Thursday, January 29, 2009

This month is for you: the calendar as a divine -human partnership החודש הזה לכם

As this current semester feels like an old friend, it's hard to believe that I returned to my home here in New York less than two weeks ago. Between my three JTS classes and my work as Religious Life Coordinator on the Executive Board of Hillel, I have been extremely busy, barely having a free moment. However, it has been great to spend so much time busy with two of my passions: studying Jewish texts, and working in the Jewish community. In each of the three classes, I have had the privilege to study in depth a different aspect of our rich literary tradition, from a survey of Masechet (tractate Bava Batra), dealing with the laws of interpersonal relations regarding property, to a study of classical Piyyut (liturgical poetry), and a study of the 5th century Palestinian midrash on Leviticus, Vayikra Rabbah.
In many of these situations, especially my activities with Hillel, have encompassed the idea of partnership, whether it is my working with leaders from across the spectrum of Judaism or grappling with the talmudic text with my chevruta (study partner). Thus, when I flipped through the collection of midrashim from Shemot Rabbah (Midrashic collection on Exodus, probably compiled as late as the 11th or 12th century), I was attracted by the following, with its focus on a partnership between Israel and God in creating and executing the Hebrew lunar calendar.

דבר אחר:
החדש הזה לכם
אמרו מלאכי השרת לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: רבון העולם!
אימתי אתה עושה את המועדות, שכן כתיב (דניאל ד, יד): בגזירת עירין פתגמא?
אמר להם: אני ואתם מסכים, על מה שישראל גומרין ומעברין את השנה, שנאמר (תהלים נז, ג): אקרא לאלהים עליון לאל גומר עלי.
וכן הוא אומר (ויקרא כג, לז): אלה מועדי ה' מקראי קודש וגו'. אתם, בין בזמנן, בין שלא בזמנן, אין לי מועדות אלא אלו.
אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל: לשעבר היה בידי, שנאמר (תהלים קד, יט): עשה ירח למועדים, אבל מכאן ואילך, הרי מסורה בידכם ברשותכם, אם אמרתם הן, הן! אם אמרתם לאו, לאו! מכל מקום יהא החדש הזה לכם. ולא עוד, אלא אם בקשתם לעבר את השנה, הריני משלים עמכם, לכך כתיב: החדש הזה לכם:
Another explanation: "This month is for you [the beginning of months]" (Exodus 12:1). The Ministering Angels said before the Holy One Blessed be He: Master of the world, when are you going to set the festivals, as it is written (Daniel 4:14): "The matter is by the decree of the watchers." ?
God said to the angels: I and you agree, that Israel will complete (establish) and fix (make leap) the years, as it is written"I will call onto God on High, the Lord who acts for me." It is further written, these are the appointed times of God, to be called holy, that you should establish them at their proper times (Leviticus 23:4). Them - whether they are at the proper times or not, I have no festivals other than these.
The Holy One Blessed be He said to Israel: previously, it (establishing the calendar) was in my hands , as it is written (Psalms 104:19) "He made the moon to set the festivals.", but from here and onward, if you say 'Yes! Yes!' (we have seen the moon), or 'No! No!' (We did not see it), in either case the month is yours. And furthermore, if you choose to intercalculate the year and make it a leap year, here to I will follow with you, as it says "This month is for you!"

This Midrash, explains the relationship between God and Israel so beautifully as seen the Jewish Calendar, set up by God in order to be given as a gift to Israel, that they could take ownership of it. The rabbis wished to emphasize here that while on one hand the covenant between God and Israel is steadfast and unchanging, it is also fluid, living and two-sided; while God is our Ruler, Commander and Creator, endowing us with the holiness of the Mitzvot, He has also asked us to lead in many cases, as we paertner with Him to establish the calendar.

This lesson can also be applied quite well to our own human relationships, as we struggle in the give and take of chevrutot, or determine how to be positive leaders and role models. Sometimes we must seek assistance and advice from others, but often it is upon us to take initiative. A good leader must look closely at a situation and decide what is necessary for the moment. As a leader within Hillel, I hope to follow the example set by God with Israel, initiating programs and relationships while listening and taking in advice from those with great ideas and experience, whether they be fellow leaders, other students or staff members.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

ישראל, היום וכל יום Israel, Today and every day

As some may know, ever since my year in Israel on Nativ I have greatly enjoyed reading the news from Israel not on CNN or Fox, but from Israeli sources, in Hebrew. My favorite source for quick, up to the minute news has always been from the Ma'ariv newspaper, online at . Recently, I discovered that the Yisrael Hayom newspaper, which is distributed free at bus stations around Israel (though a little more serious that its counterpart Metro), is available online in full, which provides the opportunity to read articles in their original context.
As I'm sure many others have been doing, I've been reading the news very frequently as I try to follow what's going on in Israel during her current time of great need. While sometimes I am only able to skim headlines, I had the pleasure of reading through this fascinating opinion piece that appeared in Yisrael Hayom on Monday. I hope that my translation helps to bring a taste of the authentic Israeli press to a wider audience, and that I'm able to capture the essence and style of the article:
לא להחמיץ את ההזדמנות
"את קרתגו צריך להחריב."זו היתה שורת הסיום של כל נאום שנשא קאטו "הזקן" מדינאי רומי קשיש ורב-מוניטין בשנים שקדמו ל150-לפני הספירה. קרתגו היתה אויבתה המרה של רומא הרפובליקה הצעירה והדינאמית. היא גם היתה האויב האחד שכמעט השמיד את רומא בסדרה של מלחמות שבשיאן הביס חניבעל הקרתגני את צבאות רומא והיה כמטחווי-יד מכיבוש העיר. חמישים שנה קודם לכן בשנת 202 לפני הספירה הצליחה רומא לנצח את קרתגו והשפילה אותה עד עפר. אבל קרתגו התאוששה ובעיני קאטו היא היתה איום מתמיד על עתיד הרומאים. "שלום וברית" אמר "הם רק כסות עיניים לאנשי קרתגו לדחות את המלחמה נגדנו עד שתבוא לידם שעת כושר.""Delenda Carthago"אמר קאטו בלטינית - את קרתגו צריך להחריב. והוא שיקף את דעת הקהל הרומית שסברה כמוהו. רוח של התנדבות פשתה בקרב הרומאים ליגיונות גויסו ופלשו לאפריקה - וקרתגו הובסה לבסוף ונמחתה מעל פני האדמה. מדינת חמאסטן היא הקרתגו שלנו. אנחנו לא רוצים להחריב את העם הפלשתיני אבל שלטון החמאס הוא יעד לגיטימי. חמאסטן קמה בעזה בשל אוזלת יד וקוצר ראות. החמאס עלה לשלטון באופן דמוקרטי - בבחירות שהוא לא היה אמור להשתתף בהן אך הקלפיות נפתחו בפניו בגלל לחצו של הנשיא בוש לדמוקרטיזציה ובאישור ראש הממשלה אולמרט. מרגע הקמתה היתה ההתנגשות עימה בלתי נמנעת. כזרוע ארוכה של איראן ושל האיסלאם הקיצוני כישות טרור כמייצגת אידיאולוגיה של השמדת ישראל - הישות החמאסית היתה מתחילת דרכה האויב המוחלט. אפל רע בלתי ניתן לשכנוע. ללא בסיס כלשהו למו"מ. הכתובת היתה על הקיר. שדרות אשקלון אשדוד באר שבע גדרה. ה"תהדייה" היתה טעות; מבצע "עופרת יצוקה" הוא ההזדמנות לתקנה. שני מקרים בהיסטוריה לעולם אינם זהים בוודאי לא בהפרש של אלפי שנים. ישראל אינה רומא ואין לה שאיפות אימפריאליסטיות ובוודאי לא רצון להחריב עם שלם. העזתים אינה קרתגנים. אבל ההיסטוריה בכל זאת מלמדת אותנו משהו. ישראל יצאה למבצע בעזה תוך הגדרת מטרות מוגבלות בלבד. גם אם הללו יושגו תישאר המציאות של חמאסטן - אורבת ומחכה להזדמנות הבאה לפגוע בנו. מהמלחמה הזו אסור שחמאס ייצא על הרגליים. המלחמה בעזה חייבת להביא להפלת חמאסטן. ישראל אינה נלחמת בעם הפלשתיני אלא בשלטון הרוע שהם בחרו לעצמם שם בעזה. את השלטון הזה צריך להפיל וזה לא בלתי אפשרי. צריך ממילא לכבוש את כל הרצועה כי זו הדרך לשים יד על הרקטות. אז גם אפשר יהיה לבוא חשבון עם צמרת החמאס. הישראלים מפגינים כיום עוז-רוח ורוח התנדבות כדרך ששנים רבות לא הפגינו. הלוחמים רוצים להילחם; המילואים רוצים להתגייס; העורף מוכן לספוג. ואם יאמר מישהו כי אין זה תפקידה של ישראל להתערב בפוליטיקה הפנימית של הפלשתינים - הוא טועה. כאשר בעלות הברית הביסו את גרמניה הנאצית הן כפו על האוכלוסייה את ה"דהנאציפיקציה" - חיסול השלטון הנאצי שעלה גם הוא בשיטות דמוקרטיות. בעזה נדרשת עתה "דהחמאסיזציה." נוצרה הזדמנות היסטורית וחבל יהיה שתסתיים בהחמצה היסטורית.

Not to Pass up an Opportunity
by Amos Regev

"Carthage must be destroyed" served as the closing sentence of each address given by Cato 'the Wise', the elderly and highly regarded Roman statesman in the years leading up to 150 BCE. Carthage was the bitter enemy of the dynamic and young Roman republic. It was also the only enemy that nearly destroyed Rome in a campaign of battles at whose height Hanniabal of Carthage overwhelmed the Roman forces and nearly captured the city.
Fifty years prior, in 202, Rome was victorious against Carthage and almost fully defeated it. However, Carthge recovered, and was predicted by Cato to be a constant enemy for Rome in the future. He said, "Peace and covenants are only a tool for the people of Carthage to put off the war against us until the advantageous hour arrives.
Delenda Carthago Cato said in Latin -- Carthage must be destroyed -- and he captured the minds of the Roman populous who felt similarly to him. A spirit of voluntarism arose among the Romans, and legions were raised and dispatched to Africa. In the end, Carthage was defeated and erased from the face of the earth.

The state of Hamasistan is our Carthage. We do not wish to destroy the Palestinian people, but the Hamas goverment is a legitimate target. Hamasistan arose in Gaza through a lack of foresight. Hamas came to power in a democratic manner, in an election in which it should not have been allowed to participate. Yet the polls opened with the support of President Bush's democracy initiatives, and the blessing of PM Olmert. From the moment of Hamas's establishment, our clash with it has been without pause. As an extension of Iran and radical Islam, acting as a terrorist organization with an ideology of Israel's destruction, the Hamas leadership was from the start a sworn enemy of Israel. This dark and evil was beyond any means of convincing, and we were without any basis for which to begin negotiations.

The writing was on the wall. Sderot. Ashkelon. Ashdod. Be'er Sheva. Gedera. The 'cease-fire' was a mistake; Operation Cast Lead may be a means with which to rectify it.

Two historical occurrences cannot be fully compared, especially with a gap of 2000 years. Israel is not Rome, not having any ambitions to create an empire and certainly not wishing to annihilate an entire nation. The Gazans are not Carthageans. However, history still has lessons to teach us. Israel is entering Gaza with specific goals and targets, and even if it achieves them Hasmasistan will remain, lying in wait for the next opportunity to attack us.

It is not feasible that Hamas can still be left standing on its feet at the end of the war. The war in Gaza must bring about the overthrow of Hamas. Israel is not fighting against the Palestinian people, but against the evil government that they chose for themselves there in Gaza. This rule must be toppled, and it is not impossible. We must therefore conquer the entire territory, for this is the only method through which to stop the rockets. Then, we will also be able to come to a reckoning with the apparatus of Hamas.

The Israelis are demonstrating today a spirit of strength and participation which has not been seen for many years. The active-duty soldiers wish to fight, and the reserves wish to be called up - the burden is ready to be removed.

And if one wishes to say that it is not Israel's place to meddle in the Palestinians's internal politics, they are mistaken. Just as when the allies conquered Germany in World War II, its citizens were forced to go through a process of Denazification, to destroy the Nazi regime which also arose through democratic means, Gaza must also go through a process of Dehamasification. It would be a shame to pass up this historical opportunity which has come to hand.
While not every word of this article represents my personal opinion, it is surely very erudite and convincing. In any event, is is very enlightening to read Regev's views and reflections, as an Israeli living through this danger and not as an 'armchair general.' As well, as a history buff (and almost officially, a history major), I can also strongly appreciate the many historical allusions given in the article.

As a student of Torah as well, I can not help but connect the current, scary situation of Southern Israel with this week's Parasha of Sh'mot, in which the Israelites are transformed from a family of seventy souls to a true nation, and are first enslaved in Egypt. At the conclusion of Sh'mot Chapter 2, we are told that the Pharaoh had did, and that the people cried out to God from their pain and suffering. The children and families of S'derot and the Western Negev are crying out for safety and justice; While we of course pray to God to hear their cry, we can also hope in something that should not be so distant, that the world will reciognize their suffering and the justice of Israel's response, however difficult it may be.

On a very final note, I would like to reiterate a point brought up by Rabbi Howard Morrison in his sermon this past Shabbat, about the significance of the naming of this operation as Cast Lead - עופרת יצוקה. It may seem odd at first, as did to me, but Jewish children around the world would share my feeling of 'I should have known that!' when they discover that it comes from a well-known children's Hannukkah song adapted from a poem by Hayim Nahman Bialik.

אָבִי נָתַן, נָתַן סְבִיבוֹן,
סְבִיבוֹן מֵעוֹפֶרֶת יְצוּקָה.
יוֹדְעִים אַתֶּם לִכְבוֹד מַה?
לִכְבוֹד הַחֲנֻכָּה!
My father gave me a dreidl, a dreidl made of cast lead. Do you know in whose honor it is? In honor of Hannukkah!
While I'm not sure of the exact intention wen Tzahal named this operation, it is a perfect metaphor for Israel's goals in executing it -- While the army should of course enter Gaza with the determination and strength of cast lead, we should never lose sight of their ultimate goal of creating a world where the Children of Sderot can spin their dreidls next Hannukkah and never have to be concerned for their safety.
Lu Yehi, v'chen y'hi ratzon!
Let it be, and may it be God's will!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

[not so minor] Fast Days -- Reflections on Asarah B'Tevet 5769

I am always been taken aback when the four sunrise-to-sunset fast days in the Jewish calendar are referred to as minor. While they may pale in comparison to Yom Kippur and Tisha B'av, each lasting twenty-five hours and more intensively focusing solely on repentance and mourning, respectively. But the four other fasts, including yesterday's, present unique opportunities for us, on both individual and communal levels, to reflect on our history, and use it as a springboard to improve our present and future. Thus, as opposed to the confusing term of 'Minor Fast Day,' I prefer the traditional title of תענית ציבור, translated as Public Fast Day, which better reflects the purpose of these four days, spread almost evenly through the year. As described beautifully be Rabbi Wayne Allen in a column in last week's Canadian Jewish News, these days serve as checkpoints for us on our journey towards tikkun olam and tikkun hamidot, repairing the world and improving our personal actions. As we are not required or even necessarily encouraged to abstain from work on these days, they serve as a conduit to bringing this process of self reflection and examination directly into our daily routines of work, school and interpersonal relationships
The Tenth of Tevet, which was established in commemoration of Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, came at a sadly appropriate time this year. As the western Negev lives daily under the threat of rocket attacks, and Israeli soldiers, many of them my age risk their lives to curb the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza. A day of fasting and reflection, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel made this day all the more meaningful.
As I often enjoy doing, I would like to briefly examine the deep and powerful meaning behind a few elements of the fast day liturgy. Besides for the well know and poignant pleas of the אבינו מלכנו prayer, in which the requests for God to have mercy on our families and children and to act for the sake of those killed sanctifying His name were especially appropriate, I am also drawn to the words of the Anenu, a paragraph inserted in the Amidah on fast days.
In it, we ask God to answer us, כי בצרה גדולה אנחנו, for we are in great distress. While I am not always personally in distress when saying this prayer (though my stomach may be), I recall that there are always those among us, in our concentric circles of those we care about, who are in need of prayer: a friend or relative in need of healing or going through a tough time, our brethren in Israel, or those being persecuted in Darfur, among others. In Shacharit, this supplication is only recited by the reader, in order that a community member will not recite and be unable to complete the fast. But by Minha, when it is recited both privately and publicly, the words really come alive: 'Do not hide your face from us, do not ignore our supplication; Be close to hear our plea, may Your kindness be there to comfort us.' Even if we are in personal distress, the language and recitation makes it clear that the individual is never alone, as we ask God to answer us.

In my mind, the climax of the fast day and its liturgy is found in the words of Isaiah 55 and 56, recited as the haftarah at mincha. This continues the theme of bringing the sacred into our daily lives, as other than these four days and Tisha B'av, haftarot are only read on Shabbat and holidays on which work is forbidden. The opening words of the portion serve as a wake-up call from the bustle and hubbub of our daily lives:
דִּרְשׁוּ ה', בְּהִמָּצְאוֹ; קְרָאֻהוּ, בִּהְיוֹתוֹ קָרוֹב.
Seek the Lord, where He may be found; call unto Him when He is near. (Is 55:6)

Although we may just have run to gather for tefillot from the office or classroom, and not in our Shabbat finest, we are nevertheless told that God is near and waiting for us to engage with God, Torah and our community - unlike what some may think, we do not need to leave the world to find the divine, but its potential is there within us.
and further on, we read:
. כֹּה אָמַר ה', שִׁמְרוּ מִשְׁפָּט וַעֲשׂוּ צְדָקָה: כִּי-קְרוֹבָה יְשׁוּעָתִי לָבוֹא, וְצִדְקָתִי לְהִגָּלוֹת
אַשְׁרֵי אֱנוֹשׁ יַעֲשֶׂה-זֹּאת, וּבֶן-אָדָם יַחֲזִיק בָּהּ--שֹׁמֵר שַׁבָּת מֵחַלְּלוֹ, וְשֹׁמֵר יָדוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת כָּל-רָע
Thus says God, keep the laws and do justice, for my deliverance is near to come, and my righteousness will be revealed. Happy is one who does this, and the human being who holds fast to it, keeping the Shabbat from profanation, AND keeping their hand from all evil.(56:1-2)

After the command to seek God, we are given the recipe to achieve the desired affect. For deliverance is close and imminent, following the mitzvot and acting in a just manner. But the cure to a potential misunderstanding is presented immediately in the next verse, before it could be exploited, as it too often still is. We are clearly told: keeping the mitzvot includes embracing shabbat, but also keeping from all forms of evil, ranging from laziness to gossip, deceit and dishonesty in dealing with others. The unfortunate case of Bernard Madoff immediately comes to mind - one who on the surface seemed to be an upstanding member of the Jewish community sitting on the board of Yeshiva University and supporting other charitable endeavors, but in reality had been carrying out a destructive scheme which enriched himself while hurting numerous individuals and organizations. The prophecy of Second Isaiah reminds us that this is not the behavior that God desires, and keeping ritual obligations alone is not what is asked of us. But even those of us who don't have the distinction of Bernard Madoff can always do more to improve our behavior and bring a greater sense of justice to the world. Then, we can look and hope to the prophet's ultimate promise:
וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל-הַר קָדְשִׁי, וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי--עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן, עַל-מִזְבְּחִי: כִּי בֵיתִי, בֵּית-תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל-הָעַמִּים.
Then, I will bring them to my holy mountain, and make them joyous in my house of prayer; their sacrifices and offerings will be accepted upon my altar, for my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.

I hope that we will all be able to gain a greater appreciation for our Public Fast days, and emerge with a greater commitment to walking in God's paths by engaging in social justice.

Friday, January 2, 2009

I am (for) peace, but when I speak, they are for war (Psalms 120:7)

אני שלום, וכי אדבר המה למלחמה!
This verse, for me, epitomizes the deep philosophical divide between Israel and the Hamas leadership in Gaza. While our (because I consider Israel my motherland, though I am proud of my American birthplace and background) ultimate goal, despite the numerous accusations of genocide is that all citizens of the region should be able to live their lives in security and without fear, I do not see the same goal from the leadership of Hamas. I bemoan the death of civilians in Gaza, and mourn the innocent casulties of an irresponsible government (if one can call Hamas that). Overall, though, I believe Israel is targeting terrorist leaders and civilians are getting caught in the crossfire - but Hamas is succeeding in its goal of hurting and killing ordinary citizens, causing them all sorts of pain and fear, from traumatic stress to amputated limbs and death. Seven years is just too long, and Israel is fulfilling its obligation, that of any democracy, to protect its citizens from terror and threats.
In the Israeli media, a stark shift has been seen as Hamas has begun using more powerful and lethal grad missles, as the affected are no longer labeled as תושבי שדרות (the residents of Sderot), but now as תושבי הדרום (residents of the South). I was a resident of the South, as I lived on Kibbutz En Zurim and worked in the fields of communal moshav Massuot Yitzhak while on the Nativ program in the spring of 2007. At that time, the Shafir region, in which these communities lie, was considered a safe 30 kilometers from Gaza, and even Ashkelon and Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, much closer to the danger, were considered safe places to visit, which I did on a number of occasions. It is therefore scary and painful to me to hear that these special places, along with Be'er Sheva, where many of my friends lived, are now no longer considered safe, and their residents must join the ranks of those spending their days in fear.
This picture appeared in the front section of the January 1 New York Times. It depicts a classroom, where young children should be sitting and learning right now (schools in the South are closed indefinitely until the violence passes, as many of them are not properly protected against rockets). While this scence is sad enough in itself, the contrast between the aims of the educators here in Be'er Sheva and the terrorist firing rockets in Gaza is reflected in the quote written on the back wall, taken from Pirkei Avot: איזהו מכובד - המכבד את הבריות- Who is honored? one who honors their fellow creatures. It deeply saddens me when teachers, who are attempting to transmit a legacy of mutual respect to their students, are being prevented from teaching and learning by those who have no respect for the rights of others or life in general. Again, while all civilian death is tragic, there is simple no equivilency between the two contrasting worldviews, one which loves life and the other which has no value for it.
While some may think I am crazy for this, but it is times like this that make me wish I were in Israel more than ever. As my homeland, I would rather be there, with her and her citzens, than far away in the safety and cold of North America. I wish there were more I could do to sipport those, both in the IDF and ordinary citizens who continue to make the dream of Israel a reality. One response that is always appropriate is that of prayer, and their are many words of our tradition that reflect the feelings and concerns of these difficult times. One in particular is a prayer known as ועננו, and answer us, traditionally recited when the Land of Israel is desperately in need of rain. Today, the residents of the South need rain, but all the more so, peace and security. Please share these words with anyone to whom they would be meaningful.

ועננו בורא עולם במידת הרחמים, בוחר בעמו ישראל להודיע גודלו והדרת כבודו. שומע תפילה, תן טל ומטר על פני האדמה, ותשביע את העולם כולו מטובך, ומלא ידינו מברכותיך ומעושר מתנות ידך. שמור והצל שנה זו מכל דבר רע, ומכל מיני משחית ומכל מיני פורענויות, ועשה לה תקווה ואחרית שלום. חוס ורחם עלינו ועל כל תבואתינו ופרותינו ,וברכנו בגשמי ברכה, ונזכה לחיים ושובע ושלום כשנים הטובות. והסר ממנו דבר וחרב ורעב, וחיה רעה ושבי וביזה,ויצר הרע וחליים רעים וקשים ומאורעות רעים וקשים. וגזור עלינו גזירות טובות מלפניך, ויגלו רחמיך על מידותיך ותתנהג עם בניך במידת הרחמים, וקבל ברחמים וברצון את תפילתנו.
And answer us, Creator of the world, with your quality of mercy, who chose His people Israel to transmit his greatness and the majesty of His glory. You, who hears prayer, grant rain and dew on the face of the land, and sustain the entire world with your goodness, and fill our hands from Your blessings and the richness of Your gifts. Guard and save this year from all evil, and from all types of destruction and tragedy, and bestow upon it a legacy of hope and everlasting peace. Have mercy upon us and all of our produce of the the land, and bless us with rains of blessing, and may we merit life, sustenance and peace as in the best years. And remove from among us pestilence, war and famine, wild beasts, captivity (keeping in mind Gilad Shalit) and plundering, our evil inclinations and difficult and tragic illnesses and events. And decree upon us good tidings before You, and may Your mercies overcome Your judgement, as you act with Your children with the quality of mercy. And accept with mercy all of our prayers.

I have also begun adding a simple prayer the conclusion of my Birkat Hamazon, along with praying for Israel and Tzahal.
הרחמן הוא ישכין שלום בינינו - May the Merciful One cause peace to dwell among us.
...and may we work together to fulfill this ultimate dream!

Shabbat Shalom!