When violent and hateful acts roil  the world, many leaders share that the victims are in their “thoughts and prayers.” The phrase has become an empty slogan for many, seen as just an excuse for inaction, or a passive wish that God will solve problems that we don’t want to address. But the Jewish traditions that I know always link prayer to action. I’ve been reflecting and teaching on this topic in recent weeks.

Pole with words in different languages about peace

Peace Pole at Seaside Jewish Community

Here are some things that I’ve learned about the link between prayer and action in Jewish tradition.

First, there are many customs and practices that link prayer with action. At a traditional weekday minyan, tzedakah is collected. The Shulchan Aruch (major Code of Jewish Law) states that one must give tzedakah before praying. My teacher, Reb Zalman, taught us to always give tzedakah when we prayed for people’s healing, with the idea of, “put your money where your mouth is.” I also learned that if we are praying for someone who is ill, we should visit them (and conversely, when visiting them we should prayer for them—even a wish of Refuah Shelemah, a speedy recovery, is a type of prayer).

During the Days of Awe (a.k.a. the High Holy Days), even children learn that we can’t pray to God for forgiveness with first making amends with the person we have wronged. And the High Holy Day liturgy calls us to Teshuvah (repentance), Tefilah (prayer), and Tzedakah (charity). Note how prayer is wedged between two kinds of action.

A second way that Judaism ties together prayer and action is that prayer can give us the strength to act. Prayer services are a time to connect with others, be sustained, celebrate or mourn, and then be restored to act.

In Judaism, prayer is linked to responsibility. The very word to pray, “li-hitpalel” means to examine oneself, to judge oneself.  Brad Sugar of American Jewish World Service, writes, “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.’”

Finally, Jewish tradition teaches that sometimes action itself is the best prayer. One of the most famous quotations from the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, theologian and social activist, who marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of this when he said “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

I recently learned from from a Black colleague, the Rev. Marjorie Burns that, Rev. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and statesman, had used the same phrase in a different way. He said, “When I was a slave I tried praying for three years. I prayed that God would emancipate me, but it was not till I prayed with my legs that I was emancipated.” But we could also go all the way back to the Torah (Exodus 14:15) to find something similar:  “The Eternal said to Moses: Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and have them go forward.” The Talmud (Sotah 37a) explains that this happened on the verge of the splitting of the Sea:

At that time, Moses was prolonging his prayer. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me? Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, but what can I do? God said to him: “Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand” (Exodus 14:15–16).

There are some of the many ways Jewish tradition (and beyond) teaches that thoughts and prayers should lead to action. Let me know in the comments if and how prayer and action are linked for you.