The Utter Futility of 'Thoughts & Prayers'
“A person cannot even know their time. As fish are enmeshed in a fatal net, and as birds are trapped in a snare, so are people caught at the time of calamity, when it comes upon them without warning.” (Ecclesiastes 9:12)
This painful verse comes from the book of Kohelet (the book of Ecclesiastes), which we traditionally read these days of Sukkot. Fish enmeshed in a fatal net, birds trapped in a snare, music lovers caught in a downpour of bullets. In the wake of the tragedy in Las Vegas, I can’t seem to stop reading Kohelet, studying it, feeling like it punched me in my gut.
Kohelet’s ultimate truth is that every person will die. However Kohelet offers a novel approach in that it recognizes that there is no way to know of an afterlife, there is no way to know what can’t be seen, experienced, or felt. And so we cannot live our lives relying on the invisible, the unknown, the unproven.
One of the most famous lines from Kohelet is, "Haveil havalim…hakol havel" (Eccl. 1.2) Havel translates to vapor or mist and poetically translates as "Breath, breath, all is breath.” In the aftermath of Las Vegas, as I read the cowardly responses of so many government representatives, all I could think of was this line from Kohelet.
“Breath, breath, all is breath.”
One after the next, representatives offered their "thoughts and prayers.” As soon as those words were spoken, they vanished, never to be confused with action that might save some lives.
“Thoughts and prayers” has become colloquial, meaningless, a veil for inaction. As the famous onion headline says, our representatives tell us there’s “No Way to Prevent This,” despite being the “Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” In the time since Sandy Hook less than five years ago, there have been over 1500 mass shootings killing over 1700 and injuring over 6000.
And after the deadliest tragedies, what do we get? Thoughts and prayers. Havel Havelim. Empty breath. After the smaller tragedies, we don’t even get that. Mass gun violence is an American epidemic.
Every two years, firearms kill more Americans than were killed in the entire Vietnam War. And it seems like so many government representatives think “thoughts and prayers” are magical words that when said together, repair the world and beat instruments of death into plowshares.
In fact, our congressional representatives have used the line “thoughts and prayers” nearly every day that they’ve been in session since 1995. Once a day, a representative in the House or Senate relies more on thoughts and prayers, more on the invisible, the unknown, the unproven, than themselves to make our country a better place. [Source]
And honestly, I think those who do that have no idea what prayer is.
Do they think they’re praying to a man in the sky who will fix everything? Do they think their God demands nothing of them, and that prayer takes the place of action? Do they think that thoughts and prayers stop bullets mid-flight, bring solace to the families of the murdered, or prevent future atrocities? Because they don’t - and that’s not prayer. That’s havel havelim, vapor, mist, emptiness, nothing.
True prayer triggers the divine within us to act. True prayer ignites the fire of our conscience, that burns in us until we eradicate our society’s gravest challenges. True prayer unsettles our soul and demands we fight the injustices in our society.
Rabbi Heschel teaches that: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, and falsehood. [Our] liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
But prayer for Rabbi Heschel was only the first, elemental building block of the Jewish conscience. Prayer alone, prayer without action, prayer without follow up in the real world, is meaningless. That’s why, in reflecting on marching with Dr. King in Selma, Rabbi Heschel said, “My feet were praying.” And that’s why at the beginning of the Amidah in our Siddur, it says: “Pray as if everything depended on God, Act as if everything depended on you.”
If we leave prayer - thinking, “I’ve done my part to make the world a better place,” then we haven’t prayed. If we leave t’filah thinking, “God will fix our world,” then we haven’t prayed. If we leave davening thinking, “thoughts and prayers are enough,” then we are full of havel havelim, nothing but fleeting breath.
Kohelet provides a well known kavanah or intention for our prayer, to keep us away from those pitfalls.
Kohelet writes: There is a time for everything: A time for slaying and a time for healing. A time for tearing down and a time for building up. A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing” (Eccl. 3:3-4).
When we pray, we are instilling a divine drive in our soul to never relinquish our tradition’s call to dance and laugh and build up and heal – even in the face of great tragedy. When we pray, we absorb God’s strength and patience for when death and sorrow do force their way into our lives. When we pray, earnestly & authentically, we are led to action, we are compelled to repair the world, we are transformed into wrecking balls that knockdown pyramids and overthrow pharaohs.
But prayer without action does nothing to repair our world. Prayer without action is easy. It maintains the status quo in the worst way.
But Prayer isn’t supposed to be easy. Our tradition obligates us to use prayer to reflect on how we might save lives, how we might make our society more just, how we might make our world a better place. Every time we pray, our tradition takes the baton as we prepare for a long distance run. Our prayer nourishes us, provides us with strength, replenishes our souls with perseverance and girds our steps for a long journey ahead.
As soon our prayer together ends, the baton is handed right back to us. It’s up to us whether our prayer is Havel, empty, meaningless hot air, or if we grab the baton and start pursuing peace together.
Delivered at Temple Sinai of Roslyn on 10/6/2017.