Prayers for the Government

Leibesh: Rabbi! May I ask you a question?
Rabbi: Certainly, Lebisch!
Leibesh: Is there a proper blessing… for the Tsar?
Rabbi: A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!

— From Fiddler on the Roof, 1971

A prayer for the government is a standard feature in most siddurim [prayer books]. Two examples:

May he who gives salvation to kings and dominion to princes, whose kingdom is aan everlasting kingdom, who delivers his servant David from the evil sword, who makes a way in the sea, a path though the mighty waters, bless and protect, guard and help, exalt, magnify and uplift the President, Vice-President and all officials of this land. May the supreme King of kings, in His mercy put into their hearts and the hearts of their counselors and officials to deal kindly with us and with all Israel. In their days and in ours, may Judah be saved, and Israel dwell in safety, and may the Redeemer come to Zion. May this be His will, and let us say, Amen. – The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. 520.

and this:

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; may we honor those who have died in defense of our ideals. Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance. May they govern with justice and compassion. Help us all 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 our country be sound in body and spirit. Amen. – Mishkan T’filah p. 376

As you can see, prayers for the government are specific to the country in which we reside. A British siddur would pray for the Queen and the government, and so on. With that specificity, the prayer points out that we are praying for a particular government, the real government, not for an ideal of government. 

Rabbi Sacks points out in his commentary that our prayers for the government echo the teaching of the prophet Jeremiah to the Jews living in exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE:

Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Holy One for it; because it its peace shall you have peace. – Jeremiah 29:7.

They also echo the teaching in the 1st century of Rabbi Chaninah:

Rabbi Chaninah Segan HaKohanim said: Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive. – Pirkei Avot 3:2

For more about the times in which Rabbi Chaninah lived, click the link on his name.

We are living in a time in which strong feelings run high. There are those who are happy about the leadership in the U.S., and those who are very unhappy with the government.

We pray for the government not only to ask for Divine help, but also to remind ourselves that the government in place is the only one we’ve got. Even in the worst case suggested in Fiddler, Jews prayed for safety under the government that existed.

In a democracy we have a participatory role that Tevya couldn’t have imagined. We fulfill our sacred duties within our democracy when we vote, and when we express our opinions to our elected officials. Without our active participation, it ceases to be a democracy.

What is your prayer for the government of the United States? And what are you going to do to put that prayer into action?

Rain and the Government

“May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, as showers that water the earth!” – Psalm 72:6

Psalm 72 is a Psalm attributed to Solomon. It begins, “Give the king Thy judgments, O God, and Thy righteousness unto the king’s son” and it continues with a list of things one hopes from a new government. I found it today when a brief sprinkle of rain sent me to the concordance looking for Bible verses having to do with rain.

Concordances are fun. We use them to find out how many times and where a particular word appears in the Bible. This is of greater utility if it is a Hebrew concordance, of course, since an English concordance only tells us about the English words that appear in a particular English translation. Still, the results can take us into parts of the text we failed to notice before.

In this verse “he” refers to the young prince, the future ruler of the kingdom. Yesterday we received the news that PM Netanyahu has been able to form a government for Israel. (Israel is a parliamentary democracy; for more about how it works, check out this article in the Virtual Jewish Library.)

Truth be told, were I Israeli I probably wouldn’t have voted for any of the people in the new government, but I wish them wisdom, virtue, and good common sense. May their government “come down like rain” upon the pressing issues facing the State of Israel, bringing vitality to the land and all its inhabitants.

Advice from Our Uncles

In this part of Titus' triumphal procession (f...
Decoration from the Arch of Titus in Rome, with spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Shemayah and Avtalion received the Torah from them. Shemayah said: Love work; hate domination; and do not get too chummy with the government. – Pirkei Avot 1.10

This is a quotation from Pirkei Avot (peer-KAY ah-VOTE), The Verses of the Fathers, a collection of sayings by early rabbinic teachers. Shemayah and Avtalion lived in the first century BCE (Before the Common Era). My friend and colleague Rabbi Amitai Adler teaches that while most translations go heavy on the formal language, these are homespun sayings meant as advice, much of it gained in the school of life. Hence, in my translation, words like “chummy,” and my private name for this document: “Advice from Our Uncles.”

Every now and then I return to Pirkei Avot for inspiration. I love its down-to-earth point of view and its timelessness. For instance, what a commentary on the arguments swirling around 21st century America!

Love work – Contribute to society, for the sake of your own dignity and for the good of society. Don’t live forever on the work of others, whether you are the heir of plutocrats or the recipient of public assistance. Also, love those who work: don’t exploit people who work with their hands. (By the way, under the present laws of the U.S., I am not convinced that anyone is needlessly feeding on the public dole: it is extremely difficult to qualify. I include this here on the chance that a reader personally knows someone who is scamming benefits. I do not know such a person, but I know people who go hungry because they can’t get benefits and haven’t been able to get a job in years.)

Hate domination – Shemaya and Avtalion knew domination: they lived under the domination of the Roman Empire. But it is interesting that they did not limit their hatred to any specific agent of domination. My interpretation? This is both permission to hate something (domination) but a subtle warning that not all domination is from the government. They knew the domination of ideology, also – Jewish society was beginning to splinter into various conflicting ideologies, that ultimately would give rise to sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Sinat chinam would destroy everything: the Temple, the society, local institutions, families, life as they knew it. Demagoguery is as destructive as any tornado.

Don’t get too chummy with the government – I can hear my libertarian friends cheering this one, but notice that it doesn’t say “get rid of the government” (in fact,  Pirkei Avot 3.2  warns us to pray for the government, because without it, people would eat one another alive!) This is about putting too much faith in “connections” – thinking that because we “know someone” the things that are wrong in the society can’t touch us. The ancient Sadducees thought that because they were noisy about being “friends of Rome” that the supporters of the Temple party would be safe from Rome.  Josephus’ account of the destruction of the Second Temple reminds us just how wrong they were.

Rabbi Meir Tamari wrote that over the centuries, apologists for various economic theories have tried to sell the idea that Torah teaches socialism, or communism, or capitalism, when it fact what it teaches is kindness and moderation in all things.

Love work, hate domination, and don’t get too chummy with the government: words to live by, I think. Work hard, and respect those who work. Love those who want to work, and don’t prevent them from getting decent work, or from getting paid for it. Hate domination in all its forms, and question anyone who wants to distract us and dominate us by pointing to scapegoats. Don’t get too chummy with the government: be skeptical, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to speak truth to power.

What do you think?