Praying for everybody during coronavirus, Jews and non-Jews

How can we daven to God with language that is so ‘narrowly focused’ when the clear agenda of our tefillot is global?

Prayer at the Western Wall, Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prayer at the Western Wall, Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
During the past few weeks, we have all prayed as never before. Most of us have been precluded from attending our normal houses of prayer, but nonetheless the level of fervor and passion with which we pray is unprecedented.
Facing this global pandemic, we pray in a universal manner – for humanity at large. This pandemic has highlighted our shared identity with non-Jews. Firstly, we share vulnerability to this disease with all of humanity. Additionally, our vulnerability is codependent: we cannot protect ourselves, and will remain healthy only if our broader community – Jew and non-Jew – exhibits moral responsibility and social discipline. This isn’t a Jewish issue, as we have experienced this crisis as citizens of the world, thinking about China, Italy and Spain.
Yet the actual text of most of our tefila (prayer) is very national and very “Jewish”.
Personally, I have begun reciting the complete list of Avinu Malkeinu after Shmoneh Esrei, and there are so many resonant lines about preventing pandemics. Each one of them pleads for plague prevention or plague relief – for Jewish victims. We ask that our homeland (nahalatecha) be spared from plague or that the people of the covenant (bnei beritecha) be protected from a pandemic (and a host of other threats).
How can we daven to God in language that is so parochial and so narrowly focused, when the clear agenda of our tefilot is global?
Without question, we pray first and foremost for the people closest to us; however, the thought of praying only for Jews is morally grotesque, just as it is impractical. How can we pray for an entire planet with a text of tefila which focuses upon Jewish needs?
It is crucial to find that bridge between our overall experience of this crisis – which is very universal – and our actual prayers, which sound very Jewish. We must not bifurcate ourselves into two different people; we cannot process the pandemic in a universal fashion and daven in a more national manner. That type of schizophrenia can create disconnected experiences and listless tefilot.
HERE ARE four suggestions for bridging between our overarching concerns for humanity and the very national tone of our nusah hatefila.
1. Adhere to health guidelines because we are Jews
Jews are chosen by God to set an example for the rest of humanity.
Under normal conditions, we represent the important values of monotheism and morality.
Under pandemic conditions, we must exhibit an additional value – the sanctity of life and the willingness to make severe personal sacrifices to protect life.
The quarantined conditions we all face may seem severe, and some are tempted to violate these restrictions. As mamlechet kohanim (a kingdom of priests), we must be role models and demonstrate absolute fidelity to all medical guidelines – as strenuous as they are. Saving even one life constitutes a mitzvah of lo ta’amod al dam rei’acha, which should be pursued even at the risk of personal peril.
As a chosen nation, we must lead by example. Two weeks ago, it was obvious that proper moral behavior in the workplace is an essential element of our chosenness. At this stage, fidelity to public health measures is our mandate.
2. Summon the traditional components of tefila on behalf of humanity
We are all familiar with the foundations of our tefilot. We summon or evoke zechut avot as well as perceived personal merits.
Throughout the past 2,000 years, we have summoned zechut avot on behalf of Jewish needs – survival, regeneration and, thank God, in our century the protection of our beloved State of Israel.
At this stage, we must summon those merits on behalf of humanity. As Jews, we have so many national zechuyot; over the past century we have displayed incredible fortitude in recovering from the Holocaust and building our state in the face of such unimaginable odds. At this stage of history, we should summon our zechuyot on behalf of the healing of humanity.
Keep in mind that Abraham davened for Abimelech – who hijacked his wife. He also negotiated fiercely on behalf of the sinful city of Sodom. I believe he would want us to summon his zechuyot on behalf of the millions of innocent people whose lives are currently imperiled.
3. Pray for the Shechinah
It is very challenging for many to sense the presence of God during a bleak pandemic. Hopefully, most believing Jews appreciate that the world is complex, and that God inheres within a world of suffering and evil – in a manner that we can’t always decipher. If we were able to sense His presence after the Holocaust, we can certainly identify His presence during this very challenging epidemic.
However, for many religious people and certainly for the nonreligious, the question of “Where is God?” is a very vexing one.
We care deeply about the presence of God in our world and whether humanity is capable of sensing His presence.
Let us daven that humanity will see God despite the suffering. Let us pray that humanity, even though currently exposed to such suffering, will discover that God is righteous and merciful.
4. A redeemed world is a healed world
There is obviously something broken in our world – medically and, of course, spiritually. We will try and, with God’s help, succeed in overcoming this outbreak and in healing our world. However, our efforts will always be partial and temporary. The world will be fully healed only when history has concluded and been redeemed.
The core of our Shmoneh Esrei showcases our hopes for redemption. For Jews, national redemption isn’t a private event, but heralds an era of universal recognition of the God of Israel. The nations will gather in Jerusalem in a perfect world healed of all illness – both spiritual and physical.
If we desire full healing, it can arrive only with the redemption of history. Now, more than ever, our hopes for that historical closure are extremely potent, and our prayers for that era should be heartfelt.
The writer is a teacher at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush Hesder in Gush Etzion.; on Facebook/Twitter @Moshetaragin