Service of the Heart (עבודת הלב): Exploring Prayer

This week's column was written by Rabbi Samuel Barth, Senior Lecturer in Liturgy and Worship, JTS.

Prayer in the Face of the Hurricane


"Prayer invites God's presence to suffuse our spirits; God's will to prevail in our lives. Prayer might not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will." —Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman

As an enormous area of the country continues to be affected by Hurricane Sandy, with tragic loss of human life and vast destruction of property, naturally there are many who turn to prayer for comfort, for solace, for support—and perhaps for help or even deliverance. We envisage God as "rofei lesh'vurei lev" (the Healer of Broken Hearts) [Ps. 147:3], and we affirm in the daily 'Amidah that God is the One Who hears prayer (" . . . shome'a tefillah"). How many prayers have been born out of our encounters with Hurricane Sandy, which remind us of the awesome powers of nature—powers that are not confined to faraway places?

As we emerge from the immediate experience of the hurricane, we recall a teaching to avoid "prayers uttered in vain"—prayers that ask for a miracle. The Mishnah (Berakhot 9:3) teaches that "One who supplicates about a past event utters a prayer in vain . . . If he is coming home from a journey and he hears cries of distress in the town and says, '[God] grant that this is not from my house,' this is a prayer in vain."

This point has been more deeply explored in a compelling essay by Professor Moshe Halbertal, "The Limits of Prayer," in the Jewish Review of Books.

As the hurricane was far off, we might have prayed that our families, our homes, and those dear to us might be spared destruction—but the path of the hurricane became more and more well-defined as a phenomenon of nature, and the Mishnah guides us away from praying that laws of nature be suspended or overturned. This would be "prayer in vain." Our prayers turn, then, to the inner world of humanity—to our own hearts and souls—and we embrace the opening words of this essay, written a generation ago by Rabbi Isserman. We cannot pray for the floodwaters to miss our home or our subway station, for the winds to leave our trees untouched and our buildings intact, but we can pray that our hearts remain open, and that our souls find connection with God. I wrote the following prayer text as the effects of Hurricane Sandy were becoming clear:

"Your Power, God, Creator of the world, is manifest in the winds of the hurricane and the destruction they cause. We turn to You to pray for the wisdom and strength of those responsible for preparation and rescue, for administration and coordination—the first and last responders. May they find the strength and courage, the insight and judgment, the love of humanity to do their best to bring wisdom and technology to alleviate suffering, heal injury, and restore the services and infrastructure upon which our lives are based. And may we all give support, encouragement, love, and gifts as needed."

We do not pray to change the physical world, we do not pray for miraculous deliverance. We pray that we ourselves be strengthened and transformed—so that we, ourselves, will indeed transform the world.

As always, I am interested to hear comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at sabarth@jtsa.edu.