Our Prayers for Israel—For Whom Is the Message?

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Jul 24, 2014 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Israel Prayer

A serious challenge confronting the all-too-human venture of praying to God is in working out what we can say to the “One Who knows all.” A prayer for a congregation to recite in the face of destructive storms might open with the words, “God, we stand before you in time of peril”—but if God truly knows all, might we not assume that God is well aware of the peril facing the community? So the words are not, so to speak, necessary for the message directed to God, but they arecertainly important for the community: in saying the words together, their hearts and souls join together, recognizing and acknowledging their shared weakness in time of danger.

Within the arena of Jewish liturgy, one of the great advantages of the matbe’a tefillah (the traditional fixed texts of prayer) is their antiquity. We see them as a received body of text, and even in most liberal circles there is a sense of “innocent until proven guilty”: the traditional words will remain untouched unless they are seen as presenting an acute theological challenge. Most denominations share at least 90 percent of the words of the ‘Amidah, with only a few changes driven by the theological or philosophical foundations of that movement. For example, the Reform movement tends to avoid the phrase that affirms God as mehayei hameitim (reviving the dead), replacing those words with an expression that God gives life to all.

Contemporary prayers are subject to far greater scrutiny and demand great care. In these challenging weeks, the dangers facing our brothers and sisters in Israel weigh deeply upon hearts, minds, and souls, and there have been many prayers written that engage us directly with the dangers faced by Israelis, and in some cases also the dangers faced by Palestinians. The import of the words and ideas chosen for these prayers is substantial, and I am sadly aware that communal distress and even anger has arisen over the words, and associated values, that are set out in these prayers.

For example, our Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel has published this prayer by Rabbi Simcha Roth (z”l), recited in many congregation in Israel in times of danger. What is especially moving is the way Rabbi Roth’s words speak not only of finding success for the endeavors of those serving in Tzahal (Israel Defense Forces), but also of their returning safely to their homes and loved ones.

On July 17, my colleague Rabbi Menachem Creditor posted “A Prayer for Right Now” on his blog while visiting Israel.

Many among the leaders of the Jewish community have been challenged to find a way to recognize the suffering of Palestinians in their prayers, even though that suffering is attributable to the callous decisions of their leaders. The Reform Movement has included this powerful poem by Yehuda Amichai among its resources. Many others have looked to find the words that will embrace our care for the well-being of all people simultaneously with our special concern for Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) and those who dwell within her borders.

We have presented before the recording of the “traditional” prayer for the State of Israel, recorded by Hazzan Shai Abramson, chief cantor of the IDF.

Listen to an English rendition of Sha’alu Shalom Yerushalayim (Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem).