Every Shabbat, as part of our Torah service, we have a series of public service announcements. One of them is a prayer for our country, which includes wishes for the success and well-being of the government in its various forms. On this inauguration weekend when the occupant of the White House changes, much has been said about the content of the prayer. On the one hand, an Orthodox rabbi has suggested changing the words of the traditional prayer they use because of dissatisfaction with the outgoing president’s stance on Israel. On the other hand, many liberal-minded rabbis of all movements are deeply hesitant to pray for the man they say isn’t “their president” even as the inauguration goes forward. And scores of rabbis have written their own prayers for this specific moment in history.
So this Shabbat, I think it’s worth going back to the source of our tradition to pray for the welfare of the government, especially in a time and place when and where Jews aren’t sovereign. That initial text is found in Pirke Avot, an ancient rabbinic collection of ethical guidance. “Rabbi Hanina, the deputy High Priest, says: ‘Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for fear [of its power], every man would swallow his fellow alive” (Avot 3:2)
On Shabbat morning, I want to do three things with this teaching. First, I want to know more about Rabbi Hanina, so we can consider what life experience may have inspired this teaching. Second, I want to explore the political theory behind it–it sounds like the precursor to Thomas Hobbes–and its application to a democratic political system. Finally, I want to look at traditional rabbinic commentaries on Pirke Avot, to unpack the spiritual/pragmatic meaning of this statement.
I hope this dive into the text will serve as inspiration to see prayer in general and the prayer for the government in particular in new and meaningful ways.