Shaya Cohen -


Maximizing our Blessings

It is clear to me that G-d does not answer all prayer. But it is also clear to me that G-d surely is involved in the lives of those who bring Him into our world; I feel G-d’s kisses on a daily basis, and I know many others who do as well.

Last night we watched It’s a Wonderful Life with a number of our kids who had never seen it before. Its core message is profound: the impact we make on others is what matters. Or, as seen on the wall of the Bailey Building and Loan: “All you can take you is that which you’ve given away.” If we extend the aphorism beyond mere mammon, we might be onto something!

Last week I wrote on what makes a successful prayer in the Torah. Simplified: the most divinely-favored prayer in the entire Torah is that of Avraham’s servant, in large part because the servant is praying for his master. The two dovetailed perfectly into a simple, yet fundamental logical progression:

1: If we want to matter to G-d, we must care about, and pray for, other people.

2: In order to maximize G-d’s blessings to us, then, we should deliberately arrange our affairs so that when others are blessed, we are as well.

In other words, a community in which people lift each other up and form an integral support network is one where G-d hears prayers.  So if we make choices that result in the success of other people leading to blessings in our own lives, then G-d will be with us when we call on Him.

A society blessed by G-d is more like capitalism, where a rising tide can boost all ships, where the pie can grow such that everyone can benefit from the success of others. This is the antithesis of a zero-sum game, in which for every win there must be equal-and-opposite loss.

In practical terms, then, I am talking of endeavors where we honestly and legitimately pray for others before ourselves: think of a doctor who prays for their patients, a mother who prays for her children, a businessman who prays for the welfare of his shareholders. Indeed, any person who prays for their friends, family, and neighbors is someone who sees their own success through the prism of the success and blessings of others.

All who are engaged in holy work (e.g. investing in other people, elevating the world in some way, spreading knowledge and wisdom, etc.), pray just as Avraham’s servant did: that our master (G-d Himself) should be blessed with a successful result for His endeavors in this world. The prayer and divine intervention becomes a positive feedback loop: If we seek to maximize the kindness we show to others (and pray for them), then the benefits reflect on us. The more we love, the more G-d loves us.

I am finding that changing my worldview in this way has changed my prayers and their success.

What do you think?

5 replies on “Maximizing our Blessings”

While I certainly agree that praying for others and caring for others increases our own blessings, am I to understand that you are approaching this from a rationalist perspective? Namely, that since your caring for others lifts up the community, and a lifted up community helps you, therefore lifting up the community helps you? If that is the case, I disagree. I think G-d Himself helps people and intervenes, and this is explicit throughout Tanach and Talmud. If you are merely substituting that communal mechanism and calling it “G-d,” I don’t agree either, as that again is not our understanding of G-d in Tanach and Rabbinic literature. Yes, we are responsible, and yes our actions are important, and we have free will, etc. But that doesn’t do away with the fact that G-d Himself intervenes to assist us.

Take our approach to the Messiah. The Talmud teaches that there are two scenarios in which the Messiah can come: 1. If we are totally pure and deserving, in which case we won’t experience the birth pangs, and 2. If we are completely guilty, in which case we will.

The Gemara then goes on to say that the entire point of the travails before the Messiah is to let us know that we have no one to rely upon except G-d. In scenario 2, the Gemara is presuming that we will be *helpless*, and that there will be nothing we can do to fight the forces against us, except through relying on G-d. Clearly then, G-d Himself interacts to help the helpless, and the helplessness itself is a “tool” to recognize G-d’s ultimate sovereignty. Let’s examine scenario 1, the ideal scenario: here, we are pure. Therefore, we must be acting correctly, i.e. our actions matter. It is also logical to assume that we already believe, in this scenario, that we have no one to rely upon except G-d since that is the *entire purpose* of the travails in scenario 1. There is no need for birth pangs, because we already recognize G-d’s sovereignty. So which one is it? Do our actions matter? Or do we only have G-d to rely upon? The answer IMHO, is both. We are charged by G-d to perform good deeds that bring G-d’s light into the world, and we are also charged by G-d to see Him as the one true power in existence. These are not mutually exclusive, as they both are ultimately about the recognition of G-d’s sovereignty. As we say 3 times a day in the last sentence of prayers, “And it will be that G-d will be King over the entire world. On that day, Hashem will be One, and His Name will be One.”

I know this comment appears to be making a presumption on what this post implies, but I also have read some of your other posts that seem to be emphasizing our responsibility in the world at the expense of G-d’s ultimate control, as well as implying that the Messiah is not a Jewish concept (which seems to also be born out of your desire to bear the sole responsibility for our fate in our hands). So this comment is with those impressions in mind.

Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

I am not a “rationalist” as it is understood. I try desperately hard to understand what the Chumash is telling us, and I work to stay just with the text. This means I have had what I thought I knew changed because the text tells me otherwise.

G-d intervenes in this world. Not always, not for everyone (or even most people). But it is clear that we are not supposed to rely on divine intervention, or to use it as a crutch. We must do everything we can do – and then we can rely on G-d to help close the gap.

G-d created the world. He made US his partner in completing it. We are not merely children (as in Christianity) or obedient subjects (as in Islam). The comparison in the Torah, time and again, is to a marriage, to give-and-take, to interaction and growth and change ON BOTH SIDES. This is necessarily a moving target. And because each person has a spark of the divine within them (our souls), respect for other people, loving your fellow, is also a legitimate way to serve Hashem.

Thank you for your response. Agreed with the comparison to marriage. But just to be clear, there are multiple ways the Torah describes our relationship with G-d. We are in a marriage, but we also are servants, and we are also children. Each of these describe different ways that we relate to Him, and they are all valid. It is not exclusively any of these. Also, when you say, “We must do everything we can do,” and “We are not supposed to rely on divine intervention,” I don’t view those as two mutually exclusive things. When David fought Goliath, he did what he could do with the slingshot he had. But the entire time, he loudly proclaimed that he knew with full confidence that G-d would help him. He relied on divine intervention, but he also did what he could. It would appear to me that this reliance in G-d is not just to fill the gaps, but an *integral part* of action. Which is why we can be in an utter state of helplessness, and have the most important end-goal of that helplessness as recognizing G-d’s ultimate control. Perhaps that is also why the Messiah is destined to come from David, because David embodied this understanding of taking action, while recognizing that G-d is ultimately in control.

I don’t think there is much difference between our views. I am merely urging people to never fail to act when they can, to never stop working toward good ends. G-d is a partner all along the way, but is not going to bail us out if and when we quit first and just wait for G-d to save us.

The original post comes in part from recognizing that loving people is a valid and Torah-approved way to love G-d. Indeed, as Avraham showed, being kind to guests trumps a conversation with Hashem!

Comments are welcome!

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