Prayer offers a way out of the distraction and indignation created by the daily news roundups.
I have what can best be described as a love-hate relationship with my smartphone. For the most part, it affords me phenomenal conveniences and utility. But, as many are aware, it can also be a significant distraction. Often unable to resist clicking on those blinking red notifications first thing in the morning, I have found in recent months a struggle to enter into my morning davening with a sense of focused kavvanah as my mind gets stuck dwelling in the seemingly unending slurry of news about injustice in the world. Maybe you, too, are familiar with this distraction or even more so with the sense of overwhelming fatigue that has beset us who pursue justice in an age in which the world seems so heavy.
In response to feelings of distraction and indignation that my morning news digest evokes, I find myself pulled in one of two directions: overcome with a fervor for “doing the work” or at the other end the spectrum, a sense of melancholy. Regardless, this experience can leave me struggling to make room for the prayer and contemplation with which I strive to start each day.
Though this phenomenon has become rather routine in my day-to-day life, I never cease to be amazed at the way in which the recitation of the words of our tradition can leave me feeling reinvigorated. I am a firm believer in the multifaceted power of a daily prayer practice. While some days feel more insightful or inspiring than others, each morning—no matter what is going on in the world—I seem to find a line in tefillah (the set words of the worship service) that grounds me in my faith and pushes me further into the work of building a more just world.
This past summer, as we watched in horror as families seeking refuge in our country have been separated and detained, I returned again and again to the closing lines of Psalm 146, which we recite each morning during Pesukei Dezimra, the early part of the morning service. “Adonai protects the stranger and supports the orphan and widow but frustrates the designs of the wicked.” As I read these words, all of those distractions and frustrations seem to dissipate, and a sense of groundedness connects me to our tradition, my community and the holy pursuit of building a more just world for all.
Rabbi Ari Witkin is the Director of Leadership Development at the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. Originally from Minneapolis, Ari graduated from Goucher College where he received a BA with honors in both Religious and Peace Studies, he completed a Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania and was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Following his time at Goucher, Ari spent a year in service as an AmeriCorps VISTA working to engage faith-based institutions in supporting Baltimore city public schools. He subsequently went on to staff the Baltimore Interfaith Coalition, which convenes the city’s top religious leadership in taking action to address social justice issues in the city. In 2011 Ari spent six months living and learning with the Abayudya Jewish community in Uganda before returning to Baltimore and joining the staff at the Pearlstone Center. At Pearlstone he spearheaded the establishment and curriculum development of the Sustainability Apprenticeship, a seven month program that integrates farm work, Jewish education, and leadership development. While in rabbinical school Ari completed a unit of CPE at Jefferson University Hospital, served on the faculty for Repair the World’s fellowship program, as the development manager at the Jewish Farm School, the Rabbinic intern for Hillel at Drexel University and spent two years as the student rabbi at Germantown Jewish Centre. He and his wife Liz Traison live in Liz’s hometown of Detroit.