Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for October 2011

Josiah’s birth is predicted by ‘a man of God’at King Jeroboam’s altar at Bethel, notable for being ornamented with two golden calves. The ish Elohim says:

O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of
David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places
who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’

After king Amon of Judah was assassinated, his son Josiah, at the age of eight, became king of Judah. He reigned for thirty-one years, until he was killed by the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco on the battlefield of Megiddo.

And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the way of
David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.

It should be noted that the assessment of a king as good or bad depends on the extent to which he prioritises the Temple and its cult. The northern kings were therefore at a disadvantage, and Jeroboam’s altar at Bethel with its two golden calves is a symbol of corrupt kingship.

Josiah was the son of King Amon who reigned briefly in Judah after King Manasseh. Both Amon and Manasseh encouraged and participated in idolatrous cults. There is some dispute as to whether the hegemony of Assyria over Judah left Manasseh and Amon much choice, whereas Josiah ruled in a Judah which was for a short time free of external domination. Mordechai Cogan has suggested that ‘the foreign innovations reported of the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh are attributable to the voluntary adoption by Judah’s ruling class of the prevailing Assyro-Aramaean culture.’1

Discovery of the scroll

In the eighteenth year of his reign, Josiah was having repairs and renovations carried out in the Temple, under the supervision of the high priest, Hilkiah. The background story that Josiah commences renovations in the Temple indicates that he was worthy of the discovery of the sacred sefer ha Torah.

Jeremiah the prophet was the son of a priest called Hilkiah, who would be roughly contemporary with the Hilkiah of Josiah but Hilkiah the father of Jeremiah served as a priest in Anathoth.
Jeremiah has an involvement with the Josiah story, and, while the usual opinion is that the two Hilkiahs are two different people, the possibilty of them being one and the same is not rejected in every commentary. Jeremiah is not mentioned in Kings, although his use of language connects him with the Deuteronomistic history.

Josiah sent a scribe called Shaphan to Hilkiah, with instructions for paying the workmen, and Hilkiah took the opportunity to tell Shaphan that he had discovered a book of the Law in the Temple. The term used in 2 Kings 22:8 is Sefer ha Torah, with the definite article. In 2 Chronicles, a connection with Moses is emphasised: sefer Torat Hashem b’yad Moshe.

While reporting to the king on the business of paying the workmen with Temple silver, Shaphan told him about the scroll and read it to him. In the account of Josiah in 2 Chronicles, he begins his reforms before the discovery of the scroll.

Josiah responded by rending his clothes, as mourners do, repenting because the laws of the scroll had not been kept during the years  while it was hidden away. He told Hilkiah, Shaphan and other scribes and ministers to go and enquire of God – Lechu dirshu et Hashem – concerning the words of the scroll. This they did by consulting the prophetess Huldah who lived in Jerusalem.

Huldah is one of seven prophetesses named in the Talmud. The others are Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail and Esther. Huldah replied in an oracle from God, that He would bring disaster on Jerusalem and its inhabitants, because they had gone after other gods, and committed evil deeds. However, Josiah would be spared the sight of this, as he was repentant, so the destruction of Jerusalem would not occur in his lifetime.

Destroying the high places (bamot)

Josiah went to the Temple and had the sefer ha brit read to all the people, great and small. He then destroyed the idolatrous altars, beginning with those in the Temple.

And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of
the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah.

He destroyed all idolatrous centres in and around Jerusalem, and beyond, including the altar at Bethel. This was the altar about which the man of God in 1 Kings 13 had prophesied to Jeroboam that human bones would be burned on the altar. Josiah fulfilled this prophecy, then went on to destroy the pagan altars of Samaria, after which returned to Jerusalem.

Josiah’s Passover

According to 2 Kings 23:

21 And the king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the LORD your
God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.” 22 For no such Passover had been
kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the
kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. 23 But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah
this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.

The expression ‘no such Passover’ resembles the locution that there was no king, before or since, such as Josiah, no prophet such as Moses.

The Chronicles version is:

No Passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet.
None of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as was kept by Josiah, and the
priests and the Levites, and all Judah and Israel who were present, and the
inhabitants of Jerusalem.

The Chronicles version of Josiah’s Passover is much longer, with details of the great quantity of animals slaughtered by the priests for the paschal feast and the notable presence of the Levites at the forefront of the organization. The Temple singers – thesons of Asaph – were a feature of the Second Temple One of the differences in the Chronicles version of Josiah’s story is the prominent role of the Levites, not surprisingly as the author of Chronicles is an advocate for the Levites of the Second Temple. One of the offices of the Levites was to provide music, especially psalmody; another was to be keepers of the gate, a responsible position, perhaps to maintain the security of the Temple precinct. They were also scribes and teachers.

Was the scroll the book of Deuteronomy?

Why is there such a broad consensus that the book of the law found by Hilkiah is Deuteronomy? The language, the theology and the account of Passover correspond to Deuteronomy. The expression ‘book of the law’ comes from no other book of the Pentateuch than Deuteronomy. Abolition of the high places and centralisation of the cult is prescribed only in Deuteronomy. The passover in Josiah’s time (2 Kings 23:21-23) corresponds with verses in Deuteronomy:

1 “Observe the month of Abib and keep the Passover to the LORD your God, for in
the month of Abib the LORD your God brought you out of Egypt by night. 2 And
you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the LORD your God, from the flock or the
herd, at the place that the LORD will choose, to make his name dwell there. 3 You
shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened
bread, the bread of affliction–for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste–that
all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land
of Egypt. 4 No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory for seven days, nor
shall any of the flesh that you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain all
night until morning. 5 You may not offer the Passover sacrifice within any of your
towns that the LORD your God is giving you, 6 but at the place that the LORD your
God will choose, to make his name dwell in it, there you shall offer the Passover
sacrifice, in the evening at sunset, at the time you came out of Egypt. 7 And you
shall cook it and eat it at the place that the LORD your God will choose. And in the
morning you shall turn and go to your tents. 8 For six days you shall eat unleavened
bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a solemn assembly to the LORD your

Was the scroll found, in some kind of genizah, or was it written during the early reign of Josiah? A German theologian called De Wette, writing in 1805, believed that Deuteronomy was the book Hilkiah handed over to King Josiah and that it was written during the reign of Josiah, to justify his religious reform. ‘Book of the law’ may refer to the Code of Laws which form the central passages of Deuteronomy, chapters 12 to 26, the huqim and mishpatim, statutes and ordinances, whereas the introductory and
supplementary chapters are a review of the history of God’s relationship with the Israelites in the wilderness and the imminence of entering the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy is believed to be written in stages between the 7th century BCE and the early 5th. The term Deuteronomistic history was coined in 1943 by the German biblical scholar Martin Noth, referring to the authorship of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings which he believed were argued the work of a sixth century historian seeking to explain the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. In the so-called Deuteronomistic history, Israel goes through a cycle of infidelity, punishment and restoration, ultimately facing exile by the end of 2 Kings.

In 1968, Frank Moore Cross, who was an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, made the radical suggestion that the Deuteronomistic History was written first in the time of Josiah in the late 7th century (he called this Deuteronomy 1), and revised by a 6th-century author in a version which he called Deuteronomy 2. Deuteronomy 1 is positive towards Judah and negative towards Israel and its kings. Deuteronomy 2, written in exile according to Frank Moore Cross, adds warnings of a broken covenant, followed by punishment and exile.

Deuteronomy includes in its legal code the Law of the King, as follows:

14 “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you
possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations
that are around me,’ 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your
God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You
may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not
acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to
acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that
way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn
away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold. 18 “And when he
sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this
law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read
in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping
all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may
not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the
commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in
his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

These laws show that the king is subordinate to the Torah and in fact the only duty prescribed for a king is that he should read Torah every day, fear God and keep the commandments. It does not require that he should be a military leader or a judge, although the kings often filled these roles, or that he should have quantities of horses and wives, although this was precisely the manner of Solomon’s rule.

Bernard M Levinson in a 2001 article shows that the Deuteronomic Law of the King limits the authority of the king and queries why Josiah would have promulgated such a book. From this point of view, it does not seem likely that Josiah would commission the
writing of Deuteronomy. Levinson argues that the Deuteronomistic author of Kings reverses the Law of the King, as found in Deuteronomy, by showing Josiah as the instigator and advocate of the Law. Josiah follows Deuteronomy on Passover, commanding the people to observe it and presiding over the centralized festival.

Levinson says:

Despite the royal insistence upon conformity to the law, Josiah’s very invocation of
that law transforms it…Torah is here implemented under royal aegis, The king
commanded the people…In one deft stroke the Deuteronomistic Historian revokes
and redefines both the Deuteronomistic Passover, now enacted under royal
command, and Deuteronomy’s Law of the king, as the monarch now leads the cultus.
The Deuteronomistic historian subordinates Deuteronomistic law to his own more
conservative view of the proper relation between king and cult and thus reverses
Deuteronomy’s innovation. With Josiah made the royal enforcer of Torah as the law
of the land, the Deuteronomistic historian, several generations after Deuteronomy,
returns to the monarch the active connection to cultus and law that had been, so
briefly and idealistically, denied him.

Cross’s ‘dual redaction’ thesis about Deuteronomy is widely accepted, but there is also a view that there is a post exilic phase in the composition of the book, and that Chapters 1-4 and 29-30 were added in the time of the Persian Empire. The additions in the narrative are about the Israelites being about to enter the Promised Land, an analogy with the end of the exile, when they were about to return to it.

The Death of Josiah
Josiah became king of Judah in about 641/640 BC, when the Assyrian Empire was beginning to disintegrate. Babylon and Egypt jostled for ascendancy but neither had yet achieved it so Josiah was able to rule without external interference.

In 609, Pharaoh Neco II led an army up to the Euphrates River to aid the Assyrians. Josiah attempted to block Neco’s advance at Megiddo, and in the course of the battle, Josiah was killed.

Herodotus (c484 BC – 425 BCE) wrote:

Necos…stopped work on the canal and turned to war; some of his triremes were
constructed by the northern sea, and some in the Arabian Gulf, by the coast of the
Sea of Erythrias. The windlasses for beaching the ships can still be seen. He
deployed these ships as needed, while he also engaged in a pitched battle at
Magdolos with the Syrians, and conquered them.

Josephus says of Josiah:

He was of a most excellent disposition and naturally virtuous and followed the
actions of King David as a pattern and a rule to him in the whole conduct of his life.

Josephus reports that Josiah turned the people away from the practice of idol worship
and destroyed the altars which previous kings had permitted.

His account of Josiah’s last battle and death is as follows:

Now Neco, king of Egypt, raised an army, and marched to the river Euphrates, in
order to fight with the Medes and Babylonians, who had overthrown the dominion
of the Assyrians, (9) for he had a desire to reign over Asia. Now when he was come
to the city Mendes, which belonged to the kingdom of Josiah, he brought an army to
hinder him from passing through his own country, in his expedition against the
Medes. Now Neco sent a herald to Josiah, and told him that he did not make this
expedition against him, but was making haste to Euphrates; and desired that he
would not provoke him to fight against him, because he obstructed his march to the
place whither he had resolved to go. But Josiah did not admit of this advice of
Neco, but put himself into a posture to hinder him from his intended march. I
suppose it was fate that pushed him on this conduct, that it might take an occasion
against him; for as he was setting his army in array, (10) and rode about in his
chariot, from one wing of his army to another, one of the Egyptians shot an arrow at
him, and put an end to his eagerness of fighting; for being sorely wounded, he
command a retreat to be sounded for his army, and returned to Jerusalem, and died
of that wound; and was magnificently buried in the sepulchre of his fathers, when
he had lived thirty-nine years, and of them had reigned thirty-one.

According to 2 Chronicles:

Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing
women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day.

The Chronicler does not refer to the Assyrians in his account of the battle at Megiddo,
and asserts that Josiah was carried wounded but alive from battle, to die in Jerusalem,
with which Josephus’s version agrees. The much briefer version in Kings speaks of
Neco killing Josiah at Megiddo, but does not mention the battle.

We must remember Huldah who prophesied of Josiah:

You shall be gathered to your grave in peace.

There is also an account of Josiah’s reign in the apocryhal book of 1 Esdras, which
follows closely the Chronicles version. Here is the story of the death of Josiah, as
related by Esdras (which is Greek for Ezra):

25 Now after all these acts of Josias it came to pass, that Pharaoh the king of Egypt
came to raise war at Carchamis upon Euphrates: and Josias went out against him. 26
But the king of Egypt sent to him, saying, What have I to do with thee, O king of
Judea? 27 I am not sent out from the Lord God against thee; for my war is upon
Euphrates: and now the Lord is with me, yea, the Lord is with me hasting me
forward: depart from me, and be not against the Lord. 28 Howbeit Josias did not
turn back his chariot from him, but undertook to fight with him, not regarding the
words of the prophet Jeremy spoken by the mouth of the Lord: 29 But joined battle
with him in the plain of Magiddo, and the princes came against king Josias. 30 Then
said the king unto his servants, Carry me away out of the battle; for I am very weak.
And immediately his servants took him away out of the battle. 31 Then gat he up
upon his second chariot; and being brought back to Jerusalem died, and was buried
in his father’s sepulchre. 32 And in all Jewry they mourned for Josias, yea, Jeremy
the prophet lamented for Josias, and the chief men with the women made
lamentation for him unto this day: and this was given out for an ordinance to be
done continually in all the nation of Israel. 33 These things are written in the book
of the stories of the kings of Judah, and every one of the acts that Josias did, and his
glory, and his understanding in the law of the Lord, and the things that he had done
before, and the things now recited, are reported in the book of the kings of Israel and

Josiah in Midrash

Genesis Rabbah records:
Three were called by their names before they were born: Isaac, Solomon and Josiah.
What is said in the case of Isaac? ‘Nay but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son and
thou shalt call his name Isaac.’ In the case of Solomon? ‘Behold a son shall be born
to thee, who shall be a man of rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies
round about, for his name shall be Solomon.’ In the case of Josiah? ‘And he cried
against the altar by the word of the Lord: O altar, altar, thus saith the Lord, Behold a
son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name.’

Lamentations Rabbah tells:

[Josiah] had sent two disciples of the sages to eradicate idolatry from the people’s
houses. When they entered the houses, they found nothing. As they went out, they
were told to shut the doors, and when they shut the doors, the people inside could
see the idol.

This failure of Josiah to implement his reforms throughout the land may be a
rationalization of his violent death,which does not fulfil the prophecy of Huldah. Kings
is very favorable to Josiah but Chronicles even more so with its devotion to the
Davidic/Solomonic dynasty. The fact that Josiah is brought back alive to Jerusalem in
Chronicles (and in Esdras) permits the interpretation that his end was peaceful, as
foreseen by the prophetess.

There are many parallels between the narratives of King Josiah and King Hezekiah,and, next time, we can look more closely at the reign of Hezekiah, about a hundred years before Josiah.

Shabbat chol ha moed Sukkot

15 October 2011

 Deuteronomy 8:1-18

 In this chapter, as in nearly all of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Israelites, who have traversed the  wilderness for forty years, and are now on the brink of entering the Promised Land.

Moses doesn’t name the land across the Jordan as Canaan, or as Israel, but as ‘the land which the Lord swore to your fathers’. The name Canaan is much used in Genesis when the Patriarchs lived in the land but did not rule it. The term Eretz Israel does not occur until the time of King Saul, and then just  once. It is Ezekiel, in exile, who consistently refers to Eretz Israel.

 Moses goes on to remind the Israelites of the many afflictions they endured during their forty years in the wilderness, as well as the benefits of God’s protection. Even the manna, which we might think of as a blessing, is described here as an affliction, whose purpose, says Moses, is ‘to make you know that one does not live on bread alone, but on every utterance which proceeds out of the mouth of God’.’[1]He contrasts the privations of the wilderness years with the wonderful prosperity which they will enjoy, just across the riverJordan, where he, Moses, will not be permitted to accompany them.

From this chapter come the familiar words You will eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you[2]  which, as it happens, is the only blessing explicitly commanded in the Torah. The blessings we say before and after the Torah readings, for example, are not from a biblical source. Many of them come from a minor tractate called Massekhet, from the time of the Talmud and it has been suggested that the authors had in mind the template of this verse in Deuteronomy, which includes the words asher natan lach when they prescribed the phrase asher natan lanu in the Torah blessings.


When Moses teaches ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’, he foreshadows the tradition of the prophets, who called on the people to pursue righteousness and reject materialism.

The connection between bread and Torah is made by Isaiah too when he says ‘Why do you spend money for what is not bread, Your earnings for what does not satisfy?’

 Following the examples of Moses and Isaiah, the rabbinic sages sometimes compared bread with Torah or spoke of bread as a metaphor for Torah. The progressive liturgist Jakob Petuchowski pointed out that the expression bread from the earth – lechem min ha-aretz – has the same grammatical structure as the traditional name for Revelation – Torah min ha shamayim, literally: Torah from heaven.  In Sayings of the Fathers, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Without bread there is no Torah, without Torah there is no bread,’and this aphorism is often explained with reference to the verse ‘Not by bread alone shall you live’.

As this shabbat is Chol ha Moed Sukkot, the tradition is to read the book of Ecclesiastes. We read the opening chapter so did not get as far as Chapter 11, where Kohelet, the speaker in Ecclesiastes says: ‘Cast your bread upon the waters and after many days you will find it’.

 Is Kohelet really speaking about bread? Or is it, as Moses Mendelssohn thought, a metaphor about long-term market trends and the advantages of risk taking? Or is the bread symbolic of good deeds, mitzvot, undertaken without thought of personal gain. This was the view of Rashi who interpreted the verse as meaning that you should do acts of kindness, even for a person you think you will never see again. The good deeds flow away like bread on the water, but their positive effects come back with the ripples of the tide.

In Exodus, the manna is called bread from heaven, lechem min ha shamayim.

On one hand, it’s something less than normal bread, because the people grow tired of it and complain; on the other hand it’s much more than bread because it comes miraculously from heaven,  enabling the Israelites to survive in the wilderness. At the shabbat table, we have two loaves of challah, symbolizing the double portion of manna which the children of Israel used to gather on the eve of shabbat, but, because one doesn’t live by bread alone, the two challot can be seen also as representing the two tablets of the law, the other gift from heaven which the children of Israel received in the wilderness.

Yom Kippur 5772

Do Not Let Their Homes Become Their Graves


The prayers of the High Priest
The Avodah service, which takes place during Mussaf on Yom Kippur,  is based on the Temple service, as described in the Mishnah and the Gemara. The High Priest – the Cohen Hagadol – said penitential prayers on behalf of himself and the whole community.

When the High Priest emerged from the Holy of Holies, he prayed that the coming year would be fruitful, prosperous and peaceful, and then added the prayer v’al ha anshei Sharon… for those who lived in the region of Sharon, in danger of sudden earthquakes ‘…do not let their homes become their graves’.

Where does the prayer come from?

The source of this prayer is the Talmud Yerushalmi, also called the Jerusalem Talmud or the Palestine Talmud, or the Talmud of the Land of Israel (Tractate Yoma perek 5 hilchot 2).

The Jerusalem Talmud is shorter than the Babylonian Talmud, and was completed earlier, about 429 CE. As the name suggests, it is a product of the Land of Israel, probably from the academies of Tiberias, Caesarea and Sepphoris.

Life in Palestine had been more agriculturally based than amongst the Babylonian communities, so the Jerusalem Talmud  pays more attention to agricultural halakhah than the Bavli, and also more attention to the geography of the region, which may be why we find this focus on the Sharon Plain, the northern half of the coastal plain of Israel, running from Jaffa up to Carmel.

What was the problem for the people of Sharon?
Our translation explains that the region was in danger of earthquakes, but the Hebrew words do not refer to earthquakes, or name any specific danger.
It may be that this region was subject to flooding, being on the coast.
There is a geological fault called the Dead Sea Transform, which extends through the Jordan River Valley, and is part of the Great African Rift Valley and this may have caused seismic disturbances. The geography of Palestine in the time of the Jerusalem Talmud shows that the Sharon was a marshy, swampy area, not easily cultivated until deforestation, around the third century.
The Babylonian Talmud has a more oblique reference, when commenting on exemption from military service. Deuteronomy 20:5 states that a man is exempt who has built a new house and not had time to dedicate it. The Babylonian sages considered the exceptions to this rule:
R. Eliezer says: also he who built a brick house in Sharon does not return home. A Tanna taught: [The reason is] because they have to renew it twice in a period of seven years.
Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 44a

Why do the prayers of the Avodah service conclude with this particular prayer, for the safety of a particular section of the population?

Yehuda Kurtzer (President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America): ‘The route to a universal vision runs through our particular experience of the world…If we cannot identify with the particular, will we be able to pray for the universal?’ (YK 2010)

Are earthquakes mentioned in Tanakh?

Resh ayin shin means earthquake, from a verb to shake or tremble.

1 Kings 19:11-13
Alone in the wilderness, Elijah sees a whirlwind, an earthquake and a fire, after which God speaks to Elijah in a still, small voice.

Isaiah 29:6
God tells Isaiah that he will bring thunder, earthquake and a tempest, save Jerusalem (Ariel) from her enemies.

Ezekiel 3:12
Ezekiel hears the sound of an earthquake, during a mystical, prophetic vision

Ezekiel 38:19
God tells Ezekiel that He will bring an earthquake and other upheavals on the day of a future, apocalyptic battle.

Amos 1:1
The time of Amos’s ministry as a prophet is said to be during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

Zechariah 14:4-5
Zechariah prophesies about a future time when God will intervene to defend Jerusalem from her enemies, causing a rift in the Mount of Olives. The people will run away, he says, just as they fled from the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah.

What did the sages say in times of danger?
Rabbi Joshua says:
One who is travelling in a dangerous place should offer a brief prayer, and say: Save, Hashem, Your people, the remnant of Israel; even when they distance themselves through sin, let their needs be before You. Blessed are you Hashem, Who hears prayer.
Mishnah 4:4

The scriptural source for this mishnah is Jeremiah 31:7:

For thus says the Lord, Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O LORD, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’

Our Yizkor service includes a similar prayer:

‘Guardian of Israel, Guard the Remnant of Israel, and suffer not Israel to perish who daily declare Hear O Israel.’ p619 Yamim Noraim

The Talmudic sages used to add personal appeals to God following the set prayers and these were standardized in the Middle Ages, a time of danger for the Jewish people.

What is the modern Jewish response to natural disasters?
It is not to view the disaster as a punishment from God. I believe mainstream orthodoxy repudiates such a view as, of course, does Progressive Judaism. The modern Progressive Jewish response emphasizes human agency, regarding divine agency as a source of support rather than punishment. The modern siddurim include prayers where we ask God to make us strong and effective so that we are able to take responsibility, to withstand disaster and act for the good of the community; then as always, we ask God to spare us.
The High Priest prays for the safety of others, in the region of Sharon, but is it ok to ask God to give us things we want?
Hannah, whose story is told in the opening chapters of 1 Samuel, is cited by the rabbis of the Talmud as exemplary in prayer, and she does indeed ask God for the thing she longs for, a child. God answers her prayer.

Said Hannah before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of the Universe, of all the hosts and hosts that Thou hast created in Thy world, is it so hard in Thy eyes to give me one son? A parable: To what is this matter like? To a king who made a feast for his servants, and a poor man came and stood by the door and said to them, Give me a bite,8 and no one took any notice of him, so he forced his way into the presence of the king and said to him, Your Majesty, out of all the feast which thou hast made, is it so hard in thine eyes to give me one bite?
Berakhot 31b

Ribbono Shel Olam

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a Chasidic master of the eighteenth century, used to address God with one of the many names used in Talmudic times: Ribbono Shel Olam. He used to repeat this name as a mantra to enhance kavanah in prayer. When God is addressed as ‘Master of the Universe’, the person who says it relinquishes their sense of controlling the world. A person can control his response to a situation, but the situation itself may be outside his control. A mantra can be an expression of faith, when words fail, or when we can’t find the right words, or when too many words make excessively difficult demands on faith.

When all else fails, zog tehillim
Psalms are often specially recited in times of trouble or danger. The Yiddish expression, zogen tehillim, refers to the recitation of psalms, when all else fails. Tsadikim of the East European communities used to say:

Rabosai, Mir Ken Zich Mer Nisht Farlozen Oif Nissim, Kum, Laz Mir Zogen

My friends, we can no longer rely on miracles, come let us recite Tehillim.<a

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