I was once asked by a Christian colleague what Jews pray for, a question I answered by saying that Jews don’t pray for as much as we pray with. Jewish prayer is not about getting what we want from God by reciting the right formula of words with the right spirit or intention. Rather, it’s about praying with others, creating a community of people who strengthen and inspire one another through our common aspirations and wishes for the world. At its best, Jewish prayer is an elaborate meditation that expresses gratitude for our lives and hope for a better world.
If that’s true, then Jacob’s prayer, uttered after he woke up from a dream he had while fleeing his home to stay with his uncle Laban, seems puzzling. Recorded in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob wakes up and says these words:
“Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it! Shaken, he said, How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven…If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.” (Genesis 28:16-22)
Jacob’s words, characterized as a vow in verse 22 (not quoted in the passage above), is really a prayer that attempts to strike a bargain with God. Boiled down to its essence, Jacob is proposing to exchange faith for material sustenance and protection. His prayer seems to endorse the idea that we can expect to have our faith rewarded by having our tangible and intangible needs met.
Jacob is young and inexperienced in life at the time he recites these words (his prayer 20 years later, as he prepares to return home, is very different). Somehow, he’s gotten the idea that there is a beneficent God who rewards genuine faith and good behavior. He seems to think that God desperately needs his expression of faith and is willing to bargain with him to get it. Whatever Jacob may think, whatever motivated his prayer/vow, his thinking is immature, like that of a child who has been taught that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished.
But as human beings mature and transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, we discover that it’s not possible to bargain with God. Our life experience tells us, sometimes quite starkly, that our good intentions and wishes are not always rewarded. We might want to offer faith and moral behavior in exchange for material sustenance, but that exchange is never guaranteed and there is no actual reason to believe that God wants to make such a bargain.
Perhaps it’s better not to pray for something but instead to pray with others and draw strength from our community to face our lives with courage and to find the inspiration and motivation to make the world a better place.