What a crazy week, in a crazy month, in a crazy year it has been in America. Sometimes, in the history of America, our nation and our lives have been filled with uncertainty and tumult: from the days after 9/11 to the scary times of the Cold War, and through the years of war in southeast asia or the Great Depression. America has had dark periods and chaotic periods, but generally, we looked to the White House and got reassurance that everything was going to work out ok.
Looking back to the past Jewish year 5779, America was prosperous, and stable. We are not at war, the economy is good, crime is generally down and despite our many issues regarding race and gender and sexual identity, I for one feel confident that we as a country are at least on the right track in those regards. We Americans are apparently so in need of adventure and excitement that, despite the relative tranquility in our country, we just had to put a wildly unpredictable former TV reality show star in the White House - I guess to spice things up, maybe?
This year, I had zero intention of talking about Donald Trump at High Holidays, for a variety of relatively obvious reasons. But after the congress announced its intention to begin impeachment proceedings last week, it became impossible not to discuss - to ignore it would be to pretend like there wasn’t a president-shaped elephant in the middle of the room.
We as American Jews have always been unique in the history of the world’s Jews. Unlike the Jews of Europe, American Jews have always been an integral part of America from its very beginnings. In Europe, Jews were quote “emancipated” in the mid 19th century, and granted citizenship, but they still began there with 800 years of being second-class serfs, at best. In this country, American Jews were woven into the fabric of America with relative equality from its very beginnings. It has always meant that, unlike Tevye, we have never prayed for the government to be ‘far away from us’. Instead, we have sought its nearness. From George Washington’s letter to the congregation at Newport RI which I spoke on last year, to Abraham Lincoln reversing General Grant’s order of expulsion from Tennessee in the Civil War, and to Louis Brandeis and Eric Cantor and Paul Wellstone and Arlen Spector and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, American Jews have always been close, not far, from the government.
It is why we pray for the welfare of the government, which is the topic and text upon which I will frame our current American predicament as we enter the year 5780 with impeachment as a likely constant background hum to our daily lives.
Why do we pray for the government? Where does this interesting custom originate from?
I was surprised to find that the custom of praying for the government is quite ancient. The Jewish thinker Philo, who lived in Alexandria and Rome, records that there was a prayer in his time, the 1st century CE, for the Roman emperor. Jews in Babylonia and Persia and Medieval Europe continued that custom by praying for the king, and when the concept of democracy took hold, it was the eminent scholar Louis Ginzburg who reformulated a prayer tailor specifically to American democracy in the 1920s.
All of those prayers were centered on one specific biblical verse from our first prophet to lead during the diaspora, when the first temple was destroyed and the Jews were carried off to Babylon. It was the prophet Jeremiah who wrote:
וְדִרְשׁוּ אֶת־שְׁלוֹם הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר הִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה וְהִתְפַּלְלוּ בַעֲדָהּ אֶל־יְהוָה כִּי בִשְׁלוֹמָהּ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שָׁלוֹם׃
“And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the LORD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”
Since that time, our prayer for the government has evolved and become more aspirational, reflecting both the realities of democracy that allow our greater participation, and our own religious moral proclivities which we hope to inject into the American dialogue.
Our own prayer for our country is recited every week at Shabbat services. You’ll find it, if you’re not familiar with it, on page 148 of the blue sim shalom siddurim.
You will recall certain lines from the prayer for our government, like “we ask for your blessings on our country - teach them insights from your Torah that they may administer affairs of state fairly” and that they “exercise just and rightful authority”. And the prayers asks - “may citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.”
“Safeguard” - “the ideals and free institutions.” Man oh man.
The principal defenses against tyranny are transparency, and checks and balances. In fact, to a great degree, the Torah was created as one of the earliest documents known to man that legislated limits of power on the king in hopes of serving as a check. In the ancient world, where a corrupt and unjust king or queen could come to power, oppress the people, favor the wealthy, and build himself palaces while his subjects starved, the Torah interjects a dose of law into the rule of the king. In fact, Torah is specifically concerned with a king who abuses power in order to forward his own personal position. In Deuteronomy 17:16 and 17 we learn “Moreover, a king shall not keep many horses … And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.” Our Torah is concerned here particularly that a Jewish king will abuse his seat of power by enriching himself at the expense of others. The central idea here is that leadership is a sacred trust, and must not be abused to the advantage of the leader him or herself.
In our democracy, those Torah values have been formalized into the US Federal law itself in many different ways that seek to protect politicians from using bribery to line their pockets or to prevent them from calling on foreign governments to help them get re-elected.
The expectation of democracy is that we are involved and engaged in maintaining and safeguarding those ideals and free institutions ourselves, at the very least, by electing people who are honest and just, and will hold their fellow politicians to the same standard of being honest and just.
Personally, this prayer, the prayer for our country, has been very hard for me the past few years. I fully recognize that prayer is often meant to be aspirational - a hope of what might occur in the future with a little providence or hard work. But never have I felt that the aspiration and the truth were so so far apart as in this prayer and our current government. It feels like a so-called bracha levatela - a null and void blessing - to say each week that we hope that the president will be taught insights from the Torah, when he himself proudly boasts that he does not read books. It is depressing to pray that for us to pray that he administer affairs of state fairly when he and his team have worked with multiple foreign governments in search of aid to damage the credibility of opposing candidates. Leaving aside his politics and his policy, on the face, it seems that he is engaged in the same style of dirty tricks that you will recall Richard Nixon using in 1972 when he used a team of bungling burglars to steal secrets from his Democratic opponents. Regardless of how Americans feel about tax policy or our Middle East policy or welfare of health care, all Americans should agree without any shadow of a doubt that an election should be a level playing field, free of graft and manipulation and outside influence.
You may be interested to know that the Conservative movement has actually replaced the prayer that we here at Brith Sholom say with an updated version. The Sim Shalom version we use was originally published in 1972.
Instead of ‘teach them insights from your Torah’; the new version from 2016 says ‘Pour out your blessing upon this land, upon its inhabitants, upons its leaders, its judges, officers and officials who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public,’ all of which I would frame as a slight but inconsequential change from the previous version.
It goes on to say ‘Help them understand the rules of justice You have decreed so that peace and security, happiness and freedom will never depart from our land’.
This section has one notable change from the old version of the prayer, which was ‘so that they may administer affairs of state fairly that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.’
Did you catch the difference? The prayer is shortened from six ideals to four; Prosperity has been dropped, as has justice. Justice has been coupled to the line about the Divine rules of justice, implying that the reason is mostly about repetitiveness - Torah is the book of justice, we’ve already mentioned that we hope our leaders will be influenced by it, so it has become superfluous. But the dropping of prosperity - that is interesting. One could intuit that the composer of this prayer may have recognized that the go-go attitudes of the 1980s, with the ‘greed is good’ ethos of Gordon Gecko, coupled with the Sub-prime mortgage debacle of 2008 meant that perhaps praying for national prosperity was an emphasis of the wrong values.
Another interesting change is to the middle paragraph. In our Sim Shalom it reads:
while the new text reads:
The focus on races, groups, institutions, and leaders has been eliminated. Hatred and Bigotry as concepts are gone. In their place, the new prayer focuses on the ideas in every person’s heart that allow them to cleave to one another. America in this prayer’s amendation is being reframed - away from being a country of many tribes seeking coexistant, and towards being a land of peoples trying to grow and thrive together. Whereas the America of the 1960s led to a prayer that focused on our racial faultlines, the America of the 2000s and 2010s led to a prayer about individuals taking personal responsibility, a move perhaps to make the prayer meaningful for every person. For while I, Mark Goodman, am not a bigot, and I cannot personally safeguard the free institutions, I can work to uproot hatred from my heart and plant love where it might have been.
The last line of that paragraph is also the Conservative movements great aspiration for us moving forward - to root out poverty from our land. We have too long accepted as a human society that some people will have and some people will lack - some will be homeless, some will go hungry. Ending poverty is an idea that has been around for a long, long time. But economic inequality is bad in America, and getting worse. A report from NBC this week described that income inequality grew again from 2017 to 2018, and that inequality in the US is at its highest levels in 50 years. A 2014 study of wealth inequality found that the top 0.1 percent and the bottom 90 percent of U.S. households own virtually the same share of all the nation's wealth. Our religion believes that a decent standard of living should be achievable for everybody, and it believes that it is a responsibility of every American to uplift and support their fellow man, and our movement believes this is worth emphasizing at least once in prayer, in English, each and every Shabbat, until such time as poverty is no longer our countries greatest failing and its greatest challenge.
Both prayers, though, conclude with the same essential message - a hope that we will find a day when war will never be needed again. We will continue to ask that someday we reach the day when we can beat swords into plowshares and fulfill isaiah’s prophecy - lo yisa goy el goy cherev v’loyilmidu od milchamah - nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor will they again learn war anymore.
To return to the very idea I began with, this most contemporary prayer for our country does not as to keep the government far away from me, but rather brings it closer to the individual than ever before. You are the government. I am the government. We are the people. We expect transparency and honesty and kindness and compassion. We expect the same thing from our fellow citizens as we do from our family and friends, and our fellow congregants. We endeavor to follow the words of Zechariah who said :
“Speak every person the truth to their neighbour; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates.”
And to follow the words of Micah when he said : “Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.”
We expect nothing less from our country, its government, for its leaders and advisors. And just as entrust them to make and execute the laws, we expect them to abide by them or suffer the consequences, just like any other citizen, great or small, rich or poor. And we as Jews, as Americans, and as citizens will not stand idly by or turn a blind eye if they do not.
I conclude with the words of Dr Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote the following:
That guidance was given to the Jewish people in the form of the Torah. I hope that we all go forward into 5780 living our values as Jews, by acting them out as Americans. Shanah Tovah.