I heard recently about a tragedy last week. A young girl and her mother were hit by a car. The mom died. The girl was in surgery -- we hope she will pull through but she still lost her mother. As a community, various schools, synagogues and communal organizations banded together to raise money and pray for her.
Prayer. That's an important part of our response. We have faith. Sure it makes no sense to outsiders (how can prayer change a future if God has already ordained it? how can words have any effect on the divine? why would MY prayers have anything to do with this girl?) but praying on behalf of named parties is a consistent part of our practice. I also heard that a former teacher of mine was diagnosed with leukemia. Her name, along with the name of her mother [needed as part of the formula for invoking God's mercy and healing] was sent out and people were asked to recite psalms and pray for her recovery. Prayer.
So in synagogue, the next day, everyone quieted down and we recited a psalm (130 or 121, I forget which) and the person in charge said a special request for God's help in healing the girl. She was mentioned by name. We gave charity. We spoke in hushed tones. Then we moved on.
The next day, we said nothing.
That bothered me. The girl is still in the hospital. She has not miraculously and completely healed. My teacher is still sick. Why do we feel less today than we did yesterday? Why STOP praying? In fact, I know that when names are passed around to be added to lists recited during prayers, names often stay on for days and weeks and people either take them off after a given amount of time (say, a month) if no one asks to keep them on, or they stay on until someone is notified that the person has healed or died.
But we stopped.
I asked a local Rabbi about it. A smart man, one who leads his own congregation. He was skeptical about the practice on the whole, what with names passed across the internet and this notion that a group's prayer in one state for a stranger elsewhere has any efficacy at all in God's eyes. When I asked about why, if we thought it had value, we would stop, he spoke about how people become inured to it and that cheapens the prayers. We should save them for when we have the passion to infuse in the wishes a true and connected sincerity. In his community, a girl has cancer and they say prayers daily, because she is of the community and there is a constant connection. But here? In New Jersey? For a girl in Florida? People don't have a reason to feel like it matters so the prayers are useless.
I thought about this. It seemed more a concession to a large and communal failure than a reasonable reaction liturgically to the facts of life. Why don't we care? He said "People are sick everyday. Are we supposed to pray for everyone all the time?" I thought (very loudly, verging on speech), "YES!" We are supposed to care so deeply and intensely that we can't do anything BUT pray for others. We should have to be torn away from prayer if we truly think that prayer is effective at petitioning the Almighty and we really believe that we are all responsible for each other as brother in the house of Israel. He said "People can't do that."
So I asked about John Donne. He wasn't so familiar. I have a passing knowledge of a few of Donne's works so I quoted Meditation 17, the famous one.
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me..."
Donne's point is that we have to feel that everyone in our extended cultural or religious family is an integral part and the loss of any individual MUST sadden us in a profound way, as much as if a friend or relative suffered. We have to feel the sickness and death all the time. Depressing, but necessary. In the same way that we celebrate communally, we must have concern communally. We cannot simply say that so-and-so wasn't close enough to care about. We throw our hands up and then wash them (no doubt, then, dripping self-pity on our heads) of any moral emotional investment. But Donne says that any man's death diminishes him. He feels the pain all the time. It is part of his being alive and a member of the group called humanity.
The rabbi paused, and finally said "That Donne is a tzaddik (pious sage)."
I don't know if anyone has ever called Donne a tzaddik before but his attitude, to me bears consideration. I'm not saying he was completely right. In fact, to my mind, he ruins the moment in the next line. He says that that bell which tolls (yes, it comes from this. Hemingway didn't invent it) to tell of a tragedy and a death doesn't toll for the victim, but for the hearer. He says that it reminds us of our own mortality and our own sense of loss. It tolls as if we were dying so that we are stirred to sadness. I think that it tolls to stir us to remember our responsibility towards each other. It tolls to remind us that all is not always wonderful. It is the constant stepping on the glass from a Jewish wedding. When we think it tolls for another town, another community or another synagogue's members then we stop caring and that's the danger.
I know that in Judaism, the naming of an individual is important. Trust me, I know. I know that the talmud says that one who quotes something in the name of its source brings salvation to the world. And we learn that praying on behalf of someone else, a specific person, is powerful and merits the requests of the individual praying be answered first (read this for more, or pretty much, the same). But if we wait until we know the name, if we wait until we can make that connection, we have waited too long.
In college, I had a friend who would go to services during finals. It mattered then that he gave charity and prayed. I have met others who say certain prayers with more fervor when they finally make sense. "I have a test today, so the prayer for intelligence and wisdom is relevant, so I will focus on it this morning." That's a fine start but what about on another day. Is that prayer suddenly less important? Shouldn't we recognize that others still need that prayer said (our prayers are in the plural. We as for all, not just for ourselves), and that we have it as a request even if we don't overtly know it?
I believe not that we just, as a matter of religious compulsion, or even compunction, add in the saying of psalms on behalf of everyone, at every prayer. I believe that we should refine ourselves until we realize that we WANT to add in the prayers because we feel it is the most important thing we can do. Our religious fervor has its height when it inspires us to feel driven to do certain things without being commanded to, simply because they make the most sense to us (even, yes, in an illogical, faith based system).
I remember being taught some of the intricacies of the afterlife when I was a younger man. The question was asked, "Rebbi, will there be basketball in heaven?" I didn't ask it. I hate basketball. The Rebbi's answer was "Sure...but no one will want to play it. Given a choice of how to spend your time, you will want to learn in the presence of God."
Maybe our resolution for this year should be to try and bring some heaven to our earth and recognize that some things are worth doing, without being reminded by the bell that they are suddenly necessary. Maybe we should stop passing around names to say while we pray -- maybe their inclusion signals the exclusion of all the unnamed parties. Maybe we should start praying for everyone all the time, but not as a matter of rote or because it is part of the liturgy, but because, the same way we feel that we can make the difference in the life of one girl in Florida, we can make a difference in the lives of all the people, known and not known, who are suffering through their own tragedies daily.