Shoftim was the first Torah portion I ever read. It contains the famous line “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live.” (Deut. 16:20). When it was read recently in services, a dvar (Torah discussion) was given that pointed out the line is “Shall you pursue.” It’s not “Shall you pray for,” but pursue. We’re commanded to actively work for justice.
Lately, I’ve noticed that many people respond to pleas for help with “I’m praying for you.” There is typically no follow up (public or private) with offers of concrete assistance. Some people are willing to declare that they’re praying for someone, but not willing to do anything more. Prayer is great. So too are meals, donations, hand holding, yard work, rides, letters, cleaning, and meeting many other physical needs.
In my first article in this series, I wrote,
“Our obligation to each other isn’t confined to the synagogue or church walls. We can pray for and be present for anyone regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Often, the best prayer we can offer is our presence. We may comfort ourselves by reciting prayers, but there is a sacredness in showing up.“
This remains true now more than ever. Prayer can help the people left devastated by flooding in Houston. So too can monetary donations, blood donations, and volunteers. Our friends and family in Florida appreciate our prayers. They also appreciate offers of safe places to stay, people to help prepare, donations to organizations that offer support and clean up, and a sympathetic ear. Our friends at shul, church, school, or work appreciate being kept in our prayers. They also appreciate phone calls to check on them, offers to watch children, help carrying groceries from the car, help holding a fussy baby, help mowing their lawns, and so much more.
In Judaism, there are some prayers that we’re not allowed to say alone. Only when we’re surrounded by others can we recite them. These are often prayers of mourning where the person needs extra support and love. Judaism acknowledges that the needs of those are best met through the combination of prayer and community.
Prayer can be wonderful. It can be a way to help us focus our love and positive attention that on that person. It can be a great support to know someone is keeping you in their thoughts and prayers. It is also wonderful to know someone is there to hold your hand, offer a ride, bring a meal after surgery, help straighten up after a new baby is born, help move, or volunteer.
Our prayers need not be limited to our words or thoughts. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I learned to pray with my feet.” So too can we pray through the pursuit of justice. A mowed lawn for an elderly neighbor is a prayer for their well-being. A ride to a doctor appointment for a friend after surgery is a prayer for that person’s healing. A donation to a food pantry is a prayer for the hungry. A hug for a friend is a prayer for their happiness. An hour spent volunteering is a prayer for those in need. We can pray for justice through our words, our presence, and our actions.
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