It's become a ritual. After every horrible tragedy in our country, public figures from all corners offer "thoughts and prayers." In many cases, those very appropriate expressions of sympathy are accompanied by action, acts inspired by that reflection. In other cases, "thoughts and prayers" are substituted for action. From a Jewish values perspective, this is not appropriate, unless we are waiting for the Messiah. In that case, waiting is much less dangerous than trying to bring about the Messianic age prematurely through acts of violence. But charity is rarely violent. On Rosh Hashanah, in that oft-quoted Unetane Tokef prayer, it is specifically stated that the "evil decree" is not reversed through prayer alone, but only when prayer is accompanied by tzedakkah (charity) and repentance. Both of those imply real corrective action, designed to address the problem at its roots.
In this essay detailing multiple Jewish perspectives as to why we pray, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman describes prayer as:
"...a delivery system for committing us to the great ideas that make life worth living, because ideas that are ritually construed empower us to do what we would otherwise never have the courage to do."
Were I to lead a moment of "thoughts and prayers" from the floor of Congress or the State House after yet another massacre, I would employ that quote by Rabbi Hoffman - and then pray aloud that our representatives might have the courage of their prayerful convictions.
I will leave it to you as to how to address the multiple mega-storms that have hit Florida, Texas and most acutely Puerto Rico, the mass carnage caused by an arsenal of enhanced weapons of war in Las Vegas, and the climate-parched tinderboxes in California. All I ask is this: every time you hear the expression "thoughts and prayers," instinctively reach into your hearts - and then into your pockets. Donate and turn your prayers into action. As Heschel would say, pray with your feet.
When we celebrate with the Torah this week on Sinchat Torah, we must recall that it's principles were not meant to be confined to the sanctuary, but to be applied to real-world situations - and Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah gets very specific as to where, giving examples that are strikingly relevant to us this week:
"And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness" (Numbers 1:1). Why the Sinai Wilderness? From here the sages taught that the Torah was given through three things: fire, water, and wilderness." See the full quote here
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform Movement, made this statement after the Las Vegas shooting:
"This latest mass shooting cannot be termed a random act of violence. Even before all the facts are known we know this: rather than revere gun rights our country must finally revere human life.
We mourn those callously slaughtered in Las Vegas and pray for the wounded. But our prayers must be followed by action, long overdue limits to the easy access to firearms. Common sense measures, like restricting the use of silencers that make a shooter harder to locate and stop, must prevail. Yet we know that instead, Congress is planning to vote on the SHARE Act, which, among other misguided provisions, allows purchasers of silencers on the internet or at gun shows to forgo a background check. This bill must not be allowed to become law. Human lives, like those taken overnight in a horrific burst of violence, depend on it.
We cannot say this mass shooting was "unbelievable." It is all too believable. We cannot say there that there are "no words" to express our grief and our outrage. We must find the words, and we must not stop saying them and acting on them until we stop this plague of gun violence that has gripped our nation for far too long."
We in Connecticut understand this more than anyone. And we have a charity close to home that we can support. So, yes, I'll offer my thoughts and prayers - and then I'm donating to the Newtown Action Alliance.
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