A few weeks ago, we had a lecturer here talk about gun control and Jewish law. I do not plan on rehashing any of the arguments for or against – it’s a really loaded topic.
I do want to talk about something that does come up in the context of gun control and specifically, lo aleinu, when Heaven forbid, there is a shooting, and someone says, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
Corey Booker, most famously responded, “Thoughts and prayers are…” Connecticut Senator, Chris Murphy, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings framed it a little more eloquently, when he tweeted, “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again.”
After the San Bernardino attacks, the New York Daily News, started a trending hashtag by headlining an article with the title, G-d isn’t fixing this, yet another dig at thoughts and prayers.
A thoughts and prayer meme that was circulated widely depicts a garbage truck in a landfill with “Thoughts and Prayers” written on the side. Another shows the empty back of a cargo truck with the words “Excellent News The First Shipment of Your Thoughts and Prayers Has Arrived.” (sources, https://arcdigital.media/thoughts-and-prayers-a-defense-53ad28e299b2)
All in all, “Thoughts and Prayers” has gotten a bad rap.
Again, I don’t want to talk about gun control, however, I do want to lament the fact that “thoughts and prayers” has gone from a sincere wish, to a cynical meme.
And let’s just clear the air before we go further – if you are able to do something and you don’t, and you just pray, that’s wrong, and that’s unethical. But if you are doing what you genuinely think is right, and you are doing all that you can in your position, and you want to tell someone that you care about them, that you’re thinking about them, it’s a sad day when we have to second-guess that. It’s sad that we live in such a cynical world that we assume people are disingenuous. And it’s sad that such a meaningful phrase has lost its luster. Personally, I find myself hesitating to use that phrase when I speak to people going through hard times. And I find that to be rather tragic. I find it tragic because I believe in prayer and I find it tragic because I believe that letting people know that you’re praying for them makes a difference.
At the end of this week’s Parsha, Miriam, Moshe’s sister, gets Tzaraas, leprosy, and Moshe, her brother prays for her wellbeing, for her to heal. It’s the shortest prayer in the Torah, and it goes like this, “Vayitzak Moshe el Hashem leimor, and Moshe cried out to G-d saying, Keil na, G-d please, r’fah na lah, heal her now.”
Rashi is troubled by the usage of the word, leimor, saying… Usually the word “saying” means the message is being passed on to others. For example, vayidaber… leimor, G-d spoke to Moshe with the intention that Moshe pass on the message to the Jewish People. But over here, Moshe is speaking to G-d, who is this message being repeated for?
Rashi gives an answer, but I’d like to suggest that while Moshe was speaking to G-d, perhaps leimor teaches us that his prayer was meant for a wider audience, and that he was somehow also letting Miriam know that he was praying for her.
And this would make a lot of sense because it’s actually Jewish Law to do so. When a person visits the sick, there is an obligation to pray for them while you’re still there in their presence. (So much so, that on Shabbos, the rabbis were concerned that if you pray for the sick in their presence, it may be too emotional, and inappropriate and incongruent to the spirit of Shabbos, so you have to actually apologize to the ill person and explain to them that you cannot pray because it’s Shabbos. This is where the phrase Shabbos hi milizok…that we say at the end of the Mishebeirach for the sick, actually comes from. What it means is that on Shabbos we are not allowed to cry out but don’t worry G-d will heal you. The implication is that every other day, we do pray in their presence.) One reason for praying in the sick person’s presence is that when facing an ill person, our kavannah, our intent is stronger. But another possible reason for doing so, is so that they know that you’re praying for them. That is part of the healing process. Moshe did not only pray for his sister, he let her know that he was doing so. “My thoughts and my prayers are with you, Miriam.” That message, in it of itself, is efficacious.
In March, Alex Trebek, the long-time host of Jeopardy, announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Days later, he thanked the hundreds of thousands of well-wishers who sent cards or emails wishing him well and praying for his health. Then two months later, he reported that his cancer was in near remission, something his doctors have never seen before, and he attributed it to those well-wishes. So much so, that some physicians have dubbed this the “Trebek effect” and have argued, based on a number of studies, that knowing that people care about you, knowing that people are wishing you well, actually makes a difference. Trebek’s chances of survival are still slim, but the prayers, from a purely psychological perspective, made a difference. A big one. (Rabbi Josh Flug) So yes, you should most definitely let people know that you’re praying for them.
This past week, this point was driven home to me in the most beautiful way possible. I attended a funeral for a woman I never met. Shira Perlman, a member of ours, lost her sister-in-law, Shira Saperstein, a young and clearly very special woman. One of the speakers was a rabbi from Silver Spring, Rabbi Rosenbaum. He was not the family’s rabbi, and I was wondering why he was speaking there. And he quickly explained. He said, he didn’t really know this couple very well at all, but one day, Perry Saperstein, the late Shira’s husband, approached the rabbi and said the following: “I understand that you don’t have any children. We also don’t have any children. The Talmud says, that when you pray for someone else for something that you yourself need, your prayers are more likely to be answered. So I’d like to propose the following: Me and my wife will pray for you, and if I could ask, that you do the same, and pray for us.”
Imagine a more-or-less complete stranger coming up to you and saying that. Rabbi Rosenbaum described himself being taken aback but also very moved and he accepted. A few years later, Rabbi Rosenbaum and his wife did indeed have a child and then another and then another. The Saperstein’s never did have biological children, but they did create the most powerful bond between the families, they created a sense of belonging, and a sense of comfort during the most trying of times.
So yes, there is tragedy in the world, and we must do whatever we can to change the wrong and evil that exists. But often times, there is nothing we can do, or perhaps we’ve done everything we can, and the situation is still broken. To distract people from their pain, to minimize their pain, none of that is helpful, and it’s downright wrong. But letting those suffering know that you’re thinking about them, that you’re praying for them, is not only effective spiritually, but gives people comfort in their time of existential loneliness. And if we can take it that step further and incorporate what the Saperstein’s taught us. To turn to people who are going through similar experiences as we are or have. I say similar because no two experiences are identical and it’s audacious and wrong to tell someone, I’ve been there, I am there, and I know. We never know.
But if instead, we can find people who are going through similar situations as we are, a loss of a job, childlessness, a divorce, loneliness, illness, you name it, and to tell them, “I cannot begin to understand what you’re going through, but I too am going through something similar. Let me pray for you, and please, can you pray for me.” The connection made, the sense of camaraderie formed, is immeasurable.
I believe, and I hope we all believe, be’emunah sheleima, with complete faith, in the efficacy of prayer. The primary goal of prayer is to connect us to our Creator. With “Our thoughts and prayers” we can also create a deep connection with those going through difficulties. May G-d hear all of our prayers, and may we use our prayers to let those suffering know that G-d, and we, are with them.