I received several emails today reminding me to recite Parshas HaMon today. Parshas HaMon is the portion of the Torah that describes the manna that was given to the Jews in the Wilderness by God for forty years. Parshas HaMon consists of Exodus/Shemos 16. There is a segulah that reciting this section of the Torah on the Tuesday before it is read in shul on Shabbos will bring one added income during the year.
This, however, contradicts the Gemara (Beitzah 16a) which states that one's income for the coming year is set between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur.
I suppose that this seeming contradiction shouldn't bother me. After all, there is a long-standing and well-honored tradition among Jews to recite Tehillim (Psalms) for someone who is ill or in situations where one's life is in danger. This practice, too, seems to contadict the idea that we are all inscribed for life or death between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. And I'll admit that I engage in this behavour as well. When my mother was near-death a couple of weeks ago, I recited Tehillim and prayed for her recovery. Of course, if her fate was sealed on Yom Kippur, my prayers and the prayers of those who prayed for her should not have made a difference.
To tell the truth, these contradictions do not really bother me so much. I have a mental image of heartfelt and sincere prayer being able to "break open" the seal on the Book of Life and have the name of one who wasn't inscribed therein previously now be written. (I do, however, have more of a problem of a simple recital of Shemos 16 breaking the seal of the Book of Parnassah, but that's another issue for another time).
I often do wonder, however, about the real efficacy of our prayers. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any reliable data out there that can tell me how often saying Tehillim for an ill person really does work in arousing God's mercy to effect a cure. There are certainly plenty of anecdotal stories out there, but no hard and fast data. And, to me, that's very frustrating.
It's one thing to take something on complete faith because it's unvarifiable. For example, I believe in the existence of God even though there is no data to prove it; indeed, I don't think God's existence is provable. As such, knowing that it cannot be proven or disproven with data, I don't have a problem believing that God exists.
The efficacy of prayer, on the other hand, *is* provable, if the data were available. A rise of income when someone recites Parshas HaMon on the Tuesday of Parshas BeShalach *can* be correlated with the proper data. How safe one stays by wearing a red string can be measured. But sadly, I'm not aware of anyone who keeps systematic data on this.
This is the type of thing that I find difficult to take on faith. It's hard to take it on faith that reciting Parshas HaMon will increase the size of your bank account, because it's something that can be verified, but has not been. It's hard to motivate myself to recite Tehillim for someone because I don't know if it's really effective or not - and the information could be available.
We, as Jews, have many rituals. Some, like Lulav, are done simply because we believe that God commanded us to. Others, however, are done in the hopes of altering reality - of changing something in our lives or the lives of our community members for the better - whether it be for help earning a livelihood, finding one's lifetime partner, or simply staying alive. Are these rituals really effective in altering our reality? Do Tehillim really keep a person alive? Does giving charity or reciting Parshas HaMon really increase one's wealth?
I would love to be albe to keep track of people, setting up a control group of Jews who don't practice a certain segulah and then measuring them against another group that do practice the segulah. Of course, I'd *really* love for it to be a blind study, but that just wouldn't be possible in this case (can you give someone a Tehillim with a few words misplaced here and there so that they are reciting "placebo Tehillim?"). We could then analyze the data and see if the practice of a certain segulah is merited.
Of course, there are those in our community who will disavow any result that doesn't show that the segulah is effective. For example, if we found that people who recited Parshas HaMon actually *lost* money over the year, they would simply dismiss the result out of hand. But I'm not really worried about them. I'd love to just see the data for myself and then make an informed decision as to the efficacy of the segulah in question.