“THE HOLY ONE says to Israel: I bade you pray in the synagogue of your city, but if you cannot pray there, pray in your field, and if you cannot pray there, pray on your bed, and if you cannot pray there, then meditate in your heart and be still” (Jewish Midrash).
Lately, we’ve been hearing people offer thoughts and prayers to victims of tragedies, so much so it seems to have become virtually meaningless.
Because it slides off our tongue so easily, and makes us feel good, we don’t consider how little our prayers actually do to ease any suffering.
Even people who aren’t particularly religious acknowledge that they have prayed at some point in their lives … for healing, during a crisis or for someone else.
Prayer can give us comfort that we are tapping into a divine source to help us with difficulty. Or it can simply be a way for us to meditate on our own state of being and what we must do to make changes in our lives.
The very act of praying can bring about a sense of peace and tranquility.
In Judaism, we are encouraged to pray less for divine intervention and more for people to be given the strength to do what is needed in a crisis.
For example, rather than pray that God heal someone from an illness or ask that a surgery be successful, we ask that the doctors be given the wisdom and knowledge, the calm and compassion to do their job as they have been trained.
Prayer can also give us the courage to act in a holy way.
“Prayer is not for the sake of external intervention but rather for the hope of internal transformation. I don’t ask for miracles, flashes of light and even good health. Prayer that supports my spirit does not ask or demand that God intervene in the flow of life but rather support me, elevate me, strengthen me against the onslaught of its water or the stillness of its depth” (Rabbi Karyn Kedar, “The Dance of the Dolphin: Finding Prayer, Perspective and Meaning in the Stories of Our Lives”).
Jews are urged to not just sit back and wait for God to “fix” things for us.
Instead we pray for the strength to act when necessary.
During Passover, we tell the story of the Israelites as they stood trapped at the sea with the Egyptian army at their backs.
We are told that Nashon, a young boy, then walked into the water, and when he was about to go under as the water reached his mouth, the sea parted.
We learn that we must first take action and only then will change occur.
Our prayerbook admonishes us to “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”
Others have expressed the same sentiment regarding one of the functions of prayer.
William Bradley said, “Prayer does not do things for us; it enables us to do things for ourselves.”
“The efficacy of prayer is not so much to influence the divine counsels as to consecrate the human purposes” (John Stuart Blackie).
And Emil G. Hirsch tells us “True prayer is not a petition to God; it is a sermon to ourselves.”
When we see injustice in our world, rather than pray that God “do something” it is our job to be partners with God in effecting change.
It is doubtful the thoughts and prayers sent to the students of the Florida school massacre did much to help them deal with their pain.
Instead, they took it upon themselves to act, and in so doing brought more than 1 million people to the streets to begin the process that will bring about the change needed to prevent such tragedies in the future.
They understood the words of Ernest Findlay Scott when he said, “Prayer is answered when it enables us to act as God desires.”
As I watched the young people speak with such eloquence and passion despite their grief, I saw them become agents of good and partners with God, fulfilling Rabbi Chaim Stern’s advice to “Look for the answer to prayer not in what you get but in what you become.”
Hopefully the students’ actions have begun the healing for them that simple prayers could not, and that their grief has been somewhat eased.
May the path on which they have embarked help bring about tikun olam, a repairing of our world.
Kein Yehi Ratzon … may it be God’s will.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected]