Homelessness: Prayer as a Call to Action

May 13, 2009
Share:email print

Tamar Kamionkowski

While the plight of the homeless is addressed in a number of traditional Jewish texts (especially within law codes), one is hard pressed to find explicit petitions to God to provide shelter for the homeless in our liturgy. At first glance, this may be troubling; among the many praises of God, why don’t we have a prayer that thanks God for providing shelter for the homeless?

The answer is twofold: first, the obligation to assist the homeless rests with the community, not God. Secondly, prayer serves to strengthen our resolve to meet this obligation by cultivating compassion and stirring our souls to action.

There are two themes within Jewish liturgy that when viewed through the lens of homelessness affirm our obligations and cultivate empathy and compassion. I call the first theme “night is a dangerous time” and the second “longing for a place to call home.”

In Adon Olam, we read: “Into God’s hand I place my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake, and with my spirit also my body; the Lord is with me, I shall not fear.” The evening prayer, Hashkiveinu asks that God allow us to enter into nighttime in peace. The early morning prayers, Birkhot HaShakhar, contain fifteen blessings that are traditionally recited upon waking in the morning. Through these prayers, we thank God for the ability to rise intact from our beds in the morning. These prayers acknowledge the dangers of the night and the surrender of the self that occurs during sleep. Many of us are privileged to rise from a bed with clean sheets and a comfortable pillow in a room encased by other rooms that are ultimately protected from dangers with doors, locks, and well-constructed roofs. These prayers should remind us what the words “into God’s hand I place my spirit” mean to the schizophrenic middle-aged man sleeping in a cardboard box under a highway bridge or to the unemployed mother of three who finds temporary shelter among strangers in a city shelter. With the increase of hate crimes against the homeless and the dangers of natural elements, the night is indeed a terrifying time; to wake up whole and healthy is truly a blessing.

The other theme, “longing for a place to call home” appears most prominently in the psalms that nestle our core prayers. Psalm 27, recited during the month of Elul preceding the Yamim Noraim, gives the fullest expression to this longing: “One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life….” Similarly, Psalm 92, recited during Kabbalat Shabbat, describes the ideal life through the metaphor of a tree that is deeply rooted in the house of God. This centuries-old longing for the comfort of being in God’s presence is about that primal longing for “home.” We yearn for a sense of the security, safety, and comfort that being in God’s presence might offer. These prayers remind us on a daily basis that home is not simply shelter; home is a shelter that is reliable, steady, safe, and secure.

As our own existential longing for home is reactivated each time we recite prayers, that longing should ignite our compassion for those who truly lack a home; that compassion should compel us to act and to fulfill the obligations to cloth the naked, feed the hungry, and provide shelter for the homeless.

Share:email print
Related Topics:

Dr. S. Tamar Kamionkowski, vice president for Academic Affairs at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is the author of Gender Reversal and Cosmic Chaos: A Study on the Book of Ezekiel and co-editor of Bodies, Embodiment and Theology of the Hebrew Bible (forthcoming).