Of prayer and deeds
The Talmud teaches us that the place of Jewish prayer is not centered in miracles or good fortunes. Rather, prayer is the place where we confront what is broken.
Last week I had the great privilege of joining New Yorkers of every stripe in coming together to and address the profound, human needs left in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In my own synagogue, where I serve as assistant rabbi, we opened our collective doors to hurricane victims, reached out to vulnerable seniors, coordinated meals and places to stay, even temporarily housed a school. We put out a call for donations and within a short period, had collected many hundreds of pounds of food, water, clothes, batteries, toiletries. We asked for drivers to bring the supplies to people in need and cars showed up, with some people even renting a U-Haul trailer. And within just hours of making that call we had delivered it all to hard-hit areas - Brighton Beach, the Lower East Side, to shelters across Manhattan. All this while simultaneously having our lives disrupted in so many ways.
And this didn't just happen in my synagogue. As the call for volunteers went out from different communities, literally hundreds of people phoned in, texted, tweeted and just showed up to help. I worked with women and men, CEOs to children, from all faiths and no faith. We connected to each other through shared networks, shared links, and the shared desire to help, to give, to serve. One Facebook post at 6 P.M. Tuesday about picking up meals for delivery to homebound seniors resulted in over 30 people showing up at the appointed address the next morning. Someone in Georgia tweeted that a woman in Teaneck who was on her social network was running out of gas for the generator that was powering her daughter's respirator. Within five minutes, we got hold of a doctor in Teaneck, an Orthodox Jew, who immediately drove over to check on the family, who are, by the way, devout Muslims. They were safe and grateful.
Another image. A volunteer I was working with, while visiting apartment buildings in Chinatown was greeted by a woman, crying, with a screaming baby on her shoulder. She didn't speak English but wrote down a note for the volunteer, who promised to return. The volunteer went out to the street, found a person who spoke Chinese and English, and learned that the woman needed baby formula. The volunteer walked the streets until she found an open bodega, purchased the formula and returned, formula in hand.
As I write, thousands of elderly seniors are still stuck in high-rises, with no phone, radio, electricity or water. I visited a 94-year-old woman and her aide, trapped on the 11th floor of a public housing building on the Lower East Side. The elderly woman was confused, and they had almost run out of fresh water. The aide had been there for two days and needed to return to the Bronx because she had run out of medicine for herself, but she feared for the life of her client if she left. She had no cell-phone reception and a low battery, and the land-line wasn't working. We were able to reach her son, but he couldn't help because he was bedridden with cancer in Brooklyn. With no other option, we called 911, so that the elderly woman could be transport to the hospital, where she would be safe and the aide could go home and take her medicine.
These are more than just stories. They are prayers.
For the rabbis of the Talmud, Abraham's actions in last week's Torah portion are understood as the beginning of prayer. The Talmud (Brachot 26b ) says "Tefilot avot tiknum" - "Prayer was established by the Avot (patriarchs )," and then uses the following verse (Genesis 19:27 ) from Parashat Vayera to prove how Abraham established prayer: "Vayashkem Avraham baboker el hamakom asher amad sham et pnei Hashem" - "and Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord."
The connection here is in the word "amad" - "stood" - and its connection to the Amidah prayer. Strangely though, the Torah Relates, just one chapter later (Genesis 20:17 ), "Vayitpalel Avraham el Ha'Elohim" - "And Abraham prayed unto God"! The word "vayitpalel" is directly related to "tefilah," prayer. When proving that Abraham established prayer, why didn't the Talmud use this verse? Further, in the case of Abraham's tefilah, God answered his prayer and miraculously healed Abimelech. Why isn't this clear, successful prayer our foundational model?
The Talmud's counterintuitive proof text offers a powerful lesson. Let's take a deeper look at our original proof text: "Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord." This place was of deep significance to Abraham. It was the place where he stood and confronted God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the place where Abraham, alone, face to face with the Holy One, Blessed Be He, mustered all his courage to demand "shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?"
By using this verse as a foundation for Jewish prayer, the Talmud teaches us that the place of Jewish prayer is not centered in miracles or good fortunes. Rather, prayer is the place where we confront what is broken. Prayer is the place where we struggle with a God who loves righteousness and justice but allows suffering. Prayer's place is where we, like Abraham, stand and see the distance between the world as it is and the world as it could be. This is where our prayer begins. Where hope begins. Where redemption begins. We have a lot of work to do. Let's get started.
Rabbi Ari Hart is a founder of Uri L'Tzedek and an assistant rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Synagogue in New York City. This piece is adapted from a sermon he delivered at the Hebrew Institute days after Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast.