I am posting here a sermon that I delivered in 2017 following the horrible mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. As I read it, I realized it has significant relevance today following the horrible attacks in Buffalo and in Uvalde.
SERMON FOR PARASHAT HAYE SARAH
THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS
One of my favorite phrases in the Siddur is: Va’ani Tifalati. Taken from Psalm 69, the words can be translated in many different ways. I have always found great meaning in this translation: “As for me, this is my prayer.”
As I considered the topic of my sermon for this week, I remembered a line from a song written by the late Jim Croce. In a song entitled “Which Way Are you Going?”, he wrote these words: “Words once honored turn to lies.”
It is true that there are certain words that once seemed perfectly honorable and acceptable suddenly begin to resonate poorly and can even become the object of ridicule. Such is the case today in many circles with these 3 simple words: “thoughts and prayers”.
After the horrendous tragedy which took place in Sutherland Springs, Texas this past Sunday, it seems that anyone who dares to say those once honored words: “our thoughts and prayers are with the families”, was being chastised. “We don’t need thoughts and prayers. We need action.”
And I agree 100% we most definitely do need action.
But, thoughts and prayers can help as well.
Let me share with you once again, as I know I have done many times before, my favorite thought concerning Jewish prayer. I do not know where I heard it stated as simply and clearly as I intend to do this morning although a lengthy commentary by the 19th century Torah commentator, the Malbim, seems to get to the same point in a rather subtle way.
When Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is sent by his master to find a wife for Isaac, he says a prayer “may the one who offers water not only to me but to my camels as well, let her be the one you, God, have chosen for Isaac”.
What kind of prayer is this? What is this prayer about?
Reading it closely, we discover that Eliezer is not asking God to pick the woman and let him know who it is by having her ask to water the camels. Rather, he is saying to God: ”I have made my choice. I will choose the one who is kindhearted enough to offer to water my camels and I hope you agree”. In essence, he is saying that he is making this choice because it is consistent with the values that his master had taught him and he feels it will find favor with God.
Eliezer is not asking for a magic sign. He is instead reaching deep inside and deciding which course of action is best and hoping that it coincides with God’s will. He is not praying to God to release him from the responsibility to act. He is praying that he be wise enough to make a good choice. The object of the prayer is not to make God act, rather to have the wisdom and the courage to act in accordance with what he believes God would want.
So, prayer need not entail asking for external, divine help for our problems. Prayer really means marshaling our own forces, convincing ourselves that we can at least attempt to solve a problem and building up strength and courage to overcome the obstacles in the way. It isn’t always enough but, as part of a bigger package, it is definitely worthwhile. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said; “Prayer may not save us but prayer may make us worthy of being saved”.
Telling someone who is in pain that he or she is in our thoughts and prayers after suffering a loss is truly a compassionate thing to say and I will not refrain from saying it. It does mean something essential to some people and it brings a sense of support and concern which can be so deeply helpful to an individual in pain.
And when we face a difficult issue, while prayer is not a substitute for action, prayer can encourage us to face the challenges of life, gather up our strength and do what must be done.
Prayer is not a replacement for action, it is a call to action.
When we gather here on Shabbat morning and when any congregation gathers in any faith, the community expresses a yearning for more meaningful lives and for a better world. We reach out to God to inspire us to try harder, to dig deeper, to see more clearly and to act more decisively.
Gathering in prayer is a call to action.
And we so desperately need action. Our nation’s leaders must face up to the terrible plague of gun violence in our society and do what has to be done to effectively address the issue of the horrible proliferation of guns in our nation, especially guns the types of which no individual should have any access to.
How many more tragedies will it take before our leaders act?
Action speaks more loudly than prayer. But, let’s not be so quick to dismiss the power of prayer. Prayer allows us to reach deeper to find the wise way to act and in this case thoughtful, considered introspection can, I believe, lead to only one conclusion, that we must change the way we think and act about guns in our nation. There is no choice. There is no option. It is what God would want and it is what we must do.
Those mourning in Texas, in Las Vegas, in Charleston, in Connecticut and on and on and on and on must always be in our thoughts. They inspire and demand our prayers and our actions.
May we have the strength to stem this terrible tide of violence and death. May our leaders and all of us gather the courage and the strength to do what must be done.
As for me, that is my prayer.
And I know I share it with so many of you.
May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts and, most importantly, the works of our hands that those meditations inspire, be acceptable to you O Lord.