The Cleansing Power of Prayer

As I write this, the stock market is taking its first halting, spasmodic steps away from the abyss and back towards some kind of healthier state of being. Of course, now that I’ve written that, it will probably go down a few hundred points today just to prove how little I understand how these things really work. I readily admit that. But we do seem to have eased away from the bleakest, most hopeless feeling that we’ve all known these past few weeks.

Actually, one of the very worst days was the eve of Yom Kippur. The rescue package passed by Congress with such fanfare was regarded by the market with a sigh, and instead of responding favorably, stocks tanked drastically.

I had made a conscious effort to avoid talking about the economy during the holidays, mostly out of the conviction that people come to synagogue- particularly on the high holidays- to contemplate loftier, less topical subjects, like life and death and the workings of the world. But as Yom Kippur drew closer, I came to realize that it was not only futile but actually counter-productive to take that position. There was no longer any ignoring the fact that people were in a state of distress, and it was getting in the way of their ability to focus.

I am hardly the only rabbi in America who had to deal with this; we all did. And I suspect that we all drew upon the same sources of inspiration as we sough to minister to the troubled multitudes who poured into our synagogues. Obviously, the core religious values that are enumerated in our sacred literature- values like charity, lovingkindness, visiting the sick comforting the mourner, etc.- these values are timeless and enduing, and will exist for people to embrace long after our stock portfolios are gone. The religious message of these holidays was never clearer, or more timely.

What amazed me personally, however,was the degree to which Yom Kippur was like a soothing balm on the open sore of the very real financial concerns that so many of us carried into the holiday. When I heard our cantor intone the opening words of Kol Nidrei, I closed my eyes and let the words and music wash over me. I don’t think I can possibly describe in words how very comforting that feeling was. It was the first time in days that my mind was free from worrying about college tuitions, retirement accounts and the like. I was never more grateful for our tradition.

Yom Kippur has come and gone, and even with the advent of Sukkot, the financial concerns remain. But I am reminded daily of the things that really are indispensable to my existential well-being, and it is my tradition that reminds me. Money is nice, and certainly helpful. But there are other things that matter more…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.