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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah - 2nd Day - 2007/5768

Pray For America

Long before so many other faith communities in this land, we Jews were already praying for America. We would do so on a regular basis, every week, at the most important time on the most important day of the week. Every Shabbat, as the weekly Torah and haftarah readings came to an end, the leader of the service would offer a prayer for the welfare of this land—at times even holding the sefer Torah. Just as significantly, those same words of prayer would be offered unto God at festival times as we finished reading God’s words to us from Torah and haftarah. No matter what type of congregation–Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist–the words of this prayer were offered in English, the better for all to understand.

And the practice continues to this day. In fact, momentarily, we will offer the prayer just before we return the sefer Torah to the ark. Turn ahead to pages 218-219 in your mahzors. There you will see three separate prayers—one for our congregation and our people, one for the State of Israel, and one “for our nation and its rulers.” Those three paragraphs comprising the prayer “for our nation and its rulers” are of concern to me this morning–and each morning we read from Torah on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. The words of our prayer may seem contemporary; the thought behind the prayer is surely ancient.

For while you might think the words a relatively recent addition to our liturgy by a Reform Judaism eager to please the rulers of the land in which we dwelt, such is not the case. The origins of this prayer go back, in fact, go way back, back over 2500 years, to the time of the Babylonian exile. Left behind in Jerusalem by the Babylonians who brought much of the rest of the city’s religious and political leadership back with them following their conquest of Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah put his life at risk as he brought God’s word to his people. Remaining in touch with the priests, prophets, and Jewish people living in Babylonian exile, Jeremiah conveyed to them God’s words to “seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Eternal in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” We also know that when Alexander the Great came to Jerusalem intent on destroying it, he was met at its gates by Simon the Just who pleaded, “Will you, O mighty king, destroy the House [the Temple] wherein prayers are said for and your kingdom that it never be destroyed?” Further evidence of the antiquity of this prayer comes from the Mishnah, from Pirke Avot 3:2, where Rabbi Hanina said, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear thereof, one would swallow up alive another.”

Whatever the reason–be it prudence, political appeasement, patriotism, or peace–we Jews have ever since prayed for the land in which we were settled. We find such prayers in prayer books dating back to the 14th century, perhaps even back to the 11th and 12th centuries. And, as I noted, so important was this prayer considered that it has traditionally been read not in Hebrew but in the vernacular immediately after the Torah reading yet prior to the return of the scrolls to the ark. Over the years, a traditional version of the prayer developed known by its opening words taken from the 11th verse of Psalm 144: “Ha-noten teshu’ah lamelahim, May the One Who gives salvation to kings and dominion to princes, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, who delivered his servant David from the hurtful sword…may He bless, guard, …and exalt… [and here one inserts the name of the appropriate king or prince or duly constituted leader]. May the supreme Ruler of Rulers in mercy exalt him…and inspire him…with benevolence toward us and all Israel….May the redeemer come to Zion. May this be God’s will, as we say, Amen.”

Yet, by nature of this prayer, its words have been flexible over the years. Prayer books in Russian once included the names of the czar and his wife and son. Many of you remember well these words from the old Union Prayer:

Fervently we invoke Thy blessing upon our country and our nation. Guard them, O God, from calamity and injury; suffer not their adversaries to triumph over them….Enlighten with Thy wisdom and sustain with Thy power those whom we have set in authority, the President, his counselors and advisers…and all who are entrusted with our safety and with the guardianship of our rights and our liberties. May peace and good-will obtain among all the inhabitants of our land…

Still, ancient as the thought may be, these words should be comfortable to us because America is truly our home. And we surely pray these words not out of prudence and not out of appeasement. We pray these words with such fervor for we know what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. The heart of the stranger still beats within us. At home, here, we still hope so much for this land.

Yet, over the past few years, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the words used in Gates of Repentance. Written now over thirty years ago by Rabbi Chaim Stern—who, as many of you know, began his rabbinic career here at Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun—the prayer is no longer comforting; it has, rather, become most troubling. Take, for example, the prayer’s first paragraph:

We pray for all who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in our national life. Let Your blessing rest upon them, and make them responsive to Your will, so that our nation may be to the world an example of justice and compassion.

These words ask that our leaders be responsive to God’s will; in so doing, they allow this land to be a land truly blessed with justice and compassion, a land which may be an example to the world. Of course, I want a land blessed with justice and compassion, a land serving as an example to the world. But do I want my leaders to be responsive to their perception of God’s will—or far more responsive to my will and to that of all Americans?

Still, I know that the first paragraph of the prayer is insufficient. For while we pray for our national leaders, we also pray for ourselves. We ask God’s help in ensuring that we see beyond our own selfish interests and desires. The heart simply cannot always do what the heart wants. Our own behavior clearly has an impact on our country’s national health. What we say and what we do in our personal lives reverberates in our national life. That seems to be the message of the second paragraph. Yet look at its words:

Deepen our love for our country and our desire to serve it. Strengthen our power of self-sacrifice for our nation’s welfare. Teach us to uphold its good name by our own right conduct.

What do we do to serve our country? At the moment, very little. So, as many of you know, I am more convinced than ever of the necessity of reinstating a draft. Wrote Peter Beinart in The New Republic several years ago, “the gulf between the military and the rest of American society is wider than it has been for a generation….Today, one segment of American society is at war, and the other, for all intents and purposes, is not….” For that matter, how many of our national leaders have any immediate family members currently serving in the war effort? Think about it. Not since the 19th century has this country fought a war lasting longer than a week with all-volunteer forces. In World War II, Roosevelt’s sons all enlisted after Pearl Harbor; Johnson’s sons-in-law went to Vietnam. Today, in Iraq, the war is being fought by folk from military families or by folk who have enlisted for economic reasons.

I recognize all the problems that a draft engenders. I also recognize that a draft must encompass young women as well. And I would hope that such a draft would be one that would involve not only military service but would also offer an option of national service. All of us owe some kind of compulsory national service to our country. Such national service could help once again rebuild much of our aging infrastructure. Still, as one of my teachers, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, wrote many years ago, “a real draft would put all our children in the same danger and would inordinately raise our consciousness about the terrors of conflict in our time.” By ensuring all of us are involved in service, in the price that needs to be paid, we also ensure that the choice of warfare is ours. To fight a war but assume that others will do it for us and to assume that we can do it without real financial sacrifices is not only wrong, but absolutely immoral.

Yet, even with the first two paragraphs, the prayer is still insufficient. We pray for our leaders, we pray for ourselves; yet, as we pray for our nation, we also ask for God’s blessing and for the power to work for that blessing. For we ask God to help us see clearly, to see beyond our own immediate personal concerns and problems to those who also call America home and to those who yearn to call America home. And that means we Jews must be concerned with all the issues facing our home–issues such as feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly and the sick, welcoming the stranger, pursuing peace. For our destiny as a minority here in America can ultimately only be secure in a society which guarantees justice and equality for all. And, again, I cannot help but wonder why we have yet to open our doors to all those in Iraq who have literally put their lives on the line for us. These refugees, perhaps as many as 4,000,000, have fled Iraq. And we have taken in, what, perhaps a few hundred. Forget the millions—focus just on those who have directly helped and aided us—our translators, those who worked for our armed forces and for the civilian administration—and their families. We have kept our doors closed to them! And we have been silent, not demanding our government be responsive to their needs.

So I am not going to read the prayer on p. 218-219 this Rosh Hashanah morning—nor will I do so on Yom Kippur. Instead, I will offer the prayer from our new prayer book, from Mishkan Tefillah. With its prayers in the same order as those in our current book—including prayers for our congregation and for the state of Israel—I will read all three of them. But listen closely to the words we pray for our country. They are words which roll far more easily off of my lips, words which I truly believe can be offered up to God. Following the words of the prophet Isaiah, we pray:

O Guardian of life and liberty,
may our nation always merit Your protection.
Teach us to give thanks for what we have
by sharing it with those who are in need.
Keep our eyes open to the wonders of creation,
and alert to the care of the earth.
May we never be lazy in the work of peace;
and honor those who have died in defense of our ideals.
Grant our leaders patience and wisdom.
Help us to appreciate one another,
And to respect the many ways that we may serve You.
May our homes be safe from affliction and strife.
And may our country be sound in body and spirit.

And so I now turn it over to you. As is our custom here on this second day of Rosh Hashanah, this is a participatory service. Rabbi Schaalman and I have done our talking over these last couple of days. Now it is your turn–to respond to what we have said–to agree or to disagree–to share your own thoughts.

Sat, December 2 2023 19 Kislev 5784