Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Reflections on the Prayer for The State of Israel


Like many synagogues around the world, praying for the safety and health of the State of Israel has taken on new importance in the aftermath of October 7th. While I know that many of us have questions about the theological and philosophical efficacy of petitionary prayer in general, the act of coming together as a community in worship and publicly affirming our fears about and connection to the State of Israel feels essential - especially at this troubling time. Here at Temple Emanuel we have now added the Tfillah  L'Medinat Yisrael (Prayer for the State of Israel) into every service.

In making the decision to add this prayer to our weekly services, the question arose about which version we should utilize – as there are many variations Recently, I have been looking into the origins of this prayer, and how they have evolved over time.

When the Modern State of Israel was established in 1948, the newly appointed Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion tasked the Chief Rabbis of Israel – Yitzhak HaLevi Hertzog and Ben Tzion Meir Hai Uziel - to compose a suitable prayer commemorating the occasion – a prayer that could be used in Synagogues around the world asking God’s blessing on and protection of for the nascent Jewish state.

The full text of the original prayer is rarely used in most synagogues today. It was written in the aftermath of the Shoah and reflects both the pain of our people’s experience and the desire for Jews to gain power over our enemies so that there never could be another Holocaust.  In particular, the phrase, “…send us quickly the Messiah son of David, agent of Your vindication, to redeem those who await Your deliverance,” shows the pain of a people who directly experienced the terror of the Nazi regime, as well as the fear of our enemies and concern for those who remain in peril.

One phrase that has remained constant though, is the description of the State of Israel as Reishit tzmichat  g’ulateynu” – “The beginnings of the flowering of our redemption.”  This phrase was reportedly added by Chaim Nachman Bialik, who is widely recognized as the most famous of all modern Hebrew poets. There are multiple ways to interpret this phrase. The meaning of ‘redemption’ can take on Messianic overtones, historical longings, and/or a statement about Jewish self-determination. The implication of the prayer is that redemption is not only in God’s hands, but that we can bring it about by our actions and intention. Bialik’s words reflect a belief in the fact that, for too long, Jews were subject to foreign rule. Now that we have a State of our own, we have the ability and responsibility to raise ourselves up out of the morass of subjugation and take matters into our own hands.

Another component of the original text calls for God’s protection and guidance over the government, armed forces, and all religious, judicial, and secular leaders of the State. These words have remained intact in most versions of the prayer, but sections of the prayer that ask God to destroy our enemies so that we might prosper are problematic and have been edited out of most versions.

Many feel that it is also important to stress the hopes of peace – even in times of war – and, in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, to remind ourselves that all of humanity is created in the image of God. Given that certain Far-Right elements in the current government are vocally calling for “resettlement” of Palestinians in Gaza, it is vitally important that the language of prayer rejects this draconian and racist agenda.

Here at Temple, we use the following text:

God who watches over the world, bless the State of Israel- first fruit of the fulfillment of Your promise of hope and peace. Protect it with Your care – that it may serve as a light to the world. Spread over it the shelter of Your peace. Extend the light of Your wisdom to all who govern and advise that they may work to create a society based on safety, equality, and love. Establish peace in the land and grant fullness of joy to all who live there.

Eternal God, we ask you to spread your shield of protection over all who are in harm’s way

And let us say, Amen.

It is incumbent upon us to  pray for peace in Israel for all – Israelis and Palestinians alike – so that we can work towards the day when conflict will cease and cooperation and coexistence will take root – flowering like the hopes for redemption that is the central theme of our prayer.


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