This week a man named Dennis visited our Religious School and spoke with our 7th graders and their parents. He was from the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. Dennis’ story was very powerful. He was homeless for 14 years. I wanted our students to hear his story and thereby put a face on homelessness. I did not want our congregants to speak of “the homeless” but of instead of people also created in God’s image, of human beings who live on the streets. Now they can think of this remarkable man named Dennis who overcame his demons, in particular drug addiction and numerous arrests to rebuild his life.
One of his refrains was the following. He said over and over again “God is good.” He spoke of his prayers to God. Often he tried to make a deal with God. “If you will get me out of jail then I will fix things.” None of these prayers worked. He would soon return to the streets and drugs.
In this week’s Torah portion we read of many sacrifices. The chattat, sin offering, is the most intriguing. When you make an inadvertent mistake you bring a female goat to the priest who sacrifices it on the altar. Your sin is then forgiven. Apparently that was it. I wonder about the relationship between prayer and correcting our failings. How can a sacrifice to God bring about change?
But the focus of the sacrificial cult was on God’s forgiveness. Recently one of my bar mitzvah students suggested that the sacrifice was like buying flowers for his mom when he made a mistake. It made her more receptive to forgiving him. I think his insight might be right on. The sacrifice was more worried about God and God’s forgiveness, than about the person bringing the offering. The inevitable problem then is that the sacrifice, and today the prayer, can become an end, and not means. I say my prayer and then I am finished. I don’t have to change. I don’t have to fix my mistakes.
Dennis shared with us another insight about prayer. He said that he did not fix his life and pull himself out of drug addiction and homelessness until he stopped with the deals and only prayed for strength. He asked God only for the strength to correct his wrongs. And that is when his life started to turn around, when he stopped asking God to do everything, when he only asked for support and started doing the tough and trying work himself.
Soon we will be reading the Purim story. Although Esther fasts and prays before beseeching the king in behalf of the Jewish people, God is nowhere mentioned in this biblical book. Esther only prays in order to summon the courage and resolve to approach the king. That is part of our lesson for today.
Too often people think that prayer is all that is required. Granted prayer can bond you to our community and to God. But prayer can never be the substitute for doing the hard work. It can never replace correcting our own failings. A prayer, a sacrifice, serves as a beginning, a start. It helps us look inward and examine ourselves.
The true meaning of sacrifice is not so much about the animal—or even God’s forgiveness. Instead it is about the internal change that is required to make things right. The hard work can only be in our own hands.