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A Message from Abraham Lincoln
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

In an article on religious trends in America during the 1980's, Newsweek wrote:

"A group affirmation of self is at the top of the agenda, which is why some of the least demanding churches are now in greatest demand...In their efforts to accommodate, many clergy have simply airbrushed sin out of their language. Like politicians, they can only recognize mistakes that congregations are urged to 'put behind them.' Having substituted therapy for spiritual discernment, they appeal to a nurturing God who helps His (or Her) people cope. Heaven, by this creed, is never having to say no to yourself, and God is never having to say you're sorry." (Religion: Shopping for a Church, Newsweek, December 17th, 1990)

Around the mid-nineteenth century, there was a different spirit among religions in America - one which stressed individual and communal responsibility. An example of this spirit can be found in President Abraham Lincoln's "Proclamation of a Day of Prayer and Fasting" which was issued at the beginning of the Civil War:

Abraham Lincoln Aug. 12, 1861 (This is written in an older style of English.)

Whereas a joint Committee of both Houses of Congress has waited on the President of the United States, and requested him to "recommend a day of public humiliation, prayer and fasting, to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnities, and the offering of fervent supplications to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessings on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace:" --

And whereas it is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to his chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offences, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action:

And whereas, when our own beloved Country, once, by the blessing of God, united, prosperous and happy, is now afflicted with faction and civil war, it is peculiarly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals, to humble ourselves before Him, and to pray for His mercy, -- to pray that we may be spared further punishment, though most justly deserved; that our arms may be blessed and made effectual for the re-establishment of law, order and peace, throughout the wide extent of our country; and that the inestimable boon of civil and religious liberty, earned under His guidance and blessing, by the labors and sufferings of our fathers, may be restored in all its original excellence: --

Therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do appoint the last Thursday in September next, as a day of humiliation, prayer and fasting for all the people of the nation. And I do earnestly recommend to all the People, and especially to all ministers and teachers of religion of all denominations, and to all heads of families, to observe and keep that day according to their several creeds and modes of worship, in all humility and with all religious solemnity, to the end that the united prayer of the nation may ascend to the Throne of Grace and bring down plentiful blessings upon our Country.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed, this 12th, day of August A.D. 1861, and of the Independence of the United States of America the 86th.
By the President:
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

This was reprinted from

President Abraham Lincoln, in the above proclamation, expresses certain spiritual ideas which are rooted in Jewish tradition, such as the need for universal recognition of the "Supreme Government of God," the need to recognize the "hand of God" in national calamities, and the need for confession, repentance, and prayer for "our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals."

There is a phrase within the ancient Aleinu prayer - a prayer which is chanted at the conclusion of the morning, afternoon, and evening services - that expresses the need for universal recognition of The Divine sovereignty: "To perfect the world through the Almighty's Sovereignty." And we add: "Then all humanity will call upon Your Name, to turn all the earth's wicked toward You." The prayer concludes with the following verse from our Scriptures: "Hashem will be Sovereign over all the earth; on that day Hashem will be One and His Name One" (Zechariah 14:9).

Abraham Lincoln's recognition of the "hand of God" in national calamities is expressed in the following proclamation of the Prophet Amos:

"Is the shofar ever sounded in a city, and the people not tremble? Can there be misfortune in a city, if Hashem had not brought it?" (Amos 3:6)

From the perspective of Jewish tradition, the arrival of misfortune in the land is a "wake-up call." Our tradition therefore teaches that during a period of crisis and danger, we are to engage in a process of "teshuvah" - returning to the path of Hashem - the Compassionate One. For example, there is a mitzva to blow trumpets during a period of war or any other calamity (Numbers 10:9), and Maimonides offers the following explanation of this mitzva:

"Such conduct is of the essence of teshuva, for when calamity befalls the people, and they offer up supplications concerning it - sounding also the trumpets - all are bound to realize that it is owing to their bad ways that misfortune has befallen them...If, however, they neither offer up such supplications nor sound the trumpets, declaring that what has befallen them is but a natural event, or that this misfortune is the result of chance and accident, then their course is one of wickedness, and causes them to persist in their bad ways; thus, their misfortune is bound to be followed by many others." (The Laws of the Fast Days 1: 1-3)

The following Divine call goes out to all peoples and all individuals: "Do I desire at all the death of the wicked person?... Is it not rather his return from his ways, that he might live? " (Ezekiel 18:23)

There is a comforting prophecy that in the messianic age, humanity will finally heed this call: "All the ends of the earth will remember and return to Hashem; all the families of nations will bow before You." (Psalm 22:28 - This Psalm is also said on Purim.)

In his commentary on the above verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: "Defection from Hashem was never an inborn trait with individuals or with humankind as a whole. The unspoiled hearts of children are close to Hashem, and the same was true of humankind in its pristine state. Alienation from Him came much later. Therefore, through the stimulus emanating from Israel, they will all 'remember'. Their 'original' consciousness of Hashem will come alive again, and they will 'return' to Him."

In this spirit, we, the Jewish people, pray: "Bring us back to You, Hashem, and we shall return, renew our days as of old." (Lamentations 5:21)



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