The 46th president of the United States, just before he was sworn in on Wednesday, did something remarkable: he prayed. As his predecessor boarded Air Force One to head out of town, Joe Biden went to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, presumably to daven (pray) the Catholic equivalent of shaharit / the morning service.
As you know, I am a big fan of prayer. I do it every day, and I am convinced that tefillah / prayer is good for you. It is the original Jewish form of mindfulness meditation. Tefillah centers me; in the morning it gets me ready to face the day; in the evening it is a gentle, reflective conclusion, an opportunity to check in with myself.
I am convinced that if we all did just a little more prayer, if we all took reflective moments more frequently, our world would be a better, kinder, gentler, more united world. And of course that applies to all of us – not just the Jews, of course, or the Christians, but all of us, and even those who do not belong to a particular faith tradition. Prayer, whatever form it takes or whatever you call it, has the potential to bring us all together, to build bridges.
The television coverage that I saw on Wednesday morning did not actually show the president-elect in prayer, just the exterior of the church. Nonetheless, to see this very public, yet also very private moment of prayer brought tears to my eyes.
A little while later, Father Leo O’Donovan, a Catholic priest, gave the invocation before the swearing-in, and he said the following:
There is a power in each and every one of us that lives by turning to every other one of us, a thrust of the spirit to cherish and care and stand by others, and above all those most in need. It is called love, and its path is to give ever more of itself. Today, it is called American patriotism, born not of power and privilege but of care for the common good – “with malice toward none and with charity for all.”
In Father O’Donovan’s words, I hear the yearning to be once again “one nation, under God,” acknowledging the love and faith that should bind us together as a society in pursuit of the common good.
And so we find ourselves this week in perhaps a more prayerful stance as a nation, and it is absolutely serendipitous that we read from Parashat Bo this morning, including arguably the most essential items in the story of yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.
One of the key features of the Exodus narrative is that the freedom, the redemption from slavery that Moshe and the Israelites seek includes as a fundamental principle the ability to worship the one true God. By definition, slavery (in Hebrew, עבדות avdut, from the shoresh עבד, to serve), precludes service to God. Integral to that freedom for the Israelites is the license to worship God, the autonomy to be a servant of faith rather than a servant of other people.
Almost every time, when Moshe approaches Pharaoh to ask for freedom, he says something similar to what we find up front in Parashat Bo, Shemot / Exodus 10:7: שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְיַֽעַבְד֖וּ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיהֶ֑ם Shalah et ha-anashim veya’avdu et Adonai eloheihem. Let the people go to worship the Lord their God!
Freedom, as the Torah sees it, includes that holy relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu.
And so too today: building a better future in our very divided country necessitates God’s presence in our lives, however we understand that presence.
Now, do not go reading this as a screed against atheists, or a repudiation of the separation of church and state. On the contrary: we need a greater sense of shared faith in this country, among the diverse people of this nation, because, as Father O’Donovan suggested, that will, through love, enable us to build a better nation, infused with a unified pursuit of the common good. As servants of God who see the Divine spark in each other, who see our shared humanity, we can and should work together to build bridges, to create a stronger, more resilient society and a healthier democracy. Even those who reject theology outright can, I hope, get on board with seeking the common good through shared love of humanity, of our fellow citizens.
And a key piece of this sense of shared love is interfaith cooperation.
You may know that I grew up in an area with relatively few Jews. Until I went to college, virtually all of my friends and neighbors and classmates were Christian, mainline Protestants and Catholics, and my family was among a handful of Jewish families in my home town. We all knew each other, and I think it is fair to say that, to some extent, we the Jews felt like outsiders. Not that our neighbors treated us badly or as enemies, but there was definitely a mutual awareness of our difference. Sometimes this awareness bred resentment, as, for example, when well-meaning Christian friends failed to understand that we did not celebrate Christmas. It was sometimes hard to see past this, given some of the history of Christian/Jewish relations. There was a time in my life when I would not have wanted to listen to the words of a Catholic priest giving an invocation at an official gathering.
My sense is that things are somewhat different today; the religious landscape in America has changed. Many of us now look at each other across religious divisions as allies. Yes, of course there are issues that divide us. But what we who are partners in faith share is much greater, and much more powerful.
Rabbi Jeremy Markiz and I were at a meeting on Thursday of the Priest-Rabbi dialogue, a discussion between local Catholic and Jewish clergy which meets from time to time to discuss interesting theological issues. At this meeting, we read a statement from 2002 produced by a group of influential North American Christian scholars attempting to reframe the historically fraught relationship between Jews and Christians. Among the principles expressed in this document were, “God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever,” and, “Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today.”
Our discussion broke toward the points of disagreement among Christian theologians and within the Jewish world about some subtleties of our beliefs. But the greater message is well-taken: today we are allies in the struggle against disorder, disunity, and distrust. We are united in facing the challenges of poverty and racism, hunger and homelessness, mental health and addiction and isolation.
I heard a podcast this week from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem about Parashat Bo, taught by Pardes teacher Tovah Leah Nachmani, about emunah / faith. She pointed to a commentary by Ramban, aka Nachmanides, who lived in 13th-century Spain. In surveying Parashat Bo, Ramban points to the symbols of emunah found in this parashah: the annual observance of Pesah / Passover that we read this morning, and the wearing of tefillin (Ex. 13:16, the last line in the parashah). Ramban suggests that these symbols (the Hebrew term is ot, sign) of faith are meant to remind us of the role that God plays in our lives. There will not be an Exodus in every generation, says Ramban, but every year when we celebrate Pesah we remember that power. The tefillin that we put on every morning are an ot, a sign of the binding promise that God has made with us to help us live better lives through the framework of mitzvot.
Ms. Nachmani expands on Ramban’s line of thinking to include Shabbat and regular tefillah, such that we have daily, weekly, and annual signs before us: The weekly reminder of Shabbat, also described as an ot (beini uvein benei Yisrael, ot hi le’olam – Ex. 31:17) gives us a taste of the true peace that will someday come if we commit to the common good.
Faith and freedom are intertwined; we must keep those symbols of faith in front of us; we must use them to remind ourselves to reach out to our neighbors in love. We must also remind ourselves that we have partners, who do not celebrate Pesah or wear tefillin, yet who also have faith; these signs of faith can also lead us to dream about what we can accomplish when we are all praying together.
We remembered this past week the strength of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, what he accomplished, inspired by God and the words of the biblical prophets. Consider that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had the vision to reach out to and march with Dr. King as a partner in faith, at a time when many of us were not thinking far beyond our own community.
Our future depends on building bridges of prayer and bridges of emunah / faith. Our Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist friends and neighbors are all interconnected with us; we may differ on how we approach or understand the Divine and the role that the holy relationship plays in our lives, but we mostly agree on the outcome: that we can build a better world through shared prayer, faith, and love.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/23/2021.)