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Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” The idea expressed in these famous lyrics is that praising the Lord and, indeed, merely praying to the Lord is not sufficient. Prayer should be followed with the efforts and actions of human beings in the natural world of reality.

The intelligent person is naturally troubled by the dilemma of God’s place and involvement in the world as well as in our personal lives. If we are proverbially ‘passing the ammunition’, hoping that our actions will be effective in delivering the desired outcome, then why are we praying to and praising the Lord?

Where is His intervention effective and noticed? If we are praising the Lord and think that this is meaningful and impactful, then why ‘pass the ammunition’? Why bother with human action and efforts? This is the human dilemma we all confront daily.

Typically, we find two solutions to the dilemma. The first is simply that of the atheist. For the atheist, there is no divine intervention in people’s lives. Our actions and their natural consequences are the sole determinants of our success or failure in our endeavors.

On the other extreme we find believers in God who refuse to seek medical advice and medical treatment. Their belief is so firm that they would simply pray to God, believing everything is in God’s control and that human efforts are futile. Most of us are naturally unwilling to assume such a position and view those that do to be part of an extremist, lunatic fringe.

For most rational people who believe in God, both of the above approaches are unsatisfactory. We know intuitively that things will not and do not happen on their own without human intervention – so we know we must act, create, and do – but if that is the case, what is God’s role? Where is he in our lives and our activities?

What is Judaism’s approach in this regard? How does Judaism deal with a world where human action is a pre-requisite for results and still find place for God and belief in day-to-day living?

In this weeks Torah Parsha, Sh’lach, God commands the Jewish people to send spies into the land of Israel to examine the most strategic way of conquering the land. God also commanded Noah to build an Ark to save him from the impending flood. So it seems, God himself commands and requires human action. Again, the question cries out – so what is God’s involvement?

The great 13th century sage Rabeinu Bechaye sheds light on this issue in his introduction to this week’s Torah portion. He quotes a verse from King Solomon’s Proverbs: “The horse is ready for the day of war and salvation is up to God”. It is interesting to note that this would be the biblical version of “Praise (Pray) the Lord and pass the ammunition” inverted as follows “Pass the ammunition and Praise (Pray) to the Lord”.

When an atheist is confronted with the philosophical challenge of why two individuals exerting the same effort with the same enthusiasm and zeal, in similar situations, have different levels of success. They explain it with the concept of luck – simply being in the right place at the right time by random chance. Rabeinu Bechaye answers this philosophical challenge differently. He explains that, in fact, where nature ends is where miracle (God) begins. Put into different words, the biblical concept is truly that God only helps those who exert normal, natural efforts and take action to help themselves first. For the believer, man makes efforts and God determines the success/failure of man’s endeavors. Judaism claims that the place where God’s involvement is most prevalent is the interface between human actions and efforts and their results.

I recently spent some time with an incredibly successful person who in his great humility said to me: “Let me tell you something. I worked very hard but so did many others. At the end of the day, it was a question of luck.” For Rabeinu Bechaye and the believer it was not luck but, rather the will of God. God, for whatever reason, blessed this man’s hard work and was the interface between this man’s efforts and his success.

Friends, our tradition teaches us that it is God who constantly gives life and energy to all living things and gives them the energy required for action. It appears, then, that our mantra should be: “Pray to the Lord, pass the ammunition and pray to Lord”.

May Hashem bless our handiwork with success.