Recently my wife and I watched some reruns of the “West Wing” TV show from many years ago. In Season1 Episode14 entitled “Take this Sabbath Day,” Karl Malden (On the waterfront, Streets of San Francisco, etc.) plays the parish priest to the President of the United States played by Martin Sheen. Malden counsels the President that God works through human agency. The President prays for wisdom as he allows the execution of a prisoner on death row. Then his Priest hears his confession. My Rabbi, Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue, tells a similar story using a fictitious Goldstein as his foil.
Rabbi Cosgrove gave a sermon about recognizing God’s response to prayer. He told the story of Goldstein living near the ocean and waiting to be rescued after several stormy days of rain and high winds. The waters rose so high that Goldstein was forced to climb onto the roof of his house to avoid the floodwaters; he faithfully prayed to God to save him.
As the waters rose higher and higher, a rescuer in a rowboat appeared, then a rescuer in a speed boat, and finally a rescuer in a helicopter. Each advised Goldstein to get in. “No,” replied Goldstein, on the roof, “I have faith in God, and He will save me.” So, the rescuers in the rowboat, speed boat, and helicopter all went away. Remaining steadfast in his faith, Goldstein on the roof prayed for God to save him. The waters rose higher and higher and Goldstein drowned. Goldstein’s prayer for survival went unanswered.
There is a concept in Judaism called “Pikuach Nefesh” which means to save a life; this concept overrides almost all other Jewish laws. To preserve human life, a Jew can break the laws of Shabbot and even Yom Kippur. One is not merely permitted, one is obligated to ignore a law that conflicts with life or health. “It is a religious precept to desecrate the Sabbath for any person afflicted with an illness that may prove dangerous; he who is zealous is praiseworthy while he who asks questions sheds blood” (Code of Jewish Law). Thus, during this pandemic, Jews are required to take all measures to save their own lives and the lives of people in their community.
Genesis 3:8 says: “And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.” In the early parts of the Torah, God is close and immanent. Today, God is transcendent, and we hope that He is there. There is an infinite gap between hope and proof; and that gap is called faith. But we can connect with God through the vectors of prayer and study. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is frequently quoted as having said, “When I pray, I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me.”
Returning to Rabbi Cosgrove’s story, when Goldstein arrived in heaven, he was angry and marched straight over to God. “Heavenly Father,” he said, “I had faith in you, I prayed to you to save me, and yet you did nothing. Why?” God gave him a puzzled look, and replied “I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what more did you expect? Why didn’t you get on board?” So, Goldstein’s prayers for survival were answered… but he tragically failed to appreciate that today God no longer works miracles through Divine agency; He works His miracles through human agency.
In the TV show Star Trek, Mr. Spock says, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Captain Kirk adds, “Or the one.” During this Coronavirus pandemic, society’s response to restrictions in people’s behavior has become ever more important and limitations on communal and religious gatherings have been enacted. Communal prayer, over Zoom, and personal prayer remain both important and empowering.
So how do our prayers work? Pope Francis has offered a simple explanation: “You pray for the hungry. Then you go out feed them. This is how prayer works.” God is not mentioned. The Pope implies that prayer works when it is accompanied by action. In the Book of James 2: 14-26, in the New Testament, it is stated that “Faith without work is dead.” Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, has said that “Prayer without action is just noise.” I believe that prayer joined with action creates a partnership with God. It is through this partnership between man and God that we strive to repair our world (Tikkun Olam).
In partnership, human agency and God have created the vaccines against polio, smallpox, measles, and now Coronavirus. Human agency and God have produced the guidance to save lives during this epidemic: wearing a mask; social distancing; and vigorous hand washing. Getting close to God through prayer and study is necessary, but during a pandemic, getting close to other people is dangerous and must be avoided until we are all vaccinated. Vaccinations will preserve life and get us back into our Houses of Worship.
Pikuach Nefesh demands that we follow these rules to save our individual lives and to save the lives of our neighbors. God may not be as imminent as he was in Genesis, but He is still here. God wants our prayers but wants us as individuals and congregations to be alive to pray.