Why I’m Tired of Praying for Peace

We moved into Shabbat last week with the news of the attacks in Paris on our minds. The multiple coordinated slayings — in restaurants, in a concert venue, outside a soccer stadium — which resulted in over 120 killings, was shocking. I was sick to my stomach following the news, reacting with a mix of disbelief, horror and sadness as each new detail emerged. Now we see the reaction and investigation unfold as the perpetrators are identified and responses planned.

As a rabbi, in hearing such news, the first instinct is prayer. I even wrote that on my Facebook status: “Prayers for Paris this Shabbat. Shabbat shalom.” My colleague Ruth Abusch Magder shared a beautiful prayer by Alden Solovy in this space earlier, and I was immediately drawn to pray for peace.

But maybe it was a good thing I was away from my congregation this past Shabbat because I couldn’t bring myself to utter prayers of peace. The extent of the death and violence was too raw and immediate. Rather, my first prayers were for comfort and grief for the families and friends of those who lost loved ones, and the people of Paris and France who must now deal with the violation of their safely and security.

And I also pray for acceptance.

I pray to accept the fact that there will always be people who wish to kill others because of ideology. That there will always be people who dehumanize others for the sake of an idea. For as we absorb the enormity of these attacks, and the ones in Beirut just a few days prior, one in Nigeria just yesterday, and the constant fighting around the world, the thought that we may not attain peace rises within me.

One of the teachings from the Torah that resonates so deeply with me is from Deuteronomy. In addressing social justice, in a vision of hope and redemption, the Torah teaches “There shall be no poor among you; for God shall greatly bless you in the land which God gives you for an inheritance to possess it.” (Deut. 15:4). But a few verses later the Torah teaches, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying, you shall open your hand wide to your brethren, to your poor, and to your needy in your land.” (Deut. 15:11)

Which one is it? Will there be poor people or won’t there? These statements appear to be contradictory. But perhaps not, perhaps they are complementary. While we hope that there will be no poor, we must face the reality that this may not be true, that we will always have needy people among us. We can maintain the vision of the elimination of poverty, but we can’t live there. Rather we need to live in the reality of the persistence of poverty, and do what we can to address it, to at least work towards that vision.

Will we live in a time that sees the elimination of hatred, and violence, and terror? While we hope so, we must face the reality that this may not be true. In witnessing recent events a deep dread tinged with pessimism rises within me. I feel that unfortunately this is the human condition, and that the desire for destruction will never cease from the land. I hate to feel this way. I hate to not want to utter prayers for peace, but I don’t feel like prayer is what is needed now.

If prayers for peace won’t get us to redemption, acts of peace may at least bring us closer. We accept reality, but hold onto the vision. If we open up our hearts and our hands to our neighbors, if we disavow violence in our own lives, if we are able to connect with, understand and accept those that are different from us, if we are able to put our fellow human beings above ideology, then maybe we can at least affect our worlds, our circles of influence.

I’m tired of praying for peace. We mourn the violence, the loss of life, the injury. And while overwhelmed by the enormity of it, let us focus on the small gestures we can do to help bring about the world we desire.

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