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Prayer as a Form of Wishes

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January 2019
For a curriculum that I created many years ago concerning Jewish identity, I proposed that one can draw significant lessons regarding the aspirations of various cultures by closely reading their “wish-stories.” Traditional stories associated with a particular culture’s literary heritage, whether they take the form of fairy-tales, short stories, biblical accounts, etc. become widely-known by the members of that society, and impact deeply on their sensibilities. Therefore, e.g., when a “genie” bestows on someone a number of wishes, when a magical “key” is the means by which a person’s dreams can be fulfilled, when a “map” leads a person to the location of buried treasure, aside from the iconic means by which the wishes are realized that clearly fuel the imaginations of the members of a particular society, the nature of the wishes themselves, be they for wealth, power, eternal life, a comfortable residence, or the like, are deeply revealing regarding the collective definitions of success and achievement for a particular cultural heritage.
Judaism too features wish stories both in the Written and Oral Traditions. Shortly after Solomon succeeds his father David as king, he is Asked by God regarding his heartfelt wishes:
I Kings 3:5, 9
5 In Givon, the LORD Appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God Said: Ask what I shall Give thee… 9 Give Thy Servant therefore an understanding heart to judge Thy People, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this Thy great People?
 
A classic Talmud story involving wishes takes place shortly before the Second Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed by the Romans.  After impressing Vespasian, the Roman general, who will eventually destroy the Temple, R. Yochanan b. Zakai, too, is presented with the opportunity to make wishes:
Gittin 56b
You can… make a request of me and I will grant it.
He said to him: 1) Give me Yavne and its wise men, and 2) the family chain of Rabban Gamaliel, and 3) physicians to heal R. Tzadok.
 
King Solomon intriguingly requests to be endowed with wisdom, a primary Jewish value. R. Yochanan b. Zakai wishes: 1) the preservation of the Jewish judicial tradition via the continuation of the Sanhedrin; 2) the potential to renew the royal line of David leading to the coming of the Messiah; and 3) medical intervention for an extremely pious person to whom everyone looks up, each one also a traditional Jewish value. Furthermore, it is safe to say that these two wish stories diverge markedly from the tales prevalent in other cultures of someone having the good fortune to have any of his wishes granted.
Observant Jews have engaged in significant “wishing” several times each day in the form of prayer in general, and the thirteen middle blessings of the Silent Devotion, referred to in Rabbinic literature as “Bakasha” (supplications; requests) in particular. Several of these blessings even parallel the wishes found in the biblical and Talmudic stories mentioned above:
 
(The numbers preceding the blessings correspond to their placement within the Amida.)
#4 You graciously Endow man with wisdom and Teach insight to a frail mortal. Endow us graciously from Yourself with wisdom, insight and discernment
#8 Heal us, HaShem—then we will be healed; Save us—then we will be saved, for You Are our praise. Bring complete recovery for all of our ailments, for You Are God, the faithful and compassionate Healer
#11 Restore our judges as in earliest times and our counselors as at first; Remove from us sorrow and groan; and Reign over us, You, HaShem alone, with kindness and compassion, and Justify us through judgment…
#15 The offspring of Your servant David may You speedily cause to flourish, and enhance his pride through Your salvation for we hope for your salvation all day long…
        Although all of these wishes imply that the person making the request remains passive, and only the grant-er is in a position to do something about these needs—particularly when the wish is directed at God, I have pointed out in an earlier posting, “Feeling Deep Compassion for the Oppressed,” that another way to approach these ideas is to see man and God in a partnership relationship. This would suggest that while certain aspects of wishes may be out of our hands—e.g., the objective intelligence with which we are genetically endowed, the physical composition of our bodies that is directly reflected in our health, and our particular historical moment that will determine a great deal regarding the judges who will be making decisions about our society and ourselves, as well as Jewish sovereignty and world responsiveness to Jewish messages and values—the successful development of each of these areas will require actions on our parts as well. We have to make the most of the intelligence with which we have been endowed; we have to take care of our physical health as best as we can; we ought to be socially active as much as possible in order to attempt to further justice within our society and advance overall peace for the world.
           
            Nevertheless, the Jewish values of appreciating intelligence, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, caring about justice for all, and valuing world-wide cooperation and mutual respect, are not only intrinsic to the stories of our tradition, but are articulated by many Jews at least three times per day within the most intense of their prayers.
 
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993.
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
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 My 6 year old asked me how it is we have free choice if God knows everything in advance, and while I'm so proud of him for his advanced thinking, I am embarassed that I don't know the answer! Can you help? What does Judaism say?

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