A 1970s childhood: basements, backyards, entire neighborhoods in which to run free. Young parents and grandparents. Cool music. A culture that was spreading its wings and opening its arms. Like most of my generation, when school was out, so was I. On my bike. In the park. Gone until nightfall.
That childhood also included duck and cover drills, Vietnam and the fall of Saigon, President Nixon and the Watergate hearings. I remember these things vividly too. Our Shabbat dinner table included boisterous discussions about these events as they unfolded, and everyone had something to say.
Neither the dinner table nor the vast sanctuary of Congregation Beth Joseph provided shelter from the political and social upheaval. I remember, sitting there on Saturday mornings, in the warm velvet seats with my blue-covered Birnbaum prayerbook, the conflict I felt when reading the Prayer for the Government:
May God bless and protect, help and exalt the President and the Vice-President, and all the officers of this country. May the supreme King of kings, in his mercy, sustain them and deliver them from all distress and misfortune.
Despite the animus and the anger, despite the hope and the disappointment, the certainty and the uncertainty that I saw and felt at those Friday night dinners, on Saturday morning we gathered to pray for the well-being of our leaders and our government. We prayed for our own sakes and for the sake of our neighbors and for the sake of Israel.
America’s relationship with and to its government of the people, for the people, and by the people is long and complicated and tangled. This week’s Torah portion, Shemoth, tells of Jacob’s descendants who are now living under a new king, one that knew not Joseph. Joseph who once stood next to Pharaoh. Joseph whose words shifted the course of history. Joseph who reminds us that it is as it has ever been.
We are heard. We are silenced. We are welcomed. We are expelled. We are safe. We are fearful. Our leaders are just. Our leaders are intransigent. They are wise, and they are foolish. But our calling remains: to participate and to assume responsibility. To sustain them and to deliver them and ourselves from distress and misfortune. For their sake and ours.