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Prayer and Action

June 17th, 2016

Temple Sholom - Cincinnati, OH

Rabbinic Intern Alli Cohen

There is no easy way to say it:

Last week on June 8th, a Palestinian gunman killed 4 Israelis and wounded 5 people at Sarona Market in Tel Aviv.

Then, on Sunday, June 12th, 49 people were killed at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, targeting the LGBTQ community. “Pulse describes itself as ‘the hottest gay bar’ in the heart of Orlando. Hours before the shooting, the club urged partygoers to attend its ‘Latin flavor’ event Saturday night. The club is a vast, open space that was hosting more than 300 patrons late Saturday and into Sunday morning" (Ellis, et al). 

And there are still 53 people wounded, some still fighting for their lives.
The gunmen wielded “an assault-type rifle and a handgun,” making this shooting “the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history” (Schneider).

And to add to this list, tonight is exactly one year since the Charleston church shooting where nine people were killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

Let me say that this is not the type of census I wanted to talk about this evening, as this week’s Torah portion recounts a census of its own,
a census of our people in the desert, full of much more life.

And while we are here, full of that life right now, we are also full of raw emotions.

Tonight, we are SAD.
We are distraught when we hear about the lives that were.
We are mournful for them and their families.
We are sad that we didn’t prevent this from happening.
But sad is an understatement.

Tonight, we are AFRAID.
We are afraid for ourselves, for our friends within the LGBTQ 
         community, for those of Latino descent, and for all minorities.
We are afraid for our country and for our children,
         for the world they might inherit.
We are afraid with gut wrenching fear inside, which aches each time            
         we turn on our news and hear about the horrors of this tragedy:
         the horrors of people trying to hide in the bathroom,
         trying to escape, as they stumble over bodies,
         trying to make a phone call or text a loved one to tell them how much  
         they love them, before they die.
And we can only imagine the fear they felt.
We are afraid for humanity.

But if there is one thing we must not be:
Tonight, we must not be NUMB.
We must not be numb to the news of shootings in our world.
We must not be numb to the sound of cries and gunshots.
Have we forgotten what our ancestors lived through,
         so that we could be here today?
This is the modern-day Holocaust, and we must open our ears, our eyes and our mouths if we want to make this world a better place for ourselves and for the generations we pray will come.

Tonight, we are ANGRY and maybe even ASHAMED.
We are angry at the gunman.
We are angry at all who discriminate.
We are angry at our country.
We may even be angry at ourselves.
What could we have done? How can we do better?
Why hasn’t something been done already?
When will enough be enough?
How big does the death census need to be in order for change to occur?
We are angry this keeps happening over and over again,
that innocent lives keep being taken.

So we come here tonight wondering if prayer can help.

This past week, I have seen posts on Facebook saying:
“We don’t need your thoughts or your prayers, we need your actions.”
And this quote upsets me…
Could prayer be neglected? I ask myself.
Since when do we get so full of emotion that we can no longer see the power in prayer?

It happens all the time. We forget the power of prayer.
We think: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
And if tragedies like this happen,
“What is the point of prayer anyway?”

I also read a Jewish Midrash posted online that goes:
“When the Jews left Egypt, the Egyptian army chased them and caught up with them at the Red Sea. The Jews didn’t know what to do, so they started praying. God turned to Moses and said, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Jewish people and tell them to move!’

The Midrash clarifies: This is not a time for lengthy prayer.
Prayer can’t be a substitute for human effort” (Blech 291).

And while I completely agree with this lesson, I was still left feeling angry inside. Prayer can’t be given up all together, I thought to myself.

It was then I remembered a text by Abraham Joshua Heschel, found in our prayer book, Mishkan Tefillah. It reads:

Prayer invites
God’s presence to suffuse our spirits,
God’s will to prevail in our lives.
Prayer may not bring water to parched fields,
Nor mend a broken bridge,
Nor rebuild a ruined city.
But prayer can water an arid soul,
Mend a broken heart,
Rebuild a weakened will (CCAR 125).

Tonight, we are SAD, AFRAID, and ANGRY, and we ask:
what good can prayer do?

Prayer can give us an outlet for these feelings.
When we’re SAD, we can pray the words of our tradition,
the Mourner’s Kaddish and the Mi Shebeirach,
         as we grieve, as we ask for healing,
         and in return, we are reminded to be more compassionate, caring    
When we’re AFRAID, we can pray for shelter and strength with the Hashkiveinu,
         and in return, we gain the might to do the difficult work for a          
         better future.
When we’re ANGRY, we can pray Shalom Rav,
         in the hope that we then take our words, our prayers, to heart
         and in return, let them compel us into action,
         building a world where only peace is known.

When we allow our hearts to be stirred by our words to God,
this is the type of prayer that then leads to action.

It does not have to be either/or: prayer or action.
It CANNOT be either/or: prayer or action.
BOTH are needed.

Because after we have:
Watered the “arid soul,”
Mended the “broken heart,”
And rebuilt the “weakened will,”

We can:
“bring water to parched fields,”
“mend a broken bridge,”
“rebuild a ruined city.”

We can accomplish the challenging work that needs to be done:
-achieve better gun control
-strengthen minorities and break down stigma
-raise LGBTQ awareness through educating others
-rebuild a shattered humanity      

It seems more than appropriate that this week’s Torah portion includes the Priestly Benediction, asking God for that peace we long so much for.

The Plaut Commentary remarks upon this peace stating:
“Peace, say the Rabbis, is one of the pillars of the world;
without it the social order could not exist.
Therefore let a man do his utmost to promote it.
Peace is the burden of the prayer with which every service in the synagogue concludes:
‘May He who makes peace in His high heavens grant peace unto us (URJ 944)!’”
[M. Joseph]

But I suggest we pray, “May God who makes peace in the High heavens, help us to make peace here on earth.”

With both prayer and action,
may we bring the age of peace
for us and for all humanity.

And let us say: Amen.

Blech, Rabbi Benjamin. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism. 2nd Edition ed. United States: Penguin Group (USA), 2003.

Central Conference of American Rabbis. Mishkan T’Filah: A Reform Siddur: Shabbat. Edited by Elyse D. Frishman. New York, NY: CCAR Press, 2007.

Ellis, Ralph, Ashley Fantz, Faith Karimi, and Eliott C. McLaughlin. “Orlando Shooting: 49 Killed, Shooter Pledged ISIS Allegiance.” CNN (CNN), June 13, 2016.

Schneider, Mike. “Worst Mass Shooting in US History: 50 Slain at Gay Nightclub.” June 13, 2016. Accessed June 17, 2016.

Union for Reform Judaism. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. Revised Edition ed. Edited by W. Gunther Plant and David E. S. Stein. New York: URJ Press, 2006.


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