Parashat Hayei Sarah
|A D’var Torah for Parashat Hayei Sarah
By Rabbi David MarkusI stopped counting how often I hear, “God loves me: I got a great parking spot.” Even some clergy, spiritual directors and theologians have a soft spot for the Angel of Miraculous Parking. I too admit to invoking Hanayat-El (from hanayah / ”parking”) under my breath.
Perhaps it’s a cute half-joke – seemingly easy and low stakes, gently cutting down to size the vast uncontrollability of modern life. And as spiritual thinkers of integrity and rigor, let’s be candid about the many theological dilemmas of Hanayat-El: Why do bad parking spots happen to good people? Isn’t God close to the broken-hearted driver on a hurried errand? Does God do parking but not highway traffic or airport delays? Vanity of vanities: all parking is vanity!
But Hanayat-El is no joke. Angel of Miraculous Parking or not, intercessory prayer – asking God for specifics – is a core Jewish spiritual tradition that heady left-brain modernity seems to forget, diminish or dismiss. And with good reason: asking God for specifics can risk our faith. What if we ask but the answer is no? What if we ask but get no answer?
Why, then, does Tanakh offer so many examples of intercessory prayer – starting with this week’s Torah portion (Hayei Sarah) and the prayer of Avraham’s emissary for success on his mission to find Yitzhak a wife?
Avraham assures his emissary that God’s angel will go ahead of him and guarantee success (Gen. 24:7). Even so, the emissary asks God for specifics: “YHVH, God of my master Avraham! Grant me good fortune and deal mercifully for my master Avraham. Here I stand by the spring, as the city’s daughters 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 also will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You decreed for Your servant, Yitzhak” (Gen. 24:12-14).
Hanayat-El, meet Shiddukh-El, Angel of Miraculous Spousal Matches.
Yaakov prayed for safety from his brother (Gen. 32:10-13). Moses prayed to heal Miriam (Num. 12:13) and forgive the people (Num. 14: 17-19). Hannah prayed for a son (1 Sam. 1:10-11). Nehemiah prayed for success on his mission to re-spiritualize the nation (Neh. 1:5-11). David prayed that his son Solomon build the Temple (1 Chron. 29:18-19). From nearly the start of Tanakh to nearly its end, one intercessory prayer after another.
Granted, what’s parking compared to romance, safety, healing, forgiveness, a child or a national mission? If we’re given to intercessory prayer, maybe we reserve it for big things or to benefit others. But that impulse doesn’t come from Tanakh: no sacred text limits intercessory prayer. Of course, God put it best by rhetorically asking Avraham, “Is anything too wondrous for God?” (Gen. 18:14) – a theme the prophets repeat (Num. 11:23, Is. 59:1). So why not also small stuff?
Rather, it is we ourselves who limit our prayer. Maybe we’re afraid to pray. Maybe we imagine ourselves too rational to ask for specifics (but general prayer is fine). Maybe we invoke liturgy’s prayerful words but don’t attach to them yearning, belief or vulnerability. Maybe we don’t believe ourselves worthy. Maybe we don’t believe at all.
Maybe that’s why Tanakh offers us so many examples of intercessory prayer – to cue this inward journey of encounter with the Holy One we call God. It’s a call into relationship, whatever the specifics of our theology. It’s a call to transcend ourselves and whatever inhibits our journey into encounter and transformation – specifics and all.
If you’re hung-up on the “specifics” part of intercessory prayer, you’re not alone. Talmud’s rabbis tripped over praying for specifics (m. Berakhot ch. 9). Some also held that we should pray only for what’s possible, because “impossible” prayer would take God’s name in vain. Modern greats like Rabbis Lawence Kushner and Nehemiah Polen continue to wrestle the “intercession” part of intercessory prayer – but even they side with transformational prayer in full communion with the “specifics.” They write:
”Prayer is not so much an act of petition, or a request for divine intercession, as a gesture of uniting our will with God’s. We say, in effect, I now want what God wants even as I discover that God wants what I want. The goal is not the granting of a petition but the moment of the encounter itself. In that moment, both our will and, as it were, God’s will are united. We do not seek to nullify our will (simply nullifying your prayerful request or need would only be another way of reinforcing its importance), nor do we seek to alter God’s will. We seek literally to unite our prayer and our will with God’s. Thus the innermost desire of the worshiper is revealed as a yearning to be with God, just as the innermost desire of God is to be with us. And this is the meaning of prayer” (My People’s Prayerbook 2:160).
In that spirit, it’s deeply symbolic that Avraham’s servant of Tanakh’s first intercessory prayer is nameless in Torah, but tradition identifies him as “Eliezer” (Gen. Rabbah 43:2) – literally, “My God is help.” Whether Eliezer’s intercessory prayer was for the specifics he asked (which he didn’t hesitate to ask), or for the transformational power of encounter (in the style of Kushner and Polen), either way Eliezer was named for it.
So are we all.