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Articles > Praying to Win?

By Rabbi Harold Kushner

Does God care who wins a given baseball or football game? Does it make sense for us to pray for a victory for our side? If one team wins, does that mean that God favored the prayers of that team's fans and rejected the prayers of those who root for the other side?

To me, the answers to those questions depend not on our understanding of the nature of God, but on our understanding of what it means to pray. If we understand prayer to be about asking for things (a bicycle, a boy friend, a good grade, a favorable medical report), we will often be puzzled when we don't get what we asked for. Did I not deserve it? Is God mean? Does God know what is good for me better than I myself do?

In English, as in almost every European language, the verb "to pray" is linguistically connected to the verbs "to beg, to plead." But Jewish prayer is minimally about asking for things (and even then, I would maintain that we are not really asking so much as we are admitting our limitations; do we really believe that God has the power to grant world peace but will do so only if we nag Him enough about it?).

Jewish prayer is about thanking. A prayer is more authentic when it begins, "God, thank You for…." rather than "God, please give me….” But mostly Jewish prayer is an invitation to God to be present in our lives. As Martin Buber once put it, prayer is not asking God for anything; prayer is asking for God.

How does this apply to sporting events in which we have a rooting interest? The athlete can pray to thank God for the abilities he was born with. He can pray for the clarity of mind and soul that will enable him to do his best. He can pray to remain humble in victory and not be discouraged in defeat.

The fan can offer a prayer of thanks for the soul-enlarging excitement of a well played contest, for the spectacle of gifted athletes doing things beyond the capacity of most of us, for the examples of grace, courage and determination with which sporting events so often provide us.

And win or lose, we can pray for the wisdom to remember that it is only a game. As the biblical author of Ecclesiastes wrote thousands of years ago, "the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, for time and chance enter into all things." (Ecclesiastes 9:11) In other words, the fact that one team won does not mean that God favored them or that God heard the prayers of their fans and ignored the prayers of those who rooted for their opponents. It only means that on that given day, they were the better (or the luckier) team.

Notes:

Martin Buber (1878-1965) a Jewish philosopher and ardent Zionist, was born in Vienna and lived in Germany for many years, before making aliyah to what was then Palestine in 1938, where he taught for many years at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He wrote many books, among them “I and Thou” (1937), which has been translated into many languages and continues to be widely read to this day.

Rabbi Harold Kushner is a best selling author of several books, including When Children Ask About God (1971) and When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981). He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Sport and Jewish Life, and lives in Natick, MA where he is Rabbi Laurea! te of Temple Israel. Rabbi Kushner was named by the Christophers as one of the fifty people who have made the world a better place.

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