Jewish Slacktivism, Part I

I love the English language. New words get invented on a regular basis to keep up with the ever-changing trends and events that we see in our modern lives. One excellent example of such a word is “slacktivism.” This word was a result of the many campaigns and causes on social media. For instance, you might be instructed to change your profile picture to identify with a certain cause, or to “like and share” a post—ostensibly to support finding a cure for a specific disease or to express solidarity behind a specific group. The slightly mocking and sarcastic term “slacktivism” refers to the fact that you felt much better about really doing something and being involved when in fact, you didn’t do anything more than press a button.

It occurred to me that we have slacktivism in the Jewish world as well.

One of the most meaningful and transcendent prayers that exist in our liturgy is the Prayer for Healing, often referred to as The Misheberach. What sets this particular prayer apart is its very nature as a personal entreaty on behalf of someone who is close to us. So much of what we find in the Siddur is written in the first person, plural form. “Help us, God,” “Give us your blessings.”

Here we have the chance to single out one individual who is in need of help and support. Not only healing, refuah, but actually making that person whole again, refuah sh’leimah.

There are many ways in which this prayer is traditionally recited in the service, but the most common way is to include it as part of the Torah service. There’s an added sense of gravitus when the Torah is present, almost as if God’s presence is more tangible. Someone who wishes to recite this prayer for healing might be invited to come up at the proper time and provide the person’s Hebrew or English name, so that this very personal detail may be weaved into the otherwise fixed text.

Something wonderful and powerful happens at that moment.

The member of the congregation feels the support of the community—as if that person is saying to everyone, “Someone who is close to me is ill. I need to have as much support around me as possible to help us get through this.” Often, upon hearing the name of the person who is in need of healing, other people might approach this worshipper and express concern, support, and love. It’s a moment of vulnerability and an expression of need.

Unfortunately, the Misheberach prayer has become formulaic and has lost its impact, in some part due to the actions of well-meaning synagogues and other organizations that maintain a “Misheberach list” of some type. People might be invited to contact the temple office and ask for a name to be recited during the next service. To me, this completely misses the point of this powerful prayer.

Prayer is not something we can outsource. The Hebrew word for “pray,” l’hitpalel, is a reflexive verb, implying that we pray to change ourselves more than to effect some external outcome. When we recite the Prayer for Healing, it’s more about seeking the support of our Jewish community rather than truly expecting some supernatural miracle from above.

If you call the synagogue office and simply leave a name on the voice mail, you’ve become a Jewish slacktivist—you think you’ve accomplished something without making any real effort. Instead, you could have come to services and recited the Prayer for Healing along with the congregation. Even if attending services is impossible for whatever reason, you might have asked for a copy of the prayer—whether in Hebrew or English—so that you could personally recite it.

You can’t experience the power of congregational support by adding a name to a list.

Stay tuned for Part II of Jewish Slacktivism.

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