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Torah Sparks

June 21, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Num. 8:1 - 12:16 (Hertz, p. 605; Etz Hayim, p. 816)
Triennial Cycle II: Num. 9:15 - 10:34 (Hertz, p. 609; Etz Hayim, p. 821)
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 - 4:7 (Hertz, p. 620; Etz Hayim, p. 836)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: Doesn't God Know Our Needs?

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Have two silver trumpets made; make them of hammered work. They shall serve you to summon the community and to set the divisions in motion. When both are blown in long blasts, the whole community shall assemble before you at the entrance of Meeting; and if only one is blown, the chieftains, heads of Israel's contingents, shall assemble before you. But when you sound short blasts a second time, those encamped on the south shall move forward. Thus short blasts shall be blown for setting them in motion, while to convoke the congregation you shall blow long blasts, not short ones. The trumpets shall be blown by Aaron's sons, the priests; they shall be for you an institution for all time throughout all ages. When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be delivered from your enemies. And on your joyous occasions-your fixed festivals and new moon days-you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, the Lord, am your God." (Numbers 10:1-10)


  1. Numbers 10:9 states, "When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be delivered from your enemies." From this verse we learn it is a mitzvah to plead fervently with God through prayer and teruah (shofar blasts) whenever the community is faced with great distress... for it is a mitzvah to affirm in moments of distress our belief that the Holy One listens to prayers and intervenes to grant aid. (Nachmanides' commentary to Maimonides' Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandment #5)
  2. Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others cannot be practiced if the person's own need-awareness is dull... Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives, and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about... God needs neither thanks nor hymns. He wants to hear the outcry of man, confronted with a ruthless reality. He expects prayer to rise for a suffering world cognizant of its genuine needs. In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs. It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more. In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer. Of course, the very instant he finds himself, he becomes a redeemed being. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik)
  3. Prayer is an act of self-purification, a quarantine for the soul. It gives us the opportunity to be honest, to say what we believe, and to stand for what we say. However, prayer is no panacea, no substitute for action. It is, rather, like a beam thrown from a flashlight before us into the darkness. It is in this light that we grope, stumble, and climb, discover where we stand, what surrounds us, and the course which we should choose. 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 Him, which surges unnoticed, throughout the entire universe. We do not step out of world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. God is the center toward which all forces tend. He is the source, and we are the flowing of His force, the ebb and flow of His tides. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
  4. In its original form, prayer is not asking God for anything; it is not a request. It is a cry; an elementary outburst of woe, a spontaneous call in need; a hurt, a sorrow, given voice. It is the call of human helplessness directed to God. It is not asking, but coming with one's burden before God. It is like the child's running to the mother because it hurts. It is not the bandage that the child seeks instinctively but the nearness of the mother, to unburden his heart to the one of whose love he is certain. So the human being brings his sorrow before God: look, O God, what has been done to me, consider what has become of meà.To pray means to make God the confidant of one's sorrow and need. The asking and begging are natural enough, but they are of secondary importance. Decisive is the pouring out of the heart because one has to; the pouring out of the heart before God because He is the nearest, because He is the closest, because He is the natural confidant of the human soul. (Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz in "Studies in Torah Judaism")
  5. Prayer serves admirably to articulate man's ideals, to make them conscious of the goals, which they profess, and to strengthen their determination to attain them. A study of the prayers in any of the great liturgies will reveal this emphasis upon fundamental ideals of human conduct and aspiration. The function of prayer, as of ritual generally, is to make them conscious ideals such as these perpetually in the forefront of our consciousness. Unlike the multiplication table or a chemical equation which needs to be learned only once, the ideals of conduct, both personal and collective, are perpetually threatened by inundating tides of selfishness, ignorance, and shortsightedness. The exercise of prayer can keep these ideals vividly alive (Rabbi Robert Gordis in "A Faith for Moderns")

For discussion:

Nachmanides says that one is only required to pray when one feels compelled to do so, during some time of need, using one's own words and format. Prayer for Nachmanides is at its essence a plea for mercy and support during moments of concern and necessity.

Modern thinkers offer other explanations for petitionary prayer. They help us answer the question: Why ask God for anything? Surely God is omniscient and knows everything about us. Why should God have to be informed about our troubles? How do you answer these questions? Do any of the above commentators offer you a direction?

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