December Blog Post

By Rabbi Steven Folberg

(remarks made during November 8th press conference)

Dear Friends,

As a rabbi, it's especially striking to me that the commonplace verbal expression of condolence, "we offer our thoughts and prayers," has now become the object of scorn and ridicule, especially on social media. This is in response to the many elected officials who, while steadfastly opposing any common-sense regulation of firearms, have instead offered "their thoughts and prayers" to the victims of the latest mass shooting in Sutherland Springs. I'm afraid I have to agree that this ridicule is well deserved. Prayer is an important part of my life and the life of the Jewish community and tradition, and I take it seriously. Kind thoughts and words, as well, are a blessing to those who are suffering a difficult loss. But the prophets of the Hebrew Bible long ago lost their patience with those who offered prayers and offerings in the Temple but were devoid of concrete, ethical action in their daily lives.

A story is told in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, Israel the son of Eleazar, the founder of Hasidic Judaism in 18th-century Poland. He was once invited to lead the Sabbath prayers in the synagogue of a certain village. He stood on the threshold of the synagogue building, motionless, not crossing the threshold. Finally, someone had the nerve to ask him why he did not enter. He replied, "I cannot enter because the synagogue is full already."

“Full?” the other replied. "There is no one in there, Rabbi."

The Baal Shem Tov responded, "Yes, the synagogue is full, full from wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling. It is filled with all the prayers that have been prayed here and then left behind, never taken out into the world."

You see, there are prayers of words, and there are silent prayers of the heart, but there are also prayers of doing, prayers of action. Indeed, action is a form of prayer. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov himself taught that given mindful, deliberate attention, everything we do in life can be a form of divine service.

So, this press conference is a prayer. Scheduling meetings with our legislators, writing letters, marching in protest – these things are also acts of prayer. Voting for legislators who have pledged to face up to the madness of out-of-control gun violence is a kind of prayer – an affirmation of personal responsibility, an affirmation of life itself.

Let me close with the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish philosopher and social justice activist of the twentieth century. After marching with Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. during the Selma bus boycott, someone asked him what it was like to walk with Doctor King. He responded, "I felt as if my legs were praying."

May we pray the prayer of action and may our prayers bear fruits of safety, healing and life. Amen.


Rabbi Steven Folberg graduated LaSalle University in Philadelphia, Maxima Cum Laude with a Bachelors Degree in Psychology. Rabbi Folberg received his rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion In New York City in 1985. 

Congregation Beth Israel, Austin, TX

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