Destiny, Freedom and the Logic of Petition

What is the purpose of petitionary prayer? Is it coherent to pray for that which God has already promised? How do we deal with the thorny issue of prayers which seem to go un-answered? Rabbi Carmy builds upon Rabbi Soloveitchik’s idea that petition enables us to realize our true needs. This starting point helps us understand the "prayer of destiny" where a person prays for something already divinely promised. When the avot and imahot (biblical patriarchs and matriarchs) prayed for children, they internalized the significance of offspring and of passing on the mesorah. Of course, the same applies to the "prayer of freedom" where a person prays without any prior guarantees.

How does a person learn about the worth of a specific personal need if Hashem does not clearly answer the petition? Rabbi Carmy explains that a person must sometimes proceed without clear answers. There exists no "unambiguous formula" for existence. Hannah did not give up her desire for children nor did Avraham despair of losing Yitzhak on the way to the akedah. These goals retained their validity even as other religious duties called. In Rabbi Carmy’s words, "Life is not treated as a problem requiring a solution, but as a mystery summoning the individual to an encounter with God."

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Tradition 24:2 (1989): 17-37. (© Rabbinical Council of America, with permission.)

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