What Good Is Praying When Israel Is at War?

During the Gaza war, people were thrust into voicing passionate rhetoric while simultaneously refraining from action. Were our words superfluous?

Zoe Jick
Zoe Jick
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A man inspects the damage to a house following a rocket attack by militants from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, on July 3, 2014.
A man inspects the damage to a house following a rocket attack by militants from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, on July 3, 2014.Credit: AFP
Zoe Jick
Zoe Jick

On the dark days in early July when Israel mourned the four devastating funerals of three Jewish and one Palestinian teenagers in tandem, the community I pray with at Mechon Hadar, New York, recited Psalm 121. The opening line, “I will lift my eyes to the heaven; from whence will my help come?” makes the psalm an apt reading for moments of grief. At times when understanding ceases, we turn to the liturgy to express the anguish and confusion that pound on our hearts. I was grateful to have words given to me when I felt speechless.

A few days later, the situation in Israel intensified. The violence of the four murders escalated into a national conflict, culminating in a military operation that lasted almost five weeks. Responding to the rockets, my community decided to replace Psalm 121 with the call-and-response of Psalm 130.

Psalm 130 is, on the page, a beautiful work of longing and despair. “Hashem, hear my voice; let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” It felt appropriate to mark the anxiety in all of our hearts with these words, especially at the end of 45 minutes of praying - which, in the midst of the first days of Operation Protective Edge, felt like 45 minutes of not checking the news. I was touched by the remarkable ability of prayers to unite a community, knowing that each of us understood the context for saying Psalm 130 and wanted to spend an extra minute holding the reality of Israel’s crisis in our thoughts. In contrast to the vitriol spewed across my Facebook newsfeed, a moment of marking the emotion instead of the politics felt like the strongest effort of anti-polarization possible.

However, after ground troops mobilized, after the rocket barrage continued, after death after death after death, I began to dread that final moment of morning prayers. The repetition of Psalm 130 felt inadequate at best, and at worst, sometimes bordering on suppressive. “O Israel, hope in the Hashem; for with Hashem there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption,” we chanted together, while in my head I shouted to myself bursts of doubt and paralysis.

Would not it be more helpful for us to write the same words on a banner and go protest at the United Nations? Would not it be more forceful for me to stop praying and start lobbying? Would not it be more practical for me to write an article, or donate $100, or even board a plane? Who are we kidding when we uphold that saying Psalms should be our tradition’s prescribed recourse?

This most recent conflict, in particular, showed the world community just how often we allow ourselves to hide behind our words. Articles on Israel-related websites as well as wide-ranging news sources lampooned the drastic shift of all our social media feeds, as people posted a spew of articles and unforeseen opinions. It is remarkable how this trend forced the conflict directly into our line of vision, while simultaneously sanctioned inertness. So many people took a stance, yet so little was accomplished. Posting about our pain is not the same thing as taking an active step toward healing.

Is the recitation of Psalms any different than this? Perhaps at my most skeptical I would argue that Psalms and overeager blogging are two sides of the same coin – a perspective that shows how easy it is to wash our hands of being involved once we have spoken out, while delegating the work-on-the-ground to someone else, someone who probably doesn’t exist. Yet I hope not to let this conflict lead me down this path of hopelessness; I hope not to fall into the ever more easily accessible black hole of exhausted discouragement.

Saying Psalm 130 with my prayer community was not turning away from action, and it was not senselessly trusting in the abstract. It was a reminder that sometimes, in the midst of all our fury and anxiety, the first step has to be a breath. Not immediate action, but moments of pause to let the weight of reality sink in. And next, I will speak. A call and response: you speak and I will listen, and I will repeat to show you I heard.

Saying the psalm together shows that each of us understands what is at stake during moments of deep conflict: amid all our visceral reactions, we must remind ourselves to hope, fear and forgive. And when this over, we will pledge to revisit this experience tomorrow and every day until we find it in ourselves to move forward. For in the face of a historical event that seems evermore charged and evermore dire, we must remember that the ache we feel is shared, and we have the words to push through the pain together.

Zoe Jick is a candidate for the Masters of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, where she focuses on Jewish Studies. Previously, she was the Associate Director of the World Zionist Organization: Department for Diaspora Activities. Jick is a Wexner Graduate Fellow for Jewish Education.

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