God and Country

On my Facebook page last week, I posed a question—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—asking whether there was a blessing for Donald Trump. Even so, there was a real answer that I had in mind.

There are many different blessings that one is supposed to recite on various occasions, such as witnessing a wonder of nature, meeting a person of extraordinary learning and scholarship, hearing good or bad news, and yes, seeing a monarch or head of state in person. So according to Jewish tradition, when you see Donald Trump, you may recite:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךהָעולָם שֶנָּתַן מִכְּבודו לְבָשָׂר וָדָם

Blessed are you Adonai, ruler of the universe, who gives of His glory to flesh and blood.

The implicit message in this prayer is that the power of our leaders really emanates from God and that the system of orderly government and justice and our choice of leaders is a gift from Adonai. (And unfortunately returns are not allowed.)

Building on this idea, many synagogues include a Prayer for the Country in their Shabbat services. You might think this is a more modern addition to the liturgy, but in fact, it can be traced back to the Babylonian exile: in Jeremiah Chapter 29, we read, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”

Jeremiah’s message was well ahead of its time—when the government is stable and the people are happy and provided for, the Jewish people will flourish and prosper. And conversely, we know what can happen when the people are not happy and society is unstable—something that I think is on our minds a lot lately.

This idea is clearly articulated in Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3. It says: Pray for the welfare of the government, for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive.

That’s really an amazing statement—it seems to confirm that the only thing standing between us and anarchy, or some kind of pogrom or other persecution, is the order that a stable government provides.

The first formal prayer for a country was entitled “Hanoten Teshua”—He Who Grants Victory to Kings, and appeared in various forms beginning in the 15th century. There are different versions, depending on the specific country, in which the names of ruling monarchs, Kaisers, or emperors were inserted.

Today I wonder whether many Jews still have an inherent fear of instability and the existential danger that can result. Do we pray for the success and welfare of our country out of fear?

What do you think? Leave a comment below…


Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

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