thinking and praying

by Leah Bieler

Dear Republican politicians -



Thoughts and prayers. Thinking and praying. A whole lot of Jews in America, and around the world, spent many hours in the past week and a half doing just that. Thinking and praying.


In order to ensure our complete focus, we fast. Traditionally, we fast not once, but twice in one seven day period. And we apologize. For all of our bad behavior, big or small. We look people in the eye, and make promises to do better.


Swathed in our cloaks of ascetic righteousness, we literally beat our breasts as we confess our communal sins. It’s all very dramatic, made even more so by our dry mouths and rumbling bellies. Usually someone faints, and an ambulance is quietly summoned. It can all make a person feel quite virtuous, really, this thinking and praying.


The rabbis knew this. That there would be danger in our self-satisfaction. So they chose a reading from the prophets - not about repentance, or forgiveness - but about the false picture we paint of ourselves on Yom Kippur. The prophet castigates, quoting God:


Is such the fast I desire? A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush, and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?...No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58, 5-7)


Thoughts and prayers that don’t spur us to act are an insult. Prayer is a powerful tool for introspection, for building community, for developing a relationship with the divine. But when other people are hurting - they can’t eat our prayers. They can’t be comforted by our thoughts. Prayer is an essentially selfish act. It only stops being selfish if it changes your perspective, if it helps remind you what your responsibilities are to others.


I remember watching my children after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. We lived only a half hour drive away from the scene, and their own school did repeated lockdown drills in the aftermath. But my kids weren’t stupid. Their spread-out leafy New England prep school campus had been a selling point. But now, they became anxious. How can anyone protect all these buildings? What if someone with a gun appears as we’re walking along the paths? Unless the school had been willing to have the children constantly accompanied from one class to another with groups of well trained armed guards - I really had nothing to tell them.


Americans are not just naturally more violent, more callous, more murderous than people from other countries around the world. There is nothing in our DNA that causes the proliferation of gun violence. But none of those countries has an NRA, a gun manufacturer’s lobby that pays too small a price for your silence. The right to bear arms does not trump literally every other right. The right not to live in fear. The right to walk to class without armed guards. The right to our actual lives.


No more thoughts. No more prayers. Nobody cares what’s in your heart. Enough praying and thinking, thinking and praying. It won’t save a single life. Act, stand up against those craven gun salesmen, or be complicit in every murder, every suicide, every stupid, senseless ‘accident’ that follows.