Jewish tradition warns against invoking a vain blessing, which it calls a b’racha l’vatala. The Talmud insists that prayerful words should matter deeply, and we diminish their power when we utter them falsely.
Let me offer a few examples. Expectant parents should not pray for a boy or a girl, since we know that this is genetically determined at conception and one’s prayers and petitions cannot change that reality. Similarly, upon hearing a siren or seeing a firetruck passing by, one should not pray: “Please, not my house.” It’s already a done deal — and besides, such a prayer implicitly wishes the ill to be upon others. One should instead pray for the health and welfare of all concerned, wherever the crisis is unfolding. Finally, one should not offer a blessing over bread and then decline to eat. To utter the words with proper intention, one must follow through on the action.
I’ve thought a lot about this principle in the days following the horrific school shooting in Florida. Once again, we’re hearing the usual litany of Republican politicians — starting with our president — offering up their “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families.
This is the epitome of a vain blessing, which only cheapens genuine prayer. This expression, coupled with these politicians’ adamant refusal to take any significant action to stop the bloodshed, makes an utter mockery of faith and decency.
Yes, we can and must grieve. And pray. But our grief and prayer should compel us to act. We must not acquiesce and accept America’s gun violence as normal — because it isn’t. Nearly two dozen children die of it each day. This is unprecedented in the developed world — appalling and unacceptable, because it could be significantly curtailed with legislative action.
It is a sham and a sin for us to offer our thoughts and prayers while supporting the obstructionist efforts of the National Rifle Association, continuing to allow the purchase of assault rifles, and making guns easier to attain and use than a license to drive a car. Such hypocrisy is the vainest of blessings — a slap in the face of the God of Life.
If you want to pray after the Parkland shootings, consider offering this plea to the Holy One, written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson:
God of Proms and Finals,
Source of first jobs and kisses,
You who grant homecomings and great dorm buddies,
How we have betrayed you yet again!
You trust us with our children
yet our twisted obsession with power
and our paranoid evasion of fixing what is broken
in the face of yet another mass murder,
to do nothing.
Forgive us, God, for the sin
of daring to offer consolation when for months
we’ve done nothing.
Forgive us, Holy One, for the sin
of praying for the victims
when our passivity is already breeding doom for others.
Forgive us, Source of Life, for the sin
of merely wringing our hands,
for retreating into indifference and helplessness,
when we know that Your service
and serving those countless victims of gun violence
mandates that we
Don’t pray for the victims, act!
And if we must pray,
let us pray for the stain on our own souls
for our callousness,
to the peddlers of guns
and the fanatical phalanx of their apologists.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.