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…

 

Kiss This, Not That

Are you a kipah-kisser?

We’ve all seen it countless times. You’re wearing a kipah in temple—it falls off your head and onto the floor. You bend over, pick it up, give it a little kiss, and replace it on your head.

Please, in the name of everything that is holy in this world, stop kissing your kipah.

In fact, that’s precisely why you should stop—because we save that specific action only for items that we consider holy. And within the Jewish tradition, that’s usually limited to anything that contains the printed name of God, like a Siddur or Prayer Book.

Where did this strange custom of kissing a head covering come from?

I would assume it gets passed around by well-meaning Hebrew school teachers who are making the effort to instill a sense of respect in their students. I suppose the reasoning is that when kids come into the synagogue building, they put on a kipah—which then takes on the aspect of a ritual or holy item.

But it’s not even close.

A kipah (sometimes called a yarmulke—there, that really cleared it up) is nothing more than something used to cover your head. Period. Jews are instructed to keep their heads covered as a sign of respect—to symbolize that as important as we think we are, there is always something even more powerful and in control over us. So whereas the general public is trained to remove their hats as a sign of respect, we Jews do the exact opposite.

Kipot come in many forms—whether it’s the colorful satin ones that you can use as bar mitzvah trading cards (“Look, I got Sidney Goldblatt, November 1972!”), or the old standby black ones. But those are just provided for people’s convenience. Any hat would do—whether it’s a fedora, baseball cap, or sombrero (go ahead, I dare you). Could you imagine how silly it would be for a kid to drop his baseball cap in temple, and then kiss it before putting it back on his head?

But the bigger issue is that when we treat everything as holy, then really nothing is. It’s as if we’re putting a ratty shmata on the same spiritual plane as the Torah. Reserving our reverence exclusively for ritual items that contain the name of God helps us put our actions and thoughts into a larger context.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below…

 

 

Jewish Slacktivism, Part I

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

I love the English language. New words get invented on a regular basis to keep up with the ever-changing trends and events that we see in our modern lives. One excellent example of such a word is “slacktivism.” This word was a result of the many campaigns and causes on social media. For instance, you might be instructed to change your profile picture to identify with a certain cause, or to “like and share” a post—ostensibly to support finding a cure for a specific disease or to express solidarity behind a specific group. The slightly mocking and sarcastic term “slacktivism” refers to the fact that you felt much better about really doing something and being involved when in fact, you didn’t do anything more than press a button.

It occurred to me that we have slacktivism in the Jewish world as well.

One of the most meaningful and transcendent prayers that exist in our liturgy is the Prayer for Healing, often referred to as The Misheberach. What sets this particular prayer apart is its very nature as a personal entreaty on behalf of someone who is close to us. So much of what we find in the Siddur is written in the first person, plural form. “Help us, God,” “Give us your blessings.”

Here we have the chance to single out one individual who is in need of help and support. Not only healing, refuah, but actually making that person whole again, refuah sh’leimah.

There are many ways in which this prayer is traditionally recited in the service, but the most common way is to include it as part of the Torah service. There’s an added sense of gravitus when the Torah is present, almost as if God’s presence is more tangible. Someone who wishes to recite this prayer for healing might be invited to come up at the proper time and provide the person’s Hebrew or English name, so that this very personal detail may be weaved into the otherwise fixed text.

Something wonderful and powerful happens at that moment.

The member of the congregation feels the support of the community—as if that person is saying to everyone, “Someone who is close to me is ill. I need to have as much support around me as possible to help us get through this.” Often, upon hearing the name of the person who is in need of healing, other people might approach this worshipper and express concern, support, and love. It’s a moment of vulnerability and an expression of need.

Unfortunately, the Misheberach prayer has become formulaic and has lost its impact, in some part due to the actions of well-meaning synagogues and other organizations that maintain a “Misheberach list” of some type. People might be invited to contact the temple office and ask for a name to be recited during the next service. To me, this completely misses the point of this powerful prayer.

Prayer is not something we can outsource. The Hebrew word for “pray,” l’hitpalel, is a reflexive verb, implying that we pray to change ourselves more than to effect some external outcome. When we recite the Prayer for Healing, it’s more about seeking the support of our Jewish community rather than truly expecting some supernatural miracle from above.

If you call the synagogue office and simply leave a name on the voice mail, you’ve become a Jewish slacktivist—you think you’ve accomplished something without making any real effort. Instead, you could have come to services and recited the Prayer for Healing along with the congregation. Even if attending services is impossible for whatever reason, you might have asked for a copy of the prayer—whether in Hebrew or English—so that you could personally recite it.

You can’t experience the power of congregational support by adding a name to a list.

Stay tuned for Part II of Jewish Slacktivism.

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