The tabernacle of peace that gives us hope

Recent events in the Middle East have given some of our prayers a new resonance


Over the past few weeks, many of us have sought solace in synagogue, in the company of those we know will share our anguish and concern. It is not only the heightened sense of togetherness that has become apparent in the wake of recent events. Some of the prayers have taken on a fresh significance.

Words that we might have dutifully mouthed before have acquired a contemporary urgency. When we speak, for instance, in the Amidah, of God “who sets captives free”.

Or when reciting one of the more poignant prayers in the Siddur, that asks for those in captivity to be led from “distress to relief, from darkness to light and from oppression to freedom”, which is usually said on Mondays and Thursdays when the Sefer Torah is being rolled.

In medieval times, they would have been thinking of those such as Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, who was seized and held for ransom. Now our thoughts turn to the hostages in Gaza who were kidnapped by Hamas in the Simchat Torah pogrom.

The week before last the person who read the Prayer for the State of Israel in our synagogue was choking back her tears. That scene would have been enacted in many other communities.

This prayer is the newest addition to the central Orthodox liturgy for Shabbat in the UK. One of its features is that, besides asking for blessing on the state of Israel, it is also when we explicitly pray for universal peace, asking God to spread His succat shalom, “tabernacle of peace” over all the dwellers on earth.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted in his Siddur commentary, “The prophets of Israel were the first in history to conceive of peace as an ideal.”

There is a bracha before the Shema that praises God as one who “makes peace and creates all”. But generally, when we pray for peace, it is for the Jewish people, as in the conclusion to the Amidah or Kaddish (although Progressive congregations commonly add kol bnei ha’adam or kol ha'olam, “all humanity” or "the whole world").

The Prayer for Israel in the Singer’s Siddur, used in UK congregations, differs from the Israeli version, where it is the state of Israel over which God is asked to spread His tabernacle of peace; there a different universalist request is made, for the whole world to recognise God’s sovereignty.

The evocative image succat shalom comes from the Hashkiveinu prayer in the evening service, again in the context of God as guardian of Israel. For some of the talmudic rabbis, a succah represented the clouds of glory that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness as they travelled from Egypt to the Promised Land.

But more literally, it can denote the humble booth that provides shelter from the harsh climate outside.

Either way, it is a symbol of divine protection. It is not behind the walls of a fortress that ultimately we can find security, the tradition seems to be saying, but in the flimsiest of structures. It is a reminder that peace is fragile, requiring constant vigilance.

As Rabbi Marc Saperstein, the former principal of London’s Leo Baeck College, observed, “We erect structures of peace with care,but they are all too easily blown over by the strong winds of group hatred and extremism, or undermined by the seeping waters of suspicion, or consumed by the fires of nationalistic self-righteousness.

"In order for the edifice of peace to remain standing, we have to be constantly on guard.”

While it is not part of the formal liturgy, you can find another prayer for peace for the world, which is attributed to the great Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810). The words of the popular song, Gesher Tzar Me’od, “The Whole World is but a Narrow Bridge”, are also ascribed to Nachman.

His prayers were preserved in a collection published after his death by his disciple, Rabbi Nathan, including the petition for peace. Its opening passage appears in English in the British Liberal movement’s siddur Lev Chadash.

A version of Nachman’s prayer, translated by the British rabbi, Deborah Silver (now Los Angeles-based), was circulated by the world Masorti movement at the time of the previous Israel-Gaza conflict two years ago.

Nachman’s prayer asks God to “erase war and bloodshed from the world and in its place draw down a great and glorious peace”, and for the inhabitants of the Earth to recognise that “we have not come into the world for division and strife”.

Throughout our long history, this prophetic vision of peace has offered a measure of hope that has helped to sustain us in the most difficult of times.

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