Questions of Need
Shimon HaTzadik was among the remnants of the Great Assembly. He used to say: the world stands on three pillars -- on Torah study, on Divine service, and on kind deeds. The Book of Vayikra is concerned with the essence of Divine service, the offering of sacrifices in God's Temple. We may not presently have the opportunity to offer God the sacrifices described in Vayikra, but we are not absolved from the obligations of Temple service. The Rabbis gave us a replacement for the sacrifices. The Talmud (Berachot 26b) explains that our prayers are offered to God in place of the daily sacrifices. Our obligation to pray is the present expression of the Temple sacrifices.
As prayer is the modern day expression of Divine service, it follows that prayer is one of the three pillars referred to by Shimon HaTzadik. But what does the association between prayer and pillars imply? Is it merely meant to emphasize that prayer is an important activity, or is there more to it than that?
'PILLARS' IS NOT SYMBOLIC BUT LITERAL
Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin explains (Nefesh Hachaim, Gate 3, ch.6) that we should interpret the idea of pillars literally. What Shimon HaTzadik meant to say was exactly what he said. The implications of his statement is that if all of Israel from one end of the world to the other would refrain from praying, the world would instantaneously return to the void.
It seems we have the wrong idea of prayer. We generally regard prayer as a means of obtaining God's help with our problems, but it turns out that God needs our prayers to maintain His world; the Most High needs our service. (Talmud, Shabbat 116b).
HOW DOES GOD NEED OUR HELP?
But this seems downright wrong. Surely the Almighty God isn't sitting up there in heaven waiting for the help our prayers provide! Doesn't the Bible specifically state:
If you have sinned how have you affected Him? If your transgressions multiply what have you done to Him? If you were righteous what have you given Him, or what has He taken from your hand? (Job 35,6-7)
The Midrash also endorses this proposition:
The promise of God is flawless (Tehilim 18,31) Rav explained the verse: The words of God were delivered to make man flawless; of what concern is it to God whether you slaughter the animal from the throat [the kosher way] or if you chop off its head from the back [in a non kosher manner -- such an animal cannot be eaten under Jewish law]? It is only from a human standpoint that the methods of slaughter make a difference. The Kosher method is more humane and keeps the slaughterer as far away from savagery as possible under the circumstances. As far as God is concerned there is absolutely no difference. The commandment of slaughter or Shechita was thus obviously given to take the flaws out of man; all other commandments also have the same purpose. (Bereishis Rabba, 45)
How can we possibly reconcile these passages, which are merely a sample of a recurrent theme in the Rabbinic sources with the idea that God actually needs our prayers to maintain the world? Isn't it clear that our prayers are only to help ourselves?
A QUESTION OF NEED
The answer is quite simple. There is no contradiction between the two ideas at all. Our prayers are indeed required to hold up the world, which would really collapse without them. But it is we who need the world to exist, not God. He existed before the world was created and He will exist after creation is ended. It is we who cannot exist without a world. Unlike God, we need time and space in which to be. Thus when we supply the pillars that prop up the world we are really helping ourselves, not God. God doesn't need our pillars any more than He needs the rest of creation.
On the other hand, God decided to invest what would have to be judged in human terms an incredible amount of planning and energy on the creation of this world. He doesn't need the world He created, but He certainly wants it. He informed us in His Torah that His purpose in all this creative activity was to provide Himself the opportunity to shower 'good' upon His creatures. If the world failed, this purpose of God in creating it would be frustrated. When we support the continued existence of the world we help God in terms of allowing Him to succeed in His creative purpose.
THE TWO SENSES OF NEED
The confusion about the place occupied by mitzvot is cleared up as soon as we realize that we are speaking about 'need' in two different senses. There is need in the sense of dependence, and in this sense God is beyond our ability to affect. He doesn't need us for anything, and therefore His interest in our activities can only be understood as a desire to iron out our flaws.
But there is another sort of 'need' that is measured in terms of the required inputs of an enterprise. Anyone who invests a great deal in any enterprise, whatever his reason for making the investment wants to see it succeed. No one enjoys watching his investment going down the drain. Whoever has a hand in making the enterprise succeed is helping the investor. In this sense God needs our mitzvot and our prayers. The spiritual technology He applied to the creation process makes human input an essential ingredient in its maintenance.
THE NECESSITY OF HUMAN INPUTS
To explain why this is so, let us return to the purpose of creation, God's desire to shower 'good' upon His creatures. In the context of the world He created, this is not as simple as it sounds. There are no problems or obstacles on the supply side, but there is a major impediment on the demand side. God cannot supply any 'good' until man asks Him to do so. This is due to the fact that in the world that God created there are distinct levels of reality, all interconnected and yet all independent and separate from each other.
Take our own world for example. Our world is so wonderfully designed that the most brilliant people can study it carefully and arrive at the conclusion that it is a closed off self-sustaining system and dismiss the notion of a Creator as irrelevant. Yet, the Torah tells us that this is not so. Twice a day we recite the following prayer: and in His goodness renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation. Far from being independent or self-sustaining, our reality is entirely dependant on the ceaseless input of Divine creative energy.
THE PARADOX BUILT INTO REALITY
This paradoxical failure of creation to clearly reveal its God-dependent nature was deliberately designed into reality for good reason. Because He wanted to shower man with 'good,' God had to create man to be independent. You can't shower dependants with anything. Children of wealthy parents are provided with the best of everything but still have nothing they can call their own. The butler who lives a life of luxury in the most magnificent palace is still only a servant.
If the reality he inhabited clearly demonstrated its total dependency on God, man could never have developed the independence or self confidence to stand up to the Almighty Himself and tell Him, It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked (Genesis 18,25) as Abraham who is known as God's most faithful servant was able to do. Man was placed on a platform of reality that concealed his dependency on God for a sufficient period of time to provide him with the opportunity to grow and develop his own ideas.
In the meantime, while man was maturing, the world he inhabited was brought continuously into existence by God without man's input as a totally God dependent system. This period of history is known in Jewish tradition as Alpaim Tohu, or the 'Two thousand years of Nothingness' (Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a). Abraham appeared on the scene as they ended, and from that time forward the world must have man's input of prayer in order to be brought into existence. In other words, by the time man recognized his total dependency on God, his realization was no longer able to destroy his vision of himself.
HUMAN RESISTANCE TO DEPENDENCY
If we look deeply into ourselves we will discover that we hate to acknowledge that we are dependent on anyone or anything. The truth is that the resistance to accepting the Torah among Jews is more emotional than rational, and always originates in this instinct for independence. If not for this emotional resistance, all Jews would accept the Torah as true. After all, who knows Jews better than Jews? Every Jew can see for himself or herself that his fellow Jews are neither gullible or stupid, and would have to be considered among the most talented group of human beings on earth by any objective standard. Is it sensible to think that this sort of people sacrificed themselves and their children for over two thousand years for a load of hogwash? Hardly!
The resistance to accepting the Torah comes not from the intellect, but from man's deepest emotion. If I acknowledge that the Torah is true, I automatically become God's dependant, possessing little more independence than a child or a servant. I will lose my human dignity. Everything inside me screams out against submitting to such a loss.
IT IS INCONCEIVABLE THAT GOD CREATED A WORLD LACKING DIGNITY
How can I possibly accept that the God who created the world in order to shower me with good completely frustrated the possibility of accomplishing the very goal that He sought in creation by placing man within a reality where he can only aspire to be a child or a servant? What else can a total dependent be? This is what God thinks of as showering 'good'? Who would want such a 'good'?
Here precisely, is where the pillars of Shimon HaTzadik enter the picture. In fact, God needs man just as much as man needs Him. Man is God's partner, not His dependant. God designed a reality that requires His constant input to continue to exist, but He designed it so that He is only able to supply this input if man prays for it. Just as man is dependant on the ceaseless outpouring of Divine energy, God is dependant on man's constant prayers. [We have already pointed out that God's dependence should be understood in the context of protecting His investment in the creation process only] Partners are able to maintain their self-respect even in a mutual state of interdependence.
To sum up the position to this point:
- God created a seemingly self-sustaining world and placed man into it.
- Man eventually figured out on his own initiative that despite the appearances, he and the world are not self-sustaining but are totally dependant on God's input. The first man to fully appreciate this was Abraham.
- The realization of his dependence did not destroy man's self confidence, because along with the realization of his dependence on God came the knowledge of God's dependence on man's input.
- Man is neither simply God's child nor servant, but also his partner.
This theme of partnership between man and God in creation is often expressed in Rabbinic literature. The following is a typical sample:
Rava ... said: Even the person who prays alone Friday night [as opposed to attending the synagogue] should recite 'Vaychulu' (Genesis 2,1-3) because bar Hamnuna said: whoever recites Vaychulu in his prayers Friday night is regarded as a partner to the Holy One, Blessed is He, in creation as ... (Talmud, Shabbat 119b)
THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE PARTNERSHIP
Let us examine some of the implications of this. One of the well-known questions concerning prayer goes something like this: As God is good, merciful and just, and as Jewish tradition teaches that the world is run by Divine Providence, it is useless to pray by definition. Whatever a person has, and whatever situation he finds himself, is by definition what he deserves to have and what God, after having deliberated his particular case felt was the best for him under the circumstances. But prayer is an attempt to persuade God to alter one's circumstances.
This leads to the conclusion that either prayer is useless, as God will not alter the circumstances that He felt were optimal under the circumstances, or if effective, that God is weak and willing to place people in situations merely because they desire it even if it is not to their benefit. So goes the question.
The answer is now obvious. For every human being, the world operates just as a closed self-sufficient system governed by natural law would be expected to operate. True, if no one would pray the world would go back to the void, and prayer keeps the world in existence, but someone else's prayer just keeps my world in being. What takes place in my world is what one would expect under the impersonal, statistical application of natural law. If I want to involve God in my own personal world, I must let Him in through the avenue of my prayers.
God may want to heal me, or make me rich, or give me peace and He may be anxiously awaiting the opportunity to send these 'goods' down to the physical world. But He cannot interfere with my independence according to the rules of reality that He set. In order to involve Himself, He must be invited. By praying to God, I am actually enabling God to practice Divine Providence and order my life according to His vision of what is best for me instead of having to conduct my affairs according to the dictates of natural law.
THE COMMANDMENT TO PRAY
This also explains how there can be a commandment to pray. Another well-known question regarding prayer goes something like this: According to Maimonedes (Laws of Prayer 1:2) every Jew is commanded to pray to God daily, and ask God to provide him with his daily requirements. Why should a person be commanded to pray when he doesn't want to? He may be perfectly satisfied with the way his life is going and not in the mood to ask for God's help. Why should God insist on being asked for help daily? Isn't prayer there to help us in case of need? Why not just let people pray when they feel the need to turn to God?
The answer is now obvious. God needs us to pray for two reasons. The first reason is global; He can only keep up the flow of Divine energy without which the world would return to the void in response to human prayer.
Now all the trees of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for YHVH God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil. (Genesis 2:5)
Rashi quotes the Talmud (Chulin 60b) to interpret the verse: the Talmud explains that as there was no man to recognize the need for rain, no one prayed for the rain to fall and consequently there could be no rain. Only prayers can bring rain. This is too important a function to be left up to the individual whim and is issued as a commandment.
The second reason concerns the world of the individual. Without prayer God is unable to provide a person's specific requirements. The best He can do is to renew the world based on other people's prayers, but He is unable to address the specific needs of individuals who do not pray to Him. Total independence from God is by definition impossible. The highest we can aim for is partnership.
PRAYER AND ACHIEVEMENT
Prayer empowers God to answer our prayers. More profoundly, whatever we pray for is considered our achievement when our prayers are answered. In the world of the believer everything is Divine energy. Without God's help no one could lift a finger. So what do we humans actually accomplish? The answer: if we pray for the energy God provides us, the Divine energy that empowers us as a result of our prayers is considered our creation. After all we were partners in its release. Without our prayers God couldn't deliver it.
Jacob referred to Shimon and Levi's destruction of Shechem with the following comment: Shimon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft. (Genesis 49:5) Rashi in the name of the Midrash says the sword is Esau's weapon. The strength of Israel is in its prayers.
These are days when we desperately need God's help. Let us enable Him to help us by waking up the power of prayer that is in every Jewish heart.