There is a Midrash that one of my student’s once proudly repeated for me. It went something like this: There is a man in a small rowboat and big wave comes tips it over and it sinks. The man begins to pray. Shortly, a man in a fishing boat comes by an offers to help the man aboard.
“No, no,” says the man, “I’m praying for G-d to save me and I am sure he will.”
So the fisherman shrugs his shoulders and the boat goes away. The man has been treading water for quite some time and he is beginning to tire, when a sailboat comes by. The party on the sailboat offers to take the man aboard and sail him to the safety of the shore.
“No, no,” the man says, “I have faith that G-d will save me…” and he continues to tread water.
As he is treading water and the waves start to rise. A dingy comes by flinging and dipping in the waves of the impending storm. When the dingy stops a man on board offers him a ride to shore. Predictably the man declines. As the storm rages the man goes under and drowns. When the man appears before G-d he says, “I had faith. I believed in you. And I prayed and prayed. Why didn’t you save me?”
And G-d replies, “Well, I sent you three boats!”
I had an acquaintance as an undergrad in college. She was a born again Christian and was in recovery from drug use. She told the story over and over about how “the J man” had saved her and changed her life. (I think the story was designed and repeated to encourage us all to join her in this newfound faith.) Till finally in exasperation, a mutual friend said, “Yeah, I think stopping smoking crack and hanging around with drug dealers didn’t hurt anything either.”
This sounds like a harsh indictment and truly I was glad for and impressed at my classmates ability to not only stay off drugs, and to completely change her life around, including attending college. (“Who is strong? He who subdues his passions.”) And I have to say that I do believe in G-d’s hand in all things and the power of prayer, but sometimes we also have to be responsible for our choices, our free will, another gift from G-d. It is an ongoing paradox; we have free will and we have Divine determinism. We have to help ourselves in our development, in our lifestyle, and take on some personal responsibility. Not everyone starts out on an even playing field; this is understood. But as adults, young and old, we face challenges and we choose how to respond to them. G-d allows us opportunities. And we decide what to make of them.