Drash on Parashat Ki Tisa
Rabbi David Kunin
Jewish Community of Japan
To Pray or Not to Pray
During the last few Shabbatot, I made a change to a usual practice of quite a number of years. Usually, when there was a disaster, whether human or natural, I would mention the victims when we came to the Kaddish at the end of the service. This week I could not do that. While I had always hoped that these statements would lead my congregation to action – reaching out to the victims with more than just the prayers recited – I suspect that they mostly fell on the deaf ears (or at least the impatient ears) of people waiting either to get home or for oneg Shabbat or kiddush lunch. My prayers were in truth no more effective than the “prayers” of politicians who mouth platitudes instead of doing their jobs and effecting real change. Today in the United States gun control is needed not just empty prayers.
Interestingly, when I posted a similar remark on FaceBook a friend challenged me, and my interpretation of prayer. Paraphrasing Yeshayahu Leibowitz, he suggested that prayer was simply about the fulfillment of a mitzvah, with no aim beyond itself. Expecting prayer to lead to action, he suggested, would rob prayer of its religious significance. He also suggested that the removal of morality from religious praxis could help eliminate the false notion that religious observance leads to ethical behavior.
To me, Leibowitz’s understanding that prayer and other mitzvot should not be viewed beyond the simple fulfillment of a commandment is shallow, dangerous and meaningless. Without the ethical and community building components these actions are empty, and indeed a futile waste of time. God does not need prayer and is unaffected by the observance of any of the mitzvot. It is humanity and through us the world that can be changed by our prayers leading to action. It is only when mitzvot are imbued with an ethical and moral dimension that they can be vehicles for Tikkun Olam.
The clarion call for ethical and compassionate behavior is echoed in this week’s parashah. Moses asks God to allow him to experience God’s presence. But, instead of a physical body, thirteen attributes of love and forgiveness are revealed. God has no form, we are taught, but instead can only be experienced through action, and these actions are vehicles of moral teachings. We are commanded (it is a mitzvah) to be loving because God is loving. It is a mitzvah to be forgiving because God is forgiving. God does not exhibit these attributes and observe these mitzvot merely because they are commanded, and neither should we.
This week also marks Purim, a joyous holiday of Jewish survival. When our people faced existential danger prayer was only part of the answer. Esther and her maids fasted and prayed for three days, but they had no expectation that these prayers would transform the day. Instead, following prayer Esther courageously acted and went before the king, ultimately saving her people.
Voices of our tradition teach that prayer does have meaning. It can transform us and help us to connect with the Divine. But prayer is not enough. Prayer must lead to action and social responsibility. As we pray, may it lead us to the realization that it is only through the ability to act that we have been imbued with the power to transform the world.