In the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris this past weekend the twittersphere blew up with the hashtag #prayforparis. This was quickly followed up by requests that people also #prayforlebanon, #prayforhumanity, and #prayfortheworld. I saw other people posting messages of a different nature saying, “Paris doesn’t need your prayers;” “France doesn’t need more religion;” and “Don’t just pray- actually do something.”
I both identify and struggle with both sentiments. As a fairly secular Jew, prayer, in the traditional sense, is not typically my ‘go-to’ reaction. However, as someone who does lay claim to the Jewish faith, belongs to an organized congregation, and feels like it is important to recognize that there are forces at work in the universe that reach beyond my comprehension, I can understand why some people immediately turn to their higher power in times of darkness.
Within my internal struggle comes a rejection of the idea that to pray is to do nothing. This rings especially true for me if I broaden the definition of what it means to “pray.” Traditionally, prayer is generally defined as a direct communication between a person and their deity, and that can be a truly beautiful thing. But, I think that prayer can be broadened beyond that definition. As I contemplate the events of the past week here is how I am defining and practicing prayer:
Self Reflection as Prayer
I am fairly vague when it comes to my own definition of a “higher power.” However, I do have a very strong “G-d Voice.” My “G-d Voice” is that little voice inside of me that speaks up when I feel very strongly about something. It guides me in my daily decision making, parenting choices, and choosing how to put myself out in the world. This past week, I have found myself asking my inner voice some important questions:
What kind of American do I choose to be?
I choose to be an American who remembers that our country is a country of immigrants; that we are the protectors of democracy and freedom. I choose to be an American who knows that our diversity only serves to make us stronger. I choose to have the courage to approach those who are different than myself with curiosity instead of fear. I choose to seek out factual information and not buy into media hype.
What kind of Jew do I choose to be?
I choose to be a Jew who remembers that our collective history is laden with our people being forced from our homes, cities, and nations at the hands of extremists and bigots. It was not so long ago that Jews trying to flee the Nazi Regime were turned away at every border. Brave souls who stood up to the extremists of that time were hard to find and propaganda was easy to buy into. I choose to be a Jew who stands up for innocent people suffering at the hands of extremists, and who knows that the only way to fight the dark is to spread light.
What kind of human do I choose to be?
I was telling someone recently about the nice Muslim family who lives down the street from me. My daughter plays regularly with their daughter in both of our homes or at our neighborhood park. The person to whom I was speaking with wanted to know- how did I know that this family wasn’t just being nice to my face while they were actually thinking, “we hate Jews.”
I guess we can’t ever really know what people are thinking but I choose to be a human being that evaluates people based on their words and actions and not on what they might be (but most likely are not) thinking. I choose to be a human being who tries really hard to not make fear-based, media inspired decisions. I choose to be a human being who believes that our best chance at peace is to look deep within ourselves and identify and then work on our own fears and biases.
Right Action as Prayer
Nothing makes that little voice inside me sing louder than when I do something to help make someone else’s world a little brighter. Doing a good deed- whether it is donating money, standing up for someone who doesn’t have a voice, or collecting food or needed resources for people in need, is for me, as close as I get to feeling like a spiritual being.
My daughter, who suffers from separation anxiety, likes to say, “mommy is a lighthouse,” in emphasis of the idea that a lighthouse can protect and guide surrounding ships from a distance. I love this analogy and choose to take it one step further. We can all choose to be a lighthouse- a beacon of light, calm, and dependability- helping to steer each other through stormy waters.
Gratitude as Prayer
For me, there is no better way to pray than by practicing gratitude. If you are currently reading this, you are likely doing so on an electronic device that you are thankful to own, in a house you are thankful to live in, or at a job that you are thankful to have. Life is not perfect. We live in an increasingly scary world. It is easy to focus on the negative, the scary, the unknown. But I am trying to see the world, each day, through grateful eyes.
I am grateful for love, for stability, for peace everyday we have it. I am grateful for the courage to write all of this knowing that there are many people out there who will disagree very strongly with what I have written and may have less than kind words for me. I am grateful that I live in a country where people have the freedom to disagree with what I have written without fear of persecution. I am grateful for the voices that are different than mine because they allow me to look within and clarify my own system of values and beliefs and to broaden my scope of understanding of the world in which we live.
Prayer is many things to many people and it is completely optional. But I don’t think that prayer is akin to “doing nothing.” If we pray in a way that leads us to a place of greater peace, self awareness, gratitude, and right action, then it impacts the way we put ourselves out in the world and better allows us to shine our own lights.
Until next time, I will be praying in my own way for peace, love, and stability for the world.