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Parshas Shmos - Heritage = Past, Present & Future     20 Kislev 5780

01/17/20 13:01:58


Last month, my wife and I had the fortune to visit Prague, one of the nicest cities in Europe. Prague is one of only a few cities that was not bombed (intentionally) during World War II. The beauty and the quaintness of the city is just as it was four to five hundred years ago. One of the most interesting facts of the city is how Jewish life can be traced back almost a thousand years. Prague’s Jewish heritage is most noted for the famed Mahara”l of Prague, along with some of the greatest Rabbonim who lived and served in those communities. Although the city suffered and was oppressed by the Communist regime, Jewish culture was allowed to remain. This is particularly highlighted through the transformation of many of the Synagogues into museums as opposed to being razed.

The Jews of Prague were able to sustain a Jewish presence, carrying on our culture, traditions, and laws through the preservation of the museums. They had Machzorim, Haggadot, Chumashim and Siddurim dating from hundreds of years ago. The beauty and privilege of seeing them was enhanced by knowing that these precious Seforim contain the same words and prayers we are still saying today. One particular Tefilla stood out to me and my wife a little bit more than the rest: the prayer for the government and its leaders.

Every Shabbos, here at Beth Jacob and at many Shuls throughout the world, a prayer is recited for the welfare of the government and its leaders, Jewish or not. Many people think the origin of this prayer is from Pirkei Avos. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:2 touches on the subject. Rabbi Chanina, the deputy Kohen Gadol says: ‘Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow his fellow alive.’ What makes this Talmudic reference all the more remarkable is that Chanina lived in the days of Nero- a ruler whose name has become synonymous with tyranny- and he heralded a long tradition of Jews praying for rulers for whom they didn’t particularly care.

But this is not the first place or source we find this reference. The origin of the prayer for the welfare of the government is biblical. It was following the first exile, as we sat by the waters of Babylon, that the Navi Yirmiyahu conveyed to us the following: וְדִרְשׁ֞וּ אֶת־שְׁל֣וֹם הָעִ֗יר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִגְלֵ֤יתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ שָׁ֔מָּה וְהִתְפַּֽלְל֥וּ בַעֲדָ֖הּ אֶל־יְקוָ֑ה כִּ֣י בִשְׁלוֹמָ֔הּ יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם שָׁלֽוֹם׃ “So said the Lord of Hosts… seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to Hashem on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” This was after 586 BCE. Not 200 years later Ezra recorded that in the rebuilt Second Temple it was the practice to offer sacrifices and prayers for the lives of Emperor Darius I of Persia and his children. Some six hundred years after that Pirkei Avos touches upon this.

As mentioned earlier, this tefila was said for rulers known to be tyrannical and anti-Semitic. In the 1740’s the Jews of Czechoslovakia were saying this prayer every Shabbos morning on behalf of Maria Theresa, the mother of Mary Antoinette. On December 18, 1744, Maria Theresa, queen of Austria and archduchess of Hungary and Bohemia, signed an edict ordering the expulsion of all Jews, first from Prague – all Jews had to depart by the end of January 1745 – and then, by June, from all her hereditary dominions, that is, from Moravia and Bohemia. Maria Theresa had a profound hatred of Jews. In 1777, she wrote, "I know of no greater plague than this race, which on account of its deceit, usury and avarice is driving my subjects into beggary.” Additionally, she was prey to rumors that Prague’s Jews had sided with the Prussians, and against her, during the city’s occupation in the summer of 1744, during the course of the War of the Austrian Succession. And yet with all this we still maintained the prayer as can be seen here. It is truly a support of our history and heritage which has an unbroken chain for over twenty-five hundred years, that in spite of centuries of hatred and persecution we have recited a prayer for the government despite their anti-Semitic view of Jews.

Throughout my years in the Rabbinate I’ve seen and heard calls for Discover your Heritage! Over time I’ve come to see that this this well-intended call falls far short of what is necessary. We cannot just stop when our heritage is discovered anew by those whose opportunities to learn about it have been awakened. We all need to learn about and strengthen our magnificent heritage. Everyone needs to learn more of our history, our treasures, our scholarship and our accomplishments; to just ‘discover’ our heritage is not enough.

Last week we concluded Sefer Bereishis. I described the first book of the Torah as one full of basic principles of faith learning from the forefathers how they each individually built the Jewish people. Sefer Shmos, the book of Exodus, continues to teach us, describing the Emunah/faith of the Jewish people throughout our history. We became a nation in Mitzrayim, exiting the land of our slavery accompanied by great cataclysmic miracles that devastated the land of Egypt. Through these miracles we and the nations of the world came to know Hashem. The Ramban at the end of Parshas Bo divides the book from when we left Egypt to the second half when we received the Torah on Har Sinai, whereby we received the Shechina (God’s eminence). The third section of Shmos is the Mishkan which leads to the service of sacrifices to Hashem by the Kohanim and Leviim. In the beginning of Shmos, it says a new king arose in Egypt who didn’t know Yosef. There is a famous Rashi here which gives two explanations of “not knowing Yosef”. The first is that there was an actual new king, a different person who did not know who Yosef was. The second interpretation is that it was the same old king who came up with new decrees, either trying to forget who Yosef was or ignoring the fact of all the good Yosef had done to save Egypt. I would like to suggest that he did not know the history and heritage of Yosef. Not the history and heritage you may be thinking of Egypt but rather the past history that Yosef represents from the time of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov. In that he, Yosef, is in the continuing position of the previous generations. The new decrees did not recognize and could not foretell the rich heritage of the Jewish people that was now cemented in their becoming a nation.

The strength of the Jewish people lies in our past, present and future. But the past, present and future of the Jewish people are not single, divided times in our history. Rather our past, our present and our future are all linked intimately together by our belief, language, names, dress, and ideas that have kept us going and will continue to nurture us until the ultimate redemption, speedily in our day! 

Sat, May 15 2021 4 Sivan 5781