We often hear after a tragedy, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” What does it mean that "our prayers are with you," in particular after one loses a limb due to a spineless terrorist attack against innocent civilians? The innocent person's life is changed forever. What does this mean in Judaism?
Your question speaks to the impotence and anger that all of us feel in the presence of terrible harm or injury that we do not know how to heal. You are quite right of course that no words can bring back a lost limb or a shattered life and that sometimes people seize on platitudes in order to avoid the hard work of trying to comfort those who suffer. We need to try harder not to do this.
Nevertheless, I think that most people who say things like “our thoughts and prayers are with you” are not trying in any way to minimize your loss but to find words that are appropriate—saying enough, but not too much. Like you, they know that words alone cannot heal (too many words can be a burden), but they also know that this does not give them the right to say nothing or to foreswear their solidarity with another person—particularly one who has suffered great loss. When they say that thoughts and prayers are with someone, it really means, “we are not ignoring your pain, even though we cannot end it; we are thinking of you and maybe even praying for help that is beyond our capacity to give.” I don’t think this is a specifically Jewish sentiment, it is just the way people in our society try to acknowledge hardship in an honest way, insufficient though it may feel.
It is difficult, but I would try not to be too judgmental of people who seek to help, even if they do say something awkward or something that does not resonate with your own sensibilities. You might even try to think about and articulate (to yourself or to them) what is it about their well-wishes that hurts you. Is it that you do not think they mean it? Or is it that even though they are sincere, you think they are telling you something untrue (prayer won’t bring back a limb that has been lost)? Most people are at a loss because they do not know what to say. They just want to affirm that they care.
This is important, because being part of a community does help to heal. It won’t bring back a limb, but it may help to restore a sense of purpose and potential for happiness in one’s life, and even help one’s body to recover from trauma. Whatever other power it may hold, this is also one of the fundamental reasons we pray as part of a community for people who are ill or hurt. We ask God to help them, and in so doing we also let them know that we want to help them ourselves.
I do not know if this question comes from a personal experience or not, but may God grant us all the healing that we need, in body and in spirit. And may God grant us also the wisdom and compassion to know how to come to one another’s aid in words, in deeds and when necessary in silence.
This question is an excellent one as it addresses what tools do we have to respond in the face of tragedy, recognizing, that most of us don’t have the actual tools to do what we really desire, which in this question, is to replace the lost limb, turn time back, and allow the person to continue as if the attack didn’t happen. None of us have a magic wand so we can’t do that, but we can do something else. We can, through our words and our thoughts, and our presence, demonstrate empathy and show that the prayers of our tradition, are with you (parenthetically, if you want them to me), during this tragic time.
In the Talmud, in Berachot 5b we read the following:
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba fell ill and Rabbit Yohanan went in to visit him. He said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand and he raised him. Rabbi Yohanan once fell ill and Rabbi Hanina went in to visit him. He said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand and he raised him. Why could not Rabbi Johanan raise himself (since we know that he had raised up Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba)? — They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.
You see, at a time of tragedy what people need is companionship and the knowledge that they are not alone, even if the presenting problem can’t be fixed.
I liken this to the “mi sheberach” prayer often said during services when the Torah is out. When I visit someone in the hospital or I hear that someone is ill, I always ask if they would like their name recited on this list. I don’t recite their name simply because by doing so I can ensure that they will get better (in fact we know that that won’t always happen) but what I can ensure is that their situation is present in our minds. I believe that the prayers that we offer are ones that help the person find the comfort they need to move through their grief as they go from stage to stage.Hopefully these prayers lift them (and their loved ones) up, just as Rabbi Yochanan was able to lift up Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba.
As a modern Jew I believe in God but I don’t depend on God to fix all that is bad (or to create all that is good). If I believed in that world than the world I see wouldn’t look like it does. Rather, I believe that we live in a world where God’s actions can be seen through the good of people. As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, “God is in the work of those who offer comfort, those who help with money, with time, with concern. We find God, and we respond to suffering by engaging in work that will better humankind.” Therefore, when we say “our prayers are with you” I believe that we are affirming the sanctity of the person in front of them, that we hope that our religious tradition will bring them the comfort that they are seeking, comfort that only they can truly articulate.
In the face of tragedy, we often find ourselves wanting to respond. We see others suffering—be it from natural disaster or from violence in the world—and we want to help. One way that we do so is through offering our thoughts and prayers to those who are directly affected. It can be powerful and comforting for one who is suffering to know that others are thinking of them. As for what we mean when we say that are prayers are with them, I think it generally means that we’re praying for healing for those people (and their families and friends) and for their community.
Prayers for healing are not necessarily prayers for recovery; nor are they limited to the physical. When we pray that someone come to a refuah shleimah, a healing of wholeness, we realize that even when a complete recovery is not possible, we are asking that those who are suffering come to an inner peace within themselves, an acceptance of that which has been lost, and a sense of peace between them and the world. For someone who has suffered in this way, they need heeling in many ways—not just the physical. We pray for their emotional, mental, and spiritual healing, as well.
Even if their life will never be the same as it was before, we pray that they are able to move forward with their life, even in the new reality.
In addition, I think that in the case of terrorism or violence, we also add additional prayers for peace. We pray that we come to a time when there are no longer terrorist attacks or senseless violence. I think that those sentiments are often a part of the prayers that we offer others who have just suffered as a result of such acts.
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