It’s become so routine here in the United States that we have a formula everyone knows: one person commits a horrific mass murder of unsuspecting people living their lives; the news media reports it exhaustively for about 72 hours; politicians spin it to further their own agendas; and most people, having nothing else to contribute, offer “thoughts and prayers” — to the survivors, the victims, and their loved ones. And nothing changes. This was true of Columbine, of Parkland, of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and so many others in just the past decade.
It became an undeniable local affliction when the formula replayed recently as the result of the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. Horrific mass murder, exhaustive reporting… but then there was a markedly different response. Within a few days there was a public promise to introduce legislation to ban the type of semi-automatic weapon used in the shooting, and soon thereafter it was passed into law.
Heralded internationally, that response also nonetheless produced the snarky, bitter comment via Facebook and Twitter: “What, did they even try thoughts and prayers??” It was never more clear how trite that platitude was, and I couldn’t help but feel disdain whenever I heard it, scoffing at the power of prayer to change anything in this world but ourselves.
And then my two-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer.
We kept it quiet at first, not knowing how people would react and not feeling capable of dealing with other people’s emotional responses when we were busy managing our own.
For some reason I found I could deal in stride with the fear of the unknown, the testing, the surgery and recovery, the diagnosis and the unending hours by his side in the hospital. But what finally made me break down in tears was having to communicate the situation to my family and I suddenly found ourselves in, via text and email to my coworkers. It meant opening up to them about something so new and so raw that I wasn’t ready to go public with, but since I work as a synagogue professional I had to make sure that things could run smoothly in my absence.
The phrase “family medical emergency” would only work to obfuscate the seriousness of the situation for a day or two, and so I had to own it and tell a lot of people who normally aren’t privy to my personal life details what was going on. My son has cancer and I need to be with him.
To the credit of my community, everyone from my fellow synagogue professionals, to the lay leaders, to the teachers I supervise, reacted only with love and compassion. When it became clear that I wasn’t immediately coming back to work and would be missing meetings and canceling programs that had been on the calendar for months I gave permission to share what I and my family were going through.
Some of our friends and family had offered to pray to for him — my cousin the Conservative rabbi in Toronto, and our au pair, an Evangelical Christian from South Africa — to name a couple. These people were religious, and prayer was part of their daily lives, so it didn’t seem to be a lot to ask for or something for which they had to go out of their way.
But then I started hearing from the parents of my religious school kids. They wanted so much to help, and didn’t know how. I didn’t know either – once our basic needs of food and child care coverage were met, I had nothing concrete left to ask for, both when they offered their sympathy in person and when they sent me notes of sympathy via email. So they responded to my helplessness and their own helplessness at the situation: they offered their thoughts and prayers.
One parent in particular noted that her offer sounded so cliché, but by then I had taken on a different perspective: thoughts and prayers are only trite when we may have some power to change the situation, and choose not to. The #thoughtsandprayers of our most powerful political figures in the face of violence are the epitome of banal bullshit. The prayers of those who reach out in sincerity, sympathy, and compassion? Those I will accept with humility and gratitude.
So even though I remain deeply agnostic about the power of prayer to heal disease and injury in this world, I appreciate the thoughts and prayers of the faithful, the believers, and the compassionate ones.
And if you feel so moved to add my son by name to your prayers, I welcome that as well. His name is Eitan Navi ben HaRav Sara Chaya v’Lev Chaim HaCohen.