Praying for our Religious Leaders

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Parashat Devarim

We often think of prayer as motivated by personal needs: I pray for myself or others close to me.  But one of our prayers specifically asks us to focus more broadly and pray for our religious leaders.  Why is this so important?

In Parashat Devarim, Moshe encourages Yehoshua by explaining that God will defeat the kings in the land “to which you will cross over” (Deuteronomy 3:21).  A midrash notes the poignant nature of this phrase:

דברים רבה (וילנא) ג:יא
מהו "אתה עובר" (דברים ג:כא)?  
א"ר תנחומא: היה משה מחבט עצמו לפניהן ואומר להם "אתם עוברים - ואני איני עובר" 
ופתח להם פתח שמא יבקשו עליו רחמים 
ולא היו מבינים
Devarim Rabbah 3:11, ed. Lieberman, p. 88
What is the force of “you will cross over”?  
R. Tanhuma said: Moshe prostrated himself before Israel and said to them: “You are to cross over, but I, I will not cross over.”  
He gave them the opportunity to pray for him, but they did not understand.  

In this moment of transition, when Moshe appoints Yehoshua as leader and works to calm the latter’s fears about leading a military campaign in the Promised Land, we see that Moshe was actually doing something else as well.  He was subtly asking the people to pray for him to enter the land with them.

In saying “you will cross over” instead of “we will cross over,” Moshe hopes that the people will understand that this means that Moshe will not join them, and that this realization will motivate them to pray to God to allow Moshe to enter the land.  

Moshe did not ask explicitly for the people to pray for him.  He only hinted at it by giving them an opening to pray.  But the people did not realize that he wanted  them to pray for him; “they did not understand.”  Without the people’s prayer on his behalf, Moshe instead goes on to pray for himself (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).  But God rejects his prayer, saying: “You shall not cross” (3:27).  If the people had prayed for Moshe, might the outcome have been different?

Moshe certainly thinks so.  Another midrash imagines Moshe as angry that the people did not pray for him, especially after all the times he saved them with prayer.

דברים רבה ז:י
א"ר שמואל בר יצחק כיון שנטה משה למות ולא בקשו עליו רחמים שיכנס לארץ כנס אותן והתחיל מוכיחן, א"ל אחד פדה ס' רבוא בעגל וס' רבוא לא היו יכולין לפדות אדם אחד
Devarim Rabbah 7:10
R. Shmuel bar Yitzhak said: When Moshe was about to die, and the people didn’t pray for him to enter the land, he gathered them and began to berate them.  [Moshe] said to the people: one person redeemed 600,000 at the sin of the golden calf, but 600,000 couldn’t redeem one person?!

Moshe bitterly complains that, following the sin of the Golden calf, he saved the entire Jewish people through his prayer.  And now they can’t all pray to save just one person?  

Why didn’t the people pray for Moshe in that moment?  Did they not want him to cross with them?  I think they had another reason: the people simply could not imagine that a man like Moshe would ever be vulnerable enough to need a prayer.  After all, he was their visionary leader, he had direct access to God.  So why would he need a prayer on his behalf?  That is why the people didn’t get Moshe’s hint to pray for him.

But the truth is, religious leaders—even at the level of Moshe—sometimes need prayers from others.  They remain human, and have needs that they can’t always take care of on their own.  Indeed, we need to pray for our leaders—even if we think they might not need our prayers.  

The 13th blessing of our Amidah includes a prayer specifically for religious leaders.  It reads, in part:

עַל הַצַּדִּיקִים 
וְעַל הַחֲסִידִים 
וְעַל זִקְנֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל...
יֶהֱמוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ ה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ...
On the righteous
and on the pious
And on the elders of Your nation, the House of Israel1
May Your mercy extend, YHVH our God…

Who are the “elders of Your nation?”  The Siddur commentator R”I bar Yakar2 identifies them as the communal leaders of the generation: those who serve as judges and those who collect funds for communal use.  He mentions a third category: prayer leaders.  In this understanding, we are meant to pray for our religious communal leaders, even the very leaders who are leading the service reciting this blessing itself!  

In explaining why it is important to pray for these leaders, R”I bar Yakar goes on to explain:

פירוש התפילות והברכות עמוד נ
ולכך יש להתפלל עליהם שהם ערבים על הציבור
Perush Ha-Tefillot Ve-Ha-Berakhot, p. 50
We must pray for them, because they are guarantors for the community.

What does it mean that these leaders are guarantors for the community?  R”I bar Yakar bases his explanation on this midrash:

מדרש תהלים (בובר) מזמור ח:ג
זהו שאמר הכתוב בני אם ערבת לרעך (משלי ו א), בתלמידי חכמים הכתוב מדבר, בשעה שהזקן מתמנה, אומר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא עד שלא נתמנית לא היית נתפס על הצבור, ועכשיו שנתמנית נעשית ערב על הצבור, שנאמר בני אם ערבת לרעך
Midrash Tehillim 8:3, ed. Buber, p. 38b3
“My son, if you are to become a guarantee for your friend…” (Proverbs 6:1).  The verse is speaking of scholars.  At the time the elder (זקן) was appointed, God said to him: before you were appointed, you would not be liable for the [sins of the] community.  Now that you were appointed, you are responsible for the community, as it is said, “my son, if you are to become a guarantee for your friend…”

Religious leaders bear a major load.  Through their role, they take on responsibility for the community’s actions.4 A judge has the duty to properly interpret the law, and enforce expectations on what is right and wrong.  A person who collects funds is tasked with the responsibility of gaining the public’s trust and spending the money appropriately.  If their leadership fails, the community may stray from the proper path.  And, according to this midrash, the leader is accountable for that failure.5

Religious leaders can feel vulnerable because of the communal weight they bear.  But there is a second source of their vulnerability: the presumption by their community that they have no religious vulnerabilities.

The case of the prayer leader, not found in the midrash but raised by R”I bar Yakar, is especially interesting to me personally.  A prayer leader plays a critical role in the attempt to reach out to the Divine: they set the range of possibilities of what might happen in a prayer environment, and have the potential to facilitate deeper connection with God.  So why would a prayer leader—presumably skilled in praying—need someone else to pray on their behalf?  

I have found in my own journey of being a prayer leader that there are real moments of feeling isolated.  I sometimes wonder: is anyone with me?  Is this working for people?  I feel this especially acutely on Yom Kippur, when the responsibility of leading a congregation in prayers of forgiveness is particularly high stakes.  In those moments of self-doubt and questioning, I find myself thinking, “I need prayers on my behalf, even as I am praying on behalf of others.”

Religious leaders are often the last people we think of who need our prayers.  But they are human, like the rest of the community, and come to the position with doubts and vulnerabilities.  Moshe needed the prayers of his community, but they didn’t understand his needs, and didn’t pray for him.  How many times in life do we miss the cues from people in leadership we consider religiously self-sufficient—our rabbis or teachers—but who actually are in need of our prayers?  When they need our support and our prayers, are we there for them?

My hope is that this blessing of the Amidah allows us to focus on the needs of our religious leaders, and to actively pray for them.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 This phrase is missing in most Bavel traditions (and Abudraham does not comment on the phrase, indicating it may not be in his version of the blessing).  It appears in only one branch of the EY tradition: על זקני עמך בית ישראל.  Nevertheless, it is one of the oldest components of the blessing, as identified by Tosefta Berakhot 3:25 and parallels.  See Uri Ehrlich, Tefillat Ha-Amidah shel Yemot Ha-Hol (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 2013), pp. 180-181.

2 R. Yehudah bar Yakar, 12th-13th c. Provence and Spain.

3 Compare the translation of William Braude, The Midrash on Psalms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), vol. 1, p. 124. 

4 There are a number of examples of rabbis who did not want to accept broader communal positions of religious leadership.  See, for instance, R. Zeira in Yerushalmi Bikkurim 3:3; 65c.  My thanks to Jeremy Tabick for this source.  See also Yerushalmi Peah 8:7; 21a.  My thanks to Yisrael Dubitsky for this source.

5 See also Shemot Rabbah 27:9: “Once a person is appointed as a leader… if he sees a person… sin and does not object, [the leader] is punished on his behalf.”