On Rosh Hodesh Heshvan (October 15-16, 2023) – just over a week after the Simhat Torah massacre – the Boyaner Rebbe, Rabbi Nachum Dov Brayer (b. 1959) dispatched a book of prayers to his hasidim who have children or spouses who are serving or were mobilised.
As a rule, Boyan hasidim – like other mainstream hasidic communities in Israel – do not serve in the Israel Defence Force. Notwithstanding this communal norm, Boyan’s relative openness and its history of relative openness has resulted in a number of adherents who are Zionist hasidim and serve in the IDF as a matter of course. Sending a prayer book – together with a box of pralines! – was a heart-warming gesture and an expression of communal concern and understanding that parents or spouses of soldiers may be particularly anxious at this time.
The book – Tehinot ‘et ratson, translatable as “supplications [for divinely] favourable time” – is an eclectic collection of supplications for all manner of occasions: prayers for pregnant women and prayers for women who want to become pregnant, prayers for parents about their children and prayers for children about their parents, prayers to be said at particular locations and prayers to be said at particular times, and so on. The prayers were gathered from a variety of sources, including medieval texts, hasidic material, kabbalistic prayers from Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions, and more.
The collection includes a prayer of possible relevance to the present discussion: “a supplication and request regarding the people of Israel that they should be saved from wars.” This prayer was excerpted from a longer supplication included in a work prepared by Rabbi Eliezer Papo (1785-1827) and printed in Belgrade in 1860. The original prayer was not presented as a specific supplication for salvation from war. Moreover, the prayer does not capture the essence of a Jewish State fighting against those who would throw Jews into the sea. The reference to “Israel” is not to the modern state, but to the people. The spirit of the prayer is more in line with the Jewish experience over the last two millennia prior to Zionism: Praying that Jews would not be collateral damage in wars between peoples, countries, or empires. Thus, it appears that any relevance of this particular prayer to the present war is incidental rather than intentional.
It is notable that the collection does not include a prayer for soldiers, suggesting that those involved in the book’s production were targeting an audience that would have no need for such a prayer. At first blush, it is incongruous to present an assemblage of prayers to parents and spouses of soldiers with the most pressing, relevant, and meaningful prayer absent from the collection.
A Hebrew letter in stuck to the inside cover of the book serves as a significant counterweight. While the book was delivered to parents or spouses of soldiers, the letter is actually addressed to the soldiers and their families. The wording draws on biblical verses and the text exudes pathos, respect, encouragement, and resilience. Given the uniqueness of the letter, it is worth rendering into English:
To our dear brothers, our flesh, who stand in battle formations
Who endanger their lives in the difficult battle against those who hate Israel, who seek to destroy us
And to their families who stand behind [them] with supreme dedication for the sake of saving the entirety
Be strong and be brave!
Remember that God is with us
And He gives us strength to wage war
“A thousand will fall by your side and ten thousand at your right hand, none will come near you”
You are etched on the slate of our heart, and on the slate of the heart of the entirety of Israel
And we are all praying to our Father, merciful Father, that you will merit supreme safeguarding from all harm
For He will charge his angels regarding you, to safeguard you in all your ways
To return you in peace, complete in body and in soul
And to cause you to have success in your journey without injury and pain
And in this hour we will inculcate in our heart the faith of the mighty one [Abraham] in the Creator of all, who rules His world with kindness and with mercy
The one who forever safeguards His nation Israel He will not abandon and He will not forsake the remnant of His heritage
Let not your heart be faint, fear not, and do not tremble and do not be terrified
For the eyes of our people are looking attentively at your success!
And may it be the will [of God] that we will soon merit to see you in our holy and our beautiful house
When the Lord turns the captivity of His people and Israel is saved by the Lord, an everlasting salvation
It worth considering what this letter is and what it is not. The letter is not a public prayer offered by the leader of a hasidic community. In fact, it is unclear whether the letter was public knowledge or not. The weekly email that includes information about what happened in the Boyan communities around the world, Mei-hana‘aseh ve-hanishma, made no mention of the books dispatched even though it was posted on October 20, 2023, four or five days after the letter was written. There is not explicit mention of the State of Israel or the IDF, and even the word soldier is absent.
Nonetheless, the context and vibe of the letter is unmistakable. This is a strongly worded voice of support and caring; it is an acknowledgement of the dangers faced by the soldiers and an appreciation of the significance of their service for all of Israel. From this perspective, the letter fills some of the functions of prayer – a recognition that IDF service at this time is a laudable enterprise and an expression of gratitude for those risking their lives to defend Israel – the people and the country.