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PRAYING IN VEGAS

by Rabbi Joseph Abrams    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

I often like to ask students, "What is the holiest city in the world?" Of course, Jerusalem is most often the answer I get. When I tell them that is not the city I was thinking of, it causes confusion. "Do you mean Mecca or some city in the Himalayas?", I am asked.

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I often like to ask students, "What is the holiest city in the world?" Of course, Jerusalem is most often the answer I get. When I tell them that is not the city I was thinking of, it causes confusion. "Do you mean Mecca or some city in the Himalayas?", I am asked.

When I reply that I am thinking of Las Vegas, the reaction is unbelievable. If one would enter any casino there, one would always hear people calling out to G-d. No matter what their religion, they are praying. People are not even embarrassed. In every language, someone is calling out for Divine help so they can score or win. On any given day, millions of gamblers are praying to win.

Why dont we consider this religious? I ask this of students and some of the answers are, "well, they are praying for the wrong thing" or "gambling is wrong, so the prayer doesnt count." What about our prayers for success or health do they count? How do we know we are praying for the right things?

As we close the book of Exodus and look ahead to the book of Leviticus, we begin the in-depth discussion of the sacrificial offerings, and through it we can derive a true understanding of prayer which today substitutes those offerings. People often translate the concept of korban (offering) as a sacrifice, something that one gives to G-d in exchange for a favor. This concept is really foreign to the Jewish belief system. The true translation of korban is related to its etymological cousin, the Hebrew word karev, meaning to come close.

In the ancient world, people brought their sacrifices in the hope that the gods would bestow their kindness in exchange for the offering. This simplistic view is that Man is powerless in this world of caprice and chance, so he calls on the gods to come down to his level and do his bidding.

Judaism rejects this view. The korban is symbolic of Hashem calling Man. We do not ask Hashem to come to us, but rather Hashem asks us to come close to Him. Through each aspect of the korban, we are being asked to dedicate a different aspect of our life on the altar for Hashem.

The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is etymologically related to the word pilal, meaning to judge. The Hebrew word lhitpalel (commonly translated as "to pray") literally means to judge oneself. When we begin to pray, it is really meant to be an exercise in self-examination. We are judging ourselves to determine if we are truly deserving of the blessings that we have and the blessings we desire. When one realizes his position in this world, and that by coming closer to the Almighty he understands that all of his needs come directly from Hashem, only then can he ask the Almighty to grant his wishes and fulfill his needs. He is not asking G-d to do his bidding, but rather he is showing recognition of the power of Hashem. He comes into His holy proximity through a sense of self-examination, and thus comes close to the ultimate Source of all blessings.

When one visits Jerusalem and experiences praying at the Western Wall, there is no question as to the whereabouts of the holiest city on the globe. The collective prayers of our people at this holy site bring all of us closer to Hashem. It is indeed an experience of G-d calling us, and our response to His call.

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Rabbi Joseph Abrams, who grew up in Atlanta, is the dean of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.

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