Prayer in Dark Times
'Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat’ (1570) by Flemish painter Simon de Myle (courtesy of JWeekly)
We are all reeling from the attack on Israel on Simchat Torah. Heart-rending stories from Oct. 7 continue to be revealed, with countless videos and photos of those abducted. My friends in Israel tell me about their loved ones who have been killed or called up for service or abducted to Gaza. It is so difficult to bear.
A deluge has washed over us. It is a deluge of information: I spend countless hours poring over news reports, videos and analysis, attending briefings and checking in with loved ones in Israel. And it is a deluge of emotions: sadness, shock, horror, anger, bewilderment and fear — and then more fear for what will come next.
I am thinking about this in terms of a deluge, of course, because of Parashat Noach, which tells the story of the Great Flood. I often think of this story as a metaphor for those times in life when we are flooded by circumstances, suffering or overwhelming emotion. This is obviously such a time.
I am drawn once again to a remarkable piece of commentary on the Torah from the Ba’al Shem Tov. Early in the instructions to Noah to build the ark we find the following: “Make an opening for daylight in the ark … Enter the ark with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives” (Genesis 6:16, 6:18).
On the face of it, this is a simple instruction: Make a window in the ark so that light can come in, even in the midst of the storm. But in the interpretive mind of the Ba’al Shem Tov, this becomes a completely different message, very relevant for these terrible times in our current lives.
The Ba’al Shem Tov plays with the double meaning of the Hebrew word “teivah,” meaning both “ark” and “word” in his commentary:
“The ark of Noah is the word of prayer. ‘Make yourself a window for the ark’: Let the words of prayer be a window through which you see to the ends of the Earth. The window is the ‘light’ in the ark, which is the word. Speak the word in such a way that the inner light shines through it. … ‘Go into the ark, you and all your household’ — enter into the word with all your body, with all your strength” (translated by Arthur Green and Barry W. Holtz in “Your Word is Fire”).
Take these words in as a piece of poetry: The ark is the word of prayer. Imagine yourself entering an ark under the most desperate of circumstances: The Earth is about to be destroyed by flood. Visualize the crowds of animals, the congestion, the din, the stench and the palpable terror. If for a moment you are able to lift your eyes up to the window, you may be able to take in a bit of light.
On the metaphoric level: Envision yourself (easy to do these days) in a situation of intense fear and grief. Our loved ones have suffered an unbearable attack, and now, our Israeli family is retaliating with military action. The Ba’al Shem Tov speaks to us from across the ages, telling us that if we bring ourselves whole-heartedly into the words of prayer, we will reach the light, perhaps even moments of inner peace.
What does prayer mean in times such as these? Many of us do not believe in a God who literally intervenes in response to prayer. My prayer, no matter how fervent, cannot keep Israelis or Palestinians from dying in the coming days and weeks. Nor can I ease the profound hurt, horror and feelings of loss and betrayal in the hearts of Israeli Jews since the Simchat Torah attack or the profound terror and desperation of innocent Palestinians in Gaza. Least of all, I cannot summon God — Superman-like — to swoop down and make my wishes come true.
But prayer, especially when offered with a full heart, can certainly affect me. Prayer can open my heart to my profound desire for the well-being of my brothers and sisters in Israel and to all the people of the region. Words of prayer, especially sung to beautiful melodies in community, can soothe my pain and help me find a solid place in my core. Our requests for help can bring us together as a community, helping us to reach out to one another with gentleness and love as we move through this terribly painful time.
Voicing my wishes, hopes and blessings for the people of Israel and Palestine can help me to open beyond the hard rage so many of us have experienced in the wake of the attack into more understanding and even empathy for those “on the other side.” (I put those words in quotes because I am convinced that, painful as this can be for some to admit, Israel’s well-being is intertwined with that of the Palestinians.)
Finally, I hold open the mysterious possibility that God/The Divine/The Universe/Oneness/The Heart of Compassion does act in the world. Does this seem unlikely? Perhaps. But think about times in your life when love, compassion and healing have unexpectedly broken through hopelessly dark times. I cannot know how or why this works. But I can and do offer my prayer as if it does. I encourage you to do the same.
Adapted from my column posted at the JWeekly, 10/24/23, https://jweekly.com/category/columns/