Parashat Hayyei Sarah

Genesis 23:1–25:18

November 14, 2009 / 27 Heshvan 5770

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice chancellor and chief development officer, JTS.

Oh, if the atheists read the Torah! During this week's parashah, we encounter a text that could have been fodder for the atheist argument against prayer. Shortly before his death, Abraham calls his senior servant for one last assignment. The servant is to return to Abraham's homeland to find a fitting wife for Isaac, and, after swearing that Abraham's bidding will be done, he sets off.

As he arrives in Abraham's homeland, the servant prays to God:

O Lord, God of my master, Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, "Please lower your jar that I may drink, and who replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels', let her be the one whom You have decreed for your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master." (Genesis 24:12-14)

The servant's prayer is essentially the gambler's prayer: he prays for luck. He is asking for God to preordain events, to intentionally set the stage and direct the future.

Richard Dawkins, possibly one of the most vocal atheists out there, takes issue with religion functioning this way. The chapter of his book The God Delusion devoted to prayer focuses on an April 2006 article in American Heart Journal reporting on a study that tracked 1,802 patients who received coronary bypass surgery and the role that intercessory prayer played in their recovery. These patients' names were distributed to churchgoers across the country who were told to pray for the patients' recovery. The study found that not only did prayer not play a role in the recovery process, but patients who knew they were being prayed for actually had a higher rate of complications. To Dawkins this is damning evidence for religion—we might as well blaspheme God and live our lives as atheists.

While Abraham's servant leaves everything to the grace of God, his prayer is not unfounded. Commenting on this verse, Abraham Ibn Ezra reframes the "luck" the servant prays for by stating, "Cause good fortune: in the sense of God arranging that it should happen" (24:12). Here, the servant is asking not for good fortune, but for God to actually arrange the meeting with Isaac's future wife.

Divine intervention in human affairs surfaces throughout Judaism, most notably in the Talmud tractate of Berakhot where we read, "Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for the fear of heaven" (32b). In Dawkins's world, this statement is blasphemy. God does not dictate our actions—Dawkins's rhetoric would even go so far as to state that evils of the world (and in many of those cases evils in the name of religion) prove that God cannot dictate our actions. But this understanding neglects the nuanced history of this text and Judaism in general.

With all its depth of difficulty, "Everything is in the hands of heaven" has not been disregarded. Throughout rabbinic literature, great thinkers have grappled with the idea of God's omnipotence.

Moses ben Maimonides, for one, could not accept a world in which God dictated the future. He, like the vast majority of us, recognized our active role in our own future and considered our only recourse to be this interpretation of this excerpt from the Talmud. In his book The Eight Chapters, Maimonides wrote that when our Sages said that everything was in the hands of heaven, it referred to our physical characteristics (eye color, height, etc.) and those of the natural world. These attributes are in the hands of heaven. Everything else—every action we undertake, every thought we have, everything we do—is motivated by "the fear of heaven." What previously seemed to be a limiting term is, as Rambam can only understand it in our world, all-encompassing of our actions.

With Rambam's interpretation of the Talmudic passage, our understanding of God's role changes, but Abraham's servant seems to be left muttering in the desert. How do we understand the servant's prayer in a world where we believe that God cannot define the future?

Prayer in its many forms is an essential element of Judaism, but for many modern people it is difficult to find religious expression in traditional prayers. Discovering meaning in prayer—both our own and Abraham's servant's—demands interpretation. Prayer needs meaning beyond the words, and meaningful prayer requires an understanding of our need for prayer. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

Prayer is our attachment to the utmost. Without God in sight, we are like the scattered rungs of a broken ladder. To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God to join the movement toward God which surges unnoticed throughout the entire universe. (Man's Quest for God, 7)

Prayer, then, is a moment to recognize our connection to the divine; to connect the rungs of the ladder and remember that we have a purpose larger than our current task.

At this point on his journey, when we hear his prayer, Abraham's servant has been forced to face the difficulty of his chore. It was not only finding a wife for Isaac, but also straying from the safety of Abraham's tent, encountering the outside world. It was then that prayer became of utmost importance. He needed to reconnect himself to the importance of his charge. This search was of divine importance and, "without God in sight," he recounted what he needed to make happen.

Dawkins's attack on religion would have been critical if he wrote during an age when our conception of religion had no depth and if we relied solely on the God of the Bible and were bereft of interpretation. Our ability to interpret the sacred has and will continue to keep skeptical believers working to ensure that the "movement toward God" doesn't surge unnoticed—maybe even by Dawkins.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.