Praying for the President

Updated: May 7, 2020

The Chief Rabbi’s prayers and hopes for government as the new members of parliament are sworn in.

Welcome, thank you for listening. This is a big week in South African politics and in South African history. I was in Cape Town on Wednesday to be part of the ceremony of swearing in the new members of parliament as they took the oath or affirmation to commit themselves to the country, to the constitution, to their duties. And as with all official important state functions, prayers are delivered at these functions. So I went down to Cape Town for the purpose of delivering a prayer on behalf of Judaism and the Jewish community together with other religious leaders.

It was a very beautiful ceremony and tremendous atmosphere in parliament because what happens is each group of the members of parliament come forward to take the oath and there are 400 members of parliament. So the way that they do it is they come forward in groups of between 8 and 10, and the group comes forward and they read out their declaration of taking the oath or the affirmation and then the Chief Justice who presides over the entire occasion – because he is the custodian of the constitution – he then asks the members of parliament after they have read their statements: he says those that have taken the oath say ‘So help me G-d’ and those who have taken the affirmation say ‘I do’. And different people for different reasons say the different formulas, but it went through all 400 members of parliament like that. And after each group had taken the oath there was applause from all of the members of parliament and the people sitting in the gallery and there was a festive atmosphere – one filled with joy and warmth. It was really wonderful to be part of it.

After all the members of parliament were sworn in and a new Speaker was appointed, religious leaders then delivered prayers to inaugurate and to pray for the new parliament – which is really the fourth democratic parliament of the new South Africa, the fourth duly constituted parliament since the formation of the new South Africa in 1994. After that everyone went to lunch and came back and sat down at 2 o’clock exactly – everything runs exactly on time in parliament. The bells go and people arrive in and everyone please rise for the Speaker or the Chief Justice and then proceeded to the election of the President because the President is elected by the members of parliament. And I am sure all of those events you watched on the news as it had to go down to a vote.

The Significance of Prayer

What is significant is that all of these big official state functions take place with a prayers. And let’s try and analyse that because there is a lot of positive in that. Firstly, the fact that there is a diversity of prayers because although the majority – the vast majority of South Africans – are Christian. Nevertheless, the ethos of the country is unity and diversity. And so equal space is made for all of the major religions of the country and the 5 prayers were delivered for Judaism, for Islam, for Christianity, for Hinduism and for African traditional religions. All of those prayers were delivered as they are at all of the major state functions. And there is something very special in the fact that there are these diversity of prayers which are offered.

And I keep on thinking from a Jewish point of view, if you think historically, when have Jews ever been asked to deliver prayers looking back on the thousands of years of exile. After we were exiled from the land of Israel and running from one country to the next to the next – when in the course of all of those years – have Jews ever been asked to deliver a prayer at the inauguration of a king or a government or any kind of an official state function. It’s something which in the sweep of history, something we should not take for granted and something which is, indeed, very special.

Part of it as well is about the power of prayer. And here it’s important to realise how important praying is. We sometimes tend to think that prayers are an act of solidarity, it’s a way of creating an atmosphere. It’s not that, maybe it has those side benefits. But actually what prayer is, it’s talking directly to G-d. And when we pray to Hashem and we ask Him for things, He listens. He sometimes grants us what we ask for, and sometimes He doesn’t grant everything we ask for. Our Sages explain that no prayer is turned away completely empty handed, always some good comes from every prayer. But at the end of the day He listens and prayer has a power. It has a special power, that G-d has given us this gift to be able to communicate directly with Him. And that’s its real force.

Some of these ideas I have put out on a letter, an open letter to the community, which please G-d we will be distributing before Shabbas this week to the schools and to the shuls. The letter itself deals with the fact that the Presidential Inauguration this year takes place on Shabbas. This year, the 9th of May, is a Saturday morning. And in the letter I set out the fact that in the past the Chief Rabbi has always delivered a prayer at the Presidential Inaugurations in accordance with the practice that I have mentioned – that all important state functions this is done. And, of course, the Presidential Inauguration is the most important of all the state functions. And so I have notified, you know written to, the President and explained to him, and all of this is set out in the letter. And I think it’s important, go out and get yourself a copy because I have put the details of that in. And in that letter I have explained the importance of praying, and the importance also of Shabbas – that at the end of the day Shabbas is a special gift from Hashem. It is something that was given to us at Mount Sinai. And before that even, all of those years ago – more than 3,300 years ago – it was given to us and this is part of who we are. And the beauty of the new South Africa is that you don’t have to compromise who you are in order to participate.

So actually the prayer that I have drafted will be read out on my behalf by the Master of Ceremonies on Saturday morning, but I will not be there. And it’s all set out in the letter to explain and to present that context.

But I wanted to look at a very positive dimension of this concept of prayer. It’s not only about talking to G-d and praying to G-d and asking things from G-d. It’s also about praising G-d and thanking G-d. These are all the different dimensions of what prayer about. But there is something which goes even beyond that, and that’s why this concept of prayer at official state functions is such an important one because what it does is, it brings G-d’s Presence into the world. It makes the world filled with G-d’s Presence.

We find this mitzvah, it’s actually in this week’s portion, the portion that we read this week is the portion of Emor, and in this portion – it can be found in Viyitrah – Leviticus, chapter 22, verse 32 onwards. It says, Ve lo (HEBREW), you shall not desecrate My Holy Name (HEBREW) and I will be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel (Hebrew), I am Hashem who has sanctified you (Hebrew) who has taken you out of the land of Egypt (Hebrew) to be for you a G-d. (Ani Hashem) I am Hashem.

And from these verses is learned one of the most important mitzvoth, and one of the most serious sins that we have within Judaism – and that is the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, of sanctifying G-d’s name and the Avayrah, the sin and the prohibition of Gillul Hashem, desecrating G-d’s Name. What is this mitzvah about? It has different dimensions. But at its essence, it is about holding G-d’s Name up high in the world; proclaiming G-d to the world. It’s about creating a good impression in the minds and hearts of people the way they think about G-d and the way they think about all of these values. That mitzvah is called Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s Name, promoting His Name, bringing Him glory in the world, promoting His Image in the world, promoting the way that people view Him, His Torah, us – all of those different things.

Now, that’s why for example, one of the practical applications of it which is mentioned in the Talmud and the Rambam mentions as well – that a person who is viewed by others to be of high religious standing has to be extra careful with ethics, obviously not to do anything unethical but not even to do anything which looks unethical. Because people can’t distinguish and it looks bad. So it gives an example of someone who takes an item and eats of it before he has paid for it – even though he intends to pay; the onlooker may think that he is doing something wrong. So Kiddush Hashem is sanctifying G-d’s Name is that people should look at those who follow    G-d’s precepts and follow the principles and values of Judaism and say if that’s the kind of person it produces, I want to be like that. So, in fact, the passage in the Talmud on page 87 where it says how do you fulfil the mitzvah of (Hebrew) you must love the Lord your G-d – so the Talmud says you should make Hashem beloved to others.

How do you make other people love G-d? It’s a good question. I mean you say you have got to make other people love G-d. How do you inspire people with a love for  G-d? The Talmud says it’s very simple. It’s all in how you behave. If you have got a person who has studied Torah and is observant of the mitzvoth, the commandments and is perceived by people to be a standard bearer of G-d’s values and, it says, such a person deals with honesty and integrity and speaks kindly and gently to people – then says the Talmud (Hebrew) what do people say? Happy and fortunate is a person who is connected to G-d and connected to His Torah. And, on the contrary, if a person who holds himself out to be a standard bearer of G-d’s Name and principles in the world but doesn’t act in a way of integrity and honesty and doesn’t talk kindly and gently to people, then people say the reverse.

And this is a very simple thing. People love G-d and they will love G-d’s Torah and they will love all of His values in direct proportion to how they perceive the behaviour of people who follow those values. If they see that those values uplift and create and refine and inspire great people, then they will want to be part of it and love Hashem. And the mitzvahs do do that. But we have to put in the effort to make sure that we create ourselves to be the correct product of the system so that we can bring glory to G-d’s Name. That is what Kiddush Hashem is all about. It’s about bringing glory to  G-d’s name. And Gillul Hashem, desecrating G-d’s name – G-d forbid – that is where G-d’s name is brought into disrepute.

And another dimension of it but related to the same theme is also standing up for principles. So part of this category of Kiddush Hashem is that if, for example, a person is called upon to commit a sin in public he is not allowed to do that. And even to the extent of making enormous sacrifices and in certain circumstances – even sacrificing one’s life – in order that one does not commit a sin in such a way that it brings G-d’s name into disrepute that’s really what sanctifying G-d’s Name and Gillul Hashem the opposite. It’s about when a mitzvah, a commandment, is done in public and people can see that you are following Hashem’s Commandments and His Values and they see that you are standing by your principles that is sanctifying G-d’s Name in public. And on the contrary, if a person does anything wrong it actually  desecrates G-d’s Name.

You see the difference between public and private – in principle there shouldn’t be any difference between the two because a sin in private is a sin in public. And a mitzvah in public is a mitzvah in private. It’s all the same thing. And on the contrary, with great human beings there isn’t a discrepancy between their private and public life. It can be argued that the one definition of greatness is the correlation between the private and public life of a person – what do they do out there in the world and what do they do in the privacy of their own home. A person who truly has respect for Hashem and has real integrity will be the same inside and outside. That’s what the Talmud says – that a great person is called (Hebrew), his inside is like his outside. There is not a disconnect. There is congruency between their public persona and their private persona.

Having said that, when something is done in public it has a public impact on other people. When something is done in public then if it’s good it impacts for the good and it holds G-d’s Name up. If you do a mitzvah in public then you are holding G-d’s Name up high, you are saying I am loyal to G-d, I will stick by his principles. And on the contrary, if you do a sin in public it also has the opposite effect – it damages people. So from the integrity point of view there is no difference between private and public. But the impact on society, there is a very big difference between the two. And a Kiddush Hashem is sanctifying G-d’s name in public; to do those commandments in public and say that I am loyal to those commandments as opposed to a sin – G-d forbid – in public which then drags people down with it.

So Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s Name is about promoting G-d’s Name in this world, it’s about holding His Name up high so that the people have a positive of G-d and His Torah and that is done through personal conduct: integrity, honesty, decency, kindness, gentleness and then it’s done by standing up for principles. Those are the different components of it. It’s a very vast mitzvah which has other detailed components which we don’t have time to go into now. But it’s all held together with this theme of sanctifying G-d’s Name – it’s holding His Name up high. That for me is what is also so special about these public prayers.

It’s not just about the act of praying because we can pray in private and we should, we should pray for the welfare of the country and the welfare of the country. The Mishnah says (Hebrew), pray for the welfare of the government. We have to pray for everything – we pray for health, we pray for sustenance parnossa, we pray for shidduchim and children. And all of these things, all the issues and things that we need in life – we pray for and we ask Hashem for them. So we should also ask Hashem for brocha for the way that the country runs and the country functions. That’s fine. And that’s private prayer – which is very important.

But public prayer has this additional dimension. Here I am not talking about a minyan because that’s a very specific Halachic concept where our prayers have an extra power if it’s part of a minyan. We are talking about another thing here which is Kiddush Hashem. The fact that I have an opportunity on behalf of Judaism and the Jewish community to deliver a prayer in public, that is an opportunity for Kiddush Hashem because we are holding G-d’s Name up high and saying let His Presence fill this very important state function – whether it’s the swearing in of the members of parliament or the inauguration of a president – we are saying that G-d has a Presence in this event. And that’s a tremendous Kiddush Hashem.

And I think that this year, by the way, that Kiddush Hashem is actually added to by the fact that we will not be represented on Shabbat. The fact that somebody else will be reading this, we as – and I am talking now in the concept me personally as the Chief Rabbi or the fact that we don’t have a rabbi representing us there – that is also Kiddush Hashem. What are we saying to the world? Shabbas is more important. We can’t be there, we can’t break the laws of Shabbas – that’s also a Kiddush Hashem. And that’s why, just in the lead up to the prayers, I have given them words of introduction to say, today is the Jewish Sabbath and therefore the Chief Rabbi cannot be here in terms of ancient religious law so that is explained. So the Kiddush Hashem is that those words are being said, but the additional Kiddush Hashem that the world should know its Shabbas. That is something that goes back and is part of G-d’s Commandments and we can’t compromise on that. And I think that is also something which is very important and very special.

As mentioned in this letter I have put out, we will be davening in our shuls – like every Shabbas. Every Shabbas, as you know, there are prayers for the government in shul. This Shabbas is going to be the specific inauguration prayers which I personally informed President Elect about when I was in parliament and saw him there and he was very grateful for that fact that we are doing that. So we are participating, we are praying, but the Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of G-d’s Name is indeed maximised.

This concept of promoting G-d’s name is called Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying His Name. Why sanctifying? Because it means sanctity is where someone holds something to be sacred, special. So there is that dimension. But why is it called Kiddush Hashem? We have two concepts in Judaism, one is called Kiddusha – holiness; and the other is called Chol sometimes relates to the secular, the mundane – it’s the opposite of holiness.  What are these two words: Kodesh and Chol? Holy and profane, holy and secular, holy and ordinary.

What is the word chol? Rev Chaim Veloshna, one of the great Talmudic scholars in Lithuania who was the student of the Vilna Goan – one of the great genius of Vilna – says that the word chol comes from the Hebrew word chalal which means a vacuum – emptiness. In fact, a corpse is a chalal – it’s related to the word chalal. Because a corpse, when a person dies, is a vacuum. There was a soul that filled the person and it’s gone. That becomes a very powerful analogy. Because think about it, a person is a physical body and that’s the part that you can see; but you can also see the (Hebrew) neshoma, the soul. And the proof is, if you have a look at a dead body, there is nothing there. The colour is gone – it’s ashen – even the expression on the face. Everything changes once that neshoma, once the soul leaves the body and it’s left with a vacuum.

That concept of vacuum is the opposite of kodesh – sanctity, holiness. Holiness is where there isn’t a vacuum. Now what does holiness mean? It fills the world with    G-d’s Presence. That is what Kiddusha is – sanctity – we fill the world with G-d’s presence. That’s why the commandments bring sanctity in the world. Before we do a commandment, we say (Hebrew) G-d who has sanctified us with His Commandments and commanded us to do x, y and z depending on what the particular blessing is. Every commandment comes with holiness. Why? Because every commandment we are bringing more holiness into the world. What does that mean? We are filling the world and we are filling our lives and our families lives and our community and our own neshoma, and everything about us – we are filling it with G-d’s Presence. Every time we do a commandment we are following – this is the will of G-d; take a lulav – this is the will of G-d; we put on tefillim – this is the will of G-d. I am doing something that G-d has commanded us to do. Bringing G-d’s Presence into the world – that is what sanctity is all about. Every commandment that we do we brings sanctity – whether it’s giving charity, whether it’s refraining from speaking lashen horah, whether it’s praying. All of that brings G-d’s Presence into the world. That is what sanctity is all about.

And that could be why the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d‘s Name is given that. It’s not just promoting G-d’s Name or bringing good publicity. It’s called sanctifying it. Through Kiddush Hashem, through fulfilling that commandment of sanctifying G-d’s Name one is actually allowing G-d’s Presence and His Name to fill the world. Because if people view G-d positively, then His Presence fills the world. There is that sense that He is there, that He is important, that He is the foundation of the world. That is sanctifying His Name. We are filling the world with His Presence. And that actually in this week’s portion is very interesting.

The Mitzvah of Shabbat

Straight after the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem in this week’s portion, is brought the mitzvah of Shabbas – actually brought right then in this week’s portion. So it deals with the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, then it deals with the mitzvah of Shabbas and then deals with all the mitzvoth of the Yamin Tovim, the Yomtovs – the concept of the sanctity of time.

So firstly there is an interesting cross-over of what’s taking place – Kiddush Hashem, Shabbas in the portion and it talks about the festivals in chapter 23 in verse 2. It talks about the festivals and says (Hebrew), that you shall call them Nikray Kodesh – holiness that’s the word Kodesh. But this word Nikray – what does it mean? So the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Menachmen – the great commentator of the Middle Ages – he says Nikray Kodesh means, Nikray means to call someone to a meeting. And he says it’s gatherings of holiness. And why are the festivals called gatherings of holiness? Because people gather on the Shabbat and festivals in synagogues and they pray and they bring praises to Hashem. So these are all gatherings of holiness that take place in a public forum and that’s why the festivals are called Nikray Kodesh. That’s the explanation that the Ramban gives for it.

The Ramban also cites the opinion of the Talmudic Sages who say that what does Nikray Kodesh mean. How do we fulfil that Nikray Kodesh? Through having special food and special clothing on Shabbas and Yomtov. Now what does that mean? How does the Nikray Kodesh relate to that special food and that special clothing? How do we understand that? The way that the Ramban says it, is because these are special occasions. He says according to that interpretation it will be Nikray from the Hebrew word Nikre which means ‘the happening’. These are the special occasions which are then marked with special things. That’s how he interprets it. 

But there is another interpretation that I wanted to share with you from Rav Mechlenberg which relates to everything we have been talking about today. He gives a different interpretation to the Talmudic Sages that the Ramban refers to. He says Nikray Kodesh means to prepare oneself for holiness. You see that’s what it is. It’s a calling, the word Nikre is to call. But he also says it relates to the Hebrew word, to prepare and to designate something. You call something and you designate it, you prepare it, you prepare yourself. He said it’s like the soul calling to the body – Nikray – there is a calling that is made to prepare for holiness.

What is the purpose of Shabbat? What is the purpose of Yomtov? It’s a day of holiness, a connectedness to G-d, an elevation of inspiration. We have to call and prepare ourselves. So how do we do that? Through the special food and special clothes. The special food and clothes and the joy of Shabbas – that’s not the end – that’s the means to the end. So he said that is there to remind us that it’s a special day. Otherwise how do you know it’s a special day? You know it’s a special day because human beings are influenced by external things – this is what Rav Mechlenberg explains. He is one of the great commentators from Germany in the 19th century. Human beings are influenced by external things. So how do you know it’s a special day of holiness, a calling to holiness? Through we have got different clothes, different food, there is a whole different atmosphere – that’s how it impacted. So it’s Nikray Kodesh in preparation for that. And he says this concept of being influenced by your externalities, that’s what the whole Torah is about. While so many of our commandments are physical commandments because that changes who we are internally; and the special clothes and the special food impact us. Firstly, they remind us it’s a holy day. But he said secondly, they give us the head space to receive the holiness. You see when you dress smart you feel like a different person. A person feels more refined, more elevated, more ready to receive and connect with the holiness that G-d offers us and that opportunity to connect with him. It’s the same with physical and beautiful things – whether its food or clothing or environment or songs or music – there is a great mitzvah to sing on Shabbas and Yomtov. He says quoting from Maimonides, the Rambam, who says all of these things open up a person’s mind – that if a person sees beautiful things there mind is open to beautiful thoughts and to things of sanctity.

It can, it has the potential. I mean people can take beauty and drag it down to the lowest common denominator of physicality and materialism. But it actually has the potential to open the mind and the heart to holiness. And that’s what Shabbas and Yomtov are about. Nikray Kodesh – opening to holiness. And he says the real purpose is, is to open our minds and hearts to the holiness of all year round. You see, because it’s through the physical on the day that we open our hearts and minds to the holiness of the day and we train ourselves in that through the whole physical world to open ourselves up to the holiness of the world even outside of Shabbas and Yomtov.

And it relates to what we are talking about because the definition of holiness, Kodesh and chol that we have been discussing, is whether there is a vacuum or it’s filled with G-d’s Presence. And we need to fill the world and our lives and every single day of our lives, everything that we do and our family and all of the people we come into contact with, and our neshomas – we have to fill with G-d’s Presence, with His Holiness. And the key and the secret to achieving that is the Nikray Kodesh – the calling to holiness which is what Shabbas and Yomtov is all about.

Thank you for listening, and I look forward to being with you again this time next week.


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