Israel is at war. How does that sentence make you feel? What is your response?
Some people feel anger at this, an anger that spurs them forward as they spend time volunteering, sharing content online about the conflict, and donating money to various Israeli causes.
Conversely, some people feel helpless or mournful, not knowing quite what to do with the difficult emotions that this war raises for them.
And at the same time, many people, when trying to deal with this turmoil, simply turn to a higher power – asking “why”, begging “please”, saying “help”.
During this time, there is of course not just one valid response, but the response that is perhaps often left unacknowledged, and sometimes seemingly adverse to outside commentary, comes from that last group of people – those who are, right now, grappling with, or turning to, their faith.
This war, unfortunately, does not mark the first time in history that so many Jews have been massacred, and with each tragic slaughter of the Jewish people, a large chorus of voices turns to the heavens. Often the words which leave the mouths of these Jews during times of distress such as these are pre-prescribed: they come from a prayer book, are read in order and adhere to rituals which were determined long before our lifetime.
But these are not the only prayers that count. Spontaneous words from the heart have almost always had a place in Judaism, a fact that is somewhat surprising given the ostensible rigidity of the religion, and the structures upon which it relies.
But nonetheless, we can see that this is undeniably the case. Once upon a time, as told in the Book of Samuel, a biblical woman named Hannah stood at the entrance to the Tabernacle at Shiloh, rocking silently back and forth and muttering to herself, as tears welled in her eyes. The Jews around her assumed that she was a drunkard and looked unkindly upon her. However, what was really occurring was a silent but supremely powerful turning-point within the Jewish religion. Hannah was saying a silent prayer – without a prayer book, without a quorum of men, without prescribed words. Just a woman praying silently from the heart.
Since then, the idea of making up and reciting personal prayers has gained legitimacy, but while Hannah’s prayers focused on her childlessness, the concept of personal prayer really took off and became common within Judaism in the context of war.
King David is famous in Jewish tradition for having been an astute warrior and conqueror. Many of the Psalms that appear in the Bible are traditionally attributed to King David, and there is even a belief that he composed some of these hymns for his troops to use in prayer during war. For example, Psalms 20: 8-10 reads:
“These trust in chariots and these in horses, but we-we mention the name of the Lord our G-d. They kneel and fall, but we rise and gain strength. O Lord, save [us]; may the King answer us on the day we call.”
Another famous and even earlier biblical example of prayer entering Jewish liturgy during times of war is the story of how the biblical forefather Jacob prepared for his reunification with his estranged brother Esau. Jacob is warned that his brother is approaching, accompanied by 400 men. Fearing for his life, he decides to compose a prayer for salvation. Jacob’s prayer (Genesis 32: 10-13) echoes the words of the prayer we know today as Ha-Gomel, which is recited whenever a soldier returns from war, to this very day.
This practice of authoring prayers in response to war exists in the modern age as well, such as prayers composed for Jewish soldiers during World War I.
We have many famous examples from the Holocaust of prayers being written to suit the spiritual needs of the suffering congregations and individuals during that time of great trauma. Jewish author and poet Alexander Kimel, for example, created a set of prayers for the victims of the Holocaust after surviving the ordeal himself. These prayers are now usually read as part of the Yahrzeit service on the High Holy Days, but many of the Jews reading his words do not know just quite how recently these prayers were actually composed.
Similarly, most synagogues around the world recite the Mi Sheberach prayer for the safety of Jewish soldiers each week on the Sabbath. To the casual listener, this classic prose might sound hundreds of years old, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! While the original Mi Sheberach blessing for the recovery of sick Jews dates back to the 12th century, it was only adapted for use when praying for Jewish soldiers by the former Chief Rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, in 1956, while Israeli troops were fighting in the Sinai Campaign.
In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, the eminent Rav Ariel Bar Tzadok wrote a prayer for the welfare of the state of Israel, using sources from Sefer Shoreshei HaShemot. Again, these prayers were adopted by the nation, and synagogues were soon full of people fervently repeating Ariel Bar Tzadok’s words in the hope that they would bring success in battle.
Then, in 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo was compelled to write the “Prayer on Behalf of the Jewish Soldiers Going into Battle” whose profound meaning touched many Jewish hearts around the world and became a constant daily chant for lots of Jews in various global congregations.
And even now, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and a man steeped in tradition, has requested that all Jewish congregations say his newly-written “Prayer for the Success of Am Yisrael” every day until the end of this current dreadful war. This novel prayer has become the new-normal in many synagogues around Israel, who pledge to read it aloud each day until the end of the war in Gaza.
So, while some people think of Jewish prayer as something stagnant or pre-prescribed, it is clear to see that this is very much not the case, especially during times of war. In fact, much of the war-time liturgy that so many Jews rely on for comfort, was composed in the recent past by modern Jews who felt just as much longing for safety, success and peace as we do today.
For those who utilize prayer to connect to the current war in Israel, it may come as some comfort to know that the words that many believe to hold so much power do not need to have been written over 2000 years ago. They can be as heartfelt as the inner feelings of parents missing their children, rabbis guiding their communities, and individuals standing on the precipice of uncertainty, unsure of how to look at the world around them, who instead look up to the sky and open their mouths to see what words fall out.
And who knows which of the prayers from today’s wars will end up etched on the pages of prayer books used by our great grandchildren for generations to come.