Rabbinic Reflections: Friendship and faith

I have a hard time praying. In particular, I have a hard time praying alone. When I am with others, it is easier. When I lead services for others, I am often moved both by the liturgy and by spirit, occasionally excelling at prayer. Alone, though, I am likely to forget to pray or either stumble or race through it. Just in case prayer is not your thing often, like me, or always, please know that there is some baseball at the end of this reflection.

Abraham, the rabbis teach, invented non-sacrificial prayer. In the wake of his circumcision, three angels visit him: one, to announce Isaac’s birth; another, to alert him to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and the third, to heal him.

The Torah tells us that the day after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Abraham rose up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the LORD.” (Genesis 22:3). It is that standing, say the rabbis, that indicates that Abraham created non-sacrificial prayer, standing before God in the morning in what sounds like both habit and intention, key components of ritual (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 26b).

Abraham again rises early in the morning on the day he was to sacrifice his son Isaac. I cannot help but think that his prayer that morning would have been a fervent request for another angel (who comes at the last second) to call off the sacrifice. The story has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the ages. Each time I encounter it, I find something different stands out. This time, I see the power of relationships.

It is often hard to think of having a relationship with God the way we relate to other people. The Torah, though, describes God and Abraham very much in a relationship dynamic we might recognize, I daresay a friendship. Abraham is not great at relationships, though, as God has to teach him how to relate to Sarah with regard to Isaac, let alone how his relationship with Isaac changes in the story of the almost sacrifice of Isaac. And yet, the sequence of Abraham’s story Jews are reading now begs us to look at friendship more deeply.

The Book of Genesis operates on a dual axis of God-human and human-human relationships. The better we are at human-human relationships the better God’s relationship to human’s/humanity is and vice versa. If at the beginning Cain kills Abel and God floods the earth, at the end Judah speaks up for his brother Benjamin and God feeds the tribes of Israel in Egypt. In this context, Abraham’s prayer (and Isaac’s later “invention” of afternoon meditation) is rooted in a place where he and Isaac and he and God are close. Prayer works (in his case actually delivering) when our relationships are in a good place.

I know I have felt that. My prayers when my relationships are strained are genuine, and they do not change me or the situation until I get those relationships into a better place or until I share my struggle with a friend. To be good with God, dare we say “friends,” we might need to have our human-human relationships in a good place.

How did I come to see this lesson so clearly in the text this time around? Well, I saw what many of you saw: a scrappy baseball team from Philadelphia overcame its challenges by building team spirit, friendship, camaraderie, and a real sense that any one mistake could be overcome. Overcome they did, all the way to the World Series where we might never have thought they would win two games. The Phillies showed me that with friendship it is easy to feel “Ya Gotta Believe.”

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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