After yet another mass shooting earlier this week, we hear politicians and others with good intentions offer to the victims and their families their “thoughts and prayers.” This should be a comforting response to each and every tragedy but, sadly, it has not been effective in reducing gun violence and saving lives. If this public health epidemic continues unabated, then we are only fooling ourselves if we think that “thoughts and prayers” by themselves have any value.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1−25:18), we learn that Sarah lived to be 127 years old. Immediately after her passing, Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah in order to bury her. In spite of the generous offer by its owner to use it for free, he insists on buying it. Much has been said about this transaction being the first recorded land purchase in Israel.
Abraham also has the foresight to send his servant, Eliezer, back to “the old country” to find a suitable bride for his son, Isaac. Eliezer does as requested but prays for help by asking for a sign. As he sits down by a well, he basically says, “may it come to pass that the woman I am looking for will be the one who offers to draw water, not just for me but for my many camels, as well.” Lo and behold, Rebecca appears and does just that. It was as though his prayer was immediately answered.
I often wonder about how prayer works. In the early stages of our religious education, we learn that if we earn God’s favor, He might answer our prayers just like He seemed to answer Eliezer’s prayer. But in the later stages of our religious development, we learn that it doesn’t always (or ever?) work that way. There are much more nuanced ways of understanding how prayer works. Here is one way:
I believe that prayer can help us attune ourselves to what is going — inside of us and around us. Often we are too caught up in our own thoughts to really see, hear and know what’s REALLY going on. When you achieve this kind of attunement, it is much easier to respond appropriately. Sometimes an appropriate response may be just to notice and open ourselves to what is about to happen. Perhaps it wasn’t that God answered Eliezer’s prayer right then and there. Perhaps Eliezer became attuned to the extraordinary generosity of the woman who was already approaching him.
In the current environment in which so many people have guns, even some of the most unstable people we know, we have to attune ourselves to the fact that we are less safe than ever before. There are many common-sense measures that can be taken to make us and our communities more safe. Here are just a few. In addition, what we need are thoughts and prayers that can give us and our leaders the courage to take action and implement some of these measures
As a Temple with a reputed commitment to social action, we should engage in daily acts of that express our commitment and will bring about practical outcomes to our thoughts and prayers. This is the best way we can serve our Temple, our community and our highest aspirations.
R’ Moshe Tom