January 20, 2010
Do We Have A Prayer?
As Shabbat approached this past week, two things were immediately obvious. One was that we needed to daven for the people of Haiti in shul on Shabbat morning. The other was that there is nothing remotely close to a “Prayer for non-Israelites who are Suffering” anywhere in our siddur. Same for the book of Tehilim, to which we always instinctively turn at a time of crisis.
Sure enough, a Mi Sheberach prayer composed specifically for the catastrophe in Haiti soon began making its way through the Jewish internet. The Mi Sheberach’s modern Hebrew was flawless and the sentiments it expressed were profound, urgent, and moving. But I knew that I wasn’t going to use it in shul the next day. For starters, too many of my congregants would not understand the Hebrew. And even for those congregants who would understand them, the recitation of these words, beautiful as they were, wouldn’t resonate in their souls as “davening”. “Davening” involves reciting words that are old, that conjure up memories, that join us instantly to generations past, that appear in a book whose pages are worn with use.
It was getting late, and I still didn’t have a prayer.
Thankfully, a line from selichot that that so pointedly related to the tragic plight of the earthquake survivors, surfaced in my head. “Perhaps He will have compassion upon the poor and impoverished nation. Perhaps he will have mercy.” (It’s a refrain – concerning ourselves - which we repeat in the Selichot on the third day before Rosh HaShana). Suddenly, in my mind’s ear, I could hear the kahal (congregation) davening this line, in response to the ba’al tefilla davening the middle verses of Ashrai, which speak of God’s compassion over all His creation. And finally, we had a prayer.
After Shabbat, I lingered over the fact that our books of song and prayer do not contain prayers for people other than ourselves (with the exception of a few paragraphs from the Rosh HaShana machzor.) And as I’ve done before, I worked on persuading myself that this fact is not as telling as it might seem, that it doesn’t reflect some kind of fundamental religious position of ours that the goyim can worry about themselves, that we need not, or perhaps even should not be davening for them in their time of distress. After all of the greatest figures in our history davened for non-Jews. In the parsha we had just read, literally minutes before we davened for Haiti, Moshe cried out in prayer three separate times asking God to relieve the suffering of Pharaoh and the Egyptians of all people! (He does it again this coming week.) And the prophet Jonah is specifically sent to save Assyrians from calamity. And there’s Avraham praying for the people of Sodom of course. And we have a long, long tradition of praying for our host government (though there is a touch of self-concern in this prayer as well). It worked, and I felt reassured, “precedented”. Yet, there is a residual shadow. Shouldn’t there be something, somewhere in our canon of prayer that can be easily whipped out in cases of non-Jewish calamity?
What do you think about all this?