What You Bring to Prayer

MinyanA man may commit a crime now and teach mathematics effortlessly an hour later. But when a man prays, all he has done in his life enters his prayer.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism
pp. 301-2

In a sense, Sukkos itself is about getting our priorities straight. Here we just finished with the Days of Judgement, hopefully with Hashem’s blessings for a year of prosperity and success. Yet the first thing we do with our new-found blessings is to leave our comfortable homes for the temporary shade of the Sukkah. We thereby acknowledge that there can be no greater “success” in life that to do what Hashem really desires, even when it’s not what’s most comfortable. Sometimes we shake with the Esrog and sometimes we shake with the horse – the main thing is to strive to understand what Hashem wants of us in a given situation, not what we want or what makes us feel good. As the pasuk says (Mishlei/Proverbs 3:6), “In all your ways know Him; He will straighten your paths.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
“Sukkos: Shaking Up Our Priorities”

What does it mean to be a person of faith? Ironically, the answer may depend on your religion. Different faith groups seem to emphasize different priorities. What we believe we must do to serve God depends on the rules we have for such an occasion. In reading Rabbi Heschel’s book God in Search of Man, I found a representation of both the Jewish and Christian viewpoint on what it is to be a servant of God.

Here is how Heschel (p. 293) sees Christianity and frankly, how many Christians see themselves.

Paul waged a passionate battle against the power of law and proclaimed instead the religion of grace. Law, he exclaimed, cannot conquer sin, nor can righteousness be attained through works of the law. A man is justified “by faith without deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28)

By contrast, Heschel presents Judaism thus:

It takes deeds more seriously than things. Jewish law is, in a sense, a science of deeds. Its main concern is not only how to worship Him at certain times but how to live with Him at all times. Every deed is a problem; there is a unique task at every moment. All of life at all moments is the problem and the task. (p. 292)

The claim of Judaism that religion and law are inseparable is difficult for many of us to comprehend. The difficulty may be explained by modern man’s conception of the essence of religion. To the modern mind, religion is a state of the soul, inwardness; feeling rather than obedience, faith rather than action, spiritual rather than concrete. To Judaism, religion is not a feeling for something that is, but an answer to Him who is asking us to live in a certain way. It is in its very origin a consciousness of total commitment; a realization that all of life is not only man’s but also God’s sphere of interest. (p. 293)

Heschel presents a very rigid dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity as faith lived out in deeds vs. one expressed only by internal introspection. Even prayer for a Jew is a matter, not only of what he thinks and feels, but what he does, vs. the prayer of a Christian as being a private, ephemeral pipeline between man and God, excluding anything behavioral. In fact, Heschel (p.295) paints an extremely dismal portrait of Christianity in this following example:

Thus acts of kindness, when not dictated by the sense of duty, are no better than cruelty, and compassion or regard for human happiness as such is looked upon as an ulterior motive. “I would not break my word even to save mankind!” exclaimed Fichte. His salvation and righteousness were apparently so much more important to him than the fate of all men that he would have destroyed mankind to save himself.

DaveningThe mistake in judging Christianity that Heschel makes is in judging the faultiness of some of its followers rather than the source itself. Didn’t James, the brother of the Master, write this?

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. –James 2:14-26

Of course, many Christians all but ignore this short but well-known piece of advice in favor of the creed whereby salvation is accomplished through faith alone and without works, thus depicting any good deeds as ultimately useless to an individual’s salvation.

But who said we are here simply to be saved? Yes, mankind is in trouble, we are morally bankrupt, self-driven, greedy, materialistic, and would consume our neighbor alive if there were not laws to prevent it. We need to be saved, not only from our ultimate fate at the hands of a living and just God, but from our own acts of self-destruction.

But why do Christians stop at praying for the church? Why do some Pastors limit their preaching to the salvation of the faithful when all people everywhere need not only a realization of God, but to live out a life that serves God and man? Even our secular and atheist brothers and sisters in the world surpass us in compassion sometimes.

I’m a liberal, so I probably dream bigger than you. For instance, I want everybody to have healthcare. I want lazy people to have healthcare. I want stupid people to have healthcare. I want drug addicts to have healthcare. I want bums who refuse to work even when given the opportunity to have healthcare. I’m willing to pay for that with my taxes, because I want to live in a society where it doesn’t matter how much of a loser you are, if you need medical care you can get it.

-Max Udargo
“Open Letter to that 53% Guy”
Daily Kos

You may consider Mr. Udargo’s statement to be extreme (and I’ve quoted him before), but he is expressing compassion for men and women he doesn’t even know and, through his taxes, he’s willing to pay to make sure they receive care they neither worked for nor, in some cases, ever intend to pay back. Shouldn’t a Christian have the same selfless caring for the needy, the broken, and the dying?

I think we’re supposed to, but the message has become lost. Like most of the rest of our culture, the church has become internally driven and self seeking. Perhaps the synagogue is no better in practice, but Rabbi Heschel reminds us that Judaism, and by inference Christianity, has a core set of principles that differs from how we actually choose to practice a life of faith today. Jesus said himself that we are to love both God and man (Matthew 22:37-40) and he didn’t mean just the people that we know and love.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:43-48

If, as Rabbi Heschel says, that “when a man prays, all he has done in his life enters his prayer”, then it’s not just what we think or feel when we are attempting to draw closer to God, but what we do that defines our relationship with Him. To see a person’s true relationship with the Creator, look at how they treat people.

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. –1 John 4:20-21

2 thoughts on “What You Bring to Prayer”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.