In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, the Joseph story builds to its dramatic conclusion. In Egypt, Joseph had risen to prominence and power and when his brothers come down to buy grain they do not recognize him. Joseph toys with them, accuses them of being spies, takes youngest brother Benjamin as a hostage and now, as the reading begins, older brother Judah approaches Joseph to offer himself as a slave in Benjamin’s stead. The Hebrew word vayigash means ‘and he approached.’
One of the Rabbinic commentaries offers that as Judah stepped forward he had a strategy and a well thought out plan in mind. First, he would flatter Joseph, then reason with him. Should that fail, he would argue with Joseph, and then, if need be, physically fight for Benjamin. Only as a last resort, would Judah deploy his ultimate weapon – he would pray.
Despite what our rabbinic forebears might have taught, we moderns probably would not think of prayer as an ‘ultimate weapon’ or the most effective means to achieve a desired end. My hunch is that many if not most see in prayer something akin to ordering from Amazon, a theological request for goods, services and blessings with a much less predictable delivery schedule at that. Formal Jewish prayer does in fact partake of such supplicational religious discourse. But there is more to it than that.
There is a passage in the old Gates of Prayer, the former prayerbook of the American Reform Movement, that taught: Prayer cannot bring water to a parched field, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.” There is great truth in this formulation and in that sense, I do believe that prayer has power.
And there is yet another way to look at it. I have read that Beethoven wrote music that could not be adequately played on the instruments of his day. Beethoven’s music then was a kind of prayer. It said, “Give me instruments tomorrow on which to play the music I have written today.”
There is an impossibly steep section of the Alps called the Semmering. In 1848 they began to lay down train tracks over these mountains to connect Vienna with Venice. They built the tracks, however, long before there was a locomotive powerful enough to use them. The Semmering section of track was a kind of prayer. It said: Build me a train tomorrow to use the pathway I have laid down today.
Prayer in the Reform tradition is also a way of putting out into the world what we might call ‘the hoped for not yet’ – that would include things like justice, equality, serenity, freedom, fulfillment and peace. And in Judaism it is a way of holding up a portrait of God’s ‘hoped for not yet’ as well - for the world and for ourselves. Prayer understood in this way serves as a powerful reminder to act in such a way to help bring that ‘hoped for not yet’ into being.
Which I suppose was the thought behind another great passage in the Gates of Prayer: Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.