Compassion Leads to Action: Reclaiming Prayer as the First Step to Change

Just Thought is a series of essays from AJWS applying Jewish wisdom to the pursuit of tikkun olam today. Drawing upon Jewish history, Torah sources and the latest headlines, we plumb pressing questions about human rights and global justice from a Jewish perspective through monthly essays by noted scholars, activists and AJWS staff.

“Thoughts and prayers.” It’s the all-too-familiar phrase uttered when tragedy strikes. We hear it from our leaders, we see it on social media feeds from friends, and we offer it ourselves. This phrase has been strongly criticized in the aftermath of the recent wave of tragedies across the world, as many see it as an insincere consolation offered by individuals with no intention to change the status quo.

And yet, thoughts and prayers need not be a hollow gesture. While we know that our thoughts and prayers are no match for action—the hard work required when we want loved ones healed, governments to respond or policy change to happen—our first instinct is to express empathy. This innate desire to sympathize, to reflect, to pray, is intrinsic to what makes us human.

Thankfully, empathy is also what drives us to act. For many people of all faiths, prayer is an important part of our arsenal to achieve change.

The English word “pray” comes from the Latin precari—to beg, to beseech. This transactional notion of prayer is quite common; one desires a change in circumstances, and thus reaches out to a higher power to help realize this desire.

In Judaism, prayer brings about internal transformation, as well. In Hebrew, the act of prayer (tefillah) is described using a reflexive verb, lehitpallel (להתפלל). This reflexive verb comes from the root palal (פלל), “to judge.” The word implies that in prayer we evaluate ourselves, that prayer is an act of self-judgement and personal reflection. But on what basis?

The Book of Genesis, which recounts the Biblical story of the creation of the world, tells us that all people are created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. We can look then, to the way the Jewish tradition describes God as a source for our own personal reflection and transformation.

During the penitential time leading up to and during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Jews around the world recite the middot shel rachamim, or attributes of mercy, a litany of divine attributes drawn from Exodus 34:6-7 that enumerates how God is said to govern the world, or how God imparts justice upon humanity. In a quest to “imitate God,” this may be a good place to start. It says:

“YHVH! YHVH! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. And forgives… (Exodus 34:6-7)

The very first attribute is YHVH, the name of God which traditionally denotes compassion. Perhaps it is listed first because compassion is the first necessary virtue to enable justice in the world. In a just society, compassion serves as baseline in our interactions with others. Acting in the image of God means working from the core assumption that every person deserves our compassion and respect, even before we have said one word to them or know anything about them.

As I repeated these attributes over and over again during the high holidays, I found myself more open to listening to others, embracing new conversations, and approaching all situations with empathy as a baseline. This prayer is particularly impactful to me because, traditionally, it is only recited with a congregation, and not individually. It is as if justice cannot even begin until we jointly—as a community—agree that everyone is worthy of our compassion.

A true “tefillah”—an act of reflective self-examination by one who seeks to emulate compassion and kindness—changes us. Beyond offering thoughts and prayers, the natural next step is to take action to make change in our lives and in the lives of others.

In May, I had the privilege of joining American Jewish World Service (AJWS) as Director of the Midwest Region. AJWS is an organization that I have admired for many years precisely because of its ability to offer a unique blend of hope, compassion and action. The entire organization strategizes and organizes around the principle of compassion as a guiding virtue in our efforts to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable people in the world.

As we come fresh off our holiday season, may we be invigorated by our tradition, energized by our introspection, and most importantly—motivated to action.

Sumit GalhotraBrad Sugar is Director of the Midwest Region at American Jewish World Service and a lifetime nonprofit professional with experience managing, leading and growing institutions. He previously served as Senior Development Executive with American Friends of The Hebrew University and as the Executive Director of Jewish Student Connection. He got his start as a Senior Associate with the Jewish United Fund in Chicago. Brad holds an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, a master’s in Jewish professional studies from Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and a BA in political science from the University of Michigan.

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