Suddenly everyone is talking about Syria.
Two years of mayhem and murder, confusion and hesitation. 100,000 Syrians killed, a quarter of the population turned refugees, and now hundreds have been gassed to death, a sight which no Jew – no human – can ignore; a sight which once seen, cannot go unanswered.
As we enter Rosh Hashana, the crucial days of mercy and compassion in the Jewish calendar, we must open the door for the story of the Syrian people to enter into our prayers. If books of life and death are opening during this time, how can we not place this burning issue on our praying agenda during these High Holy Days.
Some might decry such prayers as a “bleeding heart liberal” initiative, one which undermines precious “Jewish time” for the plight of those who are otherwise our enemies. Yet praying for other nations is an inimitable feature of Rosh haShana, and praying on behalf of one’s neighbors is something Jews have been doing since the days of Abraham.
Rosh Hashana contains an on-going tension between the personal and the global. On one hand it is our private judgment day, a day where the Jewish people crown God as our King. Yet Rosh Hashana commemorates the creation of the world – not the creation of the Jewish people. It is the judgment day for the entire world – and our prayers must reflect that concern.
This concept is already invoked in many of the prayers of Rosh haShana, and best crystallized in one of the oldest prayers for Rosh haShana, called “Rav’s Tekiya”. Originally quoted in the Talmud, it continues to appear in almost all prayer books:
This day is the commencement of Your deeds, a recollection of that first day. It is a fixture for Israel, a day of judgment for the God of Jacob. And regarding the nations it will be decided: Which to peace and which to the sword; which to hunger and which to prosperity; And creatures will be called up, to be recalled for life or death. (Babylonian Talmud Rosh haShana 27a)
This short prayer encapsulates the Jewish approach to universalism: Only when facing personal judgment day, can one also face a judgment day for the collective nation, and only on such a collective moment can one face a judgment day for all of creation. Individual, family, nation and humanity are not mutually exclusive or competing frames, but complimentary ones. One cannot be a Universalist without acting out of a personal, familial and national context, and one cannot act within his own kinship groups without also realizing that, at the end of the day, we all have a shared ancestry. Jewishness is not a ghetto in which to take refuge from the world, it is rather a lens through which to engage with the world.
Abraham and the First Prayer
In stepping up to pray on behalf of our Syrian neighbors we are walking in the footsteps of our forefather, Abraham, who - in the first prayer in the Torah - prays for his neighbor, Abimelech, the king of Grrar. Abimelech is not exactly a friend to Abraham’s family: he mostly comes across as a swindling, opportunistic and dishonest person. Yet when Abimelech’s home is cursed with barrenness, Abraham – whose wife suffers from the same affliction – prays to God on his behalf. Immediately after Abraham’s prayer on behalf of Abimelech, the geriatric Sarah and Abraham themselves receive a child:
And God recalled Sarah as he had promised, and Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:1-2). It is with this verse that the traditional Torah reading on Rosh haShana opens, as we hope that God will recall us too, as he recalled our grandmother. From this tale, says the Talmud, we learn that “whoever begs for mercy for his friend, when he needs the same thing, is answered. (Bava Kamma 92b).
In our prayers this year we should beg for mercy for our neighbors, seeking peace in their land, safety and stability in their homes, security and justice in their streets. We will pray that they will open their hearts in compassion to their own neighbors – and to us as well. And within this prayer we hope that we too receive these blessings, such that a great and glorious peace visits our homes, nations and countries as well, in the year 5774.
A Rosh Hashana Prayer for Syria
Master of the Universe, Father of Orphans, Protector of Widows, Whose compassion is upon all creations – look upon the nations and rise from the seat of judgment and turn to the seat of compassion. Heal the wounded, release the imprisoned, sustain the fallen, and hasten redemption for the Syrian people.
God who can make paths in an ocean, carve out a path in this sea of distress, engender in the hearts of the warring sides compassion towards each other, and open their hearts in understanding towards us as well. Guide us as we strive to understand our role in this crisis. Give wisdom in the hearts of our leaders, and strengthen the hands of our defenders. Holder of Mercy, bring an end to this suffering, spread justice and forgiveness throughout the land, and may a great and wonderful peace spread all over the region, from Your holy land to all its neighbors, and to your entire world, and let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Mishael Zion is Co-Director of the Bronfman Fellowships, author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices”. He blogs at Text and the City.