Thursday, August 11, 2011

Don't Test God: Parashat V'etchanan

One of the most common phrases that parents often utter to their children is, "Don't test me!" Children, especially when little, are anxious to test boundaries in order to see how their actions will affect their parents. There is a basic human curiosity about what reactions our own actions evoke in others.

In this week's portion there is a surprising and oft overlooked verse (Deut 6:16):

טז לֹא תְנַסּוּ, אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר נִסִּיתֶם, בַּמַּסָּה.

16 You shall not test the LORD your God, as you tested HaShem in Massah.

Also interesting to note that the word for "test" in Hebrew is the same verb used when God tests Abraham when he is asked to sacrifice Isaac. God may test the faithfulness of God's servants, but we cannot do the same to the Divine.

What are we to take away from this verse? According to the work, Sefer HaHinuch "There is a warning here not to perform the commandments by way of a test, i.e., not to perform a commandment in order to try the Lord, seeing whether He repays in like measure. Rather, one is to observe the commandments out of one's love and fear of G-d." (Translation and reference from Dr. Alex Klein)

According to this text, we cannot pray for the sake of receiving an immediate reward or response. Prayer needs to be done for its own sake. Many in our movement are asking questions about the quality and importance of prayer. What does it mean to pray for its own sake? What do we expect from God in return for our faithfulness?

Praying for its own sake, in my opinion, means committing to showing up without expectation; to be there for the encounter despite knowing that what you receive cannot be predicted. The truth is, just as we don't know what we'll get when we converse with God, so too do we never know what we'll receive from another person when we open up a connection with her. Both God and people are not computers or machines -- you can never predict which output you will receive as the result of your input. However, you show up for the encounter out of obligation and love. This way of doing things is unpredictable, but serves as the requisite basis for both Jewish prayer and holy relationships.

Shabbat Shalom.