In the Wake of Tragedy, Tweeting as Prayer

During and after the kidnapping, social media was a coping mechanism to express solidarity or pain; personal, authentic and spontaneous, these posts form a distinctly contemporary kind of prayer.

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Mourning for Gilad Shaar. Talmon, July 1 2014.
Mourning for Gilad Shaar. Talmon, July 1 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

In the aftermath of tragedy, some people focus their energy on influencing the political leadership, small acts of activism, sending letters and signing petitions. Others run a blame game, even when there’s little point in pointing fingers. Israeli radio station Galgalatz playlists feature songs in a decidedly minor key, like Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” and John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and the desperation of Knesiat Hasechel’s “Shum Davar” (Nothing).

If we are people of faith, then we pray. If our faith is a little shakier, we might phrase our actions as sending “positive thoughts,” or if we live in California, “good vibes.” Or if we are people – with or without religious faith - for whom online interaction plays a role, we may Tweet our hopes, share a longer thought on Facebook, ending our transmission with a hashtag, like “#praying.”

After Eyal, Gilad and Naftali went missing, and again after their deaths were confirmed, the two most visible responses seemed to be social media postings and prayer. After a while, the line between the two began to blend: Maybe the tweets and Facebook status updates themselves are prayers, evolved or iterated in a distinctly contemporary voice and venue.

Of course, not all tweets (“amazing shwarma from Falafel Doron – was so hungry!”) are elevated to the holiness level of prayer. But while the divine language is absent, the instinct of experiencing something and wanting to share your wonder is the same. Years ago, when I was new to Twitter, I sat at the Aroma cafe on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem and posited to a friend that tweets felt like brakhot, like brief blessings of wonder and amazement, whether an expression of appreciation for sustenance or sharing a noteworthy experience. And in some ways, it was better than a prayer – traditional prayer is structured, pre-written and pre-canonized; this was personal, authentic and spontaneous.

Sharing on social media is at once both personal (carrying your thoughts, your tones, your convictions) and public/communal. You shape the tweets. You formulate the Facebook status updates until they say what you want them to say. Even in times of duress, seldom do most non-poets and non-rabbis among us sit down and write personal versions of the [religious?] classics, or craft new supplications for the days that most torture us (“Blessed are you, God, who mercifully helps us deal with end-of-life decisions”). We’re more comfortable and familiar with the “dispense as written” formula for prayer; with the tacit message that if you deviate from the approved text, it might not work. (Not that you’re guaranteed results in any case.)

Prayer is a coping mechanism, a “something to do” when there’s nothing to do. We have probably all had moments where we stood in wordless crying instead of liturgical supplication, as Hannah stood before the Temple gates, wanting something that she couldn’t vocalize. I have prayed for others; people have kept me in their prayers. Sometimes it brings comfort. But sometimes praying is like talking to a wall. One particular wall, specifically.

The Kotel is a focus of a lot of energy surrounding healing and redemption. But we all know people – or ARE people – who put hopeful notes, ranging from brief and simple to lengthy and detailed, in the cracks of an ancient wall praying for a miracle beyond medicine or politics, only to be disappointed. Our loved ones grew weaker, our strength waned, world hate intensified- seemingly unimpacted by this act of faith. So why go? Especially people for those who struggle with faith?

I think there’s a power in the mechanics of visiting the Kotel. It’s a person, stepping forward as an individual, along with hundreds or thousands of others; making personal petitions in a sea of other requests in many languages; knowing that you’re one of many who is tormented or struggling. You write the note. You put it in the wall. And although people approach hoping for moments of solitude next to the ancient stones, they know that others are watching, bearing witness. It’s a silent version of an articulated prayer sealed with an “amen.” It’s an affirmation of belief, a submission to the idea that you can craft your own message, even if you have no idea where it’s going.

You don’t think about that moment when notes dislodge from the wall and fall to the ground of the Kotel plaza. Or when the custodian comes through with a push-broom and dustpan, to pick up the notes that have succumbed to gravity. But being at the Kotel wasn’t about the lasting impact, about your note becoming part of the wall’s permanent history. It was about reaching out, making a connection, and sharing a piece of your soul.

Prayer is supposed to be personal, but what most congregants recite is pre-written. In contrast, social media is public, but authentic to the individual voice of the supplicant. I'm not sure I believe that prayer always helps effect change, and perhaps social media doesn't either. But what traditional prayer and social media expressions share is that they empower us to express both anguish and wishes for peace, to take hopeful action and attempt to connect with other people as well as something bigger.

As Rachel Fraenkel, the bereaved mother of Naftali, somehow managed to say at her son’s funeral, “There is no drop of love or kindness that is for naught; that which is good, is innately good.” The Internet and the floor of the Kotel plaza are littered with our hopes and wishes. But however small our gestures are – online and off - if our motives are pure, they are prayers.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Los Angeles-based writer and consultant. She has been blogging for a decade and is working on a book, “Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After.” Follow her on Twitter: @EstherK

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