Last weekend I served as a teacher at an interreligious peace conference in North Carolina, at a beautiful retreat center at the edge of the Great Smokey Mountains. As we wound down programming on Friday night, word spread throughout the assembled group about the terrorist attacks in Paris.
The juxtaposition of our retreat theme and bucolic setting with the violence on the blood-soaked streets of the French capital weighed heavily on us.
Many of us expressed feeling an intense and confusing rush of emotion, including sadness and concern for the victims and their loved ones; anger at the attackers and their superiors; fear of an escalation of hatred and violence; futility in the face of yet another terror attack carried out in the name of God and religion; and an almost desperate desire to help bring some measure of comfort and healing to our beautiful, but wounded, world.
Among the things that I found most helpful in sorting through my own my jumbled thoughts and feelings were the opportunities -- both planned and spontaneous -- for communal prayer, song, and meditation over the course of the weekend. Sitting with others and simply chanting the word "Shalom/Salaam/Peace" or sharing in silent reflection served for me as powerful ways to express something of my own yearnings, hopes, frustrations, and commitments. Doing so in the company of Jews, Christians, and Muslims struggling to find a peaceful way forward made these experiences all the more poignant.
In unpacking my experience in the days following the retreat, my thoughts turned to the weekly Torah portion, Vayetze. The reading opens with Jacob taking leave of his parents' home after successfully carrying out his elaborate plot to wrest the blessing of the firstborn from his older brother Esau. As the text indicates, "Jacob left Be'er Sheva and set out for Haran (28:10)." As the sun set, he stopped at a nameless place along the way and set up camp for the night. Interestingly, there is an ancient rabbinic tradition (Babylonian Talmud 26b) that it was at this moment that Jacob first established the evening prayer service, known in Hebrew as Arvit or Ma'ariv.
Centuries later, the Hasidic master known as the Sefat Emet (d. 1905), built upon the talmudic teaching that this was a moment of prayer and reflection. He urges us to view Jacob's arrangement of the stones at his makeshift encampment symbolically, understanding it as reflective of an internal process of discernment. Alone at twilight, separated from his family and friends, and nearing the border, Jacob sought to reorient himself physically and spiritually.
Using an insightful wordplay, the Sefat Emet writes that in the midst of his confusion, irbuv, Jacob fashioned the evening prayer service, Arvit (the two words share the same Hebrew letters). Our Hasidic commentator goes on to say that by enacting this evening ritual, Jacob bequeathed to all future generations, particularly those who feel disoriented or dislocated, a nightly opportunity for introspection and renewal. Like the lonely patriarch, we might emerge from such experiences with the recognition that, "God is in this place" (Genesis 28:16), as he proclaimed the next morning.
This is how I felt at the Lake Junaluska retreat last weekend. The opportunities there for music and meditation helped me open my heart and quiet my mind. Unlike Jacob, I had the benefit of being with a community of fellow seekers with whom to process the horrific events in Paris and our reactions to them. The fact that we were a multi-religious group engaging in these practices together was itself a statement of our rejection of the violent triumphalist ideology of ISIS.
Part of what made these devotional experiences so powerful is that the people leading us in song and framing the meditations were attentive to the challenges and possibilities of doing these things in a multi-religious gathering. And there was also time and space for us to engage in our own distinctive prayer practices.
The words of another great Jewish spiritual teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (d. 1972), come to mind in this context: "Prayer is no panacea, no substitute for action. It is, rather, like a beam. It is in this light that we who grope, stumble and climb, discover where we stand, what surrounds us, and the course which we should choose" (Man's Quest for God, p. 8).
Herschel is correct: Prayer is not enough, it must lead to concrete action in the world. But prayer and other contemplative exercises can serve as powerful vehicles for individual and collective reflection, illuminating our path to purposeful action.
Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.