Prayer Won't #BringBackOurBoys

Why Do We Resort to Reciting Psalms at Moments of Crisis?

Beseeching: A Jewish student prays for the three teenagers believed to have been kidnapped by militants.
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Beseeching: A Jewish student prays for the three teenagers believed to have been kidnapped by militants.

By Leah Bieler

Published June 17, 2014.

When my eldest daughter was three years old, she enjoyed a comfortable morning routine. After breakfast, if she dressed quickly, she was allowed to watch half an episode of “Sesame Street” before heading off to school. Like most three-year-olds, she enjoyed the predictability and sameness of quiet time with Elmo and Grover and Oscar the Grouch. Every morning, she was engrossed, dancing and singing along, blonde ringlets bouncing.

Then, one Monday morning, tragedy struck. Instead of “Sesame Street,” there was a new show on PBS. She was horrified. Tears streaming down her face, she looked up at me and with all earnestness asked, “Ima, why did HaShem have to change the TV schedule?”

The theology of a preschooler is very concrete. God made the world. Something in my world changed. Therefore the creator of the universe must have caused the switch. The end. If she had thought of it, she might even have concocted her own personal prayer.

“HaShem, please use your awesome power to put Sesame Street back on PBS from 8-9AM on weekdays. Blessed are you O Lord, part time network programmer.”

This story is floating through my mind recently, as email, Twitter and Facebook are filled to the brim with requests to say tehillim, psalms, for the three Israeli boys abducted last week. As a religious person, I completely identify with the need to cry out to God when tragedy strikes, and even more so when outcomes are uncertain and precious lives are at stake. There is immense comfort in praying together with Jews all over the world, asking for mercy and doing something, anything, when we feel truly helpless.

But the tone of these appeals goes beyond a need to connect in a moment of calamity. There is a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle accusation. Why are you not reposting? Exactly how many tehillim have you recited? Are you certain you’ve said enough? Say these psalms, or else. You will be responsible for whatever happens. Unless of course, something wonderful happens. In which case all glory goes to those Jews who put their heart and soul into non-stop recitations and hashtag sharing.

Years ago, a friend died unexpectedly, leaving behind two young children. At the shiva, I overheard women discussing how she should have had her mezuzahs checked, the implication being that she hastened her own death by virtue of being less than punctilious in her observance of mitzvot. Much like the self-help books that claim that a positive outlook can cure cancer, or that wearing the perfectly modest skirt will make you immune to assault, these attitudes all have one thing in common. They put the onus on the victim to magically prevent tragedy, because God will reward proper behavior, and punish missteps.



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