Late last month, Kevin Smith, patron saint of bearded nerds everywhere, suffered a massive heart attack. Thankfully, he survived, and, lying in his hospital bed, passed the time by sharing a photo of himself on Twitter, looking bewildered but happy to be alive. The actor Chris Pratt responded with kind words. “Kevin” he wrote, “we don’t know each other too good but I have loved you since Clerks and I’m praying my ass off for you cause I believe in the healing power of prayer. Can you please pray with me people!?” Attached were two emojis, one of hands clasped in prayer and the other of a heart.
You’ll be shocked to hear that Twitter, that peaceable haven of calm and goodwill, erupted in outrage and scorn. “That’s cool and everything,” one of Pratt’s followers tweeted back contemptuously, “but Doctors and nurses save lives not prayer.” Many more soon followed suit, deriding the idea of prayer as not only primitive but also somehow grossly negligent: Praying, the online mob seemed to argue, is something you do when you’re too inept or lazy to actually solve a problem.
It’s hardly a new sentiment. These days, politicians and public figures can hardly express their sympathies in the wake of a tragedy before being denounced online as hypocrites and do-nothings. On Facebook, for example, a post went viral earlier this month when someone shared a photo of a check he was sending House Speaker Paul Ryan in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting: Instead of a sum, the check read simply “thoughts and prayers.”
It’s dispiriting, to say the least, to see prayer so profoundly misunderstood. How does prayer work? Why is it good? It hardly makes sense to address these questions empirically, but the following story might help.
It was a few days before Yom Kippur, and the students of Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol came to him with a burning question. “Rabbi,” they pleaded, “the day of atonement is almost upon us. Could you kindly teach us how to atone?”
To their surprise, the rabbi refused. “Zusha doesn’t know how to atone,” said the Hasidic master, who always spoke of himself in the third person, believing that “I” was a pronoun reserved only for God. “But Moishele the shoemaker knows. Go and ask him.”
The students were shocked. Moishele was a crass man who hadn’t studied Torah a day in his life; what could he possibly know that the righteous sage didn’t? Still, intrigued, the students decided to head out to Moishele’s house.
Arriving at the humble home, the students hid in the bushes and peered in. They were just in time: Having just finished his simple supper, Moishele commanded his daughters to bring him the books, and the girls returned a moment later with two volumes: one large and bound in fine leather, the other small and tattered, no bigger than a notebook. Moishele took the small one in his hands and opened it.
“God,” he said, “I will now read to you an account of my sins.” And so he did: that time he overcharged for a pair of shoes, that time he lost his temper with his children—mostly the mundane stuff of everyday life. When he was done, he put the notebook down and picked up the larger, fancier book.
“And now, God,” he added, “I will read to you an account of your sins.” These were much graver: the family that perished from hunger in the next village over, the plague that killed scores in the nearest town, the war raging across the border that had claimed the lives of thousands.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Moishele said to the Almighty, looking heavenward. “If you forgive me my sins, I’ll forgive you yours.”
Touched by the shoemaker’s wisdom, the students rushed back to see their rabbi, and, excitedly, told him everything they’d seen. When they were done, Zusha started weeping bitterly.
Confounded, the students stood there for a few moments, until one of them finally gathered up the courage to ask the rabbi what was wrong.
“Don’t you see?” Zusha wailed. “Moishele had God in the palm of his hand. He could’ve brought him to justice, but instead, he let him go.”
That is the true power of prayer. It’s not a plaintive plea, like a child begging a parent for a doodad or a treat. Instead, it’s a conversation, at the heart of which is a deeply complex idea: that God and Man are intertwined, each having the power to foil the other’s plans, each needing the other’s faith for life to go on. This is what the Mishnah meant when it taught us that “everything is foreseen and permission is granted”: God, knowing and seeing all, nevertheless leaves us room to exercise our free will, and by doing so we have the power to bring his divine plan to fruition or lay it to waste. This is why prayer is so powerful. It’s a conversation between two unequals who are trying to work together and bring solace and joy to a world in dire need of both.
When we send our thoughts and our prayers, then, we aren’t merely paying lip service while avoiding action. Instead, we’re reminding ourselves and each other that while disasters may befall us every now and then, we have the capacity, practically and spiritually speaking, to rise up and heal.
Those of us who pray don’t believe for one moment that our words will open clogged arteries, remove malignant tumors, or stop infection. But we know, as Zusha knew, that even at our weakest we’re never helpless: We’ve the power to grapple with God and demand that good vanquish bad. It’s why more and more physicians are growing interested in the connections between faith and well-being. Dr. Gail Ironson, for example, an AIDS researcher at the University of Miami, was surprised to find that, among her patients, “people who felt abandoned by God and who decreased in spirituality lost their CD4 cells 4.5 times faster than people who increased in spirituality. That was actually our most powerful psychological predictor to date.” Even accounting for medications, Dr. Ironson added, “spirituality predicts for better disease control.”
Again, this is not to suggest that we all skip our physicals and expect the Almighty to keep us healthy, but nor should we dismiss the power of the spirit to uplift this mortal coil. And if you are still skeptical of thoughts and prayers, know at least that Pratt’s did not go to waste: Kevin Smith, hallelujah, is rapidly recovering at home.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.