Our words of prayer are not meant just for Gods ears

Numbers 4:21-7:89
Judges 13:2-25

“Try to imagine, Papa, that you’re a very rich man, so rich that a ruble means nothing to you; across the street from you lives a poor sick widow with two hungry little children who is desperate for help,” explained Berel, the tailor’s son, who had returned to his hometown to establish his medical practice.

The father responded, “I’d help her, of course.”

The son continued, “Of course! Now tell me, would you wait until that widow came begging for help with tears streaming out of her eyes, nearly fainting?”

“Of course not, God forbid, I’d help her right away,” said the father.

Continuing his line of thought, the son asked, “Don’t you think that God knows what poor, feeble, sick, desperate mankind wants and needs? Do you think God has to wait for us to come begging for help?

The father, after a pause, replied, “Well … I never thought of it that way.”

“I know what your gonna say, Papa,” the son interrupted. “It’s not begging; a man still has to praise God, doesn’t he?”

“That’s right.”

“Now Papa, think about how you would like it if someone came and praised you right to your face all the time? ‘What a good tailor! What a magnificent tailor! The one and only tailor! A great …'”

Interrupting, the father said, “I’d be so embarrassed, it would make me sick!”

“Right! And do you know why it would? Because you’re not a fool, Papa. You wouldn’t enjoy silly praise and flattery and neither does God. Do you think God finds it necessary to hear us repeating three times a day, ‘What a good God; what a wonderful God.’ Now really, don’t you think God knows that?”

After a long pause, the father replied, “You know, you’re right. It’s true. Everything you say, my son, is certainly true … but still … a man’s gotta pray, nu?”

Sholem Aleichem’s story “The Enchanted Tailor” questions the value of prayer, a central feature of Naso, this week’s Torah portion that contains the formulaic blessing pronounced by the Kohanim, the priestly descendents of Aaron:

“May God bless you and keep you! May God deal kindly and graciously with you! May God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!” (Numbers 6:24-26; also see: Leviticus 9:22, Deuteronomy 10:8, 21:5, Joshua 8:33, II Chronicles 30:27)

The ancient birkat kohanim or priestly benediction was recited during morning worship after the daily sacrifice and on the Sabbath and holidays. The priests ascended to a duchan, a special platform (from which derives the Yiddish expression duchenen, to cover one’s head with a tallit while pronouncing the priestly benediction) to bless the congregation. Their hands were held with the third and fourth digits of their uplifted hands spread apart in such a way to form the Hebrew letter shin, the first letter of the word Shechinah, the divine presence, whose rays were thought to stream through their open fingers. Covering their faces, the people responded: “Blessed be the Eternal God, the God of Israel, to all eternity.”

Centuries later, this blessing was reserved for the descendents of the Kohanim, who recited it in the synagogue on the Sabbath and holy days. They proceeded to the pulpit with tallitot covering their heads to offer the prescript: “May it be Your will, O Eternal our God, that this blessing wherewith You have commanded us to bless Your people Israel may be a perfect blessing; may it be imparted without stumbling and error now and ever.”

Today, most clergy use the priestly benediction at lifecycle and public events. But this and other prayers still leave unsolved the tailor’s son’s question: Why bother God who is aware of our needs?

Abraham Joshua Heschel once commented that words of prayer are hyphens between heaven and earth.” Prayer and praise are not meant to bother or even annoy God, because they are for the worshipper as much as they are for God. That is why the tailor concluded, “But still … a man’s gotta pray, nu?” The tailor’s son failed to recognize what his father instinctively knew, that prayer is not only for God; it is the hyphen between heaven and earth, a way for a worshipper to feel closer to God.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.