God, I trust in you. God, I lay myself in your hands. I ask with the light of your faith that has lit the whole world and lightened all darkness on this earth, to guide me until you approve of me. And once you do, that's my ultimate goal." This prayer was found in Mohammed Atta's luggage.
The mere thought of asking for God's help in carrying out the atrocious attacks on the World Trade Center towers is chilling. But shockingly enough, there are rabbis who actually believe that Muslim extremists succeed in their homicide bombing missions and other acts of terrorism because they pray to God. According to these people, invoking the name of God, the merciful one, before any action will guarantee success, no matter what you wished for.
This attitude, coming from Jewish leaders, is both ridiculous and scary, but as often happens it stems from misinterpretation of traditional texts. The texts in question are a saying in the Talmud (Berakhot 63:1) that one should always ask God to guide him, even for dvar averah, literally "a sin." This can be construed as suggesting that before committing a crime one should pray to God, but it is clear that this saying refers, as Nachmanides suggests, to all earthly matters.
This saying means that even when engaged in the most mundane issues one should be guided by the perspective of the Torah.
Another source people rely on is the statement that a cat burglar prays to God before breaking into a house. There is no doubt the author did not approve of such behavior, but rather wanted to show how sometimes we can mislead even ourselves with false religiosity. How pitiful is the image of a man about to commit a crime and infringe upon the rights of others, asking, maybe even devoutly so, for God's help.
Lastly, the story of Balaam in this week's parsha was brought up by a friend of mine to prove me wrong. The Israelites were clearly terrified by this wizard's immense power.
If prayer cannot be used to perpetrate crimes and damage people, why were they so scared?
This is exactly the lesson the Torah wanted to teach us as well as the wandering Israelites. They had to realize that they stood to receive blessing or cursing, Divine abundance or wrath, not according to the prophetical prayers of Balaam but according to their conduct. Balaam thought he could manipulate God by using charms, chants and altars, but God proved him wrong. When he turned to the desert to curse the Israelites only blessing poured forth, because this was what the people deserved. As our rabbis taught us, it all depends on you: "Your deeds will bring you closer; your deeds will drive you away."
If we keep insisting that prayer works for any purpose, or for that matter that any prayer works, we are degrading the concept of prayer and we reduce the image of God to that of a large vending machine in heaven. All you have to do is deposit the right coin, say the right formula, and the desired product will be provided whether it is health or death, a petition for help in doing acts of lovingkindness or carrying out terrorist attacks.
We have to understand that prayer is not an automatic process. It is an act of self-judgment and evaluation, reflection and meditation. Prayer reminds us how insignificant we are, but at the same time encourages us to do the best we can and realize the great potential God has given us.
We tend to catalog people by how frequently they visit shul, but the truth is that people can go and pray three times a day, yet it will have no effect on them. They would be just like the ancient Israelites who twice lost their Temple because they thought that as long they pray or bring a sacrifice they can do whatever they want. You cannot lead a double life. You cannot ask God to help you in your daily chores if they include cheating, embezzling or anything that impacts others negatively.
The main goal of prayer is to help us improve ourselves and become better people so we can help others and make this world a better place. It would be preferable, if there is no other way, to dedicate less time to prayer but to make sure it will be quality time and that each word of our prayers, be it in Hebrew, English or any other language, will penetrate our hearts and drive us to bring about positive changes.
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.