Thoughts and Prayers at a Time of War

Sermon given March 21, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


Your Rabbi has been uncharacteristically quiet as war has approached. Being one who frequently takes public positions on matters of public policy, my failure to do so in the face of war has surprised me. Perhaps my silence has pleased many members of the congregation!

Actually, two non-actions of mine in recent months may best define what I have believed to be the best response.

The first, in January, happened when our congregation hosted the annual interfaith Martin Luther King Service. We were thrilled to welcome that significant event back to our Temple, the very week that we re-occupied the building after construction. When I arrived for the service, though, I found something that we had not contemplated. A small anti-war demonstration, with more press than protestors, was taking place on the very steps of Temple Beth-El. I quickly investigated, and learned that the protest had not been sanctioned by the Martin Luther King Service organizers. Nobody had asked the Temple for permission. Some of the protestors were my friends, people whom I generally respect and with whom our congregation and its Rabbis have worked in common cause on many occasions in the past. On the other hand, I was aghast at their hutzpa, holding a protest on Temple property, without so much as a “by your leave.” With some discomfort, but no reservations, I asked them to move the protest and their signs off the Temple grounds, onto the public sidewalk.

To tell the truth, I was not only disturbed by the protestors’ not having asked permission. These demonstrators were holding signs that cast the President of the United States in a very negative light, but none that suggested any concern about the morality of Saddam Hussein. While I share their prayer for peace, and some of their questions about the wisdom of this war effort, I am increasingly uncomfortable with an anti-war movement that fails to offer the respect due the office of President, to express solidarity with our American military men and women or with our allies, particularly Israel, or to recognize the basic goodness of the United States and the wickedness of this particular enemy.

The second incident happened more recently, when WOAI radio invited me to participate in its “Rally to Support Our Troops,” at the Verizon Amphitheater. To be honest, declining that invitation was easy, because the event was held on Shabbat morning. However, after the fact, I was glad that I had not let myself be roped in to what turned out to be a “pro-war protest.” As uncomfortable as I am with the current anti-war movement, I am at least equally put off by a so-called patriotic movement that often glorifies war, ignores the humanity of the innocent citizens of Iraq, threatens the civil rights of Arabs and Muslims in America, and worst of all, impugns the loyalty of their fellow citizens who disagree with the current President. To some of them, it seems, praying for peace has become an act of treason.

As Jewish Americans, we acknowledge that the greatest peace-making effort of the twentieth century was in December, 1941, when the United States of America entered a war. An even greater effort toward peace would have been an earlier American entry into that conflict. How many lives would have been saved, had America stood up to Hitler and Tojo, joining Britain and her allies in its war effort in 1939, not waiting for our own forces to be attacked? Frankly, I am not certain that Saddam Hussein poses a similar threat, and am therefore still far from certain that the current war effort is an act of peace. However, I do believe that such an argument is reasonable, even as I grant legitimacy to the position that our government did not sufficiently pursue alternatives to war.

As American Jews, we recall that we are taught to seek peace and pursue it. War must only be a last resort, and must only be waged in the search for peace.

Tonight, then, I am not yet entirely prepared to take a position on whether or not our nation is engaged in a just war. Moreover, I am not persuaded that tonight is a time for political pronouncements, agreeing or disagreeing with the President’s actions. Instead, here in our house of worship, at this time of national crisis and war, tonight is a time for prayer.

We pray for the men and women of the American military, and for the fighting forces of our allies. May God protect them from harm. Let them be victorious in confronting evil, but let them never become callous to the loss of human life. May each of them return safely to family and community, speedily and soon.

We pray for the President of the United States, George W. Bush. Let God guide him in the cause of goodness and justice. Let him lead our nation to peace and security, but let him never become intoxicated by the power of our country or of his office. May he protect everything that is good about America, our freedoms and liberty, defending the Constitution he is sworn to uphold, even as he combats the wickedness of terror. Strengthen his commitment to rebuild Iraq, in peace and security, democracy and independence, even as he seeks to destroy that nations’s evil ruler.

We pray for those who protest the war. Let them demonstrate loudly and forthrightly. May they ever remember the basic goodness of our land, even when government action disappoints them. May they ever respect the office of President of the United States, even when they disagree with him. May they find meaningful ways to support our troops, even if they can not agree with those same troops’ mission. May their protests exemplify their love of peace and their loyalty to America. May they demonstrate in safety and security, in a nation that vigorously protects their right to do so, even in time of war.

We pray for the innocent people of Iraq. Spread over them, too, O God, the shelter of Your peace. Protect them from groundless hatred and from death at the hands of those who would save them.

We pray for the State of Israel. May every citizen of that land remain safe throughout this war. Turn the hearts of those throughout the world who ignorantly hate Israel. Let Israel not become a scapegoat for the ravages of war. Let our Jewish people in Israel, in America and throughout the world live in peace and security. Let the people of Israel and their leaders work toward a lasting peace, assuring the integrity of the Jewish State and the values of Torah. During this war, and after it, may Israel strive ever to be a light to the nations.

O God, our prayers multiply on this night of uncertainty, at this time of war. Open our hearts to all these prayers and to so many more. Above all, as loyal Americans and faithful Jews, let us pray for peace. Whether the path of peace is through war or through resistance to it, may we ever be God’s agents in bringing to this world the peace of heavenly spheres.

Amen.