Why I refused to say a Shabbat service prayer for England to win the World Cup

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain was asked by several from his congregation whether he would do it

July 09, 2018 13:15

I have been asked by more than one earnest congregant whether I would say a prayer for an England victory during Shabbat morning services.

I turned him down on several grounds. For a start, like many synagogues, we have members who come from a variety of other countries, including France, Germany, Russia and Argentina who were also competing. So prayers just for England might have been somewhat alienating for them.

Then there is also the fact that, in Moscow synagogues, Russian Jews might have been praying for victory, while in Stockholm, Swedish Jews might be doing so too. Whose prayers should God have reckoned deserved a positive answer?

More importantly, it begs the question of what prayer is for? I would suggest it is not the equivalent of a divine slot machine - worshippers put in the correct words and out pops the request.

We often utter prayer for results - be it on the pitch, for the cure of someone ill, or for the success of a new venture - but I suspect we know deep down that it does not guarantee the outcome, but is more of an expression of our hopes and fears.

That does not mean it is wasted effort. We can feel better by articulating them. We can feel warmed by doing so in the midst of our community. We are also much more likely to be successful if we pray not so much for altering the present or future in our direction, but asking for qualities in dealing with whatever we have to face.

This might be persistence in tackling a long crisis, acceptance when things do not go our way, or generosity of spirit to those who make demands on us through no fault of their own. We should not pray to change reality, but to live it better.

So football fans should not beseech God for a win, but ask God to give them stable nerves to cope with yet another penalty shoot out, or for them to be level-headed if defeated, or gracious to opponents in victory.

Above all, it would be meaningful to pray that, in the heat of our emotions of joy and despair, we remember that the World Cup should be about skill and sportsmanship, and that both the players and the fans should epitomise those values, rather than winning at all costs or supporting teams that cheat.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of Confessions of a Rabbi

July 09, 2018 13:15

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