Unrest, and Rabbi Hanina’s Advice

June 2, 2020

There’s no better week to be reminded of a short lesson from the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”): “Rabbi Hanina, the vice-high priest said, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.” Hanina lived when the House of the Hasmoneans was nearing its bitter end. For him, praying for the welfare of the government was praying for one of the last Hasmonean kings or possibly for Rome. Hanina knew that lawlessness was worse than any king. Based on this tradition, almost all Jewish prayer books include a prayer for the welfare of the government.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, quoting this Mishnah, explained that “the Torah has profound respect for the dignity and individuality of man … social reality, however, forces upon us the necessity of entrusting leadership, for otherwise anarchy would ensue.” The dignity of man, and the necessity of entrusting leadership. If there is a time to ponder these two contrasting values, using our Jewish sources, our sentiments and our experiences, our good judgment and calm evaluation — it is now, when the horror in Minnesota is still fresh in our memory. When the smell of smoke is still in the air. When our leaders rush to capitalize on tragedy.

The time is now — when we must adjust to a government bigger than ever before amid an economic crisis, when we look into the shooting of an unarmed man in Jerusalem, when we question witnesses whom we suspect lied under oath to defend the wife of the prime minister. Americans, Israelis and members of all other nations and tribes feel that the world is descending into chaos: less humanity and less trust in leadership.

And what’s Rabbi Hanina’s advice? Pray.

 Praying for the welfare of the government isn’t for the government. It’s for us.

Pray for whom? If you’re in the United States, it means praying for the welfare of President Donald Trump, for Minnesotan Gov. Tim Walz and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. For the chiefs of police. For the commanders in the National Guard. If you’re in Israel, it means praying for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for the 34 new ministers (that’s a lot of praying), for the border policeman who shot and killed an unarmed — and reportedly, autistic — Palestinian man. Pray for these officials not because you approve of what they do but because they are the ones who stand between our societies and the horrific prospect of a world in which “every man would swallow his neighbor alive.”

Most Americans disprove of the way Trump is handling his job. Almost two thirds of those polled believe that their country is moving in the wrong direction. A new Israeli survey revealed that two thirds of Israelis have little faith in Netanyahu. The numbers for his political partner, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party, are worse. Trust in leaders is in short supply when it’s needed most.

Praying is habitually advocated. But it is not always effective. At least, not in the short term. Praying won’t turn our leaders into something else. Praying won’t quiet the streets, or mitigate the anger, or resuscitate the dead, or resolve long-standing social problems. Praying for the welfare of the government isn’t for the government. It’s for us. It’s to make us mindful of the government’s role in our world. It’s to make us aware that a government — even in wicked ancient Rome, and its contemporary incarnations — is better than no government. It’s to make us understand that, sadly, government must come first, and the dignity of man — in the best of circumstances — comes second.

Now, let us pray.

Shmuel Rosner is the Journal’s senior political editor. 

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