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A Jewish Source for the Serenity Prayer (Tzav 03/30/24)

A Jewish Source for the Serenity Prayer

This week, in addition to our regularly scheduled Torah reading, Parshat Tzav, we read from a second Torah, Parshat Parah. The latter is all about purity. Coming just a month before the holiday, it stresses that Passover demands not only the physical transformation of our homes and kitchens but also an internal and spiritual metamorphosis.

The regulations of Parshat Parah are considered the most obscure in the Torah. Only through sprinkling the ashes of a one hundred percent red cow can one become pure from ritual impurity. Hyssop, cedar wood, and crimson string are also involved, and to add to our confusion, the sprinkler (the purifier) becomes contaminated during the process. The Torah recognizes the puzzlement that it’s causing by labeling this process, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, “This is the decree of the Torah.” It’s a decree; don’t try to figure it out. Just trust the process.

With this and other חוּקִים, laws that we have no chance of understanding, we’re given the opportunity to let go. Parshat Parah is about negation and withdrawal of control. It’s a lesson to us that sometimes, we need to trust and let things unfold on their own.

We’d all like to be in control of our lives. We’d like our lives to play out in ways that make sense, give us meaning, and make all our actions purposeful. Yet, life rarely follows such patterns. Parshat Parah is a message to us that we’ll never understand the why of everything, nor will we always be in control.

Faith in a God who is One means accepting that nothing occurs within God’s oneness that is beyond God’s power. We may not understand it, but if we believe God is truly loving, there must be some excellent, exalted plan we are unaware of. Just like there are חוּקִים (unfathomable laws) in the Torah, so are there inscrutable times in life. Indeed, if our lives need change, we should take practical and productive steps. But there will be times when we just need to wait and see. Parah then teaches us to let go and trust God’s process.

Numerous twelve-step programs open and close their sessions with the Serenity Prayer. I bookend our synagogue’s Bereavement Group with it as well: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This powerful prayer may not have originated in a Siddur, but its roots are surely in the Torah.

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