Les Vulnerables

letter-447577_1280

Government officials, bureaucrats, the media, the doctors – everyone has been urging us to pray for the welfare of PM Sharon. And so , as rarely before, the Land is alive with the sound of prayer.

To whom is all this praying directed? Prayer, by definition, presupposes that the words are directed to someone, and that someone hears the prayer. That Someone is, of course, God. The corollary assumptions are that a) God exists; b) He listens to prayer; and c) that He is all-powerful and can step in and perform His will when all human resources seem not to be working. If He so chooses he can perform miracles; only He can make the PM well.

Does this outpouring of prayer reflect a population that is latently a religious one? Does all this turning to God suggest a sub-surface piety among our citizenry? Or is it simply a sign of desperation? For no one can deny that, universally, the idea of prayer seems to surface only when things are bad. When things are going well, when there are no worries or concerns, turning to God is not on our agenda. Prayer is the twin of crisis, the brother of desperation. When all else fails, when we have exhausted all earthly means of help, then – but not usually before then – we pray. Ani rishon, va-ani acharon, says Isaiah: “I am the first, and I am the last”(44:6). Which, beyond its plain sense that God is eternal and infinite, also suggests that when things are bad, God is the first to be turned to, and when things are good, He is the last to be turned to.

One suspects that Israelis – even those who would not describe themselves as dati – are far more religious than they let on. Piety, religion, outreach to Gd, are not very fashionable, so by and large these qualities do not surface in daily life. But somehow, when the need arises, Israelis of all backgrounds are able to reach inward and find resources that stem from deeply religious wellsprings.

Sometimes I wonder: When someone who never thinks of God knocks at His door in desperation, how does He react? Does He first demand to see our insurance card? Does He ask why we have ignored Him until now? Does He want to know if we paid our last bill? Does He answer the door at all? Or does He open the door wide and welcome us and embrace us and assure us that He is still the merciful God?

Fortunately God is not a bureaucrat, and we believe in perfect faith that despite everything, the Merciful One takes pity on His recalcitrant creatures and opens His door wide to all of us. (Nevertheless, it is the better part of valor to keep the lines of communication open…)

The sudden felling of this great oak of a Prime Minister has demonstrated once again the utter vulnerability of each human being. In the deepest sense, far beyond desperation or panic, it is this realization that we are not omnipotent and not eternal that causes us instinctively to reach up to the only One who is. And it is this acknowledgment of being a vulnerable human being that is the essential first step in developing into a genuinely religious human being.

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5 Responses

  1. Saul Mashbaum says:

    This is a perceptive and insightful article.

    I particularly liked the “vort” (brief Torah insight)
    “Ani rishon, va-ani acharon, says Isaiah: “I am the first, and I am the last”(44:6). Which, beyond its plain sense that God is eternal and infinite, also suggests that when things are bad, God is the first to be turned to, and when things are good, He is the last to be turned to.”

    When I say this verse in musaf on Rosh Hashana, chances are I will recall this comment.

    Saul Mashbaum

  2. J.I. says:

    Sometimes I wonder: When someone who never thinks of God knocks at His door in desperation, how does He react? Does He first demand to see our insurance card? Does He ask why we have ignored Him until now? Does He want to know if we paid our last bill? Does He answer the door at all? Or does He open the door wide and welcome us and embrace us and assure us that He is still the merciful God?

    כה כִּי-תוֹלִיד בָּנִים וּבְנֵי בָנִים, וְנוֹשַׁנְתֶּם בָּאָרֶץ; וְהִשְׁחַתֶּם, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם פֶּסֶל תְּמוּנַת כֹּל, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי ה-אֱלֶֹיךָ, לְהַכְעִיסוֹ. כו הַעִידֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ, כִּי-אָבֹד תֹּאבֵדוּן מַהֵר, מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ: לֹא-תַאֲרִיכֻן יָמִים עָלֶיהָ, כִּי הִשָּׁמֵד תִּשָּׁמֵדוּן. כז וְהֵפִיץ ה אֶתְכֶם, בָּעַמִּים; וְנִשְׁאַרְתֶּם, מְתֵי מִסְפָּר, בַּגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר יְנַהֵג ה אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה. כח וַעֲבַדְתֶּם-שָׁם אֱלֹהִים, מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי אָדָם: עֵץ וָאֶבֶן–אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִרְאוּן וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּן, וְלֹא יֹאכְלוּן וְלֹא יְרִיחֻן. כט וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת-ה אֱלֶיךָ, וּמָצָאתָ: כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ. ל בַּצַּר לְךָ–וּמְצָאוּךָ, כֹּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה; בְּאַחֲרִית, הַיָּמִים, וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד-ה אֱלֹיךָ, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלוֹ. לא כִּי ל רַחוּם ה אֱלֹיךָ, לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַשְׁחִיתֶךָ; וְלֹא יִשְׁכַּח אֶת-בְּרִית אֲבֹתֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לָהֶם.

    [The above is Deuteronomy 4:25-31. –Ed.]

  3. Charles B. Hall says:

    ‘the difference between your average church-going town in Texas and Cambridge, Mass’

    I’ve never lived in Texas, but I attended college in Cambridge, Massachusetts and observed
    religiosity there. There is in fact a tremendous religious spirit there. Most of the
    non-students are Roman Catholic, and most of those who are not are mainline Protestants or
    Unitarians. Their churches were well attended and AFAIK that continues to be the case. There
    are few evangelical Protestants, who probably make up the majority in most of Texas. There was
    little “in your face” religious confrontation; most New Englanders probably have a sense of
    the terrible religous bigotry in that region’s history and want to leave it aside for good.
    The aggessive missionizing characteristic of many evangelicals does not mesh with this
    attitude and that is probably why those churches have so few followers in that part of the US.

    The student population there — a minority of the city — is as diverse as anywhere. It was
    there that I met the first shomer Shabat Jew I had ever met. Decades later, I am now shomer
    Shabat; I returned for my 25th college reunion and received an aliyah at the orthodox minyan
    at the Hillel center.

  4. Tuvya Stern says:

    As one who has been following the Israeli media on the Sharon story, I completely (and respectfully) disagree with Rabbi Feldman’s
    analysis. The word used on Israeli radio has been “ichulim”, “wishes” for Sharon’s recovery and not tefilot. The only time I recall hearing the word
    prayer used has been in reference to Bush’s message that he is praying for Sharon’s recovery and the prayers of the Chief Rabbi.

    A friend of mine happened to have been in Hadassah the first Shabbos that Sharon was in the hospital. Whenever a member of the press
    saw someone with a yarmulka on, they pounced on them and asked, “Are you praying for the Prime Minister?” It was as if they were
    to trying to increase the religious tensions in the country.

    However, Rabbi Feldman is correct in the following respect. Israel is really two countries. When he writes that, “One suspects that Israelis – even those who would not describe themselves as dati – are far more religious than they let on”, Rabbi Feldmand is correct when he is talking about
    Yossi the cab driver in Beer Sheva, but not when he is talking about Itai, the lawyer in Hertzelia. To understand how this can be,
    think of the difference between your average church-going town in Texas and Cambridge, Mass. Since it is the secular that essentially
    control the media — in both Israel and America — you never really get a sense for how religious such people are until you actually
    meet them in person.

  5. Harry Maryles says:

    Thank you Rabbi Feldman. This is wonderful and insightful article about the true religiosity of most Israelis. I wish this attitude was more universal. For anyone interested, based on this article I wrote a deatiled analysis of how I perceive things on my Blog, Emes Ve-Emunah.