Praying for the World: The Lesson of the Hart

Dear Friends,
In this letter, we shall explore some old and new insights regarding the following verse which mentions a characteristic of the "hart" - a male deer:

"As the hart cries longingly for the springs of water, so does my soul cry out for you, O God." (Psalm 42:2)

The classical commentator, Rashi, cites the Midrash, which understands the crying of the hart in the following manner: The rabbis, of blessed memory, say that the hart is the most loving of the wild animals. When the wild animals are thirsty for water, they gather to the hart so that he should raise his eyes to heaven. And what does he do? He digs a pit and thrusts his antlers into it. He then screams in anguish. The Holy One, blessed be He, has compassion on him, and sends water from the depths for all the creatures.

Just as the hart prayed on behalf all the creatures, so too, we should pray on behalf of the entire world. In this spirit, there is a mitzvah to bring seventy offerings during the seven days of the Festival of Succos (Numbers 29:12-34), for the Talmud explains that these offerings are on behalf of the seventy primary nations of the world (Succos 55b). In his commentary on this Talmudic passage, the classical commenator, Rashi, explains that the purpose of these offerings is to seek atonement on behalf of the seventy nations so that the entire world will merit rain during the coming year.

Within the Siddur – the classical Jewish Prayerbook – we find the following request for universal sustenance and shalom:

"Give dew and rain for blessing over the entire face of the earth. Quench the thirst of the face of the earth and satiate the entire world from Your bounty." (These words from the weekday Shemoneh Esrei are said by Sephardic Jews during the winter season of rain, and Ashkenazi Jews in the Land of Israel say a similar prayer during a period of drought.)

Many of our prayers are taken from the Book of Psalms, and most of the psalms were composed by King David. Just as David composed psalms which express a yearning for the redemption of the Community of Israel, so too, he composed psalms which express a yearning for the redemption of the world community. The following verses which we chant when we welcome the arrival of Shabbos can serve as an example:

"Rivers will clap hands, mountains will exult together – Before the Compassionate One, for He will have arrived to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness and peoples with fairness." (Psalm 98:8,9)

There is another prayer by David within the Book of Psalms which relates to a current danger facing the world: the spreading of a hate-filled ideology which had led people – including educated and prosperous individuals - to engage in acts of terrorism which have destroyed many lives. There is a growing awareness among people in all nations that this terrorism poses a great threat to human civilization. We can therefore join David in praying:

"And You, O Compassionate and Just One, God of the hosts of creation, arouse Yourself to remember all the nations; do not show favor to all the treacherous workers of violence, Selah." (Psalm 59:6)

"Remember all the nations; do not show favor to all the treacherous workers of violence" - Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that David wrote this prayer in his younger years before he became king. It was during the period when King Saul became violently jealous of the young David; moreover, there were also advisors to the king that "fanned" the flames of this jealousy, and who encouraged the king to eliminate David. Rabbi Hirsch explains that when David began to pray for himself, he also felt the pain of good people everywhere who were the innocent victims of cruel and violent individuals; thus, when he wrote the above verse, he was offering the following plea to God of the hosts of creation: "Show that Your justice is awake, and do this not simply for my sake, or even for the sake of Israel alone, but for the sake of the moral welfare of all the nations of the world."

The above teachings should inspire us to emulate the loving empathy of the hart by praying for life and shalom for the entire world. In this spirit, Rebbeinu Yonah, a noted 13th century sage, writes:

"A human being should pray for the shalom of the entire world and feel the suffering of others. And this is the way of the righteous ones...For a human being should not make supplications and requests just for his own needs; rather, one should pray that all human beings should thrive in peace." (Commentary to Pirkei Avos 3:2)

Have a Shabbat Shalom!
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (Important related comments appear below.)

1. During the 20th century, millions of people were murdered in the name of secular ideologies, such as the ideology of the Nazis, and the ideology of Stalinist Communism. In this new era, however, there are a growing number of Islamic terrorists who are murdering people –even their own people - in the Name of God! Regarding these so-called "religious" individuals, King David prayed: "Men of blood...They utter Your Name for wicked schemes, it is taken in vain by Your enemies" (Psalm 139:19,20). With these words, King David is reminding us that such individuals do not represent the Compassionate and Just One, God of the hosts of creation.

2. The spread of terrorism has created a sense of anxiety among the earth's peoples. We therefore need to remember that our people were given the universal Divine promise that all peoples will experience tranquility when Torah – the Divine Teaching - will go forth to the world:

"Pay attention to Me, my people; listen to Me, My nation; for instruction will come forth from Me and My judgement will be a light for peoples, to whom I will give tranquility. (Isaiah 51:4)

Hazon - Our Universal Vision