Hi Jew in the City-
With the Aladdin remake in theaters, it made me wonder what’s the real difference between prayers and wishes? I know that Hashem is no genie to do our bidding, but sometimes I wonder about the limits of what we’re supposed to pray for. What do Jewish sources say?
I think the first part of the question that we need to address is the assumption that we’re necessarily “supposed” to pray “for” anything at all. Yes, we do pray for things, and appropriate requests are built into the daily prayers that were composed for us by the Sages, but the purpose of prayer isn’t to present a wish list. It’s an opportunity for us to get close to God.
The Talmud in Yevamos (64a) discusses the infertility initially experienced by a number of notable Biblical personages. There, it tells us that the reason God had them endure this trial is because the prayers of the righteous are desirable to Him. This isn’t because God “needs” our prayers (He doesn’t). Rather, He loves us and wants what’s best for us. The best thing in the world is for us to get close to Him and prayer is one of the ways we can accomplish that.
Along similar lines, Genesis 2:5 tells us that the plants and grass had not yet sprouted because God had not yet caused it to rain; this was because there weren’t any people yet. Rashi explains the connection as follows: God withheld rain until there were people because there was no one to recognize the goodness of rain. Once God had created Adam, the man realized how useful rain would be and requested it of God. This wasn’t for God’s benefit, nor was it for the benefit of the grass and trees. Rather, God put Adam in a position to pray because doing so was good for Adam.
Let us now turn the ninth bracha of Shemoneh Esrei, in which we ask God to bless the year for us with abundant produce. The first thing you’ll notice is that we specify “for us.” It would do us little good if the trees were full of fruit and the fields were full of grain but we were unable to enjoy it. Beyond asking that we be able to partake in an abundant crop, we ask that it be “for good.” That’s to keep things from turning out like the story of The Monkey’s Paw, in which one’s wishes are granted, albeit in an ironic fashion.
Anything we ask for can be given to us for good or for bad. A person can pray for rain but he doesn’t want it to turn into a destructive flood (refer to the story of Choni in Taanis 19a). A lost camper freezing in the woods might pray for a fire to warm himself but he doesn’t want a devastating forest fire. Everyone wants to win the lottery but those who actually do end up declaring bankruptcy at rates significantly higher than those of us who don’t. The bottom line is that we ask God to give us the things we ask for in a way that’s good for us, assuming that they’re actually good for us at all.
For this reason, the practice is to ask God, for example, to send one an appropriate match, rather than to marry a specific person; this is because He knows whether or not that other person will actually be good for us. We ask God to help us earn a living rather than to ensure we secure a specific job because, again, He knows whether or not that job would be a good fit. So while we do ask God for forgiveness, health, peace, and other things, we don’t dictate terms. We leave it up to Him to do so in the way that He determines to be best. And if He decides that the things we ask for are not in our best interest? That’s okay because He knows what we need.
As you noted, God is not a genie. He’s not Santa Claus. He’s not a leprechaun, so He owes us neither a pot of gold nor a box of marshmallow cereal. What He gives us is a golden opportunity: the chance to get close to Him, which is inherently good. These meetings give us an opening to share how we’re feeling and what’s troubling us, in addition to thanking Him for all He has already provided. The mere act of unburdening to God can be cathartic, but it might also be transformative. By getting closer to Him, we may become more deserving of the things we desire, or perhaps we may come to reassess our priorities and realize that we don’t really need the things we thought we did.
The bottom line of prayer is that it’s not a wish at all. It’s an audience with the Omniscient One, Who knows what’s good for each person and can be relied upon to provide it. Prayer provides us with quality time in which we can provide input on our situations. But our input should never be any kind of a demand that God do or give us a particular thing. It should always be qualified by the sentiment, “if You deem it a good idea.” If He does, you might get the thing you sought. If He knows otherwise, you’re invariably better off without that thing, even if you don’t know why that is.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent