These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah was driven by imposter syndrome. Who am I, after all, to write a book teaching about the deeper meanings of the language of Torah? I’m not a rabbi. I’m not a Torah scholar. I have no Jewish day school foundation. I’m not a linguist or etymologist. I’m a poet-liturgist-lyricist. I write poems, songs, and prayers. Why, oh why, did I suggest this?!
So, I threw myself into the task of learning about individual words of Torah, often spending eight, ten, twelve hours a day in books, online, and engaging in conversations about Torah, Hebrew, Talmud, midrash, and the Sages, old and new. At times, the learning took me well beyond any text I’d previously encountered. The deeper I dug, and the further afield it took me, the harder I felt I needed to work.
Days became weeks. Weeks became months. Hundreds of hours learning Torah became thousands. Some evenings I’d dream about the words. Some mornings I’d wake with a poetic midrash spilling out of me. At times the learning led me to a poem. At times a new poem led me to a word of Torah. I entered some sort of Torah trance, which was thrilling and frightening.
When it was done—a first draft suitable for submission, anyway—I set it aside for a week in order to read it with “fresh eyes” before sending it to CCAR Press. The poems were beyond anything I’d ever written. And the divrei Torah on each Hebrew word looked completely foreign to me. How did I write that? Clearly, the work of learning how to study Torah at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies paid off.
In retrospect, the fact that CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken, and the chair of the CCAR Press Council, Rabbi Donald Goor, trusted me to write this book is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps, if one day my work warrants a retrospective, some journalist may say something like, “Although his previous work was regarded and beloved, These Words was when he truly discovered his poetic voice.”
Here we go again. It’s just a few weeks from the High Holy Days, and hopes of worshiping in a post-COVID world of congregational togetherness are quickly being dashed. Communities that planned to hold communal, indoor, and possibly maskless prayer services are reassessing. Whatever happens on the individual congregational level, it will be another year outside the bounds of what we once thought as normal for holy day worship.
We have been dreaming of our spiritual reunion with each other for the upcoming holy days; that blessing appears to be postponed. Perhaps, all the more, we should pray for blessings beyond our wildest dreams. We know these are unprecedented times. Most of us could not have imagined the losses and suffering that the pandemic would bring. For those of us who have lost friends or family to COVID—for those who lost income, livelihood, personal connections, mental health, stability—it can only be described as a nightmare.
This Rosh HaShanah, let us renew our hopes in large and beautiful dreams of peace, the kind of peace that means wholeness, health, renewal, vitality, and resilience.
To share that prayer together on Erev Rosh HaShanah 5782, Rebecca Schwartz, cantorial soloist at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, created a new musical setting for my short prayer “Pervasive Peace.” The prayer reads as follows:
May it be Your will, God of our fathers and mothers,
That the year ahead bring a pervasive and complete peace
On all the inhabitants of the earth,
Beyond all the dreams of humanity.
The prayer uses a classic formulation—Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha…, May it be Your will…—imploring God for specific blessings. This formula is typically used in the Rosh HaShanah seder alongside dipping apples in honey, connecting the sweet ritual to the chain of traditional prayers for the New Year.
“Pervasive Peace” was written before COVID, but it took on a deeper meaning of peace as healing medicine last year as the Jewish community experienced our first pandemic High Holy Days in lockdown. It has, yet again, taken on a longing for renewal as we move toward our second High Holy Days under returning public health restrictions.
Rebecca’s music captures both the hope and the longing that the words are intended to convey. We envision cantors using the prayer to open and set the tone for Erev Rosh Hashanah. Hear Rebecca sing the music in this video. An MP3 file is available for download. The sheet music can be purchased on oySongs.
Singing “Pervasive Peace” might also be paired with reading an associated prayer written last year called “Wildly Unimaginable Blessings”:
Wildly Unimaginable Blessings
Let us dream Wildly unimaginable blessings… Blessings so unexpected, Blessings so beyond our hopes for this world, Blessings so unbelievable in this era, That their very existence Uplifts our vision of creation, Our relationships to each other, And our yearning for life itself. Let us dream Wildly unimaginable blessings… A complete healing of mind, body, and spirit, A complete healing for all, The end of suffering and strife, The end of plague and disease, When kindness flows from the river of love, When goodness flows from the river of grace, Awakened in the spirit of all beings, When God’s light, Radiating holiness Is seen by everyone. Let us pray— With all our hearts— For wildly unimaginable blessings… So that God will hear the call To open the gates of the Garden, Seeing that we haven’t waited, That we’ve already begun to repair the world, In testimony to our faith in life, Our faith in each other, And our faith in the Holy One, Blessed be God’s Name.
Rebecca Schwartz is Cantorial Soloist and Music Director at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA. She is a professional singer, guitarist, and award-winning songwriter. Hear more of her music at rebeccasongs.com.
Sorrow and joy meet on Rosh Chodesh Av. Rosh Chodesh—the first of each new Hebrew month—is a minor festival of rejoicing. We take note of the cycle of the moon, the grandeur of creation, and the gifts of God by signing Hallel Mizri, the Egyptian Hallel. At its core are Psalms 113 through 118.
There’s a jarring contrast between the joyous and often raucous singing of these psalms with the general mood of the period. Tishah B’Av, our national religious day of mourning, commemorates the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. It’s a day of tragedy so profound in the eyes of the rabbis of the Mishnah that they went to great lengths to attach other disasters to this date.
In Masechet Taanit 4:6, we read: “On the Ninth of Av it was decreed upon our ancestors that they would all die [in the wilderness] and not enter the land; and the Temple was destroyed the first time [by the Babylonians], and the second time [by the Romans]; and Beitar was captured; and the city [of Jerusalem] was plowed, as a sign that it would never be rebuilt.”
The tradition of linking catastrophe to Tishah B’Av continued in later periods. Some say that the Jews were expelled from England on Tishah B’Av in 1290 CE, that the deadline in 1492 on which Jews in Spain needed to leave or convert was Tishah B’Av, and that the First World War began on Tishah B’Av. Perhaps most startling: The Hebrew date that Treblinka began operations as a death camp was Tishah B’Av.
The Talmud decrees: “Not only does one fast on the Ninth of Av, but from when the month of Av begins, one decreases acts of rejoicing.”
Even before Av begins, some Jews observe a three-week period of mourning, called “The Three Weeks,” from 17 Tammuz until Tishah B’Av. The Mishnah relates that on 17 Tammuz five catastrophes also befell the Jewish people, and the day is observed by some as a minor fast.
Right in the middle of the three weeks, Rosh Chodesh is observed, as always, with song and praises. “Hallel in a Minor Key”—an alternative Hallel that I created with music by Sue Radner Horowitz—was written for moments like these, when joy and sorrow meet.
This liturgy began with a question last winter: How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? In the writing, the question expanded: How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss? How do we praise God when our spiritual calendar places joy and sorrow side-by-side? How do we find a voice of rejoicing when our hearts are in mourning?
My personal experience with this contrast still informs my writing. My wife Ami, z”l, died of traumatic brain injury just before Passover. The religious expectation of our calendar was brutal. After two days of shivah, we were expected to shift into the spiritual joy of Pesach, celebrating our liberation from bondage, singing Hallel as part of the Passover Seder and then again at services. Although it was twelve years ago, that experience of contrast was a core motivator for creating this liturgy (read more about the creation of “Hallel in a Minor Key” on RavBlog).
After Tishah B’Av, the rabbis have given us seven weeks of healing, seven weeks in which special haftarot of consolation are chanted. Here are several prayers for the season:
It is said that God permitted the destruction of the Second Temple because of sinat chinam, the baseless hatred of one Jew against another. Throughout this season, let us pray for the well-being of all of the people of Israel, and everyone, everywhere. “Let Tranquility Reign,” from This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, includes a line from Psalm 122: “For the sake of my comrades and companions I shall say: ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the House of Adonai our God I will seek your good.”
We face another year of pandemic Passover. Most congregations are still shuttered, and Pesach worship will be remote and online. Seders will be small or socially distanced, a far cry from our usual crowded, joyous gatherings. Nevertheless, we will still sing Hallel, our liturgy of praises, as part of the Haggadah.
Hallel (praise), Psalms 113 to 118, is sung or recited in the synagogue on all festivals (including intermediate days), as well as on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new month), on all eight days of Chanukah, and, in recent years, on Yom HaAtzma-ut (Israel’s Independence Day). Hallel is also recited on the eve of Pesach during the seder.1
On these sacred days of communal rejoicing, we are asked to set aside our sorrows to praise God. But how do we sing God’s praises during a time of catastrophe or pandemic? How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss?
Depending on personal practice—what one chooses to include in the seder, how often one goes to services, whether an individual participates in two seder nights, and how many days are observed—Hallel can be recited as many as ten times during the festival period.
This raised a hard question for me as a liturgist. How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? Could I find a liturgical response? Personally, I know how difficult this can be. My wife passed away the Shabbat before Passover twelve years ago, and the shivah ended abruptly after only two days.
I began by rereading all my prayers written about COVID and came across a line in a piece called “These Vows: A COVID Kol Nidre.” A line from it reads: “How I wish to sing in the key of Lamentations.” From there, the idea for “Hallel in a Minor Key” was born.
As I started writing, it became important to me to create a liturgy that was robust enough to stand as a full alternative Hallel, reflecting praise in the midst of heartbreak and sorrow. To me, this meant two things. First, I wanted to make sure that each psalm in the classic Hallel was represented by at least one Hebrew line in this liturgy. Second, I wanted to include the sections for waving the lulav in this liturgy, to ensure that it could be used on Sukkot by those with that practice.
Still, something was missing—music specific to this liturgy. Song is a vital part of the public recitation of Hallel, and it serves to create a personal connection with prayer. So, I adapted the opening poem into lyrics—carrying the same name as the entire liturgy—and began searching for someone to compose the music. I listened to a lot of Jewish music online, starting with my small circle of musician friends. When I heard Sue Radner Horowitz’s Pitchu Li, my search for a musician was over.
“Hallel in a Minor Key” begins in minor, but mid-chorus, with words of hope, it switches to a major key. In discussing the music, we both felt it was important to follow the tradition of ending even the most difficult texts with notes of hopefulness. Indeed, the shift reflects our prayer that sorrows can be the doorway to greater love, peace, and—eventually—to growth, healing, and joy.
We also talked about drawing on Eichah trope—used to chant Lamentations on Tishah B’Av, as well as the haftarah on that day—as a musical influence. This idea follows the tradition of bringing Eichah trope into other texts as a sort of musical punctuation. Many will recall its use in M’gillat Esther on Purim. Eichah trope is also traditionally used during the chanting of Deuteronomy 1:12, as well as in selected lines from the associated haftarah for ParashatD’varim, Isaiah 1:1–27. Sue wove hints of “the trope of Lamentations” into the chorus melody of “Hallel in a Minor Key.”
A PDF of the liturgy, including sheet music, can be downloaded here. You can hear a recording of the music here. Sue’s rendition of Pitchu Li, written prior to this liturgy, is also included as part of “Hallel in a Minor Key.” That music can be found on her album Eleven Doors Open.
This is our gift to the Jewish world for all the many blessings you have bestowed upon us. We offer it with a blessing. We encourage you to add music or additional readings that would add meaning to your worship. If you use the liturgy in your worship, we’d love to hear from you. You may reach Alden at firstname.lastname@example.org and Sue at email@example.com.
Portions of “Hallel in a Minor Key” were first presented during a Ritualwell online event, “Refuah Shleimah: A Healing Ritual Marking a Year of Pandemic.” Portions were also shared in a workshop session at the 2021 CCAR Convention, held online.
Here, Alden Solovy shares a poem reflecting upon this terrible event.
Oh, my people, What have we become as a nation? And what will we become, In the wake of violence and insurrection, In the face of armed assault against our democracy? Rioting. Criminality. Attempted coup. Domestic terror fomented By the lies, fear, and anger of a president. Death and destruction in the Capitol. This doesn’t happen in the United States. But it did. And it can again.
Woe to the land that teeters on the brink of fascism. Woe to the people who stay silent. Woe to the politicians who cannot stand against this outrage. Woe to us all as the tide of history turns against our Republic.
Shame on those who have hardened their hearts, Shut their eyes, Closed their minds, And empowered those who Attempt to banish justice And free elections from our midst, Those who bring swords and guns Against our sovereign land.
Source and Shelter, Grant safety and security To the people and democracy of the United States of America. Protect us from violence, rebellion, intimidation, And attempts to seize our government. Save us from domestic terror. Save us from leaders who cannot say no to attacks On our legacy and our future.
God of nations and history, Let truth and justice resound To the four corners of the earth. Let the light of freedom Shine brightly in the halls of power, As a beacon of hope For every land and every people.
Jerusalem, Nisan, 5780/April 2020: I’m sitting at my desk, sheltering in place due to the coronavirus. In fifty years, when the coronavirus is a distant memory, please God—or perhaps by then all disease will have been wiped off the globe—some readers won’t know what I’m talking about. You do. Many of you, perhaps most, are doing the same thing in this precarious and surreal moment: protecting the preciousness of all human life—yours, your family’s, your neighbor’s—by drawing back from the world outside into the world within the walls of your own home.
The walls of my writing studio are covered with Jerusalem stone. My desk is a rickety home-office model, a put-it-together-yourself wood-simulation item purchased before IKEA was a thing. One wall of the study is lined with Jewish books, mostly siddurim, Torah commentaries, and other books of Jewish wisdom. Half of the bottom shelf is Hebrew-language books, a testament to my continued and only partially successful efforts to learn the holy tongue. The window faces east, my view through a tree-lined alley to a busy street that follows the 1949 armistice agreement line. The Old City is to the north. To pray, I swivel my chair ninety degrees to the left. The art on the wall behind me is Jewish, including a framed, hand-crocheted “Shalom” made by my Grandma Ida z”l, and a blessing for the home purchased with my wife, Ami z”l, too long ago to remember. My window ledge is full of family photos. As of this moment, everyone is healthy. Let it stay that way.
Some of you may have been sick or seriously ill with coronavirus. Some of you might be ill even now as I write or will, God forbid, become ill soon. Others may be grieving the death of a friend, a family member, or dear one. Some of you are walking into harm’s way to serve us: doctors, nurses, health-care professionals, police, fire, public safety, sanitation, food-chain workers, and more, all of the people in vital services. Each one of us is being asked—perhaps required—to consider what gives our lives meaning. What we value. Our connections. Our contributions. Our legacy. The past. The future. This very moment. This precious life. The place in which we encounter the Divine.
This is a book of prayers, poetry, and meditations inspired by divine encounters. The first half of the book draws from divine moments in our sacred texts, mostly Torah, but also the Prophets and the Writings. Written using a modern voice and a contemporary imagination, the text invites you to enter into these holy moments as experienced by our ancestors and to reclaim them as our own. The second half of the book focuses on holy moments in our daily lives, divine encounters that occur simply because we are human beings imbued with divinity. Divine encounters that occur because we’ve been given souls.
This book is a testimony to the preciousness of life. In the first half of the volume, you’ll walk with God in the garden, calling out to Adam and Eve. You’ll stand as witness to the moment of Creation, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Jacob’s ladder, and the Golden Calf. You’ll hear the voices of Abraham, our father, and Sarah, our mother. You’ll leave Egypt, dance with Miriam by the sea, build the Tabernacle, and experience prophecy. You’ll encounter the Divine through experiences of our forebearers.
In the second half of the book, you’ll also be asked—perhaps challenged—to experience the Divine in your daily life. You’ll be asked to imagine flying between two horizons, step inside the light, and ride the river of life. You’ll encounter spiritual vandals. You’ll be asked to find the ethics in your eyes, the ethics in your hands, the ethics in your arms, and the ethics in your heart. You’ll experience the Divine in the poetry of living.
This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer is the third book in a trilogy with This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings and This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day. This Grateful Heart focuses on time and seasons, providing prayers and meditations for our days, both the holy and the mundane. This Joyous Soul turns to the siddur, the prayer book, offering alternative readings for our classic liturgy. This Precious Life examines divine encounters in sacred texts and in our daily lives. This Precious Life is intended for personal meditation and communal prayer, as well as religious and spiritual counseling. As a book of meditations, it offers depth and breadth of emotion. As a spiritual guide, it brings intimacy and tenderness, humility and gratitude, supported by a foundation of strength, faith, and hope.
My goal in writing This Precious Life is to open you, the reader, to deeply experiencing moments of divine encounter using the liturgist’s hand and the poet’s eye to illuminate holy connection, to help you uplift your prayers and sing in praise. Along with those lofty ideas, there are practical uses for this volume. Use these offerings in your daily prayers, in writing divrei Torah, and in learning about and discussing the weekly parashah. Clergy and Jewish educators might consider using them as part of adult, teen, and Hebrew school education, as well as in Torah classes, sermons, conversion programs, counseling with congregants, and interfaith dialogue. Most importantly, my hope is that you are inspired to write new prayers in your own voice, based on your experiences of the Divine.
From here, sitting at my desk in Jerusalem, sheltering in place due to the coronavirus, it’s impossible to know what the state of the world—or the state of our worldview—will be when we return to the world or when you hold this book in your hands. What will happen to our trust, social interactions, the economy, our lives? How will we move through the world, day by day? How will the generation of children who sheltered at home be shaped by these precarious times?
This much is clear: This is a precious life. Your life. My life. Our lives. All precious. May we all live with a grateful heart and a joyous soul, sanctifying this precious life.
How fair are your tents, O Jacob, When we stand together, In unity and love, In the the name of hope and harmony.
How fragile are our tents When our fears divide us When we allow outside winds To blow within.
Who but You, Ruach Elohim, Can define who we are? What keeps us strong. What keeps us whole.
Who but us, Klal Yisroael, Can shield us, Carrying each other As one against the storm?
How fair are our tents, O Israel, When we stand together, In the name of unity, In compassion, in strength, For our children, And for our children’s children.
Ken yihi ratzon.
Alden Solovy is a liturgist and poet who has written five books including This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, both from CCAR Press. He is currently the Liturgist-in-Residence at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh is the rabbi at Congregation Shir Shalom in Woodstock, Vermont and has been the recipient of the Bonnie and Daniel Tisch Leadership Fellowship, the Michael Chernick Prize in Rabbinic Literature, and the Weisman Memorial Prize in Homiletics, among others.
As wildfires burned in California, hundreds of missiles rained down on Israel from Gaza. Fire on the ground and fire from the air, with people I know and love in both places. Just a week before, 12 people were murdered in a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. A week before that, the largest-ever U.S. antisemitic massacre was perpetrated at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation, Pittsburgh. All this occurred against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitism world-wide and contentious U.S. mid-term elections.
My pen has been grieving, the ink pouring out prayers with titles like these: “Missiles from Gaza,” “As Fires Rage” and “Taharot in Pittsburgh.” In those 2.5 weeks, I wrote a baker’s dozen of ‘responsa prayers,’ dealing with immediate concerns in the wake of news events. Writing ‘responsa prayer’ is one of the roles of a modern liturgist, to give our shared experiences a voice of prayer.
There’s a reason why these pieces resonate. Our prayer book, the siddur, has tuned our ears to the many voices of prayer. We know the voice of grief and the voice of yearning. We know the voice of joy and the voice of hope. We have been praying some of these prayers for more than 1,000 years. The prayers call out to us, as they did to our fathers and mothers.
There can also be a disconnect. While the siddur gives us the spiritual foundation to connect to our inner hearts of blessing, at times the language doesn’t fit. Another role of a modern Jewish liturgist is to bridge that gap, opening doorways back into the prayer book. The goal is to capture the familiar cadences and themes – and at times the familiar idiom – in a way that is true our current sensibilities and language.
The Reform siddur, Mishkan T’fillah, addresses these opposite forces with a faithful, contemporary translation of Hebrew texts, as well as a broad set of alternative readings on the left-hand page of two-page spreads.
This is the goal of my new book, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings. Structured to reflect the morning service found in Mishkan T’filah, this collection provides a new set of ‘left-hand pages’ to enliven our worship. The prayers in This Joyous Soul invite a deeply personal prayer experience that strengthens our connection to Jewish tradition. It’s written to inspire each of us to make the traditional daily liturgy our own. So, my hope is that it will be used both by individuals as part of their personal prayers and will be adopted for use in congregations throughout the Movement.
For generations, the siddur has given voice to our deepest desires. Every generation has left a mark on this great book that spans centuries, continents and cultures. This Joyous Soul is one contribution to that great endeavor: keeping the prayers of our ancestors vital and alive, with a new voice for these ancient yearnings.
Contemporary liturgy is a response to the call of the siddur and the call of our hearts.
The siddur carries the weight of history, the wisdom of our ancestors, the yearnings of humanity, the fears and the glories of our existence, and the resounding call of the shofar still beckoning from Sinai. The voices of the bereaved, the exalted, the confused, and the faithful, the voice of exile, the voice of redemption, and the voices of our parents, blend in the siddur’s unshakeable faith in God and the Jewish people.
So, too, our hearts desire modern language to capture our yearnings, ancient yearnings as old as humanity. Instinctively, we seek to pray with a contemporary voice, while understanding that our hearts’ desires are as old as life itself. In our time, some question both faith and history. Many struggle with concepts of God.
The call of the siddur begs for a response. Classic t’filah – the prayers written and redacted by rabbis and scholars in our time and for centuries before – require present-day voices to unpack new meaning from the old verses and to give them renewed power. Jewish prayer is reaffirmed and reestablished in each generation with a dialogue between our siddur and our hearts.
This is one of the goals of Mishkan T’filah, with ‘left-hand’ pages offering alternative readings and interpretations to the classic prayers that appear on the right. Essentially, the prayers in Mishkan T’filah are in dialogue with themselves, inviting each of us into the conversation. The words of contemporary liturgy sing with the ancient words of prayer.
This Joyous Soul provides a modern expression to classic prayers: from Birkot Hashachar to the Shema, from Amidah to Aleinu. It’s organized around the weekday morning service. Although it can be used with any prayer book, it’s structured to fit Mishkan T’filah, with many of the section heads matching that volume.
Many of the themes of the weekday morning service recur in the afternoon and evening services, as well as Shabbat and holiday services. So, this volume provides a versatile tool for daily, Shabbat and holiday prayer. Prayers specific to Shabbat and the holy days can also be found in the previously-published companion volume, This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day.
This Joyous Soul is a natural follow-up to This Grateful Heart. This Grateful Heart focused on days, times and seasons. Essentially, This Grateful Heart, is about the prayer needs of individuals in their daily lives. While many of the prayers in This Grateful Heart have been incorporated into communal worship by synagogues across North America and the U.K., the focus is on our individual prayer lives.
This Joyous Soul is about the prayer needs of individuals in our communal Jewish lives; in particular, in our worship services. Of course, many of the prayers in This Joyous Soul can be used by individuals in their daily lives, as well.
My hope is that congregations will place copies of This Joyous Soul alongside their regular siddur—in the pews or on the rack of prayer books—either as a supplement to communal worship or for congregants to use in moments of silent contemplation.
Deeper still, I hope that it serves as an invitation for each of us to explore the siddur with fresh eyes, that it opens curiosity – of both clergy and congregant – about the themes and intentions handed down for generations.
Even deeper, I hope that This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings becomes a source of inspiration for you to write your own prayers, for you to actively enter the dialogue between our hearts and our prayers, between our souls and the soul of the siddur, between our voices and the voices of ancient yearnings.
The morning after the Las Vegas Massacre, several identical posts appeared on Facebook, many from rabbis, declaring that ‘Prayer is not enough.’ As I was reading them, I received a note in my message box from a long-time anti-gun activist. She asked: “Do you have a prayer to help give us energy and hope as we fight this battle?”
The contrast was stark. Faith leaders were deriding the importance of prayer while an anti-gun activist – crushed with the enormity of the work ahead – turned to prayer for hope and inspiration.
Clergy said it after the Las Vegas massacre. Clergy said it after the Pulse Massacre. Clergy said it after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. After each horrific tragedy – natural or not – a handful of Jewish clergy said: “Prayer is not enough.”
Yes, prayer must be accompanied by action. Tikun olam comes from our involvement in bettering the world. Yet as a liturgist and pray-er, someone who works every day to help people connect to prayer, I worry that stating that ‘prayer is not enough’ minimizes the importance and the impact of prayer. It perpetuates a simplistic understanding of prayer.
What I want to say to my beloved rabbis is this: Be brave in demanding action. Be direct. Tell your congregants this: Get up out of your seats, do something that will make a difference. But in the process, don’t intimate that prayer is irrelevant.
Prayer can give strength to activists. Prayer can remind us of our best selves, helping to galvanize action. It can comfort the wounded and the newly bereaved. Prayer can remind us – when the moment of tragedy has passed – to continue our work. Prayer can unite faith leaders and political leaders with one voice.
Prayer helps us bury the dead and provide solace to their kin. Prayer gives our grief a voice and that voice should be a call to engage in bettering the world.
It’s true that our prayers will not stop a bullet. They won’t keep automatic weapons off the streets. Prayers will not clean up in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They will not build homes. They will not pass legislation. But we have no business believing that about prayer in the first place.
I’m concerned about the conflicting message that we may send by one day declaring that ‘prayer is not enough,’ the next day leading worship services in synagogue and the next representing the Jewish people in interfaith prayer gatherings. It’s strange to think that one can minimize prayer one day and the next day expect a congregation of worshipers to arrive at your synagogue ready to pray. The question is not when we need prayer and when do we not, but rather, how can we enable prayer to go hand in hand with meaningful action.
Prayer can be a potent and important part of the solution. We shouldn’t expect more of prayer. But we shouldn’t expect less, either.
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