Israel@70: How should we pray for the Medinah?

Raising the Ink Flag, 1948. (public domain)

The traditional prayer for the State of Israel, more literally titled “A Prayer for the Peace of the State,” tefilah lish’lom hamedinah, was written in 1948 by the chief rabbis of what had up until then been Palestine, in a time of war. The state was under direct attack by the Arab armies, and there was little distinction between peace, survival, and victory.

As we approach Israel’s 70th birthday, it is time to make such distinctions. Israel and the Jewish people live in a much more complex reality, a democratic reality. A reality where the strongest military cannot create peace on its own.

This reality is one where the triumph of one party or policy can undermine the flow of justice and reverse the outlook for peace. It is a reality where praying for Israel must include not only praying for the well-being of the Jewish people, but also praying for the well-being of the region, and the well-being of the Palestinian people, many of whom are Israeli citizens, most of whom are in some way under Israel’s control. And it is a reality where praying for the well-being of mutual enemies must include praying that people on all sides be protected from their own hatred, not just from attack.

Left-leaning Zionists sometimes think they can hint at such lofty goals and make the prayer for the State inclusive by adding one word. Instead of asking for joy for the land of Israel’s inhabitants, “simchat olam l’yoshveha,” they interject a weighty “kol” and ask for joy “for all her inhabitants,” “l’khol yoshveha,” having both Jews and Palestinians in mind. Thinking that’s enough of a tikkun, a fixing, is delusional.

That does not mean that prayer should be a political manifesto. True prayer should not exclude diverse ways of seeing Israeli politics. But peace requires more than inclusion. It requires justice and dignity, and we need to pray for it that way.

As Perek Hashalom teaches, without justice there can be no peace: “כל מקום שיש משפט יש שלום וכל מקום שיש שלום יש משפט”. Similarly, without justice, there can be no redemption, as Isaiah said, “Zion through justice will be redeemed.” (1:27)

A good prayer for Israel therefore needs to aspire to the highest level of justice, to the best reality, not only for Israel’s Jews or even Israel’s citizens, but also for everyone who lives “in the land,” whether they are Jewish or not, Israeli and Palestinian and everyone else, no matter where they are in relation to the Green Line or Areas A, B and C.

A more complicated understanding of peace — something that is not zero-sum, something that could potentially lead to “two states for two peoples” — has been mainstream for decades. But that understanding has no purchase, no place of repose, in the traditional prayer.

Instead, people who claim to be in favor of “peace,” but who imagine peace only in terms of Israel’s ability to dominate all the people and all the land of historic Palestine, have a prayer that works well for them. These are the same kind of people who disingenuously declaim King David’s line as if it were describing themselves, “I am peace(ful), but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalm 120:7)

We need a prayer that works well for the rest of us, and not so well for them. But this is not a question of endorsing a particular political program. It is possible to love peace and humanity and also love the land of Judea so much that one wants to live in the Palestinian territories. The followers of Rav Menachem Froman exemplify such an approach, and they sincerely pray and work for the well-being and political dignity of their Palestinian neighbors. But it is not possible to love peace and wish that the Palestinian people would disappear. It is not possible to love peace and to call African asylum seekers “infiltrators.”

By the same token, none but a delusional person could describe the current State of Israel to be moving in the direction of redemption. So to call Israel “reishit tz’michat g’ulateinu,” “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption,” is also dishonest, however much we may wish it were true. It is more honest is to express the simple hope that someday Israel may become that, and then to focus on the kind of justice that can make that happen.

No prayer should nurture dishonesty, or comfort the “lying tongue” bemoaned in Psalm 120. No prayer for Israel should allow a person to mouth support for peace while supporting policies whose goal is to destroy people’s lives and deny their fundamental humanity.

With that in mind, I offer the following revision of the prayer for Israel (with added words italicized):

Our parent in heaven and on Earth, Rock of Israel and its redeemer, bless the State of Israel, so that she may become the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.

 

Shield her with Your embrace of love and spread over her Your sukkah-shelter of peace, and send Your light and Your righteousness to her heads, ministers, advisers, and judges, and to the nation that elects them, and align them with the spirit of justice from You, as it is said, Zion through justice will be redeemed and her captives through righteousness. (Isaiah 1:27)

 

Rescue all of Your land, from the Jordan River to the sea, from the spilling of blood, and all residing and sojourning there, under every government, from haters without and hatred within. Grant peace in the land, and secure calm to her defenders, lasting joy to all her inhabitants, and real hope for all her peoples. And let us say: Amen.

 

אֹמְנֵנוּ* | אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ,

צוּר יִשְׂרָאֵל וְגוֹאֲלוֹ, בָּרֵךְ אֶת מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל,

שֶׁתְּהֵא לְרֵאשִׁית צְמִיחַת גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ.

הָגֵן עָלֶיהָ בְּאֶבְרַת חַסְדֶּךָ, וּפְרֹשׂ עָלֶיהָ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶךָ,

וּשְׁלַח אוֹרְךָ וְצִדְקֶךָ לְרָאשֶׁיהָ שָׂרֶיהָ יוֹעֲצֶיהָ

וְשׁוֹפְטֶיהָ, וְלַלְּאֹם שֶׁבּוֹחֵר בָּם

וְתַקְּנֵם בְּרוּחַ מִשְׁפָּט מִלְּפָנֶיךָ

שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר ״צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה

הָצֵל נָא אֶת כָּל אַרְצֶךָ בֵּין יַרְדֵּן לַיָּם מִשְּׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים 

וְכָל הַיּוֹשְׁבִים וְהַגָּרִים בָּהּ תַּחַת כָּל שִׁלְטוֹן 

מִשׂוֹנְאִים בַּחוּץ וּמִשִּׂנְאָה בִּפְנִים

וְנָתַתָּ שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ וְשַׁלְוָה לִמְגִנֶיהָ,

שִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם לְכָל יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ וְתִקְוָה טוֹבָה לְכָל עַמֶּיהָ,

.וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

The revised prayer not only emphasizes justice, it also recognizes that in a democracy, we need to pray not only for the wisdom of the country’s leaders, but also for the wisdom of the electorate, which is the real source of power and sanity, or insanity, and for the wisdom of the judges, who in Israel have played such an important role in stopping or delaying some of the more violent or racist government policies, like the forced deportation of asylum seekers from Africa or the demolition of Bedouin villages.

The revised prayer also leaves out one line from the standard prayer in the siddur: “Strengthen the hands of those who defend the land…and crown them with the crown of victory.”

That’s not because we would want the State of Israel’s defenders to lose a battle. Rather, in a time of war, we should say a full prayer for the protection and success of soldiers, like the Mi Shebeirakh prayer used by the IDF, not a single line that barely recognizes the difficulties soldiers face. And in a less critical time, any hope we might have for the well-being of the IDF should already be included in the added phrase “grant secure calm (shalvah) to her defenders.” That phrase has the benefit of being able to include everyone working for peace, justice, and security in the lands of Israel/Palestine and the State of Israel.

On Israel’s 70th birthday, let our prayers become prayers of truth; let our prayers become prayers of justice. Let peace stop being a hollow slogan. Let it become an idea that convicts our lust for war. Let our prayer for peace be a prayer that teaches peace.

There are several places to download a copy of this prayer to use liturgically or for text study. One is neohasid.org. You can get a pdf with the prayer in three different formats here. Or you can download the raw text to lay it out and rewrite it according to your heart’s content or your community’s needs here. Then, let us pray with truth.

* אֹמְנֵנוּ (Om’neinu) is a gender-diverse alternative to Avinu derived from omenet, one who breastfeeds (see Num. 11:12, Ruth 4:16, Esther 2:7).

 

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a liturgist well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting. David is also an avid dancer.
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