Does prayer for healing after a tragedy actually work? I’m not sure the answer is black and white, but I’m sure it’s a question worth asking.
As you can imagine, it’s difficult to write a d’var Torah this week without the tragic loss of life in Orlando influencing my thoughts. Every day this week news outlets have tried to put more pieces of this devastating puzzle together, and every other post I see as I scroll through my social media feeds is a commentary on gun rights (and wrongs). Obviously no two events like this are exactly alike, but one thing that always seems to surface in the wake of tragedy is the plea for prayer. You may have even seen the #PrayForOrlando hashtag, similar to the #PrayForParis hashtag shared following the Paris terror attacks last year.
What is the goal of this sentiment, and if the goal is some form of healing to those most deeply connected, is it successful?
While we may not have a definitive answer, our Torah portion offers some insight. As we read parshat Naso this week, we read about the Israelite society trying to move forward after leaving Egypt and the establishment of a successful community. The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people, laws about how to treat one another and our property, the blessing of the priests to the people, and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God.
This week’s parshah also contains an iconic section of Torah, the priestly blessing. This section of text is invoked every Friday night as the blessing over the children, it’s used to bless a bar or bat mitzvah, and it’s bestowed upon a couple under the wedding canopy.
May God bless you and keep you.
May God smile at you and be gracious to you.
God lift God’s face upon you and place upon you peace.
Each line is itself a noble, yet modest blessing. However, what is noteworthy is that God is invoked in each one. Why is it necessary to recall in each line that we are praying to God? Perhaps with the transition from slavery to freedom still relatively fresh for the Israelites, we need to be reminded that it was only with God’s help that we were able to establish ourselves as a free people. That would certainly be an argument for prayer as an agent of change, or at least a viable form of gratitude.
Or perhaps it’s the opposite. Perhaps it’s what is not included in these three lines that speaks to how our partnership with God works. In the priestly blessing, we are given abstract concepts like graciousness and peace, but these are simply wishes we would like fulfilled. It’s the rest of the Torah that acts as a blueprint for action. As we learn throughout the Torah, our relationship with God is one of give and take, and it’s only balanced if prayer and action work hand in hand.
On Monday night while Congress held a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut walked out of the House, a gesture meant to decry “silence” without action. The Dalai Lama shared a similar sentiment the same night at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Although he asked for a moment of silence before his talk, he followed it by warning that prayer without action is empty.
Our prayers should not be empty words, just as our partnership with God should not be one-sided. By no means am I saying we shouldn’t pray for the victims and loved ones involved in a tragedy. The message I take away from the priestly blessing is that regardless of what you’re praying for or what policy you support, peace and healing depend on more than prayers and hashtags alone.