In The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin writes about a “Sacred Tree.” He came upon it while traveling in the valley of the Rio Negro on his way to Bahía Blanca in Argentina in the company of an Englishman, a guide, and five Gauchos.
Shortly after passing the first spring we came in sight of a famous tree, which the Indians reverence as the altar of Walleechu. It is situated on a high part of the plain; and hence is a landmark visible at a great distance. As soon as a tribe of Indians come in sight of it, they offer their adorations by loud shouts. The tree itself is low, much branched, and thorny: just above the root it has a diameter of about three feet. It stands by itself without any neighbour, and was indeed the first tree we saw; afterwards we met with a few others of the same kind, but they were far from common. Being winter the tree had no leaves, but in their place numberless threads, by which the various offerings, such as cigars, bread, meat, pieces of cloth, etc., had been suspended. Poor Indians, not having anything better, only pull a thread out of their ponchos, and fasten it to the tree. Richer Indians are accustomed to pour spirits and maté into a certain hole, and likewise to smoke upwards, thinking thus to afford all possible gratification to Walleechu. To complete the scene, the tree was surrounded by the bleached bones of horses which had been slaughtered as sacrifices. All Indians of every age and sex make their offerings; they then think that their horses will not tire, and that they themselves shall be prosperous.Charles Darwin. The Voyage Of The Beagle, Chapter IV.
The custom’s purpose is to please the god Walleechu in the hope of obtaining one’s request, that one’s horse, for example, not grow tired. In the Preface to his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish-Dutch philosopher, writes about superstition—the belief in supernatural causation.
Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favored by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favors, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity. The human mind is readily swayed this way or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear are struggling for the mastery, though usually it is boastful, over-confident, and vain.Baruch Spinoza. Preface to Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.
Spinoza made me think. In Judaism, the Evening Prayer for weekdays—called Maariv in Hebrew—begins, in the prayerbook that I use [Tehillat HaShem], with several excerpts from the Psalms. One of them is from Psalm 37.
The deliverance of the righteous is from the Lord; He is their strength in time of distress. The Lord helps them and delivers them; He delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they have put their trust in Him.Psalm 37: 39-40
What is a twenty-first-century Jew, praying in the long shadow of the Shoah, to make of these words? Indeed, what is any religiously-minded person to make of them in light of the horrors of the twentieth century? The words can be painful, confusing, disorienting. In my case, they generate a kind of cognitive dissonance whenever I recite them. So, one might ask: Why do you continue to say them; why do you repeat these words every evening? I don’t know the answer, but I have some thoughts about it.
Sometimes I think of prayer—and here I am speaking of praise or thanksgiving, not petition or confession—as not being so much about God as he is, but rather about what I hope him to be. I want God, for instance, to save the righteous from the wicked, even as I am aware of times when this seems not to have happened. In this way of thinking, one might say that I am, when praying, expressing my longing for God to save the righteous from the wicked, hoping that He will do so.
But at other times, I fear that my prayers are just superstitious, like the customs of the Indians in Darwin’s story of the sacred tree. I utter them out of desperation because I fully understand, as Spinoza reminds me, that I cannot govern all my circumstances. I am in straits where rules are useless.
Either way, however, I continue to pray, and, for some unknown reason, I want to continue doing so. In the evening, I enter the synagogue and stand with “all servants of the Lord who stand in the house of the Lord at night” [Ps. 134]. I do so, balancing myself, at times precariously, somewhere between hope and fear.
All the best!