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Jaron Engelmayer

Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Austria

Distinguished panellists, dear friends - Shalom alejchem - Peace be with you!


Why are we actually praying and what for? Can we influence G'd's will? If G”d has decreed something, that is already an immovable fact. After all, He alone created the whole world by the power of His will and word: “And G”d said: Let there be light! And it was light". כי הוא אמר ויהי – “For He spoke, and it was,” we recite from the Psalms daily in the morning prayer. This means for example, if G‑d decreed that a certain person should be ill, what is the use of praying for this persons health? Can G”d be persuaded or even bribed? It already says in the Torah, as Balaam put it: “The Almighty is not like a man who deceives, or a man who repents.” So what do we want to achieve with our prayers to G”d?

In order to better understand the nature of prayer, the interaction of G”d and man should be explored. Moische Gross serves as an example. Moishe desperately wanted to win the lottery, so every day he prayed with great devotion and fervor to Gd that He would please let him win the great jackpot. But week after week goes by and… it does not happen. Then one day Moishe turned to G”d in deep disappointment and said: “Dear G”d, is it so difficult for You to let me win the lottery, at least one time?” At a sudden a heavenly voice was heard and answered: “Moishe, when do you finally buy a lottery ticket!”

Moishes example expresses something very profound: G“d actually wants to help, but man must also help himself. Basically, only good emanates from G“d, the source and origin of all good. The question is, whether we humans are able to fully absorb that good. Heavenly blessings can be compared to rain on a dry land. In order to fully absorb this blessing, suitable vessels are needed, provided in the right way (e.g. a glass). If there are reservoirs, cisterns, etc., the water can be collected and stored, otherwise it soaks into the ground unused and the blessing is lost.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, formulated this thought in depth: The task and goal of a prayer is not to change G“d, but rather to change man. As the worshiper changes, he becomes able to properly receive the blessings that are destined for him. Rabbi Yisrael Baal Hashem Tov, the founder of the chassidic movement, puts it in his own words: "If you are the same person after prayer as you were before prayer, what was the purpose of praying?"

In fact, prayer is much more than just an expression of our wishes and requests, it is an orientation, intended to give us direction as to: what for is praying and striving in life worthwhile, and how should we change ourselves and become better human beings in order to achieve this. This should be a reminder for us at the three dailys prayers about which values our life should revolve around.

So it is not really surprising that the theme of peace is so emphasized in the prayers. Our sages say: Great is peace, because all important prayers end with it: the daily triple prayer, the table prayer after a meal, the blessings of the priests, the mourning prayer. Even the weekly review on Friday evening, shortly before we receive the holy Shabbat - Sabbath day - by the song "Lecha Dodi", ends with the wish for peace.  

The desire for peace corresponds to the inner longing that we should feel, even yearn for, on many occasions every day. Yes, even when just meeting on the street, the simple greeting to each other is "Shalom" - peace, or more explicit: "Shalom alejchem", also "Shulem alajchem" in Yiddish - peace be with you – like a small prayer for peace each time.

It is precisely when we meet other people that we become aware of the deeper meaning of peace: the possibility of creatures that look, think and act completely differently, to live, interact and harmonize with one another, not perceiving the other as competitors, but rather as mutual enrichment.

The origin of this perception is in G”d Himself, whose name is “Peace”. As the Mishnah, part of the Jewish oral tradition, teaches in the tractate Sanhedrin: “The greatness of G”d is seen in the creation of man. A king of flesh and blood, if he has coins minted based on an original coin, then they all resemble each other. Not so with G”d: he shaped all human beings in the image of the first man (Adam), and yet they are all different from one another.” The greatness of G”d thus does not strive to the monolithic arrangement of mankind, but on the contrary to pluralism , of the diversity and variety of people. These are complementary to each other, enriching each other - if mankind wants and sees it that way!

It is precisely this approach that the community of St. Egidio promotes in such an admirable way, which is why I have been very happy to follow the invitation for many years and like to contribute to this common goal!

Unfortunately, we are in a time when even on European territory this basic understanding of human coexistence is being questioned, resulting in an unspeakable war. Since the outbreak of this war last February, we pray an additional prayer for peace in many Jewish communities throughout Europe, with the following words of Rabbi Nachman, which I would like to share with you: "And may one people no longer raise the sword against another in the future, only may all the inhabitants of the earth realize that we did not come into the world to quarrel and fight each other, not for the sake of hatred, envy, anger and bloodshed... May the verse be fulfilled: And I will bring peace upon the earth , so that you go to sleep and nobody will startle you.”

With this in mind, to you, to all of us and to all the people of the world: Shalom - peace be with you!