There is a lovely Jewish tale of a boy who wanted to pray but didn’t know how. He sat in the synagogue with his father, heard the beautiful prayers chanted, and wanted to join in. He began to sing the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet. His father tried to quiet him, but the child only sang louder. At last he ran to the bima, and called out, “Please, dear God, take these letters of the alphabet and rearrange them to form the words that mean what I want to say to you and what is in my heart.”
Today, I feel like that child. I want to offer a prayer, a prayer for our country, and I’m not sure how.
God, can You help me?
What if I give You our most stirring documents of national aspiration? Please, take the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation.
I’ll send You the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired and poor…” that have greeted millions who chose to make America their home. I’ll include a photo of new Americans taking their citizenship oath. And a picture of millions among us who long to do so.
Songs! You’ll need some songs. Take “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and the entire soundtrack from Hamilton. I’ll send songs of the Native Americans. And the spirituals sung by African-American slaves, songs of struggle and longing,
I’ll give You poetry. “I Hear America Singing,” Walt Whitman once wrote of our country’s can-do spirit. Robert Frost celebrated the freedom to be unconventional, to choose “The Road Not Taken.” But not everyone had that freedom. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes asked.
I’ll give You immortal speeches of murdered men: “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” (Abraham Lincoln), “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” (John F. Kennedy), and “I have a dream” (Martin Luther King).
I’ll give You the biographies of Harriet Tubman and Sally Ride, Clara Barton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I’ll send a video of the moon landing to remind You of America’s audacious achievements.
I’ll send You photos of people who feel they’ve made it here and are grateful. I’ll send You photos of people who feel left behind here and are hurting.
This Independence Day, America is reeling — from a pandemic, months of lockdown, financial catastrophe, the killing of George Floyd, civic unrest….and the prospect of a presidential election in four months. Our nerves are frayed. We lash out from our keyboards. We have forgotten what binds us, what must bind us.
It all feels so fragile now. And in our immense vulnerability, we turn to You.
Our country needs a prayer that I cannot write.
So, I’m giving you the American alef-bet.
Can You write the prayer we need?
No list such as this is ever complete. I invite readers to share in the comments thread what they would add to the American alef-bet.