Prayer in a Time of Horror

The Kaddish prayer recited by mourners makes no reference to mourning. It is instead a statement of G-d’s greatness in the face of inexplicable loss. By saying it in memory of those who have passed, we are granting them a way to connect with the divine – even though they are no longer actors in their own right. We are proclaiming the greatness of G-d, almost on their behalf. We are leaving a spiritual mark on the echo of their lives in this world.

So many families are saying Kaddish this week.

And this week, there were three days in a row in which I did not pray.

As the religious Jewish community ramped up the recitation of Tehillim and the learning of Torah, I stepped back from these activities. I opened the week the writing a piece about how the divine perspective could allow what happened – both to bring the people together and to give us the opportunity to deal with a great evil. I have written about the divine perspective before, and how our great suffering has its context within the Almighty’s plans. But I also wrote that understanding and acceptance are two very different things – and that Torah itself makes allowance for the emotional bridge that we can never cross.

Yes, I can intellectually understand the ‘big picture.’ But as I attended the shiva of a funny 19-year-old boy from my city – as I watched his sister crying and laughing at the same time – I could not accept it.

I didn’t pray for three days because I was angry.

As I look at Facebook and synagogue groups, I see that those around me are praying for one reason. They are praying so that G-d will grant safety to those who are going to battle and to those who have been taken by the enemy. They are hoping that the recitation of Tehillim will help their brothers and sons and fathers come home. They want to help.

I too hope that G-d will grant them safety. I too hope for miracles. But I cannot escape my anger at the safety that has been lost. Yes, I can blame our leaders for their failures. Yes, I can point the finger at the evil of Hamas. But when those in the safe rooms cried out for G-d’s help – like those in the bunkers of the Warsaw Ghetto – there was no answer.

We needed miracles last week – and we were left without them.

And so, I am angry.

Shabbat is coming. Shabbat, a time beyond time. A time without creation or destruction. A time without mourning. But last Shabbat was a time of death and fear. The contract of Shabbat, the beauty of Shabbat, feels violated.

And so, I struggle to accept.

Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Blessed be the True Judge.

I believe a relationship with G-d is open to all humankind. There is no monopoly on the way in which that relationship forms. Even within the Jewish context, there are many ways to build a bridge to the divine. Nonetheless, building that bridge – in some way, at least – remains critical to our safety in this land.

In Devarim/Deuteronomy 28:23, the Torah says that the skies shall be like bronze and the earth like iron. In Vayikra/Leviticus 26:19, the curse is inverted: the skies will be iron and the earth like bronze.

In the Torah the word bronze (Nachoshet) is used to represent the practical. It is the metal of tools and clasps. It also shares a root with the word for snake (Nachash). The snake is a tool of G-d just as copper is a practical metal used in the hardware of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. Iron, on the other hand, represents war. Pharaoh has iron chariots and Og an iron bed. What these two curses are relating is that the skies and theearth below will be used as lessons, painful lessons filled with war.

Tunnels and rockets. Hand gliders and the blood of the innocent.

We are living in the time of curses. They have been present before us for years and yet we have not responded. We have not awakened. Ever since Moshe’s contract with Hashem after the Sin of the Calf, the Jews have been an evidence people – if we serve G-d, then we are blessed. We become evidence of the presence of G-d in our world. However, if we abandon G-d, then we are cursed. We remain evidence of the presence of G-d in our world.

It is not hard to imagine the realization of the curses that follow those of iron and copper. “When you are gathered together inside your cities, I will send dever (the thing) among you. You shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy.” (Vayikra/Lev 26:25). Was that this last Shabbat?

Humans have our own agency. We have our own responsibilities. We are obligated to punish murderers so that murder will not spread. We do not simply point our fingers at G-d and say: ‘you take care of it.’ This is the natural order of self-regulation. But Jews must go further, especially in our land. We must hear G-d and walk in His ways. For me the ways of G-d are made clear in the very first chapters of Bereshit. G-d creats for six days and then rests on the Sabbath, making it Holy. At the most fundamental level, we must create as G-d creates and then rest and connect with the timeless divine. As Jews we embrace this symbolically – we distance ourselves from loss, even just the loss of potential. That is Tumah – or ritual impurity.

The Torah makes clear that for the curses to end, we must humble our hearts – and, indeed, circumcise our hearts. We were humbled by the Shoah. But circumcision is different. In ancient Egypt, a prophet of a god would speak the words of that god without filter or impediment. I believe that this is what an Orlah is: an impediment to the expression of the divine. Its removal in the Brit milah enables our reproductive will to serve a divine purpose. Moshe’s Orlah represented his reluctance to speak the words of G-d – a difficulty Aaron did not have. The Orlah of the trees prevents us from eating of their fruit when they are young – so that we will disassociate the human act of planting from the divine gift of fruit. We remove the human impediment.

Today, there is an Orlah in our collective hearts. There is an obstacle that prevents the divine from flowing within us. Today, even the humility created by the Shoah has been lost. We celebrate the Jewish people – and Israel – instead of trumpeting the opportunities Hashem has granted us. We imagine that we have earned our blessings, when we have only been granted them to prevent our complete destruction. As a collective, as a people, we are not humble before the Lord and we do not welcome the Lord into our hearts.

Where does this leave prayer? How do we relate to G-d in the midst of curses?

I think it must start with a humbling of the heart.  It must start with allowing the spirit of Hashem to flow through us – lowering the barriers of resistance that we have created. How can we do this in the face of suffering? How can we accept G-d when our people are being slaughtered? Perhaps this is precisely when we can accomplish it most purely. To accept, even in the face of horror, is to be humbled. To seek out the divine, even when we feel abandoned, is to enable the spirit of Hashem to flow through our hearts.

When I say the opening line of the Amidah: Adonoi sephatai tiftach, ufi yagid tehilatecha, I internalize the alternate meanings of many of the words. Adonoi is a master, but it is also the support of a pillar. G-d is above us, but He also helps us stand tall when we acknowledge Him. Sephatai is a mouth, but it is also an opening – like the collar on a shirt. It represents the limits of our comprehension. When those limits are expanded, as we ask G-d to do with the word Tiftach, then we can speak the praises of Hashem. Then we can appreciate His acts in our world.

So this Shabbat, I will stand before Hashem. I will ask Him to support me, and to grant me some fragment of His perspective. I will ask him to enable me to reach beyond my place, my time, and my pain.

And then, as the spirit of Hashem flows through me, I will do my best to recognize the glory of G-d.

The Amidah is in the present tense, even when it speaks of our ancestors. When we recite it, those who have been lost are standing beside us. We are their voice; we carry their souls. So this Shabbat, stand before G-d as the representative of those who have been lost.

Carry their divine spark forward, just as you would with the words of Kaddish.

Finally, with the last words of the Amidah, allow the peace of Hashem to fill us.

Perhaps then our curses will be lifted and we can experience the blessing of the Lord.

“And you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid.” (Lev 26:6)

For more material related to the Gaza conflict, much of it secular in nature, click here.

Photo by Matthew Angus on Unsplash

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