David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam
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כעבור סופה After the storm: How should we pray?

Praying for strength creates strength, and may help humanity confront the storm fatigue that's on the horizon

Last year was a record year for catastrophic hurricanes, and more are yet to come. This year of 2018, beginning with Florence, may be another one.

After hurricanes and natural disasters, people find meaning in sharing prayers for the victims. But most of these prayers do not acknowledge that we are partly responsible for worsening storms because we are responsible for climate change (disruption is a more accurate term). After Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and New York, I wrote a brief prayer that acknowledged if we want to help future victims of hurricanes, we need to address climate disruption, not just donate to the Red Cross.

After Hurricane Harvey in Texas and the floods in Bangladesh in 2017, I reworked that prayer, with the help of, to respond to natural disasters like storms and floods made worse by human actions. 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…

I don’t think anyone expected the next major storm, Hurricane Irma, to come within a fortnight of Hurricane Harvey, followed in less than a week by Hurricane Maria.  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. We need to pray for that strength, because praying for strength is one way to create strength.

I have always wavered about whether it mattered to write a prayer or poem in response to a political or humanitarian crisis. A prayer in synagogue might make us feel better, but feeling better may not be what we need. A prayer at political rallies can feel more like politics than prayer.

If one believes that prayer has a theurgical impact – that it can bring divine intervention – then such prayers would risk of making us feel like we have already done something to help. If one does not believe that, such prayers can become empty gestures that could placate people into forgoing practical responses to a crisis.

At some point, I became disillusioned about writing such prayers because of this conundrum. 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.

Hurricane Harvey
Infrared image, Hurricane Harvey, NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, (public domain)

On the other hand, if one regards recycling as a kind of ritual that embodies a prayer to do more and to transform our world, then recycling can be indeed meaningful. The same is true for prayer itself.

There are three circumstances where prayer might matter more. One is when we are so distant from a crisis, or so disempowered to change things, that there is little we can do but pray. In that case, believing in the value of prayer or 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 is happening.

This is the kind of prayer we say for someone who is sick. 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, and where prayer itself can be not just an act of protest but an act of defiance. The tricky thing about that kind of prayer is that it can become theater, and it is liable to be exploited by people who for whom prayer is only another protest technique.

Neither of these describes the circumstance of praying as a response to the damage caused by a hurricane.

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 is what has been predicted or worse  – storms like Harvey and Maria 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 have done – you are part of the we that depends on this civilization that is using up many millennia of sunlight stored in fossil fuels and letting loose the waste products of that process in a few decades.

It is easy to ignore such things, to bathe in the good and meaningful feelings aroused by our compassion, which we need to do – especially when faced with human tragedy.

But what will happen when we face storm exhaustion, storm fatigue? As I wrote in the first version of this article, “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.

I’m happy and proud to report that in my community right after Maria, Beit Ahavah and the Florence Congregational Church gathered a tremendous outpouring of love and donations that brought over $80,000 of water purifiers and solar lanterns to Puerto Rico.

But we don’t yet know how many hurricanes we will be facing this season. 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. More specifically, we need to be prepared to overcome that eventuality.

That’s 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 another from the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, asking for help in finding 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.

About the Author
Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. David is also the Shmita scholar-in-residence at Abundance Farm in Northampton MA. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and an acclaimed English translation of Eikhah ("Laments"). David also teaches nigunim and is a composer of Jewish music and an avid dancer.
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