Do We Have A Prayer (for Haiti)? R. Yosef Kanefsky

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?

5 Responses to Do We Have A Prayer (for Haiti)? R. Yosef Kanefsky

  1. Shai says:

    In line with the “what’s good for General Motors is good for America” line of thinking of the CEO of General Motors in the 1950’s, we seem to believe what goes good for the Jews goes well for the world.

    That’s the belief we had regarding the destruction of the Temples – “if only they knew how the world was sustained by the Temple, they’d never have destroyed it” was our refrain. The Temple’s value was objectively demonstrated, we thought, by the leaders of foreign lands sending gifts on Sukkot. “The rain falls on Jews and non-Jews”, after all.

    In the time of Moshiach, we envision our interests again as being synonymous with those of the world. We don’t have to ask them if they’re in pain – if things are good with us, they will be gratified.

    So, it seems to me that what we are seeing is a chauvinism that tries to strike the balance between the particularism that keeps us an identifiable whole by placing it in context of “service” to the world – the distant sort of “service” that typifies consumer era functionalism, that sees reality only in results, and not in feelings and meaning and purpose. More about this in a moment.

    This service perspective is a sort of “let them eat cake” way of looking at it, and in recognition of this Jonah was excoriated by G-d in the episode of the gourd for his not seeing value in G-d’s creations, though they be enemies of Jews in that instance. You’d think then that the most orthodox amongst us would be at the forefront ALWAYS of inventing prayers of the sort you speak of. Yet it’s not them, it’s the non-orthodox who are most likely to be the source of this kind of creativity, but it’s usually at the expense of their letting go of particularism – and in that process of letting go they lose the glue that keeps them whole as communities.

    The lesson I get from this is like most lessons in our religion. We’re SUPPOSED to do the heavy lifting that events like the Haiti disaster require of us, not just look for formulaic and formalistic answers of the sort that typify what Jews look for from rabbinic leadership. It’s in doing the heavy lifting TOGETHER that we form a better “public service” approach to our particularism.

    The question is why it’s not this way. My view is that rabbinic leadership has evidently been eviscerated by a consumeristic tendency in religion that demands “off the shelf” answers. Problem is, when someone else sells it to you, when you didn’t come to the answer yourself, when you didn’t do the heavy lifting and can find it in a book that defines itself as “authoritative” you don’t grow and neither does your community. And neither does your community’s able to serve in its role as a “light unto the nations”.

    What you’re seeing and discussing here is a symptom of something more distressing than what’s missing in our liturgy. It’s what’s missing in US in our generation that we need to address, IMHO.

  2. zach says:

    “Perhaps He will have compassion upon the poor and impoverished nation. Perhaps he will have mercy.”

    Uh, I think that the earthquake shows quite the opposite. That God did NOT have compassion and mercy upon a poor and impoverished nation.

  3. S. Holtz says:

    I applaud the effort to endow the old seliha with new meaning in light of current events. I vividly recall leading selihot on Wednesday, September 12, 2001, and, for the first time, feeling that these prayers were speaking to my situation.

    I am, however, somewhat puzzled by the following characterization of the congregation’s thoughts. To them, ” ‘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.”

    My questions: 1) Aren’t the present circumstances somewhat analogous to the situations that gave rise to newly-composed prayers, like “Av Harahamim” for the martyrs of the crusades, the various qinnot for 9 Av related to this same events, or, to take a more modern example, the “Tefillah lishlom hammedinah,” written for the government of Medinat Yisrael? Obviously, congregants had to get used to these prayers, as well, because the words to all of them are innovative, even as they draw on the rich fund of earlier Jewish literature. Why should a new misheberakh, whose form is well-known, be any different? Shouldn’t it, by virtue of its form, at least, “join us instantly” to Jews who have prayed before us? 2) Couldn’t this be a “teachable moment,” in which the congregants could learn that tefillah has a history, and that the words were not always “old”? Couldn’t one, in introducing the misheberakh show both the points of continuity and the innovations that it exhibits?

  4. Michael Lawton says:

    I’m a little concerned with the examples that are given of the non-Jews whom Moshe, Avraham and (in the case of Jonah) God were concerned about. They were all (clearly) sinners, and had entered in some way into the hands of God through punishment. It was “our” job to plead with God to show his merciful side. But I wonder where we find biblical evidence of concern for ordinary non-Jews in misfortune.

    • Phalla says:

      Ovadia:I do not think the ultra-Orthodox represent a rtuern to Torah. In fact, I am appalled by some aspects of their belief and practice. The ongoing battle about desegregation of schools (Haredi families don’t want their kids in school with Sephardim and Mizrachim) is indicative of a lack of love of neighbor (the best read I’ve seen is that Haredi families have a sort of nobility system based on the family pedigree and disdain lesser Jews). I am also incensed by ultra-Orthodox views of non-Jews (animal-like souls) and their hardline approach to spreading Torah (keep it according to our opinion or we will throw rocks and even feces at you).A rtuern to Torah would come from more moderate elements, in my opinion, and would look more welcoming and humble. It would break down barriers instead of setting them up.I’m told that there are some signs of movement of Israelis toward Torah. I hope it will continue. The Haredi have all but ruined their chance to participate.Derek

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