Thursday, November 10, 2011

Davening for Dollars (Hammerman on Ethics)

Hammerman on Ethics

The Jewish Week

Q: When I daven, I am tempted to ask God for help improving my difficult financial situation. But I always feel this is wrong since so many other people are in worse circumstances involving their health, safety and even worse financial conditions, whereas I at least have a job and a healthy family. Is it unethical to ask God for more money, or should I just be grateful for all the good things I have?

A – Not only is it OK to ask, but a number of our traditional prayers do just that. The weekday Amida is chock full of requests, especially the 9th blessing (of 19), where we ask God to bless us in this year “for good.” “Good” is assumed to mean agricultural sustenance – i.e. food – but it can be expanded to mean all things material. Some say that “good” implores that the material gains we receive from God’s blessings not distract us from spiritual pursuits. Other Amida blessings focus on other personal needs: knowledge, forgiveness, security, redemption and health. While most of these blessings are formulated in the first person plural, there are opportunities to add more private, personalized prayers. Other prayers, like Avinu_Malkeinu, ask God for all kinds of material favors (I cringe every time I see the line asking God to “fill our coffers with plenty”). So it’s done.

But it’s not done much.

Most Jewish prayer is not petitionary. On Shabbat, even the Amida sheds nearly all requests. And even when we ask for things, the net effect of the asking is to help us appreciate what we already have. We ask for rain “in due season” in order to help us appreciate the significance of timely rain, so that we’ll act responsibly to conserve our resources long before there is a drought. Also, by asking in the first person plural we are reminded that the accumulation of wealth is not a zero sum game. We pray that everyone be blessed, which encourages us to share our blessings with others. The American Jewish World Service has put together a collection of source mateirals calling for concerted action to address the global food shortage during this harvest season.

But what if it IS a zero sum game? Is it right, for example, for an athlete to point heavenward and thank God for bringing him victory, if that means that God then would have wanted the other team to lose? Does God love the St. Louis Cardinals more than the Texas Rangers? (Let’s leave aside God’s clear fascination for torturing Cubs fans). Red Sox slugger Adrian Gonzalez claims God wanted his team to collapse this year. If that’s true, what then of 2004, when, as I wrote at the time, the Sox victory seemed heaven-sent?

I’ve found that it’s best not to credit God for bringing us victory or blame God for losses. But I also understand that caring passionately about my sports teams is what trained me as a youth to care for things that are even more important. And when we care passionately about something, we naturally turn to God.

So it’s fine to pray for financial gain, as long as it doesn’t require someone else’s loss. It’s also not a good idea to confuse God with Bernie Madoff: if your earnings just keep going up up, up, I’d pray for the occasional reversal.
If your financial situation is dire, by all means, seek strength from prayer – then go out and hire a good accountant.

Send your ethical queries to Rabbi Hammerman at

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