas stood and executed judgment; [judgment is expressed as "Vayepalel," which means to pray in Hebrew] the plague was halted" [Psalms 106, 30]. [Talmud, Brachot, 26a]
Our forefather Abraham is synonymous with beginnings. He was not only the first of our Patriarchs; he was the world's very first Jew. But the connection between Abraham and beginnings extends much deeper. The Midrash finds a reference to Abraham in the creation story of man.  Abraham is associated with the beginnings of mankind in general.
All monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism, trace the establishment of the human bond with God back to Abraham. Inasmuch as this bond is the point of Creation in the eyes of all religious people, it is easy to understand how Abraham must be associated with the emergence of humanity itself. In some respects, he is entirely non-denominational.
EACH DAY IS A MINI-CREATION
Our prayers encourage us to appreciate the dawning of each new day as a fresh re-enactment of creation. The Morning Prayer points out how "in His goodness [God] renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation." In terms of the cycle of human consciousness, the universe returns to God every night, who gives it back to us again with the beginning of each new day. Each day is a separate mini-creation that begins with the appearance of first light and ends as the daylight fades back into darkness.
Today we can only relate to this concept symbolically. Till the 20th century when Edison invented the light bulb and chased away the darkness for good, the vast majority of mankind experienced it existentially. For most people on the planet, the day began at dawn and ended at dusk when the world disappeared into darkness. Only the chosen few who could afford to burn multitudes of candles were able to function in the absence of daylight.
Abraham rose early in the morning to re-attach himself and the universe to its Maker at the very point of Genesis through prayer.
This readily explains why the Rabbis of the Talmud found a reference to the very first Morning Prayer in the passage that describes how Abraham "arose early in the morning to stand before God." The phrase "to stand before God" may be somewhat vague, but the passage makes it quite evident that Abraham arose early in the morning to do something important. The Rabbis took the passage at face value; the important activity Abraham was preparing himself for by rising early was the re-attachment of himself and the universe to its Maker at the very point of Genesis through prayer. His purpose: to ensure that both he and his newly created world "stood" before God.
STANDING BEFORE GOD
But there is more to it than that. The two Biblical passages cited by the Talmud as the sources of the Morning Prayer are among the most remarkable human-God dialogues in scriptures. The first passage, taken from Genesis 18, is a record of the conversation between God and Abraham concerning the proposed destruction of Sodom and Gomorra.
In this conversation, Abraham challenged God's justice and demanded Divine mercy with a ferocity that leaves the reader astonished at his sheer audacity. Allow yourself to feel the words, "Will You stamp out the righteous along with the wicked? What if there should be fifty righteous people in the city? Would You still stamp it out rather than spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death to the righteous along with the wicked; so the righteous will be like the wicked. It would be sacrilege to You! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?" [Genesis 18, 24-26]
Abraham then proceeds to demand mercy in terms that are almost as insistent, declaring, "Behold now, I desired to speak to my Lord although I am but dust and ashes. What if the fifty righteous people should lack five? Would You destroy the entire city because of the five?" [Ibid, 27-28]
How does such a ringing challenge emerge from the mouth of a person who regards himself as no more than a pile of dust and ashes?
To appreciate the utter impossibility of this conversation, remember that we are not Abraham. For us, God exists only in the abstract: He is a being we have never personally met and in whose existence we only vaguely believe. But to Abraham, God was a Being he knew and spoke to. Imagine that the Almighty Himself came to inform you about His decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorra on account of the great evil that He discovered there. Would you presume to challenge His judgment, and with such force?
CO-OPERATION, NOT CONFRONTATION
Let us attempt to place ourselves in Abraham's shoes and see if we can follow his thinking. God came to inform him about His decision to destroy Sodom. If the proposed destruction was none of his business, God didn't have to tell him about it in advance. He could just as well have read about it in the newspapers after the destruction happened. If God appeared to Him specifically to give him an opportunity to comment on the verdict this could only mean that He was seeking Abraham's approval and endorsement.
God wants to make sure that He is on the same page as you are precisely because of your dedication to His service.
But if you regard yourself as no more important than a pile of dust and ashes how do you comprehend that the Almighty is asking for your approval? The answer: the Almighty is seeking your approval precisely because you regard yourself as insignificant. He knows that your entire being is focused on the sanctification of His name. He knows that you have dedicated your very being to His service and only have His interests at heart. He wants to make sure that He is on the same page as you are precisely because of your dedication to His service. He appreciates your humility and dedication and wants to cooperate!
And Abraham hit the mark exactly. God Himself explains this very point as a prelude to the meeting: And God said, "Shall I conceal from Abraham what I do, now that Abraham is sure to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of God doing charity and justice in order that God might then bring upon Abraham that which he had spoken of him." [ibid, 17-20]
The need to consult with Abraham arose because he had undertaken the task of sanctifying God's name in the world by teaching his children and his household to follow in the ways of God's justice and charity. His self-appointed mission in life was to teach the world to follow God. As he would be the one to carry the burden of the teaching, his input concerning how to sanctify the Divine Name and the actions he considers sacrilegious deserves to be weighed in God's deliberations. The proposed destruction of the entire civilization of Sodom and Gomorra would definitely affect Abraham's ability to sanctify God's Name. He would have to defend God's actions. God would only destroy Sodom and Gomorra if Abraham was behind the decision!
To insure that we clearly understand this point of 'standing before God,' the Talmud offers us a second passage that nails down the equation of standing = prayer.
This passage tells the story of the events that led Pinchas the zealot to kill Zimri, one of the highest ranking officers of the tribe of Simeon. Some of the children of Israel had begun to stray after the daughters of Moav and to worship their idols. The most prestigious Israelite involved in the incident was Zimri who had relations with Cozbi bat Zur, a Moavite princess. Pinchas killed them both by piercing them with his spear, and brought the incident to a close with a prayer. The Talmud comments on this prayer:
"…and Pinchas stood in prayer" [Psalms 106:30]. Rabbi Elazar noticed a flaw in the syntax of this verse -- the proper spelling of the Hebrew word to pray is "Vayitpalel," instead it is written as "Vayepalel," a word that can also be translated as "judgment." He explains that this change from the proper syntax was deliberate; it teaches us that there was a critical undertone to Pinchas' prayer. He threw the bodies down in front of God (i. e. at the entrance of the Tabernacle) and declared: Master of the world, for the sake of these two, 24,000 Jews had to perish [the number that died in the plague following the incident]? The Angels wanted to push Pinchas away on account of his insolence, but God told them, "Leave him be, for he is a zealot the son of a zealot, and an appeaser of anger the son of an appeaser of anger." [Sanhedrin, 44a]
It is obviously not a coincidence that the Rabbis of the Talmud locate the second textual source of the Morning Prayer in another text that portrays a Jew challenging the merits of Divine justice in the strongest possible terms. Pinchas provides another perfect role model of a human being who presumes to confront God, inspired by his total dedication to the sanctification of the Holy Name and an absolute abhorrence of its sacrilege. There is a clear message here. The Morning Prayer is recited by an independent thinker who stands before God fully prepared to state his own opinions about how God ought to run His world. He may be dust and ashes before the Almighty, but if his prayers are an expression of his sense of mission he is entitled to stand up tall even before God. He does not have to cringe apologetically like a humble beggar; he is entitled to express an opinion as a full partner in God's creation.
TIKUN HAOLAM REVISITED
At the dawning of each new day God presents His broken world to us again with the injunction, "Repair it!" The Jewish people are challenged to make use of each new day and continue our collective mission of teaching humanity to accept that God is in charge of the cosmos. We signed on to be a "Kingdom of priests and a holy nation" at Mt. Sinai. God wants to hear from us. He is interested in our plans for the world He is about to present us. He needs to know the inputs we require to successfully carry out our plans for the sanctification of the Holy Name. He wants to know what type of world to give us.
The description of the Morning Prayer as "Abraham rose early and went to the place where he had stood" is eminently suitable. It is the Morning Prayer that allows man to "stand tall." If we live with a sense of mission we do not have to take the world as a given. We can negotiate our working conditions. There is no contradiction between being 'dust and ashes' and being man the majestic.
[1.] "These are the unfolding events of the history of the heavens and the earth upon their creation" [Genesis 2, 4]. The Hebrew word for creation is spelled behiborom; when rearranged, the letters of this word spell Abraham. Apparently God felt that it was necessary to point out that the human species would eventually produce an individual of Abraham's caliber. Abraham serves as the marker of human potential. It's as though God were saying, "Just look at the amazing feats that the human beings I have just created are capable of -- behold my creature Abraham."