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Parashat Nitzavim 5775

This is the last Shabbat of the year, how exciting. Tomorrow night we will be meeting again to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and start officially the period of the High Holidays. However, this Shabbat is also special because of another reason. We just read the last Haftorah Denechamuta, the last Haftorah of consolation, the last of 7 Haftarot we read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah.

The narrative in the Haftorah is after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem; they were reduced to ruins by an invading army. What had once been the glory of Israel was now its shame. Splendour had turned to desolation; former magnificence was present wretchedness. The terrible disaster which had overwhelmed Jerusalem like a devastating flood had eaten itself into the heart of the people. The Hebrews felt there remained but one thing to live for, only one aspiration to feed upon: the restoration of the city, the rebuilding of the Sanctuary. However, as they dreamed of this hope they could not but be sensible of their helplessness to realize it. Was not the dream vain? No, cried the prophet Yeshayahu, if G-d had willed and permitted the destruction, He must will its restoration. “I have set watchmen upon your walls, O Jerusalem; they shall never hold their peace day nor night: you are the Lord’s reminders, take no rest”, says the prophet.

G-d is angry with us and rightly so, but we can persuade Him to abandon his anger. And who can? The watchmen of Jerusalem, those that love the city, will remind G-d of His love for Israel and Jerusalem through their prayers. The prophet says: “Let your continual prayer be a constant reminder to Him of the misery in which His people exists. Give Him no chance of forgetting the terrible plight into which His children had fallen, not until He answers us and give us what we want”.

This is very strong language and a complicated idea. It’s complicated from two different sides. We can think that it is not respectful, maybe even blasphemous, to think we can impose our will on G-d, that we can go head to head with Him and make Him do what we want. On the other side, we can see all this as very naive, as primitive, to think that prayers can really change our reality, that if we pray hard enough G-d will make our wishes true.

It’s strange to our ears, but it would have not done so to the prophet’s hearers, as they, unlike many of us, believed prayer to have a huge power. They were convinced that the gates of Heaven could be stormed by earnest and persistent supplication, that G-d decrees could be changed from bad to good. To these people G-d was very near, He was their Father and therefore, as a father, even if right to get angry, he would also be touched by their pain.

Our relationship to prayer is more complicated, our idea of G-d is more complex. Usually, however, this idea places G-d very far from us, as little more than an abstraction. The wording of Yeshayahu, on the other hand, is very much in the spirit of the Bible, as we can see many characters praying to G-d and succeeding in influencing Him. Examples are Avraham praying for Sodoma and Gomorra before their destruction or Moshe asking G-d to forgive Israel for their sins.

So have the times changed or G-d has changed, that such idea of prayer like Yeshayahu’s sounds so foreign to us. I suppose we have changed, faith in the power of prayer has weakened where it has not disappeared altogether. Many have ceased to pray, either because they do not believe in G-d or because their idea of G-d is not one of someone that hears prayer. Here today we are together to pray, but we all would hesitate to use language about G-d as the one used by Yeshayahu. He have changed.

Belief in prayer has been weakened by the fact that our prayer so often receives no answer. We sometimes ask G-d for something and not only do we not receive it, but frequently the opposite happens. I think that again, the problem is with us, maybe we don’t understand prayer correctly.

I have always loved the idea that G-d can answer our prayers in three possible ways when we ask from something: “Yes”, “yes but not now”, and “no, I have a better idea for you”. We have wrongly chosen the test of prayer for material things or physical events, as though these were all we have to pray for. Prayer belongs to the realm of the spirit and that is the sphere where it should be tested. When we ask for higher blessings, for moral strength, for guidance, for the assurance of forgiveness, for comfort in sorrow, for hope, many times our prayer is already answered in the act itself of prayer.

We are on the gates of the High Holidays, a time when we pray a lot more than usual. Mumbling of more or less understandable pages of Hebrew print is not prayer. In addition to the congregational form of worship, that gives us unity and connection with the past, there should be the personal outpouring of the heart, the individual prayer. Prayer is for ourselves, not for G-d, let our supplication be for the true treasures which G-d can bestow upon us: purity of heart, strength of spirit, moral fortitude, forgiveness, clarity, purpose, love.

Like Ferdinand Isserman said: “Prayer cannot bring water to parched field, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuilt a weakened will”.

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