A Transcript of Rabbi Mark Miller’s Rosh Hashanah 5780 sermon: a scathing indictment of “thoughts and prayers.”
With appreciation to those who asked, here is my sermon from yesterday …
Rabbi Mark Miller Temple Beth El September 30, 2019 – Rosh Hashanah 5780
THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS
There are certain phrases that you just know are going to get you into trouble. For example, if I were to stand up here on Rosh Hashanah and proclaim that the University of Michigan is the top public university in the country, Go Blue – some of you might cheer, while others may not be so happy with me. Or what if I were to post something on-line suggesting that people with dogs tend to have higher IQs than cat owners – that would probably get some fur flying!
On the other hand, there are expressions that shouldn't ruffle any feathers: “We deeply respect the firefighters and first responders who run into harm’s way on our behalf.” Nobody is going to argue with that one.
But how about this: “I’m sending thoughts and prayers to the victims” … it catches your attention, right? That simple phrase has become the standard/go-to response to tragedy – in particular, you can likely hear it ringing in your ears after any of the mass shootings that have devastated our country.
Gun violence is a real issue in America – we all know it. And regardless how each of us may feel about the 2nd Amendment, or the merit of tougher laws, or the need for better mental health care … I am confident in saying that we are all caring human beings, and every one of us is horrified by the violence, shaken by the images, and probably a bit frightened for ourselves and our kids or grandkids.
Part of what made this particular year so difficult was the loss of our ability to pretend that it was always someplace else, somebody else. We have witnessed a despicable surge in Anti-Semitism, and last October, we became suddenly familiar with a neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Squirrel Hill. Eleven of our own, gunned down senselessly during Shabbat services – by far the worst act of Anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history. Many of you were here at Temple just two nights later, as we hosted more than 1,000 people for a major interfaith vigil – good people of all religions and backgrounds here not only to support us, but trying to figure out how to respond.
Gun violence, hatred, Anti-Semitism … none of them very inspiring, but all very real. And all vital for us to discuss as a thoughtful and caring Temple community, which we will continue doing. But on this Rosh Hashanah, this day set aside for introspection and spiritual growth, we gather at Temple hoping for a glimpse of Divine destiny, seeking a path toward greater happiness, stronger relationships, deeper meaning, and shared success.
Toward that end, I would like to focus for a few minutes on how we – Americans with a specifically Jewish lens – respond to uncomfortable, difficult, or even tragic circumstances. One of the reasons we call these High Holidays the “Days of Awe” is that they have traditionally served as a powerful reminder that life is finite, fragile … and precious.
People wonder why we fast on Yom Kippur. Some say it forces us to focus on matters of the spirit rather than concerns of the body; others say it represents the discomfort necessary for repentance … but the explanation that opened my eyes years ago was this: fasting invites us to peer across the thin veil between life and death. Fasting asks us to refrain not only from food and drink, but from any of the typical comforts or pleasures of life – how much sweeter is this life when we are faced with its tenuous nature?
Our response to the fragility of human life can help define who we are, which brings us back to “thoughts and prayers.” On the surface, it is a beautiful phrase, and not a new one. In 1829, William Wordsworth penned this couplet: “Along a scale of light and life, with cares / Alternate; carrying holy thoughts and prayers.”
And while “thoughts and prayers” doesn’t appear in any version of the Bible, it’s not part of Catholic liturgy, and doesn’t make an appearance in Shakespeare … it has a ring of authenticity that goes back more than 350 years. The earliest appearance seems to be from a Puritan preacher named Richard Baxter in 1662, who wrote: “Allow but those men to be competent witnesses that have bent their thoughts and prayers, and cares this way, and the controversy is resolved. For what is it that all our sermons plead for, but holiness in order to everlasting happiness?” (Found at http://chaseathompson.com/2016/12/05/vintage-christmas-reflections-3-c-s-lewis-and-his-thoughts-and-prayers/)
The phrase peaked in use around the Civil War … until the 1990s. Between 1995-2017, the Congressional Record identifies 4,139 occasions when a congressperson rose on the Senate or House floor to express their “thoughts and prayers” – which equates to approximately one “thoughts and prayers” every, single workday on the Hill.
Lots of those, certainly, were garden-variety expressions of condolence … but the public nature of the phrase began to change in 1999, when Columbine occurred. It was then, according to some commentators, that people were in such shock, and had so few ways to express the deep pain and uncertainty they were feeling, that they turned to “thoughts and prayers” as a way to express something nice and respectful … and ultimately hollow.
Something was missing. Something that, as Jews, we have long understood. It’s not that “offering thoughts and prayers” is wrong, but in a moment of chaos, it becomes more than a statement … it is a declaration about how we view the world, our place in it, and the way we handle the challenges of living together on this beautiful planet.
For many people, “thoughts and prayers” are enough. The idea that prayer is efficacious in the world, that prayer can bring about change, is a core belief for many Americans.
I’ll admit, I have always been dubious of that sort of prayer. Just yesterday, for example, as I was furiously preparing for Rosh Hashanah, I was also praying very hard that the Lions would keep Kansas City out of the end zone on that last drive … I know, I know, I’ve lived here for six years now, and I should know better. But does that mean that my prayer failed? Worse, what is going to happen on November 16 when some of us pray for Michigan and some pray for Michigan State? Whether you want to admit it or not, there will be reasonable, good-hearted, wholesome people praying on both sides … no matter how just our cause – it can’t work.
Perhaps prayer is meant to accomplish something other than literal results in the world around us? Prayer demonstrates that God is with us. We are not alone, in this moment or in this universe. But prayer does NOT mean every cancer will be cured or every storm will be halted or every evil snuffed out. That is not the real world.
Let me be clear: I am not talking about prayer in general – there are lots of opportunity for prayer, and lots of benefits. I am specifically talking about prayer as a primary response to events in the world.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (aka the RaDR) recently taught: “We are all, on some level, nursing wounds of hurt and disappointment, grief or anger, feelings of abandonment or inadequacy … Sometimes prayer is a way to express joy, gratitude, awe and wonder; sometimes prayer is a way to offer thanks for the incredible bounty that we receive. Sometimes, however, prayer can only begin when we find a way to break out of our stuck places and our fear.”
“Thoughts and prayers” are fine, but they are not the Jewish way. Our version can be found right in your High Holiday prayer book. Go ahead, open your machzor to page 109 – we just read it a few minutes ago: “But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.” And when are we supposed to do these three things? Look at the previous page … after violence, death, storms, or disease. The exact same sorts of things that have led other people to offer “thoughts and prayers!”
There has been a very public upswing in vitriol against those who come out with their “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting, in particular. And I understand that. But perhaps I could suggest that rather than focusing on them, we have an opportunity to react and respond in our own very Jewish way – with three distinct steps.
First, repent. That may sound strange, when we hear news of someone else who has done something terrible. But what is more quintessentially Jewish than looking at ourselves when something happens out there … a little good old-fashioned Jewish guilt can do a body good! But seriously, it can make a real difference to ask questions like, what have I done to contribute in some small way to whatever the problem might be? What have I done to prepare myself and those around me? What have I failed to do in order to make it better? None of this means literally taking responsibility for some lunatic in Vegas or at yet another school … but it is a response. And most importantly, it paves the way for the rest of the response.
Second, prayer. And I mean Jewish prayer. Not praying for the victims (not that there is anything wrong with that, of course), but connecting with God and re-asserting the fundamental Jewish truth that we are not alone, and that we are God’s partners in the still unfolding creation of the world. Prayer for us is about connecting. Prayer is about understanding. It is about courage and release and, yes, the inspiration to take real action in the real world.
Which, of course, is number three. The prayer book translates it wrong – “charity” is not the same thing as “righteous action,” which is what tzedakah really means. We repent and then we pray so that we can finally go out there and act in a righteous manner. Advocate, get your hands dirty, help someone – there are lots of ways to do it, but it has to include the doing.
The doing is the Jewish way … but it happens best, and sometimes only, after we first look inward, and then connect. T’shuvah, T’filah, then Tzedakah.
So why do so many people turn to “thoughts and prayers?” I believe it is a response to feeling helpless. In a fascinating twist, remember Baxter – that Puritan who first used the phrase “thoughts and prayers” … turns out that he was a controversial figure at a time of great religious unrest in Europe – specifically because he undermined the core Christian belief in salvation by faith, instead emphasizing the necessity of … wait for it … repentance! The very guy who may have originated the phrase that has become associated with offering platitudes rather than taking action was criticized because he thought people should go out and do something, rather than just assume that their faith (read: thoughts and prayers) would be enough!
If Jewish history and tradition have taught us anything, it is that we are not, in fact, helpless. These holidays insist that we are powerful beyond measure!
The secret of Rosh Hashanah is that we think these big thoughts and imagine consequential opportunities – when the truth is, these lessons are best utilized not in dramatic, life-altering moments … but during the everyday experiences that fill our lives.
The three-step response in our machzor isn’t about, God-forbid, a major tragedy … it is about a dust-up among co-workers, it is about peeling back old family wounds, it is about walking out your door each morning and being intentional about constructing moments of meaning in an imperfect world.
Repentance, prayer, and righteous action are right there for us. Today. It’s a new year, which means that you – yes, you – have an opportunity to start off on the right foot. Look around you, search your heart, find something that has been bothering you, or has been getting in the way of whatever you desire. And even thought it might feel awkward at first, apply your own, personal version of repentance, prayer, and righteous action. I’ll be doing the same thing, hopefully every day, and I am eager to see where it will lead all of us!
found October 01, 2019 at 04:07PM on ReformJews
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