Monday, December 7, 2015

Get Ready to Make It New: A Rabbi’s Reflections on #thoughtsandprayers

When I was a senior in college, deepening my exploration of my spiritual life as I considered rabbinical school, a close friend called with news. Just 3 years older than me, he had been diagnosed with lymphoma. I don’t remember much about the conversation, except I remember the silence. It was not my silence, unsure of what to say (although I am sure I was). It was his silence when I said I’d keep him in my prayers.

Even then, I meant it sincerely, as I do when I say those words to struggling or bereaved families in my community. As a rabbi and as a person of faith, prayer is a core component of my spiritual life. Prayer grounds me and it challenges me. Prayer offers me the space for reflection, and it forces me to confront who I am, who I want to be, and the distance in between. I believe in the power of prayer, not necessarily to heal or to cure (it’s not magic), but to inspire, to transform, to motivate and to agitate.

Like many others for whom prayer is a significant language and mode of communication, I have emailed, texted, called, and Tweeted with #thoughtsandprayers. I have offered them to victims of natural disasters and terrorist attacks in faraway places. I even offered them yesterday to the victims of the #SanBernardino shooting and their families and loved ones. When I feel helpless, or far away, to offer words of prayer offers me a pathway, an antidote to the powerlessness most of us feel when confronted with tragedy---(hu)man-made or otherwise.

But what happened with my friend and our phone call repeats itself in matters personal and global. If my prayers for him don’t inspire me to check in, to offer meals, or company during treatments, what was the point of my prayers? If I pray for victims of a typhoon in the Philippines, but don’t consider a donation to the Red Cross, is my prayer complete? And certainly, if I offer my prayers to the families devastated by gun violence in San Bernardino, in Charleston, in Newtown, and Aurora and far too many other places to name, but I don’t call my elected officials and demand sensible, and eminently doable, changes in our country’s gun laws—what have my prayers done for me or for them?
Prayer is great—at its best it is powerful; it is inspirational and aspirational—but it is not enough.

As news of the most recent mass shooting came through, elected official after elected official Tweeted their messages of support, offering what became a trending hashtag--#thoughtsandprayers. Just one day later, the United States Senate—made of up of many of those same elected officials—voted down a bill which would have made it impossible for individuals on terror watch lists to buy guns from licensed gun dealers. 

On Yom Kippur, one of Judaism’s holiest days, we sit in synagogues worldwide, observing a 25-hour fast, offering our prayers and supplications, and hearing the exhortation of the prophet Isaiah. In stirring words, he asks us if we think this is enough, if this is what God wants of us. Is such the fast God desires, Isaiah asks, a day for you to starve your bodies?

No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin[1].

Do not, the prophet Isaiah demands, sit in your synagogues and your churches, your mosques and your temples, and think your words are enough. Ritual devoid of action is not enough. Platitudes without deeds are not enough. Prayer is only the beginning, and anyone—and especially elected officials—who offer their #thoughtsandprayers but refuse to engage in the fundamental issues of the day, who refuse to use their office to create the society for which they allegedly pray and certainly preach, are offering only empty words and broken promises. And like the prophets of old, it is we—people of faith—who must call them out and demand action, demand different, demand more.

When I was accepted into rabbinical school, another friend sent me a card quoting the poet Marge Piercy. The card still sits above my desk, a reminder of the possibilities, potentials, and pitfalls of a spiritual life. From her poem, The Art of Blessing the Day, it reads:

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can't bless it, get ready to make it new[2].

This is not (just) about gun control. This is about what prayer is, isn’t, could be, and should be. It’s about what keeps us up at night, and what we can do about it. Is it the scourge of gun violence in our country, the plight of Syrian refugees, the ongoing devaluation of Black lives in our country, the increasing threats to women’s bodies and women’s health---or something else entirely? Whatever it is, I invite you—I urge you—to go to synagogue this Shabbat. Go to your church, to your mosque, your temple, your meeting house. Pray. Pray hard, pray deeply, pray with sincerity.

And then, pick up your tools: your pens, your emails, your phones, your feet, your hands, your voices. Pick up your tools, and get ready to make it new. Get ready to make it better.

[1] Isaiah 58:6-7, Jewish Publication Society translation.
[2] Marge Piercy, “The Art of Blessing the Day,” The Art of Blessing the Day. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), p.5.