NO ATHEISTS IN A FOXHOLE

Previous Chapter

CHAPTER SEVEN

Prayer In Search of a Miracle

Heís dead! Marlow thought to himself. Oh my God, heís dead! Marlow prayed for a miracle as he rapidly shinnied down the scaffolding to the pit floor.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

WHAT DO WE EXPECT FROM PRAYER, ANYWAY, a miracle?

It depends upon the individual praying, but many do pray because of a need, and a sense of helplessness. In the back of the minds of many who look heavenward is more than a desire to connect - there is a need to overcome.

As long as people feel capable of achieving their goals, they feel it is superfluous to ask for success. Itís as if God has already granted them the success they seek, since they do not encounter obstacles along their way.

Few people ask God before "pay-day" for their paycheck, because they assume itís coming; it has every other week. However, those in search of a job ask God for a paycheck. "God, Iíve done my part," they say, "and have thus far been unsuccessful. Now its Your turn. Please, help me!"

This is prayer in search of a miracle. All humanly efforts have failed to bring about the desired success; nature stands in the personís way. And who, but God, can make nature break its own laws?

Like a child who appeals to his mother to change the mind of his obstinate father, we often pray to God to "change natureís mind." But is this a correct usage of prayer? It may be natural to turn to God and ask for some supernatural help, but is it the appropriate thing to do. And at what point does it become appropriate to do so?
(In Genesis 32:4, Jacob only turns to prayer after taking as many precautions as is reasonable to before confronting his brother Esau who promised to kill him. First he sent gifts to Esau to win his favor, then he divided his camp into two, and only then did he pray for God to intercede on his behalf.)

To answer this, it would help to understand the nature of miracles, and the role they are meant to play.

What is a miracle? Was the splitting of the Red Sea a miracle? Absolutely. Why? Because it was an unnatural occurrence. Well, then, is the birth of a child a miracle, since it happens thousands of times each day? Absolutely. And would it have been any less of a miracle if the same Red sea happened to split once a year? Once a day?

What made the splitting of the sea such a miracle, aside from the fact that it was a rare occurrence, was the fact that it happened just as the Jews were about to be overwhelmed by the Egyptian army. Even had the lining up of all nine planets, and the great gravitational pull on the sea that would have been created, been the cause of the phenomenon, (This is one of the many theories that have been suggested by some historians to explain the splitting of the sea.) the timing of the event would have still left the incident in the realm of miracle.

For every problem a person may encounter, the solution for it exists within nature. The problem is usually one of timing, not availability. There is a drug for cancer, for certain, somewhere in nature - but we need it now.

Even when Korach rebelled against Moses in the desert, (Numbers 16:23:) and it required a unique solution to defend Moses - the splitting of the earth to swallow Korach up - the solution had already existed within nature long before Moses summoned the miracle. (Ethics of Our Fathers, 5:8: "Ten things were created on Sabbath Eve at twilight. They are: The mouth of the earth...")

What makes a miracle a miracle is that nature responds as we require it to, when require it to, in the way we require it to, when there is no overwhelming reason to assume that it should. Thatís not a power that people have; thatís a power that only God enjoys.

But what is more natural - that "nature" should work against us, or with us? This question becomes even more fascinating when one considers that nature, as we know it, is merely a veil for God Himself! (See If Only I Understood Why, page 60, for an explanation of this concept.) This, apparently, is what Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa wanted to teach his daughter one Friday afternoon prior to the Shabbat:

One Friday before Shabbos, [Rebi Chanina ben Dosa] saw that his daughter was troubled. He said to her, "My daughter, what is troubling you?" She answered, "The container of oil was mixed..." He answered her, "My daughter, the One who said oil should burn, can He not say that vinegar should burn too?" The light burned all of Shabbos... (Taíanis 25a)
Whereas most of us would have told the daughter to go next door and borrow some oil, Rebi Chanina simply told his daughter that, ultimately, thereís no difference between oil and vinegar when it comes to making a flame. But Rebi Chaninaís answer seems to indicate a reliance on miracles, something weíre told that we shouldnít do. (It is an axion of Judaism that one is not allowed to depend upon miracles to happen. Rather, a person must make a reasonable effort to be successful, and if a miracle happens to occur, even better.)

From Rebi Chanina, perhaps one can learn what it means to rely upon a miracle.

When one believes that nature will run its course, and that the desired result is not along that course, and yet they act as if God will bend nature to make it provide the desired result, then thatís relying upon a miracle.

However, letís say one believes that natureís course is not carved in stone, but rather subject to the actions of man. In other words, one believes that God makes nature respond according to manís spiritual nature, then they are not relying upon miracles when they expect a seemingly ďunnaturalĒ occurrence to happen in response to a spiritual necessity.

Perhaps this was the underlying message to the Jewish people in the desert. Moses was told by God to speak to the rock, and bring water from it in before the entire nation. (Numbers 20:7) Moses, in the end, hit the rock to bring out the water, for which he was severely punished; he was denied entry into the Land of Israel, which he longed to experience.

The reason why Moses was so severely punished, for a mistake that would not have been apparent had not the Torah pointed it out to us, was because the message he was to teach was fundamental for living in Israel. Israel itself is a land of miracles, where the rain does not fall, or fall the way it is supposed to, unless the people merit it. (Deuteronomy 11:13)

Hitting a rock to provide water, as opposed to speaking to a rock to do so, is less of a miracle. We expect physical results from physical actions; we do not expect physical results from spiritual actions, unless a miracle occurs.

Mosesí message was supposed to be: if you believe that God runs the world, and actively participates in the daily lives of people, and you live that way, then there is no difference for you between miracle and nature.

In fact, if you peeled away the veils of nature, and asked the question, whatís more natural: for nature to respond to the will of man, or for man to have to respond the will of nature, the answer would surprise you.

Imagine a river that runs downstream, which is later dammed up to control the flow of water. The water itself "longs" to run downstream, unabated by the dam, but is held back. It is more ďnaturalĒ for the stream to runs its course, but the dam prevents it from doing so.

However, if the dam was removed, the water would gush forth in torrents and return to its "natural" course. So is the case with creation. It is more natural for righteous people to prosper, and for evil people to fail. It is more natural for mankind to will to eat, and find food prepared and available immediately. This was the way it was in the Garden of Eden, and this is the way it was for the Jews throughout the 40 years in the desert.
(Yoma 75a; The rabbis teach that the manna, the heavenly food came down from the sky already prepared for those who were righteous. Furthermore, their clothes never needed changing, nor did they have to concern themselves with the needs of personal hygiene.)

Going behind the veil of nature is the mesiros nefesh necessary for making miracles occur, as the following Talmudic passage indicates:

Rav Papa said to Abaye, "What was different about the earlier generation for whom miracles [readily] occurred, from us for whom miracles donít [readily] occur? ... Rebi Yehuda used to remove one shoe [in preparation for a fast day sanctioned because of a drought], and it would instantly rain! We afflict ourselves, and shout out loud, but no [rain] comes! [Abaye] said to him, "The earlier generation used to sacrifice themselves to sanctify the name of God." (Brochos 20a)
One can assume that the generation of Rav Papa and Abaye also sacrificed themselves to sanctify the name of God. But the quality of self-sacrifice apparently, was different. What was the difference? The answer to that question, perhaps, comes from better understanding the following verse from the episode of Moses and the rock.
God said to Moses and Aaron, "You did not have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of the Israelites..." (Numbers 20:12)
What was the lack of faith? Because Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it? Did Moses doubt for one second that God could not bring water from a rock if he spoke to it instead of hitting it? That is impossible to say. Moses saw far greater miracles on top of Mt. Sinai, and in Egypt, than water coming from a rock as a result of speech. Then what didnít Moses have faith in?

That God wanted to perform the miracle, without any reservation.

The basis of a miracle is the belief that God wants to perform the miracle, and will perform the miracle if youíre willing to believe this is true. In fact the greater miracle, if you will, is the fact that miracles donít happen more often, for our own good.

The sacrifice one makes is in abandoning oneself to this axiom of creation to a point that oneís life is governed by it, like in the case of Chanina ben Dosa, and Rebi Yehuda the Prince. (As easy as a task as this may appear to be, the fact that so few people are able to make that "leap of faith" is enough evidence of how great a sacrifice it is to make.) The mesiros nefesh one makes is in taking the fateful step across the threshold that separates the world of obvious miracle from the world of hidden miracle, or nature as it is more commonly called.

Prayer is a vehicle to cross that threshold. It is a device man can use to peel away the veils of nature to discover a world within which the natural laws are the laws of open miracles. Prayer, when used properly, can bring one to the realization that Godís hand is in all aspects of life, and that the natural world around them is an illusion, a covering for God who waits to be found.

Once a young boy was playing hide-and-go-seek with some friends. When it was the boyís turn to hide, he buried himself behind some bushes, and in excited anticipation, waited to be found.

But minutes went by, and the area in which he hid became silent. It wasnít too long before the boy realized he had been forgotten about, and that no one had come to look for him. Dejected, the boy ran home, sobbing.

As he approached his home, his father recognized the sound of his sobbing son, and rushed outside to see what the matter was.

"Why do cry, my son?" the father asked stroking his sonís head.

"Father," the boy said through his tears, "I was playing hide-and-go-seek with my friends, but no one came looking for me..."

At that moment, tears formed in the eyes of the father, and he too began to weep. The boy felt his fatherís warm tears run down his face. The image of his father crying made the boy stop his own crying and ask,

"But why do you cry, father?"

"My son," the father answered softly, "Until now I did not understand. You hid from your friends with the hope of being discovered, and when they abandoned you, you felt rejected. How much more so must God feel rejected after having hidden from us, waiting to be discovered when instead we have stopped looking for him..."

Looking for Him is a the basis of true prayer, as the following states:

The world assumes that God sometimes sends misfortunes upon a person, and therefore he must pray to rid himself of his troubles. In other words, it is accepted that prayer constitutes a means whereby a person can free himself from his hardships. The truth is just the opposite. God desires our prayer. Prayer, the expression of our closeness to the Creator, is one of the goals for which we live. In order to stimulate our prayers, God visits upon man all manner of tribulations to direct him back to his Divine Creator. (Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, Mashgiach of Mir.)
Thus the physical world is merely the vehicle to bring us to prayer, and prayer is the conduit through which to sense God, to remove the veils of nature that delude us into not seeing Him. Having done this, one has literally put oneself in the hands of God, and that is the basis of a miracle.

This is what is written in the book Duties of the Heart, (Rabbi Bachya Ibn Paquda, the author, wrote the work in the 11th Century. ) in the chapter titled, "Trust in God":

... For if a person does not trust in God, then he puts his trust elsewhere. If he puts his trust elsewhere than in God, then God withdraws His providential care from that individual and leaves him in the power of the one in whom he trusted...
A person who relies upon nature will be subject to nature. But for the Chanina be Dosas - the miracle-provokers - their trust is placed entirely in God. It isnít blind faith, because it is the result of thorough and intensive investigation into the ways of God and the nature of His universe. And it is the source of their own greatness and blessing as well:
The rabbis taught: The early men of piety used to wait one hour prior to prayer [in preparation to pray], pray for one hour, and delay one hour after; [in total] 9 hours each day was devoted to prayer. How then did they maintain their learning, and how did they earn a living? Because they were pious, their learning was maintained [in the hearts so that it wouldnít be forgotten - Rashi], and their work was blessed. (Brochos 32b)
So, in the end, what do you want from prayer? A miracle? No, you want to remove the veils of nature and find God, who is waiting to be found. And upon doing this, the "dam" that holds back nature from responding to our needs is removed, and life becomes the glorious and tranquil Garden to which we have always longed to return.

Summary:

You donít pray for a miracle to happen. Prayer is supposed to help a person remove the veils of nature so the person can become fully aware of Godís involvement in every aspect of daily life. Once this is achieved, then the "illusion" of nature is no longer necessary in that personís life, and they cross the threshold from the world of hidden miracle into the world of open miracle. Miracles are not the goal of prayer - they a by-product of it.

© by Mercava Productions

Next Chapter
Table of Contents
Rabbi Winston's main page
Back to Neveh Homepage



The webspace for the Neveh Zion site has been generously donated by


send your comments to webmaster@neveh.org