For Whom Do We Jews Pray?

Earlier this week I received an opinion piece authored by Rabbi Moshe Taragin, Ram of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, dealing with the subject of for whom do we Jews pray? As one would expect from a well-known and well-respected scholar of Jewish thought, the piece is insightful, erudite and deals with the topic well.

His basic concern, if I understood it correctly, is that while we must pray for the salvation of all humankind during the period of the Coronavirus, Hebrew prayer is generally nationalistic in nature, dealing with the health, welfare and general status of the Jewish people. He then questions how can we address that during this period when everyone really needs to be praying for the healthy emergence of all humankind from the Coronavirus.

I am thankful to Rabbi Taragin for raising this issue as I, too, as a traditional Jew, have been searching for a way to add a certain universal aspect to my daily prayers that will broaden how I approach God in a time of such crisis.

Rabbi Taragin notes that he has begun saying the verses of Aveinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King), the prayer normally added on fast days and during the period between Rosh Hashonah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) as that prayer has a certain universalism to it that begins to address the challenge.

Personally, while I too believe that Avinu Malkenu generally addresses that challenge, I think the six verses that start with the words “remember us” are particularly useful in this context:

  • Our Father, our King, remember us with a memory of favorable deeds before you.
  • Our Father, our King, remember us for a good life.
  • Our Father, our King, remember us for redemption and salvation.
  • Our Father, our King, remember us for livelihood and sustenance.
  • Our Father, our King, remember us for merit.
  • Our Father, our King, remember us for pardon and forgiveness.

However, personally I find another text that is added during the period between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur to be even more personally meaningful.  During those days before the call to congregational prayer (Barchu) we recite the 130th Psalm:

A Song of Ascents. Out of the depths have I called Thee, O LORD.  Lord, hearken unto my voice;  let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If Thou, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? For with Thee there is forgiveness, that Thou maye be feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning; yea, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the LORD; for with the LORD there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

To me this psalm embodies not only the recognition of traditional Jewish thought that our future is in the hands of the One above, but also that our approach to the Lord is universal and not purely nationalistic.   For sure some will say that the reference to Israel is indeed nationalistic, yet the usage of the term Israel in this context can easily be interpreted as Israel representing the nations of the world and, thus, our prayer becomes universal.

Regardless of which approach appeals to each of us, the fact remains that Rabbi Taragin’s basic premise and quandary is of valid concern.  Humanity is faced with a challenge none of us have seen in our lifetimes.  To believe that it is a chance happening may satisfy the non-believers among us.  But for those of us in the traditional community we have rightful concerns that there is a message here even if we have no real way to determine what the message may be.  All we can do is address the sender and ask for a full and complete recovery for those who are ill and a release from the three of the Coronavirus for all of humankind.  We cannot afford to be nationalistic in our prayers at a time like this.

May we all be blessed to see an end to this current threat sooner rather than later.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 33 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, Ontario and Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.
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