“Thoughts and Prayers and the Cries of the Heart”

When I think about what I might write about for the High Holidays, I ask myself, “What is the sermon I need to hear right now?”  Another question might be, “what do you, this congregation, need to hear?” But my thinking is one, that I must speak from my heart.  And, also that perhaps what I am wrestling with, you are too. 

It might surprise you to know that I struggle with prayer. Yes, as a rabbi, I probably approach prayer differently than a Jew in the pew.  Stating the obvious, I do it for a living. But I love Hebrew, the language of prayer and of Torah – I love its cadence and its structure. There are certain prayers that are etched in my mind and heart, that connect me to places and people and feelings, because prayer has been a part of me my whole life in different ways. I also find great comfort in services, in a community of worshippers, in having a minyan there that holds one’s sorrows and joys.  At Thursday morning minyan, we grieve together when a name goes from the mi shebayrach list to the list of names I recite before Kaddish. And, recently we rejoiced when someone who had been saying family members names for the mi shebayrach prayer for years didn’t need to say them any more.  There is no question that my prayers are a comfort and a balm, and a link to community and the Jewish people.

But, lately, that has not been enough for me.  I have become uncomfortable with prayers that are just comforting.  I wonder, how do my prayers affect me, change me, change the world?  I have spent a lot of time making ancient prayer more accessible to us modern Jews. But I worry that we’ll leave here today thinking, ok, we’ve prayed, now we’ve done enough to wipe the slate clean.  

I think we are all too familiar with the phrase “thoughts and prayers” which has become, for me and for many of us, I think, hollow and goading. Offering one’s sympathy, one’s attention and compassion is an appropriate response to a natural disaster, like a tornado or hurricane.  Like the devastation that Hurricane Ian wrought, for example.  Offering our prayers is a way to express care, even if we are unable to offer any other support.  

But we know that is not the only way this phrase has been deployed. I remember it first being used in 1999, after the school shooting in Columbine Colorado.  That was the year after I graduated college, my first year living in Philadelphia.  But now my entire adult life has been full of mass shootings, many in schools, but also in workplaces, in malls, on the streets, and in places of worship.  There have been several just this past week, one notably at a Philadelphia school in which a 14 year old was killed.  There are too many to keep track of, too many to offer thoughts and prayers for, and not much else.

I am no stranger to gun violence and death, and I imagine, after so many years of this, you must be too. I was a student in Israel in 2002 when two of my fellow classmates were killed in an act of terrorism at Hebrew University.  My friend Gali, who I knew from that time in Israel, lost her father Rami Cooks in 2012 in a mass shooting at his place of business in Minneapolis in which four others were also killed, just a year after I danced with them at Gali’s wedding.  He died a hero defending his coworkers from a disgruntled employee.  It was the day after Yom Kippur.  And, as many of you know, I lost my dear friend Jerry Rabinowitz in the Tree of Life shooting almost 4 years ago, as he was heading toward the sounds of gunshots in an effort to help others in the synagogue.  And now, as a parent of three precious kids who have attended public school since last year, I am scared and heartsick and angry on a whole new level. 

On Yom Kippur we pay heed to the martyrs and heroes who have died in defense of their faith.  Traditionally we invoke their names and the horrors they withstood to make us think about our own sense of faith and our convictions while we are alive.  But where is our faith? What do we believe?

We call people like Jerry and Rami heroes, but for what cause?  Do their deaths spur us to act, so that our country will be safer, so that our kids will be more protected from gun violence?  Rami and Jerry were not martyrs for any cause – they were simply in their places of worship and business, where they were supposed to be.  They were not sticking their necks out – they were simply being decent human beings.  They should have been safe.  Just like children in school should be safe.

Just saying that last line is surreal.  I remember thinking in 2012 that after Sandy Hook, things would have to change.  But here we are ten years later, and in Uvalde Texas 19 children and 2 educators were murdered in their classroom by a gunman who legally bought $2K of guns, ammunition, and explosives on his 18th birthday two weeks earlier.  Why? How? And why is the only thing people can offer in response are “thoughts and prayers?”

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m pro-prayer.  But when it is used as a cover for inaction, then prayer itself is sullied. And people, understandably, are turned off from prayer and religion. 

One popular Facebook post said recently, “Prayers are dangerous. Prayers are a way for people to convince themselves they’ve done something when they’ve actually done nothing. Prayers seem to absolve people from taking responsibility of demanding change… Prayers ensure that the problem will persist.” 

I think that post is actually a theologically astute critique. Prayer that blesses the status quo and doesn’t lead to individual and social transformation is hypocritical, and it should be called out for what it is.  

The prophets of the second Temple period called out the hypocrisy of those who came before God with their supplications, but who go out into the world and are not good neighbors or are ethical in business.  

The prophet Amos said,
I loathe, I spurn your festivals,
I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies.
..Spare Me the sound of your hymns,
And let Me not hear the music of your lutes.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

We have been witness to so many terrible injustices in this country, and it has taken a heavy toll on our energy, our spirit, and our faith.  A warming planet, pandemic, systemic racism and white nationalism, economic uncertainty, the specter of war.  What kind of world are we leaving for our children?  To witness the magnitude of the problems and the suffering invokes dreadful feelings of helplessness.  Moreover, these problems did not manifest themselves overnight; they are born of decades of festering inaction.  It’s not just helplessness; we live with a deficit of hope.

We have become numb, and that is completely understandable.  Sometimes it feels like the most we can do is to offer thoughts and prayers.  

But I’d like us to do better than that.  I am grateful we have holidays like Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur to encourage us to self-reflect and take a hard look at ourselves and how we got here.  We release the empty, false vows we couldn’t keep with Kol Nidre, we confess our sins collectively as we sing Al Chet, and spend the day limiting the physical needs and desires of our bodies so we can focus on the cries of our hearts. And the Haftarah of Yom Kippur from Isaiah, expressly calls out both our hypocrisy and our sense of overwhelm.

And God said:
Open up, open up, Clear a path!
Clear away all obstacles
From the path of My People!…
For your sin of greed
I grew angry and smashed you,
I even hid My face.
Yet you wander off the path as your own heart,
wayward, takes you.
I see the path you need —- and I will heal you…

Has God been hiding God’s face from us?  If so, where can we find the face of God in this troubled world, peering out, waiting for us to seek God out?  How do we get out of this hopelessness, and wake up to life again?  

Our Haftarah calls, “Cry out aloud, don’t hold back, Lift up your voice like the shofar!” But how do we do that?  And what good would it do anyway?  

Perhaps we need a reset conversation on prayer, because I think that when Jews say prayer, we might think of all the ancient Hebrew prayers in the prayer book that are scripted and ordered and recited at particular times of the day and year.  I want to explore more the function of prayer – what true praying should be and do.

The great exemplar of the prayer-cry is Moses.  In the Deuteronomy 3:1, he beseeches God to let him enter the Land of Israel, after God decrees that as a consequence for a seemingly minor infraction, he will not be able to enter the Land with his people, who Moses has guided through the wilderness for 40 years.  Now, Moses was our greatest leader and teacher, the one who spoke to God panim el panim – face to face; the one who had a relationship with God like no other. And his heartfelt, poignant prayer request is denied.  Repeatedly! 

And here, I think Moses’ prayer is instructive: prayer isn’t about asking for something, and thinking you’ll get your wish.  The early rabbis of the Talmud were amazed: they exclaim how if Moses of all people, being righteous in so many ways doesn’t get his prayer, then who can!  

They then declare: “There are ten terms which can denote prayer, and they are: צעקה, נאקה, רנה, פגיעה,” ביצור, קריאה, נפול, ופילול, ותחנונים שועה” that is: tears, outcry, moaning, song, pleading, seeking refuge, calling out for comfort, falling down, seeking judgment, supplication.

Notice that few of those descriptions are particularly happy, or connote a comfortable experience. The great 20th century Orthodox rabbi and theologian, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits writes that, “In its original form, prayer is not asking God for anything; it is not a request. It is a cry; an elementary outburst of woe, a spontaneous call in need; a hurt, a sorrow, given voice…. It is not asking, but coming with one’s burden before God. To pray means to make God the confidant of one’s sorrow and need.”

Taylor McFarlan Miller, a devout Christian and a survivor of a college shooting, writes in her book, When Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough, that she never thought of leaving God or religion.  In fact, God was the One who she cried to and yelled at. “I never had to become so intimately close to the God who bottles my tears and binds my wounds. After the shooting, I had to confront God with a lot of questions and doubts and fears. And he met me in every single one. I learned that God is still God when the healing doesn’t come, when the nightmares don’t go away and the prayers are answered in ways you didn’t ask for.”

But what if you don’t have a personal relationship with God or even believe in God?  It can feel pointless or silly to pray when one does not have a sense that anyone is listening and responding.  But I don’t think that should stop a person from really praying.  

Much of traditional liturgy, however beautiful its imagery, reflects a theology of an all powerful God, a King, who can make miracles and can even raise a person from the dead.  Now, I don’t believe in that kind of supernatural God, and I have had more than one person tell me that they actually prefer the prayers in Hebrew, because then at least they wouldn’t have to contend with their meaning! That kind of language can be an obstacle to prayer for someone who doesn’t share that belief.  

But I don’t think our ancestors were primitive peasants who wrote prayers so literally.  By that I mean that when we pray the Morning Blessings and thank God for making blind to see, I don’t think they actually believed that God magically makes blindness disappear anymore than God causes blindness.  I don’t think they really believed God was actually some King in the clouds either.  Rather, they used religious metaphors to invoke awe and wonder, to wake us up to the everyday miracles that happen in our lives everyday.

My teacher from RRC, Rabbi Jacob Staub, who came here to Kol Emet for my installation, writes movingly, “The answer to our prayers comes not from a supernatural God but from our own transformed hearts.” Put differently, prayer, it seems to me, isn’t about influencing God so God will change. Rather, prayer is about changing the one who prays.

Most of us turn to prayer only when we are in pain or we want something. But if we exercise the prayer muscle when things are good, and even on the everyday, normal days when nothing spectacular is happening, we might realize that the good really outweighs the bad, that there are so many things to be grateful for, even amazed with.

And, that, some would say this is in fact the most important thing, The great 20th century theologian and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote that “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement, [to] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Prayer makes us susceptible to becoming amazed and to live life with a sense of awe. Awe motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good, and that is a scientific fact. A 2015 study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that awe helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities. Participants in the study who reported experiencing more awe in their lives, who felt more regular wonder and beauty in the world around them, were shown to be more generous to the stranger, cooperated more, shared more resources and sacrificed more for others. Awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger.

We live in an awe-deprived society.  We spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Attendance at arts events — live music, theater, museums and galleries — has dropped over the years. A broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. We are a more divided society.

To reverse this trend, insist on experiencing more everyday awe: actively seek out what gives you hope and what gives you goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, the night sky, patterns of wind on water or witnessing the good of others — the teenage upstanders, the mitzvah-makers, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds. 

And pray – express it all, and don’t bottle it up; let God or other people hold your cries and prayers. Pray to feel and pray to live. Pray to be changed. Pray to change the world.

We must never accept that one mass shooting, one lost life, is ever okay.  Our tradition teaches that “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

We cannot bring back the lives stolen from us, but we do have power and agency to prevent further deaths.  Even just one death, it’s a whole world.  I think about the life of my beautiful friend Jerry, and I am in awe at the life he lived, the kindness he exuded, the lives he helped as a physician treating the elderly and those with AIDS, the ways he contributed to his community.  I think about Rami Cooks, who left behind a beautiful, loving family, whose lives he still shapes.  His daughter Gali and her wife Keren had a daughter a few years ago, whom they named after Rami. She was born on Rami’s birthday.  Now that’s awesome.

Gun violence is taking so many lives every single year, with 40,000 deaths on average. After 3500 mass shootings in the last decade, and 27 school shootings this year, it is easy to slip into feelings of helplessness.  

The influential lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill notes that feelings of helplessness benefit the status quo, and we need to resist that. She writes, there is a “concerted effort right now to convince you that “nothing can be done.” It is designed to make you give in to the exhaustion of this moment. Don’t believe it. It’s a lie. We have power if we mobilize it.”

On Yom Kippur, as we sit here today without finery, without food in our bellies, without the distractions of home and work, we are forced to lay down our excuses, our defenses, our accusations, even our laments.  Our memories, our heart’s cries, our prayers are all we have.  

Prayer is the voice of our authentic response to life.  And it is meaningless unless it does not lead not only to action, but also to ultimately take responsibility. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked upon his return from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march with Dr. Martin Luther King, “Did you find time to pray?” He famously answered, “I prayed with my feet.” 

Indeed, that is the kind of prayer I seek. Put down that mahzor, if it holds you back.  Let us pray with our feet, our hands, our voices.  Let us use our pain and our awe to wake up to what is possible in ourselves and in the world.

I’d like to close with a poem-prayer by Amanda Gorman, which she wrote after the shooting in Uvalde:

Everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed and strange,
Minds made muddied and mute.
We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.
And yet none of it is new;
We knew it as home,
As horror,|
As heritage.
Even our children
Cannot be children,
Cannot be.
Everything hurts.
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.
This alarm is how we know
We must be altered —
That we must differ or die,
That we must triumph or try.
Thus while hate cannot be terminated,
It can be transformed
Into a love that lets us live.
May we not just grieve, but give:
May we not just ache, but act;
May our signed right to bear arms
Never blind our sight from shared harm;
May we choose our children over chaos.
May another innocent never be lost.
Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.