If you have been to Congregation Beth Shalom in the last few years, you might have heard me say this: Tefillah is not intended to be rushed through, intoned meaninglessly. Pirkei Avot (2:13) tells us that our words of prayer should not be rote recitation, but rather pleas for mercy and supplication before God. It should never be that we mumble empty words of tefillah, trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, without connecting those ancient words with ourselves.
The same is true for the English “Prayer for Our Country” that we recite each Shabbat morning (p. 177 in Siddur Lev Shalem). There is a good case to be made that the words of this prayer are arguably more essential right now than ever before, as our nation faces great challenges:
- The challenge of division, wherein people on opposite sides of the aisle cannot speak to each other civilly, or at all;
- The challenge of distinct narratives, in which online echo chambers reinforce that division;
- The challenge of hatred of those not like us; of hatred of all kinds; of fear of the immigrant and refugee;
- The challenge of race; of fashioning a just society in which all are given a fair shot in life regardless of the color of their skin; and
- The challenge posed by the erosion of our democratic ideals and the diminishing respect for scientific inquiry.
As we pray now for an end to hatred and bigotry, to poverty and racism, let us remember that we all need each other; that we cannot sing together until all voices join in. We have no choice but to rise above party and group identity, to reach beyond boundaries of religion and race and ethnicity for the sake of the common good.
We celebrate Thanksgiving this week, a holiday on which we as a nation recall our gratitude for what we have. Perhaps on this Thanksgiving, we will all spend some time reflecting on those things that still connect us, be grateful for them, and consider what we need to do to build on those connections.
Let this Thanksgiving be a prayerful one.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/17/2018.)