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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת שמות, תשפ״א

Parshat Sh'mot, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, January 9th, 2021

Pray for Peace, Pray for Our Government

רבי חנניה סגן הכהנים אומר: הוי מתפלל בשלומה של מלכות שאלמלא מוראה איש את רעהו חיים בלעו.

Rabbi Hananiah, the Deputy High Priest, used to say: Pray for the peace of our government, since, were it not for the fear (the awe) it inspires, people would swallow each other up alive. (Pirkei Avot 3:2)

Rabbi Hananiah originally taught in a very different time than our own, two thousand years ago, in which we, the Jewish people, had no say in our government, in which disrespect of government often led to much more immediate, deadly consequences than it does today. And yet, we saw Rabbi Hananiah’s words in action this past Wednesday. As leaders within our own government spouted unfounded claims of election fraud and stoked the fires of conspiracy theorists across the country, distrust of the powers that be grew into Wednesday’s violence at our Capitol. As factions within our government focused more on disagreement with one another than on the real, growing discontent among the American people, they failed to prepare for a chaos for which they could have planned. Five people died in Wednesday’s violence - one police officer and four civilians. As trust of our elected officials, of our democratic process as a whole, wanes, we see the reality of our people turning against one another on the very symbol of national hallowed ground.

I am so incredibly grateful for the aftermath of Wednesday’s events; federal and local police and armed forces joined together to stop the insurrection present in the Capitol building, and at the end of the day, democracy was enacted with honor. Our elected officials stayed in the Capitol building until the early hours of the morning to decide the future of our nation, refusing to let violence interrupt the democratic process of certifying election results. And yet, I cannot believe that Wednesday’s violence was a one-off event; mistrust does not end in an instant, and I am afraid.

While thoughts and prayers will never be enough to heal the divides we see in our country, I truly believe that that simple act of praying for our country can help start to bring us there. We pray to express gratitude - to say thank you to those who protected our lawmakers, and ultimately, the American people on Wednesday. We express gratitude for the members of Congress and and all of their staff who pulled all-nighters both for the practical certification of the presidential election and for the symbolic gesture of showing us that our democracy lives.

We pray to remind ourselves to pay attention, to look for ways to heal discontent - both our own and that of our neighbors. Like so many in our community already do, we get involved in whatever part of the democratic process we can, attending town hall meetings, writing letters to our elected officials, writing op-eds, and of course, voting in every election. Now more than ever, we pray to remind ourselves to stay up to date on the news, to teach ourselves, and more importantly, the next generation about the civil process, so that ignorance cannot continue to grow in our midst.

We pray for wisdom from God to help us figure out how to best heal divides. While disagreement is an integral part of our democratic process, it cannot be productive without mutual understanding and active listening. A prayer for our country cannot just mean a prayer for my side and my opinion to win out; we ask God for the wisdom to achieve something much broader, a peace that respects the image of God present in each and every one of our nation’s inhabitants.

We are blessed to exist in a nation in which we have the ability to influence our decision-makers. We are blessed to be protected by local, state, and federal forces whose actions our voices can directly affect. Today in particular, I feel blessed to live in a country in which, despite delays in rollouts, I and others in our community have had the privilege to receive a COVID vaccination for free. I feel blessed to live in a nation in which those brandishing symbols of Nazism and white supremacy did not and cannot gain control. Ultimately, we are blessed to dwell in a nation whose government has the checks and balances in place to keep singular voices from drowning out all others.

Long before Rabbi Hananinyah, the prophet Jeremiah asked us to pray on behalf the land in which we inhabit for his own practical reason - כי בשלומה יהיה לכם שלום - for in its peace, you will experience peace (Jeremiah 29:7). Despite our country’s many imperfections, we have each witnessed glimpses of peace that could have only come in place because of the potential present in our democratic system of government. As that potential is far from realized, let us imagine, for a moment, how many more glimpses of that peace we could catch with just a little more attention to our prayers, to our visions, our deeds, and our ways of life!

Each Shabbat morning, we recite a prayer for our country, written by Professor Louis Ginzberg in the 1920s, a prayer that encompasses our gratitude for a nation that aspires towards liberty and justice. Please join me, if you feel so inclined:

Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country - for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights from Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.

Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.

May this land, under Your providence, be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom - helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more.” And let us say: Amen.

That last line of this prayer for our country, a verse from Isaiah, comes right after another famous statement: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” As we look towards an America united in purpose, even if divided in opinion, let us grasp onto that ideal posited by Isaiah - the way towards peace, towards our best nation cannot be through physical violence, even (or especially) if we believe our position is right. Rather, we achieve that banishment of hatred and bigotry, that attention to justice and freedom through using our voices to build a government that inspires our awe, respect, and ultimately, peace.