06/03/2012 09:02 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2012

Does God Give Us 'Stuff'?

The Midrash, the rabbinic tales of the Torah, teaches that when the Israelites left Egypt, God enveloped them in "clouds of glory." When they wished for bread, God provided manna. When they craved meat, God sent quails. Once these wishes had been granted the people began to doubt, saying "Is God among us, or not?"

The rabbis' point is that Israel could only feel God's presence when they were receiving gifts. This is a common malady; many people pray for something and if they do not receive it assume that there is no God.

Yet the God of Israel is not a gift store but a Presence in the lives of those who draw close. While many of the prayers are petitionary, requesting health or peace, Judaism has always understood that our fate is in our own hands, that God is a strength and a comfort, not an assurance of services rendered. This is the lesson of Job. When Satan says to God that Job has been full of praise because he has been full of benefit, God tests Job. In the book -- troubling, eloquent and painful -- Job is afflicted although he has not sinned. He howls in protest at the unfairness.

We can read this epochal story as teaching us not only that the world is indeed unfair, but also as deepening Job's understanding (and ours) that his relationship to God should not be dependant upon goods rendered. Does Job truly love God, or only the goods that God has doled out to him? Is it possible to be in relationship to God for the gift of life, despite the inevitable and sometimes extraordinary pain that life brings?

When we pray are we making a wager -- grant my prayer and I will believe? Or are we pouring out the poetry of our souls? For each of us the question presses. It is vividly illustrated in a curious fact about the book of Job: the famous verse, "Though he slay me, still will I believe in Him" is capable of a different reading. The word for "In Him" -- Lo, lamed vav, is spelled different but sounds the same as the word for "no" -- lo, lamed aleph. In the actual text, the word reads "no" -- lamed aleph. Only in tradition do we understand the reading of "In Him." So the verse could as easily be understood as "Since He slay me, I will no longer believe (or: hope) in Him," meaning not that Job will cease to believe beyond the grave, but rather that he can only be tested so far before he loses faith.

Yet throughout the generations the text was not understood or translated that way. For we instinctively understood that although we pray to God in sickness and in need, the relationship is deeper than bartering prayer for goods. Prayer was not an assurance that evil would never befall us, but that we would have the resilience, the soul-power, to endure it.

For many God is actually more present in bad and challenging times. For more than miracles, we seek strength to cope with life as it is, in its bounty and its anguish. Faith in God helps us understand that circumstances may not change but our understanding and reaction does. So if there is no guarantee of results, why pray? Everyone who truly stands before God understands that if you finish your prayers a better person than you began your prayer has been answered.

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