By Dr. Erica Brown
Today is a time for hope and prayer…
I pray for the equanimity to accept whatever the election result is.
I pray that there will be no violence as a result of this election.
I pray that relationships fractured by politics will be reconciled.
I pray for the patience to wait out what could be a long and drawn out election.
I pray for an end to gratuitously mean arguments among strangers and friends on Facebook.
I pray for the curiosity to learn more about the governance of this country.
I pray in thanksgiving to retrieve the time I spent sending out political memes.
I pray for the kindness to reach out to neighbors who did not vote like me.
I pray that millions of lawn signs will find themselves in recycling bins by the end of the week.
I pray that I can put the distraction of this election behind me and return with full energy to my work and my family.
I pray for a peaceful succession of power.
I pray that whatever party wins will reach across the aisle.
I pray that no matter the outcome, we will all take racial injustice seriously.
I pray that no matter the outcome, anti-Semitism will be on the decline.
I pray that every congregational rabbi in this country will give a sermon on Jewish unity this Shabbat.
I pray that whoever sits in the highest seat in the nation will do everything within his power to fight COVID-19 and return America’s citizens to good health.
I pray that we can still internalize the Talmud’s message of robust and respectful debate.
I pray that I am fair enough to acknowledge the contributions of the party I did not vote for.
I pray for the wisdom to believe in our unity even when we don’t act uniformly.
Peggy Noonon in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal (“Raucous 2016 Gives Way to Subdued,” Oct. 29, 2020) claims that politics today functions for many as a replacement for religion. Like religion, politics can dictate what we think, say and do. It creates psychic and proximal communities. It has its rituals and its high priests. It’s a source of inspiration and passion. It can also be taken to extremes and lead to harmful judgments of those on the other side of the aisle.
In this climate, we need to remind ourselves that we already have a religion. Thank you very much. One of its cornerstones is not only God’s Oneness, but ours. These days I find myself meditating upon a few lines from a traditional prayer, Tachanun, a supplication that follows the Eighteen Benedictions: “Guardian of one nation, guard the remnant of one people. Let not the oneness of our nation perish, who proclaim the Oneness of Your Name.” It is a petition that our unity not be compromised, that just as God is One, we will still be one. We must. Politics has done enough damage. Fractured Jewish communities need healing.
Yet our religion demands that we care about government. And so for thousands of years, we’ve enacted the mandate to pray for the welfare of the government, a law derived from the biblical book of Jeremiah: “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” (29:7). The message couldn’t be clearer. We prosper when our country prospers, no matter when or where we live. It is this spirit that moved Menasseh ben Israel to write “The Prayer for the Safety of Kings, Princes and Commonwealths,” to Oliver Cromwell in 1655: “The King of kings defend him in his mercy, making him joyful, and free him from all dangers and distress.” It is this spirit that moved Hendla Jochanan van Oettingen in 1784 to compose the “Prayer for the Welfare of George Washington, George Clinton, and the Thirteen States of America” that asks God, “to strengthen and support the saving shield of our lord and commanding general George Washington, the appointed chief of the war on sea and on land and throughout the country hath all his forces infantry and cavalry.”
It is in this spirit that Jewish citizens of Germany in the 1930s prayed for their Fatherland in the Sephat Emeth Siddur that we read today with the desperate sadness of hindsight:
Remove from her land’s pleasant places
disease and sword and famine and sorrow,
that all her children may rest in peace and quiet,
and may no destroyer touch their tents.
May the sound of violence never be heard in our borders,
as you stop wars to the edge of the earth,
that each man may return to his vine and under his fig tree.
It is this spirit that led the great scholar Dr. Louis Ginzberg in the 1920s to adapt the traditional prayer for the government, sharing what ideal governance would do for the citizens of this country if its leaders shared the same prophetic aspirations. It blessed: “its President, judges, officers and officials, who work faithfully for the public good” and asked them to be enlightened with the rules of God’s justice. Perhaps other faith traditions have their own equivalent prayer for the government, uniting us in a joint spiritual quest for good leadership.
While prayers for the government change, the inherent sentiment of Jeremiah stays the same. We pray for our country to prosper because we are inextricably linked to its fate. This may have precipitated Rabbi Chanina’s saying in Ethics of the Fathers: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, man would swallow his fellow alive” (3:2). We pray for good governance since at its most pragmatic, it keeps our basest impulses in check. At its best, we are our best.
But what happens when politics unleashes the basest of our instincts? Here’s where we come in. After election day, it is our job as lay leaders, Jewish communal professionals, educators and clergy, to make Jewish unity our top order of business in the days, weeks and months ahead. No matter the outcome, we turn back to Louis Ginzberg’s rousing words, with the hope that whatever outcome “peace, tranquility, happiness and freedom will never depart from our land.” We ask that we have the moral fortitude to uproot from our hearts “all hate, animosity, jealousy and strife” that we may aspire to the enduring dignity of being created in God’s image. Every single one of us.
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.