7701 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20012

Drash A Prayer For Our Congregation

Drash, By Paul Roitman Bardack, Given 1998

May He who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless this entire congregation, together with all holy congregations: them, their sons and daughters, their families, and all that is theirs, along with those who unite to establish synagogues for prayer, and those who enter them to pray, and those who give funds for heat and light, and wine for Kiddush and Havdalah, bread to the wayfarer and charity to the poor, and all who devotedly involve themselves with the needs of this community and the Land of Israel. May the Holy One Praised be He reward them; may He remove sickness from them, heal them, and forgive their sins. May He bless them by prospering all their worthy endeavors, as well as those of the entire people Israel. And let us say: Amen. --- Siddur Sim Shalom, pp.414-415.

This "Prayer For Our Congregation," recited each Shabbat and Festival toward the end of the Torah Service, holds a unique place within the standard Conservative liturgy. It is the only prayer we recite as a community for our own religious community. Why?

Sometime after the third century of the Common Era, the first of two Yekum Purkan prayers appeared. It was written for the Sabbath rather than the festivals and was written in Aramaic, a vernacular language. It gave primacy to the lay and religious leader-ship among the Geonim, or early Middle East-based Diaspora of what is sometimes referred to as our Babylonian Period. Although dropped by the editors of Siddur Sim Shalom, the following selection of the first Yekum Purkan prayer gives a sense of what it had to say:

May salvation from heaven, with grace, lovingkindness, mercy, long life, ample sustenance, heavenly aid, health of body, a higher enlighten-ment, and a living and abiding offspring, that will not break with, nor neglect any of the words of the Torah, be granted unto the teachers and rabbis of the holy community, who are in the land of Israel and in the land of Babylon; unto the heads of the academies, the chiefs of the captivity, the heads of the colleges, and the judges in the gates....

Around the 10th and 11th centuries of the Common Era, the Geonic Period of our history started to draw to a close. For some 700 years or so the Exilarch, or Head of the Exile, was the lay ruler of the large Babylonian Jewish community, and a dignitary of considerable importance. Sometime around the year 1040 the office was ended. A Babylonian Jewish community rich in scholarship and culture, one that had produced thinkers like the Saadia Gaon, no longer globally dominated Jewish life. More and more, Jewish scholars were finding a home in today's Spain and Germany and Poland and elsewhere on the European continent. The center of Jewish intellectual and cultural life was rerouting from the Middle East to Europe.

As Babylonian leadership was becoming of less and less global significance, the prayer more and more was accompanied by Rabbinic requests for communal donations of money to sustain the various declining Babylonian institutions. To sweeten the ask, as modern fundraisers would say, a second Yekum Purkan prayer--again in the Aramaic vernacular--was written. This one, found on pages 412 and 413 of Siddur Sim Shalom, requests the bestowal of heavenly grace on the members of the specific congregation to whom the fundraising appeal of the first Yekum Purkan prayer was to be directed. The theory behind this second Yekum Purkan prayer was not at all subtle: congregants were more likely to sustain the Geonic leadership and institutions during the period of decline if they were praised at the time the request was made. The second Yekum Purkan prayer thus became the first prayer written specifically requesting God's grace upon a congregation as a self-contained community with which one is praying. It omits mention of national leaders, emphasizing its focus on local rather than national concerns.

Shortly after the second Yekum Purkan prayer made its debut in the Middle East, another community oriented prayer, this one in Hebrew, was introduced in medieval France. Designed sequentially to follow both Yekum Purkan prayers during the post-Torah service, this new prayer would amplify the second Yekum Purkan prayer by noting the various ways in which a Congre-gant could acceptably incur God's blessings.

That prayer, the Prayer For Our Community found on pages 414 and 415 of our Siddur, follows the Me Sheberach format. That format, a medieval French invention, provides for the granting of God's blessings in a variety of circumstances: from the bestowal of health upon sick people to the offering of grace to those called to their Bar Mitzvah. Here, it was employed to demonstrate that there are many ways a congregant can receive heavenly blessings: charity, prayer, and maintenance of the synagogue.

It is common for prayers following the Me Sheberach format to require the worshiper to pledge that he or she will give to charity in exchange for the request for the granting of a specific blessing. Not so with the Prayer For Our Community. The myriad ways of serving--helping others, prayer, and synagogue maintenance--are all deemed legally the equivalent of pledges of charity, and for that reason no new pledge to charity is referred to in this passage. Indeed one commentator, writing in the year 1284 of the Common Era, notes that the prayer stresses a variety of ways to serve Jewishly in order to demonstrate the myriad rewards that flow when one commits to following Torah.

The Prayer For Our Community we read each Shabbat and Festival is therefore the same prayer as the one written roughly 800 years ago in France, with the exception that Siddur Sim Shalom has incorporated Matriarchal as well as Patriarchal references, reference to daughters as well as sons, and reference to those who work for the modern Land of Israel. In all material respects, though, it is the same prayer used for some eight centuries.

This prayer resonates for me, as President of our community, in part because it reminds me of something I said upon my installation over a year ago. In front of you in the Sanctuary is one Torah, I said a year ago, and it binds us all together. But there are different paths to reach it. Some will approach from the left, from the stairs at one end of the bimah. Some will approach from the right, from the other set of stairs. And both approaches, left and right, are equally valid approaches for the diverse members of our community.