Inaugurating President Zuma
Updated: May 7
Published and distributed to the entire community at the time of President Jacob Zuma’s inauguration.
One of the most memorable moments of the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela was the prayer and Tanach reading delivered by the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris of blessed memory. I can still picture the majestic scene of Chief Rabbi Harris draped in his tallit with his lilting Scottish accent intoning magnificent and inspiring words that uplifted so many people – those present at the inauguration and those millions who viewed it around the country and the world. He also delivered the prayer at the first inauguration of President Mbeki and I delivered the prayer at President Mbeki’s second inauguration.
This year the Presidential inauguration is taking place on 9 May. And in accordance with the established practice, I would have delivered a prayer at this inauguration as well. Unfortunately, 9 May falls on Shabbat, which makes it impossible for me to attend or speak at the inauguration. The Government did not want to set the inauguration for a week day because that would have involved yet another public holiday. I am reliably informed that the original intention was to hold the election on 15 April and the inauguration on the 27 April, but then it emerged that the election date fell on Pesach and so, to accommodate the South African Jewish community, everything was moved.
As is well known, the laws of Shabbat, which were given to us by G-d thousands of years ago, prohibit “work”. Work is defined in the Talmud as including 39 categories of creative and other activity. These laws make it impossible for me to attend and speak at the inauguration. Shabbat is a gift of our Jewish heritage given to us by G-d. We cannot compromise on who we are, and we are blessed that in South Africa we do not need to. We live in a country that embraces diversity and thus understands that we cannot participate.
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” These words of G-d Himself, from the Ten Commandments, instruct us on the importance of the day. G-d gave us Shabbat as a tremendous gift and it is one of the most important of our mitzvot. Shabbat is a major pillar of Judaism. Amongst other things, it testifies to the fact that G-d created the world and rested on the seventh day, and it testifies to the fact that G-d took us out of Egypt. The institution of Shabbat is one of the main foundations of our faith and is central to our value system as the Jewish people, and has been central to our very identity for thousands of years since the time it was ordained. As Achad Ha’am once said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Maybe part of the message in all of this is that we, as a community, need to strengthen and deepen our own commitment to Shabbat. Let us all add something to our Shabbat living, in a real practical way, and we will all be enriched in the process as it is a day of refreshing connectedness, tranquility and rejuvenation in a chaotic and pressurised world.
The Government understands our community’s position in this regard, and I have also written to President-elect Zuma to explain the situation. In addition, I have composed a prayer for the welfare and success of the new President and his Government which will be read out on my behalf at the inauguration, and which is printed below. Our Sages instruct us in Pirkei Avot (3:2) to “pray for the welfare of the Government”. As is well known, we fulfill this injunction every Shabbat morning in our synagogues. This Shabbat, to mark the auspicious occasion, the special inauguration prayer will be recited.
Why do we pray for the welfare of the Government? Judaism teaches that our prayers are powerful. G-d listens; He hears our prayers. Sometimes He grants our wishes and sometimes He does not grant everything we ask for. But He always listens, and according to our Sages, some good comes out of every prayer. When we pray, we acknowledge that everything that happens in this world is ultimately in G-d’s hands and that our welfare is dependent upon Him. Prayer is part of what we do every day of our lives and relates to every aspect of life. We pray daily for our health, for our sustenance, for our knowledge and insight and, indeed, for everything. Our Sages teach us that our prayers have the power and the potential to change the world. They are real. We should all make the extra effort in our daily prayers to feel a deep connection to G-d, and to include specific requests for our individual needs, for health, sustenance or family and anything else. Our Sages also teach us the importance of praying for the needs of others.
At this time, as South Africa enters a new era with the swearing in of a new President and Deputy President, and a new Government, we need to pray. Whilst it is an era of much hope for change and improvement, we realise that we are ultimately in G-d’s hands, especially when it comes to matters of government, as the Book of Proverbs (21:1) states: “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of G-d, wherever He wishes, so He directs it.” To govern a country of millions of people with a budget of billions and competing needs and interests is an awesome responsibility. There are so many powerful forces, both local and international, at work, and it is at a time such as this, more than ever, that we need G-d’s intervention and guidance for the good.
We must make the effort every day to pray for the success and prosperity of South Africa. Our Sages teach us that prayer is made up of three components: to praise G-d, to request from G-d and to thank G-d. The Amidah, our classic ancient prayer, is divided into these three parts, which are the format and structure essential to the experience of prayer. So, when we are requesting that G-d help the people and government of South Africa to build a successful country, we need to praise Him and to give thanks to Him for the great miracles that South Africa has seen. Amongst many blessings to be grateful for, we have seen our democracy emerge out of oppression without bloodshed, and sustained for 15 years of political stability and sound economic growth.
Judaism teaches that we need to make a positive contribution to building and enhancing the society in which we live. To pray for its welfare is one important way doing so. But we are also obliged to work through the “natural” world. We are not allowed to rely on miracles, and so together with our prayers we must all make a great effort to help build this country. The welfare and success of the South African Jewish community is completely intertwined with the welfare and success of the whole of South African society. We are already making enormous contributions in the fields of business, politics, education, media, welfare outreach and, most recently, even in crime fighting. We need to rally behind the new President and his Government to build a better future for all. They were elected by a large majority of South Africans in a democratic process and the future of the country depends on the new administration. We now must cast our eyes to the future and resolve to make a real difference for the good.
All of our this-worldly efforts are the tools through which G-d drives events, and so prayer is vital to whatever we do. The input is in our hands, but the outcome is in G-d’s hands. It is only natural that people feel concerned in times of transition. The power of prayer reminds us that we are in G-d’s hands and that He is looking after us at all times. As the Talmud (Berachot 60b) teaches, “whatever the Merciful One does is for the good”.
We know that we are in the hands of our loving Father in Heaven. May G-d bless our new President and his government, our dear country South Africa, and our precious Jewish community.
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein
Prayer for the People and Government of South Africa
Almighty G-d, We thank You for the very many blessings You have so graciously and generously showered on our dear country South Africa. We thank You for four peaceful elections, for fifteen years of freedom and democracy, for stability and economic growth. We thank you for a nation of heroes, the millions of South Africans who go about their lives with courage and kindliness, and in devotion to You our Father in heaven. O L-rd, Help us to live with morality, responsibility and integrity, and to respect one another and to see Your image on the face of every one of our fellow South Africans. Inspire us to live by the vision of equality and moral responsibility contained in these words from the Book of Jeremiah (9:22-23) “Thus said G-d: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, nor the warrior in his bravery, nor the rich man in his riches … for I am G-d, who does kindness, justice and righteousness on earth. For these things please Me, says G-d.” O L-rd, Shower Your abundant blessings on the newly elected President, his cabinet and on all who are involved in the high calling of governing this great country. Inspire them to govern by the Talmud’s ethical principle that leadership “is not power but service”. Grant them success in the fight against poverty, crime and disease, and in the noble aim of providing children with an education of excellence, and empowering all people with the dignity of housing, basic infrastructure and employment. Help them and us to live the dream of a prosperous, just and free South Africa – a South Africa that is a source of inspiration and a beacon of light to all humankind. May this be Your will, and let us say Amen.