Last Shabbat in Netanya, Israel, a minyan of ten men gathered outside a Libyan synagogue in order to pray. Everyone was two meters away from each other, was standing outside in an open area and was wearing a mask in accordance with the Israeli Ministry of Health guidelines. However, one woman yelled from her balcony that the noise was disturbing her and asked that they stop praying. At that point, one of the worshipers yelled back, “If you do not like it, go to Tel Aviv. Here, we are religious and care about our faith.”
As someone who lives in front of a Libyan synagogue, I have greatly enjoyed listening to the Mizrahi Shabbat morning prayer service from my window, without even having to leave my home. For me, it is an amazing experience. Since I have three small children all under age five, it is usually virtually impossible for me to attend Saturday morning prayer services, for I must watch the children as my husband goes to pray. However, since the coronavirus plagued our world, I have enjoyed the fact that the synagogue service was moved outdoors and now, I can hear the prayers too while taking care of my small children, without having to leave the comfort of my home. I think it is greatly unfortunate that this one lady did not agree with me and disturbed the prayer service in this manner. For now, during the coronavirus pandemic, praying is more important than it ever was before.
Prayer and gratitude have always been an essential part of human life. When we rise up and when we lie down, we are supposed to pray for our well-being and that of those that we care about, in good times and in bad times. However, when we are experiencing a global pandemic, for many people, praying has taken on a fresh tenacity, merely because we are living in fear. Too many people have lost their health and their livelihoods. Across the world, people are suffering immensely. Nevertheless, no matter how much we suffer, we must try to show gratitude and to pray, for asking God for mercy is the only remedy that we got. Presently, the coronavirus has no vaccine and no cure, and there is no end in sight. Our economic situation is reminiscent of the Great Depression, as this pandemic plagues the world entire.
Nevertheless, no matter how bad things get, we must never lose our faith in God. It has always been a sign of faith to believe that everything always has a reason, even if we do not understand what that reason is. Deuteronomy 6:5 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your might.” For as Psalm 23 declares, “Even though I walk in the valley surrounded by death, I shall fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Rashi explained that regardless of whether we face a harsh decree or not, we should always thank God for what we have. After all, it can always be worse than what it is and only our prayers can make things better.
As we speak, the Kansas City Heart Rhythm Institute is presently conducting a study in order to determine whether coronavirus patients who pray have a greater chance of recovery. Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist prayers are being offered to 1,000 coronavirus patients in the framework of the study. “We all believe in science, and we also believe in faith,” the study’s lead investigator, cardiologist Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, told NPR. This study came after Reuters reported that a recent study found that encouraging positive emotions reduces the risk of heart disease and there is no question that prayers encourage positive emotions, helping us to overcome any obstacles that we face in our life.
When the coronavirus struck the State of Israel, I fell into a deep clinical depression, which required psychological treatment. Since I am a rape survivor, I suffer from complex PTSD and living under a coronavirus lockdown only made that condition worse. However, praying helped me a lot to lift me out of that depression and to prevent me from psychologically collapsing. On a daily basis, I recite Psalm 13, beseeching God, “Until when will my enemy be ascendant over me? Look! Answer me, Hashem, my God. Enlighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death. Lest my enemy boast I have overcome him. Lest my enemies rejoice when I falter.”
Rabbi Tzi Wilhelm, a Chabad rabbi in Netanya, declared: “We do not need to wait for a plague in order to pray to God. We need to pray every morning when we wake up for our clothes, food, our health, happiness, everything. However, the nature of man is not to say thank you for what we have. Then, things happen in order to show man that everything should not be taken for granted.” Indeed, it is precisely when we do not show enough gratitude to God and other human beings that pandemics arrive and teach us how much we all should have been grateful for what we used to have.
Pastor Saeed Abedini, a UN Ambassador of Peace who frequently is engaged in interfaith relations, concurred, “Just imagine how lively it was before coronavirus. We all had jobs, work, went to the beach, to parties, got to travel, etc. But now, after the coronavirus, there are so many jobless people with almost no social life. There is so much anxiety, depression, abuse in the home, etc. So many people have been killed in quarantine. The world has changed. I saw people are not praying a lot. People from different religions do not serve others as much as they are supposed to. That is the point. Synagogues, churches and mosques were open. But not so many people had a relationship with God.”
However, Pastor Abedini believes that all people of faith across the world should change this: “Prayer brings us back home to our heavenly father. By praying, we can overcome. Prayer equips us and we find ourselves. Prayer does not change God but it definitely changes us. Prayer helps you grow and brings the source of heaven to you. Prayer grows you and marks the source of heaven to you. It gets God’s attention to you. It frees you from sorrow, anxiety, fear, etc. It fills you with hope, faith, and love. Prayer makes you a new person. Prayer makes and shapes you. It cleans the image of God in you to shine. Prayer makes you powerful person in the midst of the world’s weakness. It makes you stick to God in a time of coronavirus. It is a strong vessel in the hand of God to not be lost or shaken but a proud person. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
Rabbi Wilhelm added that there is historic precedent for prayer improving the human predicament, provided we pray from our hearts: “300 years ago, there was a health problem for women and they went to the synagogue in order to pray. The Baal Shem Tov was very happy. They did not know how to pray. They shouted the words of the prayer in nativity and then God loved them, and gave them health. Of course, one needs to read Psalms, but one also needs to pray from the heart.”
In this spirit, the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, which includes both Muslim and Christian leaders, has called for May 14 to become a day dedicated to “fasting, works of mercy, prayers, and supplications for the good of all humanity” so that God ends the pandemic. In a statement on Saturday, the HCHF urged people worldwide regardless of language, color or faith to implore God through acts such as fasting, prayer or charity to ward off the pandemic.
“We implore God to help us overcome this pandemic, to restore security, stability, health, and prosperity so that our world may become, after this pandemic, a better place for humanity and fraternity to live in,” the statement said. The committee called on religious leaders and people around the world to respond to this call to safeguard humanity.