Dear Jew in the city,
I have been an avid reader of your website for a while now and always watch your videos. I am a huge fan! I have been slowly becoming more religious over time but one question has been troubling me. If we have free will, why do we pray to G-d in times of need? Surely if G-d interferes this takes away from our free will. This would also raise the question of why does G-d step in in some situations and not in others? And if G-d doesn’t step in then why do we pray? I respect your work so much, all the way from Bath, England! I hope you can help with this one.
Thanks for your question. Glad you’re enjoying the site and videos. Let’s start out by defining what free will is. As Rav Dessler explains it, free will is what’s exercised when you’re struggling over an issue and have the possibility of choosing one way or another. But any values or practices that are part of your lifestyle, that you don’t question or don’t struggle with, those things are not within your free will, or as he calls it “bechira point.”
For instance, for most people, robbing a bank is outside of their bechira point, because it’s just beyond something that they’d ever consider doing, but telling a white lie is not. So I don’t think you actually mean “free will.” Because “times of need” are not choice-making times. I think what you actually mean is “destiny.” Or in other words, if we’re supposed to have a certain destiny, wouldn’t praying to God, as we’re going through the hard times, interfere with whatever it is we’re destined to experience if God decides to “step in?”
To respond that question, let’s think about it in terms of medicine. There are some religions that believe that if you get sick, the illness is sent from God, and you’re just meant to take it and be sick or die. Such thinking is very against Judaism. While we believe that God does make people sick, we also believe that God allowed people to come up with medicines and surgeries for illness.
Therefore, not only are we permitted to do everything we can to treat an illness vis a vis medicine, we are obligated to seek out whatever medical treatment exists. Didn’t we just change the course of our destiny by getting healed? Well, we believe that seeking out medical care and getting better was supposed to be part of our destiny.
Now we come to prayer. Sure, we could just quietly take whatever hardship comes our way and suffer through it, but perhaps if we pray, our outcome could change. Although prayer’s efficacy is nothing that can be proven, it’s certainly possible that if a person asks God for help, God could improve his or her situation. Just think of it like the medicine – there are certain tools we have at our disposal that could work when hard times hit. Judaism believes that we should use them, even if they don’t always work.
But praying during tough times goes far deeper than trying to improve our situation. It’s also, perhaps even more importantly, about connecting with the Almighty. Judaism’s most basic goal for man is to be close God. So just like a person would lean on a friend during a trying time and get closer to that friend as a result, so too, praying while we suffer, should ideally be an experience that bonds us to our Maker.
Of course, we must first trust in God’s plan for us. Otherwise, we’d be too bitter to pray. But if a person is able to live with such trust, then turning to God in prayer, even if the situation doesn’t improve, has a great value in and of itself. As to why God steps in sometimes, but not others, that’s not really a question a human being could answer other than, sometimes the situation is meant to improve with our prayers and sometimes it’s not. When dealing with questions about God, we are obviously very limited in our ability to understand. But even with our limited comprehension, there is one thing Judaism is very clear about. No matter what the outcome, reaching out to God in prayer is always considered a great thing to do!
Hope that helps clarify your questions.
All the best,
Allison (aka Jew in the City)