Praying for peace

Posted by Levi Cooper on July 3, 2024
Topics: The Maggid of Melbourne, Jewish Prayer, Spiritual Practices, Reflection

Likkutei Tefillot is one of the fascinating books in the hasidic library. Written by Rabbi Natan Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780-1844), it does not fit neatly in the classic genres of hasidic writing. The work, as we have it today, is divided into two parts and contains 210 original prayers written by the prime student of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1810). The entire volume is based on a particular teaching of Rabbi Natan’s famed teacher who urged turning Torah lessons into prayers. 

The exhortation to turn Torah into prayers appears after Rabbi Nahman discussed the spiritual practice of hitbodedut – free conversation with God in a secluded place, a signature practice of the contemporary Breslov scene. After discussing the practice, Rabbi Nahman added: 

“It is also good to create prayer from the Torah. That is, when one studies or hears some Torah discourse from the genuine tzaddik, he should make a prayer from it. That is, he should request and beseech God regarding everything that was said there in that discourse(Likkutei Moharan 2:25).

As we might expect from Rabbi Nahman’s favored student, Rabbi Natan took this instruction seriously and composed prayers based on Rabbi Nahman’s teachings. Thus, when Rabbi Nahman taught about wars and their detrimental effects (Likkutei Moharan 2:60), Rabbi Natan composed a prayer for peace (Likkutei Tefillot 2:53). 

Rabbi Nahman taught how wars bring about bloodshed and cause inflation. Drawing on this teaching, Rabbi Natan composed a prayer to end wars and bloodshed. This prayer is at times referred to as Rabbi Nahman’s Prayer for Peace, and while it was inspired by Rabbi Nahman’s teaching and his exhortation to turn Torah teachings into prayers, the prayer is truly Rabbi Natan’s work. It is a new composition in its own right, albeit using some of Rabbi Nahman’s turns of phrase. The prayer is Rabbi Natan’s personal supplications and therefore appears in first person, although Rabbi Natan also beseeched the Almighty for help for all of Israel.

The Prayer for Peace is an inspirational composition. It opens with the following words: 

“May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that You eradicate war and bloodshed from the world, and draw great and wondrous peace into the world, so that ‘nation will not lift sword against nation and they shall no longer learn war’ (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3). Rather, all inhabitants of the earth will recognize and know the ultimate truth: That we did not come to this world for fighting and dispute, Heaven forfend; and not for hatred, jealousy, hostility, and bloodshed, Heaven forfend. But we came to the world in order to recognize and know You, may You be blessed forever.”

Rabbi Natan continued with requests for rain and for financial security:

“And therefore, have compassion on us. And give us the rains in their time and season. Do not stop the heavens from giving rain whenever the world needs it. And the verse that is written will be fulfilled: ‘I will grant your rains in their season, and the earth shall yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give its fruit. … I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down with no trouble, and I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land’ (Leviticus 26:4, 6).”

In the original teaching that provided the platform for this prayer, Rabbi Nahman included a lengthy discussion about students who were dishonest. Following that lead, Rabbi Natan prayed that he would be a good student whose eyes would be illuminated by Torah study, that he would merit to arrive at novel Torah insights, and that he would be an inspirational teacher. 

This part of the prayer appears not to be connected to war and peace, reminding us that the trigger for Rabbi Natan’s prayer was not the horrid experience of real-time battle. Rather, Rabbi Nahman’s teaching was the springboard for Rabbi Natan prayer and since the teacher had discussed learning style, the student followed suit in his prayer.

Rabbi Nahman also explored the talmudic passage about the imprisonment of Rabbi Akiva (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 112a). Rabbi Nahman’s creative reading described incarceration as a spiritual state when Torah is held captive by insolent students. In his prayer, Rabbi Natan brought the notion of captivity back to harsh reality:

And in Your compassion, guard us and save us all of our days, forever, from the punishment of incarceration and prison – Heaven forfend – that we will never be incarcerated and in prison, and have mercy on all your people the house of Israel who have already been incarcerated in prison, that You should hurry to take them out of there in peace and with ease, because You know their suffering and their pain, and the acute pity that they deserve.”

Slightly changing the grammatical structure of a biblical verse, Rabbi Natan turned to the Almighty with a demand: “Bring them out from darkness and the shadow of death, and You should cut their chains” (following Psalms 107:14).

Rabbi Natan’s Prayer for Peace concludes with a flurry of biblical verses, including a request for divine guidance and approval for the work of our hands, the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our heart (Psalms 90:17, 19:15). To my mind, once verse in particular stands out (Psalms 29:11): “May the Lord give might to His nation, may the Lord bless His nation with peace.”

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