February 2019

Praying for the Government

I recently saw Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish in New York City and once again heard the rabbi share with the community his prayer for the Tzar, “May God bless and keep the Tzar – far away from us.”  That joke captures the ambivalence I have always felt about reciting the Prayer for the Country at Shabbat and Holiday services.  As a child of refugee immigrants, deeply aware of how exceptionally positive the Jewish experience in America has been, I love our country and what it stands for.  But I am also aware of the history of this prayer that includes times when the Jews felt weak and needed to add a prayer that mentioned, by name, the Kings, Queens, Tzars and other rulers who were not always friends of our people.  In America, we long ago removed the names of Presidents and Governors from the prayer but it remains for me a marker of Jewish anxiety, of the fear that we might once again need to placate a hostile government with outward displays of loyalty.

In our siddur, Lev Shalem, there are two versions of the prayer, one a revised version of the prayer written by Professor Louis Ginzberg in 1920.  His prayer made the change from a prayer for the government to a prayer for the country.  The more recent prayer, written by the siddur’s editor, Rabbi Ed Feld, takes things another step, focusing not on the government but on our role as citizens.  Feld’s prayer also includes a paragraph for the armed forces, an especially meaningful addition during a time when U.S. forces are deployed in harm’s way overseas.  We have been alternating these two readings at our Shabbat services.

The prayer for the country has a long history, going all the way back to biblical times when the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiled Jewish community in Babylonia 2,500 years ago. Writing in God’s name, he exhorted the community to “pray for the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf, for in its prosperity you will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7).  Writing 700 years later, the authors of the Mishnah in Sayings of the Sages (Pirkei Avot 3:2) note that even an oppressive government is preferable to anarchy.

Closer to our own day, in the 17th century, a prayer called Hanoten Teshu’ah was written calling on God to “bless, guard, protect, help, exalt, magnify and highly aggrandize” the King and royal family, granting them a long and prosperous rule and inspiring them with benevolence “toward us and all Israel our brethren.”  Strikingly the prayer contains a secret meaning.  It quotes from Psalm 144, but ignores this verse “rescue me, save me from the hands of foreigners, whose mouths speak lies and whose oaths are false.”  The Jews saying this prayer would have been aware of the double meaning.  Outwardly we are wishing all success for the King, quietly we are hoping to be freed from his rule.

As we offer our prayers for the country, its people and its leaders today, we might remind ourselves of our role in ensuring that we and our leaders respond to the verse in Micah 6:8 (quoted in the alternative prayer in Lev Shalem): “For what does Adonai demand of you – but to act justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Your God.”  That is a timely message that remains compelling.

Rabbi Leonard Gordon