Averting Hurricane Irma: The Power of Prayer

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This is a very unusual edition of The Torah Blog. As you are no doubt aware, Houston is still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Harvey (read about how New Jersey NCSY went down to help here and see how you can help here!). As I write this, Hurricane Irma is battering Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, and threatening the southeast coast of America.

In response to this threat, I received the following question:

Q. Are there any tehillim or tefilot to say to prevent this hurricane from hitting us in Florida?

To which I responded as follows:

A. Most of our rain-related prayers are to make it come, not to keep it away (see Talmud Taanis 19a, where Choni refused to pray to make the rain stop), but here are some Psalms typically recited for the noted occasions:

For general protection: Psalm 91
For protection against a flood: Psalm 24
For protection from a sudden or unusual death: Psalm 116
For protection from danger: Psalm 11
For protection from evil: Psalm 36
For protection from harm: Psalm 119
For protection from tragedy: Psalm 13
For the protection of the city: Psalm 88
To be saved from any difficulty: Psalm 30
To be saved from water or fire: Psalm 76

I hope this is useful for you – stay safe and dry!

Now I’m not suggesting that we have to ability to change the direction of a storm with words alone, nor to affect the outcomes of sporting events and lotteries, but let us not discount the power of prayer. Numerous studies have suggested that prayer affects patients’ recoveries even when they don’t know someone is praying for them. As of 2007, 80 medical schools in the US offered courses on the effects of prayer in medicine.

Of course, there is a popular saying that “God answers all prayers, it’s just that sometimes He says no.” Even so, a prayer is not “wasted.” First of all, even if we don’t receive the desired outcome, we have no way of knowing what we might have received without the prayer! Secondly, any time spent with the King is quality time, even if our requests are not granted. Prayer always has value because it draws us closer to God. It gives us strength and hope – things that will certainly come in handy in the face of an impending hurricane, God forbid. We pray before a crisis in the hope that it will be averted. After the moment has passed, we pray again – either to give thanks if a hurricane has passed us by, or to ask for further assistance if it hasn’t. (And even then, we should give thanks for still being alive to ask for that assistance!)

I’m not trying to sound negative or defeatist, I just don’t want to commit that reciting Psalms can steer a hurricane. (I am in no position to make such a guarantee!) However, even the most cynical among us must concede that a prayer is like chicken soup – it won’t hurt and it very well might help!

As we barrel towards Rosh Hashana, let us join my correspondent in prayer for Florida – and Houston, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other affected or endangered areas. (See the list of recommended Psalms above. For Houston, where Harvey has already struck, the OU and RCA recommend Psalms 20, 102, 121 and 130 – see more here.) Prayer can be a powerful thing and there is truly strength in numbers! May all of us enjoy health and safety in the coming year.