When Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and New York, I wrote a brief prayer that acknowledged that if we want to help future victims of hurricanes, we need to address climate change, not just donate to the Red Cross. For the past two weeks I have reworked that prayer, with the help of opensiddur.org, to respond to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and the floods in Bangladesh. It includes these lines:
We are all responsible,
whether by necessity or by our choices,
for the disruption of the climate
that would intensify this deadly storm,
as we are responsible for its healing.
We seek the strength to accept our responsibility now
to help those harmed by the storm, and to persist
in helping in the face of coming storms…
However, I don’t think anyone expected the next major storm, Hurricane Irma, to come within a fortnight.
Now, and from now on, we are going to need strength to help not just one storm’s victims, but to help storm after storm after storm. And so we need to pray for that strength, because praying for strength is one way to create strength.
I have never been sure until now if it mattered to write a prayer or poem in response to a crisis. A prayer in synagogue might make us feel better, but feeling better may not be what we need. If one believes that prayer has a theurgical impact — that it can bring divine intervention — then such prayers stand the risk of making us feel like we have already done something to help. Even without that belief, such prayers can still be mere gestures that seduce people into forgoing practical actions to respond to a crisis.
At some point I became disillusioned about writing such prayers because of this conundrum. The more you believe in prayer, the more likely it is that prayer could have a negative impact on how you respond. It’s kind of like getting disillusioned about recycling: doing it makes people think they have done “their share” for the planet, when in fact the impact of recycling in most cases is negligible compared to the overall damage our lifestyle inflicts upon the Earth.
On the other hand, if one regards recycling as a kind of ritualized act that embodies a prayer to do more and to transform our world, then recycling is indeed meaningful. The same is true for prayer itself.
There are three circumstances where prayer might matter more, and where it might have less possibility of bringing harm. One is when we are so separate from a crisis, or so disempowered to change things, that there is little we can do but pray. In that case, believing in prayer and in its theurgical impact can strengthen us to stay engaged with whatever crisis is unfolding, instead of shutting it out or becoming resigned to what it happening.
This could describe the kind of prayer we say for someone who is sick, and it could also describe the kind of prayer one would say in the middle of a storm, when the focus is simply on the hope that people will survive. Alden Solovy wrote that kind of a prayer for people who were facing the onslaught of Harvey.
A second circumstance would be in a time when dissent is being repressed, where prayer itself can be an act of protest against a dominant ideology or norm. The tricky thing about that kind of prayer is that it can become theater, and it is liable be exploited by people who for whom prayer is just another protest technique. I often run into this kind of prayer at political rallies, and it can feel more like politics than prayer.
Neither of these fully describes the circumstance of praying as a response to the damage caused by Harvey.
The third circumstance is when prayer can actually change how we respond. The question is this: how can prayer shape our actions to allow us to be more effective and powerful in standing up for what matters and facing what is frightening? I think that well describes prayers offered by my colleagues Naomi Levy and Menachem Creditor.
But there is a bigger challenge to face than just whether and how we can help victims of this hurricane, or the next one.
If scientists are right — and so far we are seeing what has been predicted or worse — storms like Harvey will become the norm instead of the exception, in large part because of the very oil industry that was momentarily shut down by Harvey’s fury. And we are all complicit in this crisis, no matter how we try to live, because if you are reading this — whether or not you recycle, compost, or even drive a biodiesel, as I do — you are part of the we that depends on a civilization that is using up the energy of many millennia of sunlight stored in fossil fuels and letting loose the waste products of that process.
It is easy to ignore such things and to bathe in the good and meaningful feelings aroused by our compassion, which we need to do — especially when faced with human tragedy.
But we will face storm exhaustion, storm fatigue, perhaps even as soon as the week after Irma, when good people will have used up what resources they think they can spare for saving these refugees or those towns. And more and more often, we will face not just storm fatigue, but wildfire fatigue intensified by drought, famine fatigue intensified by crop loss, refugee fatigue intensified by floods and resource wars, even extinction fatigue, all of which are consequences of climate disruption.
So we need to prepare for that eventuality, and more specifically, we need to be prepared to overcome that eventuality.
That is why a more expansive prayer in response to these storms matters, and that is why I composed a prayer for “after the storm.” It is our era’s misfortune that we have many decades ahead of us where we will need such prayers. And we need to build up our prayer muscles, and our compassion muscles, so that we can make it through everything with our compassion, our communities, and our democracy and freedom intact.
The prayer concludes with a line from Parshat Ki Tavo and a line from the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, a prayer that we can find our way, and I invite you to pray it right now:
Help us choose the path of life rooted in justice,
for the just establish the world,
in order that the promise will be upheld through us
for our children and our children’s children,
“Blessed will you be in the city,
blessed will you be in the field”,
so that we will not be lost quickly
from off the good earth.