Praying or Saying Tehillim in a Crisis: Superstition?

When the three Israeli boys, Gil'Ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel were kidnapped, everyone went into a frenzy. They (we all) needed to "do something." This is very normal.  Most of us, far removed from the situation--even those in Israel who are not connected by family or close friends to the victims--felt helpless in the face of this atrocity.  So I can understand the call to prayer or to say Tehillim.  For people who don't have any other option, it's better than sitting and doing nothing.  I, for one, called my congressperson, in addition to saying Tehillim.  I wrote about it in a blog post and sent it out to everybody.

But do I really believe that saying Tehillim or praying specific tefillot from a siddur will bring them back? Doubtful. There have been "studies" - not controlled, double-blind scientific ones however - which seem to indicate that mass prayer often helps to alleviate a situation, such as helping to heal someone. We say 'with G-d's help.' I myself do, all the time.  I say 'thank G-d,' b'ezrat Hashem' (with G-d's help), 'im yirtzeh Hashem' (G-d willing). These expressions are all part of my daily speech.  But do I honestly believe that we can say Tehillim and the boys will miraculously return? No, I don't.  I believe in action; I believe in the IDF raiding Hamas areas and arresting anyone suspicious who may have been involved or who may have information as to their whereabouts and condition. 

As it's written in the Torah (whether or not it's merely a record of history or a Divine recommendation), Yaakov prepared in three ways (not necessarily listed in order; I'm doing this from memory) when he heard his brother Esav (Esau) was coming with hundreds of men: 1) He divided his camp in half, protecting his family, 2) He prepared gifts for his brother, and 3) He prayed to G-d.
Praying to G-d was just one of the ways he prepared.  He also took action and was pro-active.  Here's the first article I've ever seen (from a religious Jew) with a similar take on this, entitled Prayer Won't Bring Back Our Boys.  Published in The Daily Forward, the author, Leah Bieler, writes:
 When my eldest daughter was three years old, she enjoyed a comfortable morning routine. After breakfast, if she dressed quickly, she was allowed to watch half an episode of “Sesame Street” before heading off to school. Like most three-year-olds, she enjoyed the predictability and sameness of quiet time with Elmo and Grover and Oscar the Grouch. Every morning, she was engrossed, dancing and singing along, blonde ringlets bouncing.
Then, one Monday morning, tragedy struck. Instead of “Sesame Street,” there was a new show on PBS. She was horrified. Tears streaming down her face, she looked up at me and with all earnestness asked, “Ima, why did HaShem have to change the TV schedule?”
The theology of a preschooler is very concrete. God made the world. Something in my world changed. Therefore the creator of the universe must have caused the switch. The end. If she had thought of it, she might even have concocted her own personal prayer.
“HaShem, please use your awesome power to put Sesame Street back on PBS from 8-9AM on weekdays. Blessed are you O Lord, part time network programmer.”
 It's pretty funny. But she does make a point worth pondering:  When we receive such a request: tweet/like on Facebook/blast out an email/pray with a group/say Tehillim en masse, etc. to #BringBackOurBoys, we feel like a pariah if we don't participate and follow through. People look at us askance, implying, 'what sort of person are you that you aren't making an effort to pray with a group and to go to so-and-so's house at 7 where all the women of the neighborhood are saying the entire book of Tehillim, chapter by chapter?!'
Which I did not do, by the way.  I said one chapter of Tehillim by myself, at home, alone.  And then I called my congressperson.

A friend of mine offered me advice when she found out that my DH has lung cancer.  She said I should have my mezuzot checked. Right.

And what about someone, an Israeli, who is secular? How does a chiloni Jew feel about this call to prayer?
Here's another article in Haaretz, called Don't Tell Me to Pray, which offers another way of looking at it. An excerpt:
For a week now, I keep hearing that I should pray for the safe return of the kidnapped teens. But I’m not praying for their safe return. Not because I don’t yearn and hope with all my heart for their safe return. But because I don’t pray. I don’t pray because I’m not a religious person and don’t believe in any form of higher power. I of course respect other people’s right to believe and to pray. But in the past week I’ve come to feel that too many people are not respecting my right. And this lack of respect goes hand in hand with a sociopolitical process with implications that go beyond the realm of faith and religion.
Food for thought. I believe in good intelligence, and action.  If we also want to pray or say Psalms, why not? But merely shuckeling and praying loudly at the Kotel without doing anything concrete in this physical world, in my opinion is not going to do a thing.  It didn't shorten the Shoah, end the Arab war against the nascent state of Israel in 1948 or prevent their expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, nor did it prevent the terrorists from suicide-bombing the Sbarro pizza parlor massacre in 2001, just to name a few instances.

I reiterate: good intelligence, solid military action, and severe consequences for the kidnappers et al.  And if you want to pray--I won't stop you.


Miriam Peskowitz said…
I firmly believe that prayer, both by the individual and as a group, does change the equation. It may not be a one-on-one prayer for a specific goal (i.e return of the boys) that is immediately answered by a miraculous sign from heaven. G-d does not work in this manner. However every action has consequences, some that we only understand much later. In this instance, already we see the fruits of our prayers - greater unity and sense of purpose and pride among Jews throughout the world, comfort and support for the anxious families. This of course does not negate the need to do more in tangible, worldly ways.

Prayer also helps US, affording us an opportunity to do something, especially when we feel otherwise powerless to make a difference.

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