Preparing for Rosh Hashanah: The Paradox of Prayer

One of the most fundamental paradoxes in Judaism and faith in God is that of prayer. We are commanded to pray three times daily and in times of distress, to beseech of God that He provide us with our fundamental human needs and desires such as health, livelihood and children.

Yet on its face, praying to God to improve one’s circumstances, suggests the belief that the present circumstance that God is providing for that person is a bad one. This seems to indicate a lack of faith that everything that God does is good and for the best.

Furthermore, if we believe that everything that God does is good, then why do we pray for things to change or improve? We should instead accept everything – the good and the bad – as good and beneficial to us, and simply thank God for the status quo.

Finally, praying for the betterment of one’s circumstances appears to show a lack of appreciation for the abundant good that God does provide us with. The repetitive requesting for improvement in areas such as health and livelihood seems to indicate a lack of appreciation for, and satisfaction with, the good that God does provide us with, and gives the appearance of always wanting more and better things regardless of what we have.

After struggling with these questions for many years, I came across Epistle 11 of Igeret Hakodesh of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidus. In this letter, the Alter Rebbe provides us with the appropriate perspective that a person should have when confronted with hardships and difficulty.

The Alter Rebbe explains that God created the world ‘yesh m’ayin’ – something from nothing, or ex nihilo. ‘Yesh m’ayin’, the Alter Rebbe continues, also translates into God having created the existence of the universe – ‘yesh’ – with ‘ayin’, the level in spirituality and Godliness called ayin, which is the ultimate source of life, good, pleasure and joy.

Creation is an ongoing process that reoccurs each and every moment. Just like a computer monitor is constantly being refreshed many times per second, yet it provides the illusion of a fixed image, similarly the existence of the physical existence of the universe is not static and continual, rather it is constantly being renewed and recreated each moment. For the universe or anything in it to cease to exist, God would not have to actively remove it from existence; rather He would have to simply not recreate it the next moment.

Since creation emanates from ayin – the source of good – and is a constant, continuously-recurring process, there is no possibility for anything bad or negative to descend from above, and everything that exists or occurs must, by default, be good and positive.

The Alter Rebbe explains that the reason we perceive some events as negative is because the purpose of God’s creation of mankind is to challenge our faith; to determine whether despite the appearance of negativity and hardship, the person will still believe that God created and constantly recreates the universe and everything in it, that the source of creation is God, that God is omnipresent, that God is exclusively good, and that everything in existence must, therefore, be good.

Since we are only human, our perception of negativity tempts us to question whether God is in fact in control of every moment and event in our lives, and whether God is, in fact, exclusively good. The instinctive reaction to an event perceived as bad, is that God allowed something bad to happen, or that God did something bad to us. The Alter Rebbe explains that both views are tantamount to heresy, since they either deny God’s continuous creation of the universe, or they suggest that there is an area devoid of God, or a creator separate from God, since only good can emanate from God.

The Alter Rebbe acknowledges that not only is it difficult, but it is nearly impossible to truly have the perspective that pain, hardship, grief, sorrow or any other negative occurrences must actually be good because they are created by God, from whom only good can emanate. However, he says, with much contemplation and meditation, this perspective of reality is one that can ultimately be achieved.

The Alter Rebbe concludes the letter by saying that when a person internalizes the belief and knowledge that everything originates from and is renewed continuously by God, the source of exclusively good, and that everything that occurs – whether it appears to the person as good or bad – must, by default, be good, then even the appearance and illusion of bad will cease to exist, and God’s goodness will become apparent and perceptible.

With that in mind, before praying for one’s needs and desires or for the betterment of one’s circumstances, a person should take a moment to contemplate on the following, to ensure that their prayer is said with the correct perspective, and is not questioning why God does bad things or allows bad things to happen, nor is it a lack of gratitude for the good things they have been granted:

God created everything that exists and continues to recreate it constantly. The continual creation and recreation originates from the spiritual level of ayin, the source of exclusively good. As a result, everything that happens must be good. Any illusion of bad is due to the deceptive manifestation or the false perception of what is essentially good. God challenges us human beings with this very test, to determine whether we can see past that which appears as negativity and still believe that God is the continuous creator of existence, that God is the source of only good, and that God and His goodness are everywhere and in everything at all times.

We are not asking God why He does bad things or allows bad things to happen, nor for bad things to stop. Rather, we are approaching God for help in overcoming the enormous challenge of seeing Godliness and goodness in everything – even that which appears to us as negativity, pain and sorrow. More importantly, we are also asking God to allow his goodness to appear to us as evident good from our human perspective and to no longer be channeled and manifested through the illusion of bad.

And as for the objective using the appearance of hardship and difficulty to challenge our faith in God’s constant creation, omnipresence and exclusive goodness, we pray to God that He longer challenge us, and that He enables us to perceive His goodness in its unadulterated form – as apparent and tangible good.