Getting Lucky

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

 

Abraham wishes to find a wife for his son Isaac, and sends his servant to find one among his kinsmen. Approaching the well near where Abraham’s kinsmen dwell, the servant stops and says a prayer: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”[1]

It is a rather odd prayer: He is asking to be lucky.

As the Medieval commentator Abravanel comments: “If the servant relied on Divine Providence and for that reason prayed to [God], how could he invoke the workings of chance and ask [God] to engineer a coincidence when these are two mutually exclusive categories? What happens through the workings of Providence cannot be termed chance or coincidence.”[2]

“Moreover,” our more contemporary commentator and teacher Nehama Leibowitz adds, “is it conceivable for one who believed in Divine Providence to accept the existence of such a thing as ‘chance’ and even go so far as to request that the Almighty…to prepare such a situation?”[3]

Either God is in charge of all of these small details, arranges things to happen the way they do, and therefore it is no coincidence, in which case it makes no sense to pray for good luck – or – God is not in charge of these details, and does not make such things happen, in which case it makes no sense to pray for good luck.

There’s a third option, one that Leibowitz proposes: “Abraham’s servant entreated the Almighty as the Prime Mover behind all things to arrange that matters should work out in accordance with his desires.”[4]

In other words, there is luck – God is not a micromanager – but ultimately it was God who created the situation in the first place.

I think that these points would be clearer if we use the metaphor of a casino:

Option 1 is that the game is rigged, and you are asking the casino owner to load the dice in your favor. Except then it is no longer a game of chance. This is what’s called a deterministic universe, in that the outcome is determined in advance. The notion of divine Providence requires at least some amount of determinism in order to work.

Option 2 is that the game is not rigged, and the casino owner is not able to intervene. You get what you get. In that case, it’s not particularly useful to ask the owner to load the dice for you.  This is what we mean when we speak of free will: you pay your money and take your chances. And you get what you get. Free will requires that the outcome is not determined in advance. In order for it to be a real choice, either outcome must be possible. And therefore not already determined.

Option 3 is that the game is not usually rigged, but under special circumstances it’s possible to load the dice, if you should ask the casino owner nicely.  This is what we mean when we use the phrase “Special Providence.” Most of the time the rules are in place, but God can intervene as needed.

I use the imagery of a casino for a reason: Most of us would prefer that we had the power to rig the game. Or rather, that we had the power to convince the casino owner to rig the game in our favor.

Yet, at the heart of it, the rigged game is not just or fair, is it?

Can justice flourish if the game is rigged so that the good always win?

And would you want to participate in a system where what is good is defined exclusively by what the casino owner likes? Let us hope that it is a benevolent casino owner. Most of us would prefer that there was some benchmark, some absolute by which goodness could be measured, rather than having to bend to the caprice of another.

Okay, so let’s agree that God is infinitely good, unlike our hypothetical casino owner, and God is also just, and fair – and let’s say that the notion of God’s goodness is used as the benchmark. Would it work to have the game that is rigged in favor of those who were good, as God is good in an absolute sense?

But now you have another problem: are the ones who are being good really actually being good – or are they merely being prudent?

For example, imagine a cashier at that casino with a cashbox that will be audited at the end of the shift. If the cashier gives you correct change and does not cheat you, is the cashier doing what is right because it is indeed right, or is the cashier merely doing what is necessary to keep out of trouble?

If you know that the cashbox will be audited, and that there are indeed consequences when it is not kept accurate, then it is simply foolish to give incorrect change, except by unconscious mistake.

Interestingly, my friend the Christian fundamentalist believes that people will only do what is right if they know that their behavior is being judged. The cashier with the cashbox, in his opinion, gives correct change only if it is well-known and well-established hat the cashbox will be audited.

I tend to disagree with him about that, but I am also an optimist by nature.

But let’s return to our example: For the game to be fair, it can’t be rigged – right? You pay your money, you take your chances, and you get what you get.

So let’s look again at the servant and his prayer: why would he be asking the casino owner to bring him luck, if the game is not rigged? As if the casino owner could help! And if the casino owner can help, then why ask for luck? You ask instead for a good outcome. The casino owner has no power over ‘luck’. Luck is not helpful here.

This paradox is precisely why some commentators (including me) prefer to read the servant’s statement as a test rather than a prayer: He is calling out to God to be a witness, not a guarantor.

The servant’s camel request is actually somewhat annoying and difficult to accomplish. The young woman is to bring water for him and for all ten of his camels as well. That’s a lot of water – a lot more than what can be carried on her shoulder. The laws of hospitality require that she give a drink to a stranger – so the first part of his test is one of basic civility – but as for watering his camels, well, he’s on his own.

So he’s seeking out a woman who will go out of her way help more than is required of her – and who is strong enough to do it. He has, after all, ten camels with him, and every one of them can drink several troughs full.

To give some Biblical background: In the Biblical stories, the extent of a person’s hospitality is considered a reliable indicator of a person’s character. For example, the people of Sodom and Gemorrah are considered wicked because they wish to inflict harm on strangers in their city. Abraham is considered righteous because he immediately extends hospitality to the three strangers that appear at his encampment – he runs to serve them. And the refrain ‘be good to the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt’ appears repeatedly in the Exodus narratives.

So the servant is looking for a righteous woman, and a strong one, and (interestingly enough) one who will talk to strangers. And he indeed finds her in the person of Rebecca.

Though the Bible does not say that his request (or prayer, or test) was fulfilled by God, the narrative gives us that sense: no sooner than he had finished speaking did she appear. And not only does she fulfill the requirements by offering to give him water and to water his camels as well, but it says repeatedly that she hurried to do so. And she does so with such graciousness and charm that she must have seemed heaven-sent.

Still, we need to be careful here. If we accept that this woman is sent out by God in fulfillment of the servant’s prayer, then we also have to accept those times when she does not appear, when the prayer does not work, when things don’t work out right.

This date is also the date of Kristallnacht, the start of the Nazis’ reign of terror against the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Do we blame God for that one too?

Let’s then go back to our casino example: if the game is fair, then it is not rigged. We don’t automatically win. That only happens when we are small children and our parents indulge us.

Good does not always win – but it should. It is a moral imperative that we make that happen, that we engage with the universe and see to it that it is fair and just. The game is not rigged – but somehow the outcome matters, and it matters greatly. Which is, of course, where the casino metaphor breaks down.

Because, of course, we are not merely throwing dice. The outcome matters greatly.

So let’s look for a moment at a different kind of prayer, at the Misheberach, the prayer for healing. The phrase ‘misheberach’ means ‘the One who blesses’ – may the One who blesses, who blessed our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca Rachel and Leah, heal this person.

Is this prayer some kind of foolishness? Certainly not. But are we not asking for something that cannot happen? Are we not asking for God to intervene to create a favorable outcome.

Not exactly. When we try to get God to do our will, that is called theurgy. Theurgy is a fancy word for magic. We are trying to cast a spell that will cause the Godhead to do our bidding. The Misheberach prayer is not theurgy; it is not magic.

Nor are we invoking it to say that we think that this illness is some kind of test, in the sense of ‘if we pass this test, then we will be righteous.’

Rather, it is a statement of outcomes. It is the expression of a wish to be whole again, to be healed, the acknowledgement of our fear in the face of disease, our desire to hold on to what we love, our interest in rising above our mere flesh to have a life of meaning.

It is a request that all of the spiritual energy that is available to us – and it is considerable – be focused on the goal of healing, this one person, right now.

The servant was not praying for luck: he was praying for the ability to discern the results of his test. And we are not praying for luck: we are praying for the ability to respond in the best possible way to the challenges we face.

And that is a very real prayer, and a very powerful one.


[1] JPS translation

[2] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit

[3] Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit. I removed the word ‘Himself’ in order to make the phrase gender-neutral.

[4] Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

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