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Posted By The Stash

The longest chapter of Sefer Bereishit, Genesis, narrates how Abraham's servant - who is never named but most commentators assume is Eliezer - succeeds in fulfilling his master's request that he find a wife for Isaac. The conditions set down by the aged Abraham were stringent: the girl must be both a family member and willing to travel to the Land of Canaan and live there with Isaac. "Under no circumstances," commanded Abraham "is my son to go to the land of the girl." Sensing that these conditions were onerous, Abraham promised the servant that if the girl refused to return to Canaan, the servant was no longer obligated in this matter.

The dutiful servant certainly realized how challenging his mission was. As soon as he arrived he prayed for a very long time - according to the trop (Torah chanting note) - for a sign from G-d to assist him. He asked that the suitable girl be easily identifiable: on her arrival at the town well he would ask her for a drink. The right girl would offer both the servant and his camels water. Our Sages read this with great astonishment and commented: "Is it possible that the servant intended for Isaac to marry an unsuitable girl? But G-d responded in a proper manner and sent the proper match for Isaac." (Taanit 4a). In fact, the servant is characterized as one of three people in the Bible who "asked improperly but who G-d answered properly."

The Talmud thus links the servant's request to the numerous occasions on which we pray to G-d imprecisely, but G-d nonetheless understands the inner nature of our request. For example, the Talmud notes that people pray for rain during a drought. But, in their desperation, their prayers neglect to mention how much rain should fall. As we know, too much water is as bad - or perhaps worse - than too little. This is the point our Sages wish to emphasize: imprecise prayer that comes from the heart, from true emotional need, will be understood.

On Rosh Hashana the Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) of Shacharit recites a lengthy introduction to the repetition of the Amidah in which he states: "I stand before You O G-d with a broken and shattered heart, waiting outside your gates like a poor person in a doorway. ... The broken spirit turns away Divine anger." The Intelligent Jew knows that sometimes words aren't enough. In fact, when we truly need to pray, the words serve as proxies for our emotions. We hang our hearts on pegs of liturgical lyricism, knowing full well that we lack the wherewithal to formulate our request logically and precisely.

I once had a student come in early to my class. He sat down and began to cry, telling me his father had suffered a sudden and serious illness just that morning and was between life and death in hospital. He was paralyzed with fear. I silently handed him a siddur and turned to the Prayer for the Sick in the middle of the weekday Amidah. Through his tears, with my help, he was able to read the words in English and say his father's Hebrew name. He kept repeating the prayer, voice steadying a little each time. The recitation calmed him. He stayed at school, feeling better among friends. The crisis passed - and his father lived

The sad fact that all prayers are not so quickly or happily answered does not obscure the text's lesson. Abraham's servant's prayer was "factually fuzzy" but his intentions were crystal clear. It would have been better, say our Sages, if his prayer was precise - and that is why the siddur is full of carefully crafted prayers. But, in times of great need, it is essential to pray with the heart rather than the mind. Intelligent Judaism demands logical inquiry, but acknowledges spontaneous passion directed in search of good. It understands that psychological need must sometimes trump rationality, especially when we seek to avert danger from loved ones or our lives.




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