Rachel Sharansky Danziger
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Praying for more than survival

Committing, in the face of violence and her own fears, to keep terror from stripping away her humanity

It’s me, the empty street, and an Arab passerby.

And the feelings, so familiar from previous seasons of terror, are coursing through me again.

First, wariness: Could this guy be a terrorist?

Then, worry: Should I cross the street? Should I push my kids behind me?

Finally, relief.

He passed us. Nothing happened.

And throughout it all, the shame. For here I am, suspecting a fellow human being of the worst. He may be a wonderful person. Under different circumstances, we might discover that we both like science fiction, or country music, or extra milk in our coffee. We might even become friends. But right now, here in this street of a terror-stricken city, all I can see is a potential threat. I see that he is an Arab, and I am afraid.

And I hate this feeling.

I hate stripping my fellow human beings from everything that makes them who they are. I hate that they are reduced to ethnicity and threat in my emotions. And I hate and regret the pain it must be causing them, as they go about their day shunned and suspected.

And yet. I want to survive. I can’t afford not to be wary and cautious. So regardless of my misgivings, I suspect. 

However, even as I worry, I make a conscious effort to keep my shame and grief alive. As long as I hate this need to be cautious, survival is not my only objective. As long as it saddens me, maybe my ability to believe the best of people won’t be lost.

Because if I lose it, the terrorists win.

Terror attempts to strip away our humanity and values, reduce us into nothing but the desire to survive. Once we are in survival-mode, we become easy prey to the terrorists’s demands. After all, what’s a small matter like national pride, faith, or sovereignty, when our lives are endangered?

Alternatively, our desire to survive can eliminate our humanity. Attack all Arabs, say some. Make them all pay. Why worry about innocence and guilt when our lives are on the line?

I don’t want to give up either my faith or my humanity. Both options will make the terrorists the victors, and me, their vanquished battle-ground.

And so, as I walk the streets of Jerusalem, I weep for the suspicions that separate us. And in my grief, I find my humanity, and hold on.

* * *

In my attempts to transcend survival-mode, I find inspiration in prayer. The very first prayer in history, the prayer for rain, stemmed from the need to survive. But it benefited the entire world. God created the heavens and the earth, explains this week’s Torah portion, but “No herb of the field had yet sprung up; for God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.” (Genesis, 2, 5). There was no rain, explains Rashi, because there was no man to pray for it. In other words, the creation of the world remained incomplete until we prayed.

Adam prayed because he needed food and water. But his prayer achieved so much more than that. It bound together the spiritual and the physical, heaven and earth. It elevated our earthly needs into our conversation with the Almighty, and brought us water from above. It completed the creation of the world, and gave us a role in this process. And as it achieved all that, it defined our role as God’s partners, as creatures of both bodies — and souls.

Our liturgy is based on another very personal prayer that benefited the world. Thousands of years ago, a sad, childless woman entered the Tabernacle to pray. “Only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard,” recalls the book of Samuel. This silent prayer earned Hannah the rebuke and subsequent blessing of the high priest, the birth of the prophet Samuel, and the gratitude of future generations. For in that prayer, Hannah established the model for all of our prayers to this day.

What was so special about Hannah’s personal petition? Why should we emulate this spontaneous expression of a very private need? Perhaps the answer is that Hannah made explicit what was only implied in Adam’s prayer. She prayed because she, personally, craved a child. But she promised to make her son a contribution to the world: “If Thou will indeed look on the affliction of Thy handmaid,” she vowed, “…but will give unto Thy handmaid a man-child, then I will give him unto God all the days of his life.”

When I pray these days, I try to pray like Hannah did. I try to yearn beyond security. I try to recommit to greater purposes. As these greater purposes fill my soul, my own survival becomes a tool, instead of an end. The desire to live no longer comes at the expense of the values that give my life its meaning. And I gain the strength to set my fears aside and walk on, head held high.

* * *

God, help me to survive. Help me to survive so that I can do good.

God, help my loved ones to survive. Help all of us survive. Keep us safe and secure, and we will strive together to be a blessing unto others.

And God, I want this madness to stop. I want my children to grow up in a world where faith and humanity, identity and empathy, thrive side by side. I don’t want them to have to see others as potential threats. I don’t want them to work so hard to balance proper wariness with a love of humanity.

So God, please, bring an end to these seasons of terror. And I promise, oh God Almighty, that if you do, I shall do more than live my life. I will strive to see the best in your creatures, seek the good in all people, smile at them with camaraderie and joy.

And as a token of my devotion, oh God, I will strive to do so even now. I will strive to do so as I walk down the streets of Jerusalem, threatened and afraid, survival ever-present in my thoughts.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and educator who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, history, and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and other online venues, and explores storytelling in the Hebrew bible as a teacher in Maayan, Torah in Motion, and Matan.
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