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Is it time for a new Prayer for the State of Israel?

By Rabbi Peretz Rodman

The prayer for the State of Israel that is ubiquitous in Israeli synagogues, and recited by many congregations around the world, begins by addressing God as our familiar saviour: Avinu she-ba-shamayim, Tsur Yisrael ve-go’alo – ‘Our heavenly Father, Israel’s Rock and Redeemer…’ The prayer was composed in the first months of independence by Isaac Halevi Herzog, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel at the time, and edited by the distinguished author Shmuel Yosef Agnon. That prayer for the struggling little country, outnumbered in a war of survival and facing severe economic hardship, first appeared in the newspaper Ha-tsofeh on 20 September 1948, bearing the imprimatur of both chief rabbis, Herzog and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Uzi’el.

What prayer is appropriate for a tiny new state, with very limited resources, besieged by attackers? Perhaps a prayer for rescue, or a plea for victory to ensure survival? One would think the requests would be modest, expressing reasonable expectations. One would be wrong.

The tone does start without bombast: ‘Bless the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption.’ The messianic hopes are in check; the country is just the budding of what might flower and flourish. Then, after calling on the Lord to extend providential care to the country’s leaders, and ensure protection and victory for its armed forces, we hear shofarot sound, to herald the grand ingathering of all the exiled Israelites. Those redeemed Jews will become ‘more prosperous and more numerous that (their) ancestors.’

The background music swells; we call on the new state to herald the arrival of the Messiah, followed by a grand universal theophany – ‘Appear in Your glorious majesty over all the dwellers on earth…’ Now a crescendo: the universal recognition that the plucky little country’s deity is the Sovereign of the Universe: ‘and let all who breathe declare: “The Lord God of Israel is king and His kingship has dominion over all.” Amen! Sela!’

What outlandish hopes for a country fighting all its neighbours, its slapdash army armed with a hodgepodge of hastily procured weapons! Would it not have been sufficient to hope for food and new immigrants to make their way safely into the ports? For the road to Jerusalem to be passable without danger? For there to be quiet on the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean? Why the grandiose dreams? What kind of delusional patriots were those founders?

They were Jews. For centuries, their ancestors had punctuated their year with two peak moments at which they sang ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ They were raised to pray daily for the reunion of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael and inspired by Herzl and his successors to devote themselves to creating a new society of Hebrew-speaking Jews in our homeland. The very fact of success in attaining independence, even under the threat of annihilation, ignited their imaginations.

High hopes and lofty goals have their place, especially when fighting against all odds for an objective that suddenly seems attainable. Is it sensible today, though, when Israel is an established fact, a financially stable OECD country, and a powerhouse of technical innovation, to retain the original prayer? Or is this the time to adopt a more modest pose and tone down the rhetoric? The lovely mi she-berakh for the State of Israel in the Singer’s prayer book, for example, asks for divine guidance for the State, protection for its armed forces, and peace for its inhabitants and for all humankind. Isn’t that enough? Or must one set one’s sight on the horizon in order to take steps forward? What do you think?

Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based writer, translator, and teacher.

Posted on 29 April 2020