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Monica Porter

Dear God

Jewish Chronicle, 23 April 2004

The most fascinating aspect of the ongoing case of the Goldman Sachs PA who embezzled £4 million from her bosses is not that she got away with it for so long – despite her blatantly lavish spending – but that she wrote letters to God asking him to prevent her scam from being discovered. It shows an astonishing lack of understanding about the role of the Almighty, to say nothing of the Ten Commandments. And far from eliciting divine protection, the letters now serve as additional evidence of her theft at her trial. So, that’s nil points for criminal cunning.

Now, you might not be aware of this, but God gets a fairly hefty postbag. People from around the world write to Him asking for divine intervention in all kinds of personal matters (although unlike the PA’s request they tend to be legit). These letters seem invariably to wash up in Jerusalem – where else? – at the postal authority’s centre for ‘undeliverable mail’ on the outskirts of the city. At this small depot, a team of eight workers sort difficult items of post into various pigeonholes, one of them marked ‘Letters to God’.

‘For as long as any of us here can remember, we have received letters addressed either to God or Jesus Christ,’ says postal official Yitzhak Rabihiya. ‘Recently they have come from America, France, Nigeria, Australia and Ecuador. One envelope didn’t even have a stamp.’

The letters were written in a variety of languages and their envelopes usually addressed to ‘God of Israel’, ‘Angels in Heaven’ or something similar. The steady trickle of letters turned into a flood during the Jewish holidays and Christmas.

The ailing asked for better health, the poor for an upturn in their finances, those with relationship problems asked for help in sorting them out. Children sometimes pleaded for assistance with troublesome schoolwork.

One man from Saulsbury, Tennessee, wrote: ‘Please help me to be happy. Please help me find a nice job in Tallahassee or Monroe and find a nice wife…soon. Amen, Daryl.’

A Kenyan man asked God to save his floundering marriage. And an Israeli wrote asking God to forgive him for stealing money from a grocery store as a child. In a postscript he gave his address, then added: ‘But you knew that, didn’t you?’

Avi Yaniv, head of the centre for undeliverable mail, explains that after being read, the letters are taken to the Wailing Wall and placed in the cracks between the vast, ancient stones, along with the myriad other prayers and notes left by the faithful. ‘I believe in God, so I want to help these people,’ he says.

It’s a compassionate view, but aren’t these letters just a bit, um, weird? I mean, who really believes that you can send a letter through the post and it will end up on God’s doormat?

According to psychologist Prof. David Fontana, who specialises in the field of spirituality and is affiliated with Cardiff University, it is often useful for people to write things down as it helps to clarify their thoughts, and in some cases might perform the function of guilt-reduction. ‘For example,’ he says, ‘your City PA might reckon that if God didn’t whisper His disapproval in her ear, perhaps He accepted her actions.

‘This involves what we call “magical thinking”, which is when people believe that somehow the act of writing things down means God can hear them. It’s a throwback to the occult practices of medieval times, when certain cultures made contact with the spirit world by writing letters, then setting fire to them.

‘Writing a letter is one step further from saying a prayer, and there is a spiritual practice involved in that. But if someone actually believes it can then be posted and received by God through some divine letterbox, they’ve got a psychological problem: they can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy.’

There must have been a lot of magical thinking going on in the mind of the Israeli man who wrote to God a while ago, describing in detail his appalling poverty and asking for 5,000 shekels (about £600) to improve his existence. Avi Yaniv and his postal workers were so moved by his plight that they organised a collection and managed to gather a total of 4,300 shekels for the unfortunate man and mailed it to him.

About a month later the same man wrote another letter to God. ‘Oh thank you God for the money,’ it read, ‘it has made such a difference to my life. But please, next time don’t send it through those postmen. They’re thieves – they stole 700 shekels.’

I know it sounds apocryphal but the workers at the centre for undeliverable mail claim it really happened, and they’ve been dining out on the story ever since.

As for God, he was unavailable for comment.