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Praying for Luck

  • Praying for Luck

    Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1−25:18
D'var Torah By: 

There is a problem in our Torah portion. It's a theological quandary that I believe plagues us all at one time or another regardless of our real beliefs in God, and it's widespread. It has to do with luck, chance, coincidence, and magical uncertainty. Our problem is the question of what this has to do with prayer.

On his way to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham's servant arrives at a watering hole and offers this prayer, "Eternal One, God of my master Abraham, please bring me luck today, and do a kindness for my master Abraham" (Genesis 24:12). Luck? Asking God for luck? What is that? Isn't luck by definition arbitrary? Luck comes and goes, there's no merit in it. One does not earn luck or predict luck, one cannot depend on luck: luck is inconsistent at best. How is it even reasonable to pray to God for such a thing?

Now, in truth, the word here is hakreih, which doesn't mean "to bring luck" exactly, it more literally means, "to bring something [good]," but the sense our translation leaves, that the servant here is asking for luck to come his way, feels accurate. The servant prays for a sign so that he will know when he finds the girl who was bashert or "meant to be."

In her Studies in Bereshit, (fourth revised edition, Jerusalem: Hemed Press, n.d.) Nehama Leibowitz notes the discussion among our Sages over whether this prayer was "sorcery, or a character test" (p. 224). The servant not only asks for a sign, but also goes into detail of the exact form the sign should come in. He says, "The girl to whom I say, 'Tip your pitcher and let me drink,' and who replies, 'Drink; and let me water your camels, too'-let her be the one You have designated for Your servant Isaac; that is how I shall know that You have done a kindness for my master" (Genesis 24:14). Rashi notes that, "Even total dependence on the sign does not constitute divination since even without it, the test is a reasonable one. The prohibition of divination only applies to a case where divination has no rational basis whatever" (Leibowitz, p. 224). And Abravanel says, "After selecting the most outwardly attractive of the damsels he required to find out more about her inner qualities and this he did by the 'drink and I shall water your camels too' formula. This would indicate that she was a hospitable, considerate and unassuming person . . . " (ibid. pp. 224?225).

It must have been hard for our ancient Sages to consider that Rebekah might have been chosen as Isaac's wife by any other than the most legitimate systems for choosing. To condemn the servant's prayer for luck would be to condemn the result of that prayer; that the servant found exactly what he asked for. Rebekah behaved exactly as he had required in order for her to be "the one." But I wonder if this was less of a character test for Rebekah, and more of a character test for the servant.

As Abravanel says, Rebekah was the most beautiful girl at the well. The servant needs to be sure that his own attraction to a beautiful girl is not the deciding factor of whether she is the proper bride for Isaac. So he devises this plan in order to judge by her kindness rather than by her physical beauty.

Maybe it is a kind of sorcery to believe that there is a bashert for each person, and that the bashert will appear only if things are done in exactly the right way. Is it luck or is it a character test that draws us ultimately (hopefully) to our perfect spouse? Interestingly, here it is neither Isaac nor Rebekah who is praying for a bashert, it is the servant praying on Isaac (and Abraham's) behalf. And maybe that is the key to seeing this not as a prayer for luck per se, but a prayer for goodness that may be heard.

It is hard to rely on a God who listens to prayers for luck and answers them according to our own specific instructions. While I suppose that happens occasionally, I expect more often than not the one offering the prayer may be disappointed. But a prayer offered for the good of another, now that may be a different situation altogether. The servant has nothing to gain or lose in this transaction. He is following the directions of his master who has even promised that if the woman refuses to come back with him he is released from his promise to bring a wife to Isaac (Genesis 24:8). This prayer shows us his concern with doing his duty well. And in the end he is rewarded with just that. We are told that Isaac took Rebekah into his mother's tent and he loved her (Genesis 24:67). Sounds like a successful mission indeed.

We don't know anything else of this servant after this incident. But we are left with a question about the power of his prayer. Does asking for a specific sign, and acting on that sign when it appears, constitute sorcery and prohibited prayer? Or does it constitute an absolute belief in the power of God to make all things possible? Or does the fitness of the slave's prayer have something to do with the fact that the prayer was on another's behalf? Personally, I am most comfortable with the last option. It was the unselfishness of this prayer for the continuation of Abraham's line, for a love for Isaac, and the inclusion of his own character test, that he might not be swayed by good looks alone. This servant prayed for the proper person to appear to help another, and that is what he found. While such prayers even on another's behalf may not always be as successful as this one was, I pray that all our prayers be just as lucky.

Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker joyfully serves as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.

On Behalf of Others and Ourselves
Davar Acher By: 
Barry L. Schwartz

Rabbi Dunsker emphasizes how acting for the good of others can influence our words and deeds, and bring out the best in us. She draws from the example of Abraham's servant, whose mission on behalf of his master and Isaac shaped his prayer and journey.

Nowhere is this truer than of Abraham himself. Readers of the Torah have always wondered how the same patriarch who stood before God and argued nobly for the inhabitants of Sodom-"Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" (Genesis 18:25)-could turn around and submit so meekly to the demand to sacrifice his beloved son. The answer may lie in the reality that Abraham was willing to do for others what he could not (or would not) do for himself.

Here's a story told to me by Rabbi Joshua Plaut and Alan Dershowitz: In 1994, President Bill Clinton participated in the Rosh HaShanah evening service on Martha's Vineyard led by Rabbi Joshua Plaut. At dinner with the renowned lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who was scheduled to give the d'var Torah the next morning, Clinton and Dershowitz discussed this very question about the seeming contradiction in Abraham's behavior. Clinton is said to have responded that he did not see a contradiction: while Abraham could argue forcefully on behalf of others, when God's command came directly to Abraham he had no choice but to obey unquestioningly.

Dershowitz echoes this thought with his own twist in his book The Genesis of Justice:
"Good people are sometimes reluctant to argue for self-serving ends. They demand justice for others but are silent in the face of injustice to them. . . . There is something more noble in advocacy for others than in self-serving advocacy" (New York: Warner Books, 2000], p. 128).

Striking the appropriate balance of acting on behalf of others, ourselves, and our families was challenging to Abraham, as it is to us.

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz is CEO of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey.

Reference Materials: 

Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 156–167; Revised Edition, pp. 153–167;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary
, pp. 111–132

When do we read Chayei Sarah

2019, November 23
25 Heshvan, 5780
2020, November 14
27 Heshvan, 5781
2021, October 30
24 Heshvan, 5782
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