The purpose of prayer is not to change God (that...

The purpose of prayer is not to change God (that is magic), but to change us, writes Rabbi Marc Gellman.  Credit: Dreamstime/Mary Katherine Wynn

Q: When someone is sick, we are asked to pray for them … and if they die, it's often said that it was the will of God. But if they recover, the power of prayer is often given credit. Do you think enough prayers will change God's mind? — Anonymous

A: The purpose of prayer is not to change God (that is magic), but to change us. It is a normal and natural human emotion to want to change things we cannot change. Those are the kind of prayers for when we are young or scared or weak. Those are prayers for miracles, and miracles, though possible, are not predictable nor a sound way to relate to God. The point of prayer is to reconcile us with our human condition, to give us courage to repent of our sins and to recover our sense of awe as part of God's creation.

The best definition of prayer I know comes from this Mary Oliver poem in her book "Thirst":

It doesn't have to be the blue iris,

it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones;

just pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try

to make them elaborate, this isn't

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.

So good luck crafting prayers that are doorways into thanks.

Q: Do you believe that the path of our lives is already written? Is the course we take the one that we are meant to take? I stress on a daily basis that I have or will make a wrong or bad choice or take a wrong turn. I want to believe that it is all written and that although we may take the long or wrong road, we will eventually end up where we were meant to be. I look forward to your response. God bless you. — V

A: I believe that our lives are the sum of the choices we make. Those choices are free of fate or force. We make the choices freely and our lives are the record of those choices. I believe in freedom over fate. However, I also believe that our unique and personal blessings are a force in our lives. When you see someone who was meant to be a teacher or a doctor or a carpenter, it is thrilling. To see a person who has clearly found his or her unique blessings and talents and who has made a life based upon those talents makes you believe in destiny. This drive to make our blessings our destiny was captured by Edward Everett Hale in 1902:

"I am only one, But still I am one. I cannot do everything, But still I can do something; And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."

Albert Schweitzer wrote, "Not one of us knows what effect his life produces, and what he or she gives to others; that is hidden from us and must remain so, though we are often allowed to see some little fraction of it, so that we may not lose courage."

So do what you can do, and do not ever lose courage.

Q: Given all the people who have passed away since creation, is it selfish of me to ask my higher power to look after my deceased family members? Lately I have been thinking that it is selfish of me to do so. — J

A: When you appeal to God to care for the souls of your dearly departed you are really appealing to God's love — and there is nothing wrong with that. God's love encompasses all souls because they are made in the image of God. If, on the other hand, your appeal to God is to alter their judgment or ignore their sins, that would be a mistake. I love the humility of your question. It is a sign that your relatives taught you well and that their souls are secure and waiting for you.

Q: Do you believe in a "literal" Hell? — Anonymous

A: I am not a believer in Hell as a place of torture with lakes of fires and terrible tortures. Rather, I imagine Hell as a place where the souls of the truly wicked among us are simply eradicated. They have killed their souls in their evil lives, and Hell is the verdict of their lifetime of moral lassitude. As for a brief and succinct definition of Hell, my favorite is from the philosopher Thomas Hobbes: "Hell is truth seen too late." So see the truth and avoid Hell.

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.