- 1 How to Use This Section of the Portal
- 2 Studying and Listening to the Prayerbook
- 3 The Introductory Prayers for the Morning Liturgy
- 4 The Nusah ha-Tefilla for the Morning Liturgy
- 4.1 “Bless the Lord Who is Blessed” (Bar’khu)
- 4.2 “Lord of Our Strength, Rock of Our Fortress”
- 4.3 “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts”
- 4.4 “Cause Our Eyes to Sparkle with Your Torah”
- 4.5 “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One” (Sh’ma)
- 4.6 “And You Shall Love the Lord, Your God, with All Your Heart”
- 4.7 “If You Loyally Obey All My Commandments”
- 4.8 “Straying After Your Hearts and Your Eyes”
- 4.9 “He Protects, He Resurrects” (Amida)
- 4.10 “Knowledge, Repentance, Confession, Healing, and Blessing”
- 4.11 “Justice, Grace, and Fair Judgment”
- 4.12 “Enemies, Saints, and the Israel Defense Forces”
- 4.13 “We Acknowledge That You Are … and We Thank You For … ”
- 4.14 “The Good One…the Compassionate One”
- 4.15 “Grant Peace, Goodness, and Blessing”
- 5 After the Nusah ha-Tellifa for the Morning Liturgy
- 6 From Elsewhere in the Daily Liturgy
- 7 From The Shabbat Liturgy
- 8 From the Holiday Liturgy
- 9 From the High Holiday Liturgy
- 9.1 “Selihot/Penitential Prayers”
- 9.2 “Lord, Lord, God of Compassion”
- 9.3 “Our Father, Our King”
- 9.4 “Put Fear of You into All Your Works” (Rosh Ha-Shana)
- 9.5 “In the Book of Life”
- 9.6 “Hannah’s Prayer”
- 9.7 “Jeremiah’s Comfort”
- 9.8 “Who Has Commanded Us to Sound the Shofar”
- 9.9 “Kol Nidrei”
- 9.10 “I Have Sinned, Transgressed, and Rebelled”
- 9.11 “Forgive Us. Forgo Our Debts. Grant Us Atonement”
- 10 Epilogue
How to Use This Section of the Portal
A portal, or a book, can be read in many ways. Some people read from the beginning to the end; others use tables of contents and indexes to search out material; still others jump around at will. That is true of this portal too: One can follow the table of contents that, itself, follows the order of the Siddur. Or, one can use the search function to seek materials that sound interesting or appealing. Or, one can browse through these Insights about Jewish prayer. Any method works.
To facilitate movement among the Insights presented and also between the various sections of the portal, I have embedded links to material that appears elsewhere. Only sustained study, however, can give one a sense of the interwoven character of the material. One must follow the links, reflect, and then go back to the various interlinked texts.
For further reference, I have embedded links to the WorldCat. This site, which has cataloged over two billion books, gives the reader a full bibliographical reference, and if one sets the WorldCat page properly, it will also identify the closest library with a copy of the book.
Finally, for those who read Hebrew, I have included a transliteration of the original texts. It is meant to be readable and does not pretend to be scientifically correct.
Studying and Listening to the Prayerbook
Study and Consciousness
“One who prays must direct one’s heart to the meaning of the words which one brings out of one’s mouth” (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, 98:1). This is the norm in Jewish practice: that one should understand what one says in prayer.
Prayer, in Jewish tradition, is neither a recitation of an incomprehensible liturgy, nor is it an emptying of one’s mind as in some Eastern traditions. Tefilla is both, an exercise of mind and of consciousness. To understand the prayers, then, one must first study them. It is not enough to mumble words, nor is it enough to meditate wordlessly. For that reason, there is a separate mitsva called `iyyun tefilla, the study of the prayers.
Study of the prayers, while necessary and decisive, is not enough. One must all actually pray; that is, one must develop a consciousness of the divine, place oneself in the presence of the divine, and do something mentally. All humans have the ability to multi-task, that is, to do several things at once. Thus, one can drive a car, and talk and think and even shave or put on lipstick. This is multi-tasking. All humans can also sharply focus their consciousness. Thus, when driving and seeing a ball roll out in front of the car, one immediately focuses on the ball (and the child that might be right behind it) and all the other levels of consciousness disappear. This general ability to multi-task and also to focus is called kavvana. In prayer, one also focuses on the rhythm of the community, on the actions of prayer (bowing, etc.), on the meaning of the words, on whatever concept or image of God one has, and on whatever specific techniques one has learned. True prayer is a mixture of `iyyun tefilla and kavvana.
`Iyyun tefilla and kavvana interact with one another. Study and consciousness complement one another. Knowledge increases our spirituality; study leads to praxis. The reverse is also true: increased spiritual awareness leads to knowledge; praxis augments our study. This part called Insights will develop this theme, concentrating on phrases from the liturgy and their meaning as derived from, and brought to, prayer. Most are short, though some are almost essay length.
A book, or a portal, can be read in many ways. Some people read from the beginning to the end; others use tables of contents and indexes to search out material; still others jump around at will. That is true of this book too: One can follow the table of contents that, itself, follows the order of the traditional prayerbook. Or, one can use the Table of Contents and/or the Index to search out materials that sound interesting or appealing. Or, one can just browse through these Insights into Jewish prayer. Any method works. For those who read Hebrew, I have included a transliteration of the original texts. It is meant to be readable and does not pretend to be scientifically correct.
Mapping The Siddur
Siddur means “order.” In the context of prayer, it means the “order of prayer,” hence, the “prayerbook.” Similarly, Seder means “order” and it refers liturgically to the order of prayer, ritual, and study that constitutes the home service for Passover.
The morning and evening prayers in the traditional Siddur are ordered like an ellipse; they have two foci. The first is the Sh’ma. It is composed of verses from the Bible, assembled by the rabbis into a liturgical whole. The Sh’ma begins with Deuteronomy 6: 4-9: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one … And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might …” This is followed by Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15: 37-41. The phrase “the Sh’ma” can refer to the first verse, the whole first paragraph, and/or the three paragraphs taken together.
The second focus of the morning and evening prayers in the traditional Siddur is the Amida. Because it is recited standing, it is called “Amida” from the Hebrew root “to stand.” Because it is recited silently, it is sometimes referred to as the “Silent Devotion.” Because the daily version of the Amida has about eighteen benedictions, it is sometimes referred as the “Shemoneh Esreh “ (“the Eighteen”). The Amida always has the same structure. There are three opening prayers. The first praises God in history, the second praises God in creation (nature), and the third, which has an expanded poetic form when the Amida is repeated out loud, praises God in holiness. The Amida also always has three concluding prayers. The first is for the return of God’s Presence to the temple in Jerusalem. The second acknowledges God as God, and gives thanks to God for the miracles of life. And the last is for peace.
In between the three opening and the three concluding benedictions, the Amida contains prayers that vary according to the occasion. On the weekdays, there are thirteen petitionary prayers. On Shabbat and holidays, the prayers of petition are replaced by prayers about Shabbat and the holidays. The whole is followed, on weekdays, by Tahanun (penitential prayers); on holidays, by Hallel (the psalms of praise); and, on Shabbat and holidays, by the Reading of the Torah and Haftarah.
With the Sh’ma as one focus and the Amida as the other, the rest of the core liturgy arranges itself around these foci. Thus, there are two prayers before the Sh’ma in both the evening and morning services. Though they differ in their language, these prayers praise God as the God of creation (including heavenly beings) and as the God of revelation (giver of the Torah). After the Sh’ma, there always follows a prayer praising God as the God of redemption, invoking the exodus from Egypt. In the evening service, there then follows one, sometimes two, prayers invoking God as protector. Then, comes the Amida. This whole elipse is preceded by the Bar’khu, the call to communal worship. This unit (the whole elipse), thus, includes the following: Bar’khu, God in creation, God in Torah, Sh’ma (all three paragraphs), God in history, (God as protector, in the evening), the Amida (with its opening, intermediate, and concluding prayers), and Tahanun or Hallel (in the morning). It is known as Nusah ha-Tefilla, the core of liturgical prayer.
However, the nusah ha-tefilla as described is not the entire order of service. It, too, is surrounded by additional parts. It is preceded, in the morning service, by a selection of biblical verses and psalms of praise called Pesukei de-Zimra, this entire section being opened and closed by rabbinic prayers of praise. The Pesukei de-Zimra is, in turn, preceded by other benedictions dealing with waking up in the morning and with study. In the morning, the nusah ha-tefilla is followed by the reading of the Torah on days when that is called for, by the Musaf (the additional service which recalls the sacrifices in the temple) on Shabbat and holidays, and by the concluding prayers. This structure can be seen clearly in the accompanying chart.
There is also an afternoon service. It is composed of Psalm 145, with liturgical modifications, and the Amidah with Tahanun. It, too, has a concluding prayer.
The morning service (Shaharit) and the afternoon service (Minha) are substitutes for the daily morning and afternoon sacrifices. In the temple, a sheep was sacrificed each morning as the first offering and another was sacrificed in the late afternoon as the last offering. This daily sacrifice, called the tamid, was seen as a type of atonement offering, thus allowing the people and the temple to begin, and end, each day in purity. The evening service (Ma`ariv), although closer to Shaharit in liturgical structure, does not have the same importance. Generally, Minha and Ma`ariv are recited together, both being rather short.
The Siddur also contains much more than the order of the service with all its variants. The interested reader should study the sequence of prayers and the range of its contents. It is also the case that there are very subtle variants in the liturgy according to the occasion. These too can only be appreciated through study. Iyyun tefilla (the study of the prayers) is a mitsva unto itself.
Having grasped something of the order of the service, we must now ponder some texts from the liturgy. A few examples may be the best way to learn and will certainly provide a point of departure for the reader’s personal study and personal spiritual praxis.
Chart of the Order of Service
Introductory Prayers (morning only)
early morning prayers
Pesukei de-Zimra (preliminary psalms)
blessing, verses and psalms of praise, blessing
Bar’khu (call to worship)
God in creation (including heavenly beings)
God in revelation
Hear, O Israel … Thou shalt love (Dt. 6:4-7)
God in redemption
God the protector (evening service only)
three opening prayers: God in history, creation, holiness
intermediate prayers: one or more on Shabbat and holidays, 13 on weekdays
three closing prayers: God’s return to the temple, acknowledgement and thanksgiving, peace
After the Nusah ha-Tefilla
Tahanun (on weekdays), Hallel (on holidays) — (mornings only)
Reading of the Torah (mornings: Mondays and Thursdays, and Shabbat and holidays)
Musaf (recalling of the sacrifices, on Shabbat and holiday mornings)
The Introductory Prayers for the Morning Liturgy
“Do Not Bring Us to Temptation or to Humiliation”
May it be Your will, oh Lord our God and God of our ancestors,
To accustom us to Your Torah, and to make us cling to Your commandments.
Yehi ratson mi-lefanekha, ‘Adonay ‘Eloheinu v-’Elohei avoteinu
She-targileinu be-Toratekha, ve-dabbekeinu be-mitsvotekha
Do not bring us into inadvertent sin, or into intentional sin
Or into temptation, or into humiliation.
Do not let the impulse to do evil have control over us.
Keep us far from a wicked person, and a wicked friend.
Ve-`al tevi’einu lo’ li-yedei heit’, ve-lo’ li-yedei `avera va-`avon
ve-lo’ li-yedei nissayon, ve-lo’ li-yedei bizzayon
ve-`al tashlet banu yester ha-ra`
ve-harhikeinu me-’adam ra`, ume-haver ra`
Rather, enable us to cling to the impulse to do good, and to good deeds.
ve-dabbekeinu be-yetser ha-tov, uve-ma`asim tovim
And cause our will to bend to Yours.
ve-khof ‘et yitsreinu le-hishta`abed lakh
And make us this day and every day
A source of favor, loving-kindness, and compassion
In Your eyes, and in the eyes of all who behold us,
And grant us generously good kindnesses
U-teneinu ha-yom uve-khol yom
le-hen ule-hesed ule-rahamim
be-`einekha uve-`einei kol ro’einu
ve-tigmeleinu hasadim tovim
The very beginning of the morning liturgy contains a series of blessings praising God and then three prayers in which we “accept the yoke of the kingdom of God”; that is, in which we acknowledge our complete frailty before God, submit ourselves to God, and pray for help in meeting the challenges of the life. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the liturgy; a good way to start the day.
The first of these prayers, cited above, weaves together two themes (designated above by different margins) in which we ask God to bring us close to His Torah, and also to protect us from those who bear ill will against us, including those forces within ourselves that push us toward sin and away from God. (The second prayer that is rooted in the Akeda and the third prayer that deals first with fear of God and then with truth and death are discussed in the next units.)
Some systems of thought conceive humanity as basically good, but with external factors that distract humans from goodness. Judaism does not accept this view. Other systems of thought conceive humanity as basically evil, but with occasional moments of goodness that shine into their lives by grace. Judaism does not accept this view either. Both these views are too naïve; humans are much more complex than that. Judaism teaches that humans contain a basic impulse to be good and to do good, and they also contain a basic impulse to be bad and to do evil. Everyone is like that: children (past a certain age), teenagers, adults, even the elderly; men and women, smart people and those that are not so smart; social people and non-social people. Everyone knows good from evil; and no one does only good, or only evil. Every person is drawn towards good, sometimes; and every person is drawn towards evil, sometimes.
This prayer, and the ones that follow it, acknowledge this clearly. It teaches that we have “an impulse to do good” (Hebrew, yetser ha-tov) and also “an impulse to do evil” (Hebrew, yetser ha-ra`). It asks God to give strength to the former, and to help us bend the latter to His will. We become “good” by doing both: by doing good things, especially through Torah, mitsvot, and deeds of loving-kindness; and also by avoiding bad things, especially bad people and bad impulses in ourselves.
What happens when we follow our impulse to do evil? Note, first, that there are two kinds of sin (really, three). Bad behavior sometimes starts innocuously, with inadvertent sin, with something we do wrong but didn’t mean to do. Maybe we were sarcastic, or we took something surreptitiously, or we “forgot” to return something we borrowed, or we joked about something inappropriately, and so on. So, we pray to God to protect us from inadvertent sin.
Bad behavior that comes from inadvertency changes easily into bad behavior that is done consciously, willfully. We knew it was wrong, but we did it anyway. Maybe we picked on someone purposely, or we took something that wasn’t ours consciously, or we said something spitefully. So, we pray to God to protect us from intentional sin.
Bad behavior done willfully easily leads to temptation (Hebrew, nissayon). Bad behavior done purposely easily leads to thinking that it is okay, at the very least it is not so terrible, to do what is wrong. Further, bad behavior repeated over and over easily leads to thinking that it is perhaps even “good,” to behave badly. There is a certain kind of positive feeling we get from defying good and doing evil, a certain kind of pleasure we get from doing what is forbidden. Bad behavior leads to temptation, which leads to more bad behavior, which leads to more temptation. And matters escalate, sometimes beyond control. Eventually, we can lose the consciousness of having done evil altogether. So, we pray to God to protect us from temptation.
The escalating cycle of sin and temptation can lead to humiliation (Hebrew, bizzayon). Doing evil makes us ashamed of ourselves. We know we shouldn’t do it, but we feel compelled. We know we shouldn’t do it, but we feel trapped, unable to break out of the escalating cycle. Evil that has become a habit shames us. Doing something we want not to do but we cannot break out of, humiliates us. It degrades us as humans. We dishonor ourselves with it. This is the hidden soul damage of addiction. Addiction dishonors the addict; it humiliates the addict; it shames him or her.
To tell the truth, we are all addicted to some form of bad behavior. We try our hardest to deny this to ourselves, but we all have patterns of action and patterns of thought that recur again and again, that we know are harmful to others and also to ourselves, and yet we continue to follow these patterns even though we want desperately to break away from them.
One must, of course, try to break away from such destructive patterns in oneself. The first step is to pray to God to protect us from the cycle of sin, temptation, and humiliation. The second step is to avoid evil people, even friends who embody the patterns we are trying to break free from. And the third step is to cling to God, Torah, God’s commandments, and to do good deeds. Most of us need to start the day with this reminder.
Our God and God of our ancestors,
Remember us well before You
And command for us a command of salvation and mercy
From the highest heavens.
And remember for us, oh Lord our God, the love of the ancient ones …
The covenant, and the grace, and the oath
Which You swore to Abraham, our father, on Mt. Moriah,
And the Akeda where he bound his son, Isaac, upon the altar,
As it is written in Your Torah …
‘Eloheinu ve-’elohei ‘avoteinu
zokhreinu be-zikkaron tov lefanekha
u-fokdeinu be-fekudat yeshu`a ve-rahamim
mi-shmei shmei kedem
u-zekhor lanu, ‘Adonay eloheinu, ‘ahavat ha-kadmonim …
‘et ha-brit, ve-’et ha-hesed ve-’et ha-shevu`a
she-nihba`ta le-Avraham ‘avinu be-har ha-Moriah
ve-’et ha-`akeda she-`akad ‘et beno Yitshak `al ha-mizbeah
ka-katuv be-Toratekha …
“It happened after these events that God tested Abraham…” [Genesis 22]
“Va-yehi ‘ahar ha-devarim ha-’eileh, veha-’elohim nissah ‘et ‘Avraham…”
Master of the universe,
May it be Your will, oh Lord our God and God of our ancestors,
That You remember for us the covenant with our ancestors.
As Abraham, our father, overcame his compassion for his only son
And desired to slaughter him in order to fulfill Your will,
So may Your compassion overcome Your anger against us.
May Your compassion overwhelm Your other qualities.
May You go beyond the duty of Your law for us.
May You act with us, oh Lord our God,
with the virtue of grace and the virtue of compassion.
And, in Your great goodness, may Your anger turn away from Your people,
From Your city, from Your land, and from Your inheritance.
Remember for us, oh Lord our God, that which You promised us
Through the hand of Moses …
Ribbono shel `olam
Yehi ratson mi-lefanekha, ‘Adonay ‘eloheinu ve-’elohei ‘avoteinu
She-tizkor lanu brit ‘avoteinu
Kemo she-kavash ‘Avraham ‘avinu ‘et rahamav mi-ben yehido
Ve-ratsa li-shehot ‘oto kedei la`asot retsonekha
Ken yikhbeshu rahamekha ‘et ka`askha me-`aleinu
Ve-yiggolu rahamekha `al middotekha
Ve-tikkaneis lifnim mi-shurat dinekha
Ve-titnaheg `imanu, ‘Adonay ‘eloheinu,
be-middat ha-hesed uve-middat ha-rahamim
Uve-tuvkha ha-gadol yashuv haron ‘apekha me-`amkha
Ume-`irkha ume-’artsekha umi-nahalatekha
Ve-kayyem lanu ‘Adonay ‘eloheinu ‘et ha-davar she-hivtahtanu
`al yedei Moshe `avdekha…
The second of these prayers is rooted in the Akeda, the almost-sacrifice of Isaac as related in Genesis 22. The importance of the Akeda in rabbinic thought and spirituality cannot be overstated.
In the biblical narrative, Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his only and beloved son. He does this without hesitation or doubt. At the crucial moment when he lifts the knife to slaughter Isaac, an angel of the Lord intervenes and stops the sacrifice. Abraham then sacrifices a ram in place of his son. After this, the angel appears a second time and says:
“I swear by Myself,” says the Lord, “that, because you have done this act and did not spare your son, your only one, I shall surely bless you, and I will multiply your seed as the stars in the sky and the sand on the sea shore, and your seed will inherit the gate of its enemies, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through your seed – because you have heeded My voice.”
The passage is remarkable on many grounds, two of which are pertinent to the second of the morning prayers. First, the blessing to Abraham is the same threefold blessing that he received in chapter 12 of Genesis and that will be repeated to Isaac and Jacob; namely, perpetual seed—that is that the Jewish people will endure throughout time; the holy land that his seed will conquer and that will remain theirs forever; and that all the nations of the world will be a blessed through his seed. The Akeda, then, is the cornerstone of God’s promise of blessing and protection for the Jewish people.
More importantly, this is the only passage in the Torah in which God actually swears an oath. The passage is clear: God says, “I swear by Myself.…” This is not just the Word of God. Nor is this the Promise of God. This is God’s Personal Oath; after all, only God can say “I swear by Myself.” The Akeda became one of the most central motifs in Jewish consciousness precisely because, at the Akeda, God Godself swore an oath to protect the Jewish people. This deserves more study. (Note: there are other passages in which God swears, but they are all for punishment; this is the only passage that is positive.)
What did Abraham do to evoke such an irrevocable response from God? True, he was obedient even to an extraordinary, maybe even unethical, demand. But the rabbis were not satisfied with that; they believed that there must have been more. So, the rabbis point to the fact that God has to call Abraham twice to get him to stop the act of killing of Isaac (Genesis 22:11) and they ask what Abraham did between the first calling of his name and the second calling of it. One strain of the tradition split the verse “Do not stretch your hand out against the child, and do not do anything at all to him” (Genesis 22:12) and says that Abraham began to bargain with God (Bereishit Rabba 56:7):
Abraham said, “I will strangle him [and not use the knife].”
The angel replied, “’Do not stretch your hand out to the child.’”
Abraham said, “I will extract a drop of blood from him.”
The angel replied, “’Do not do anything at all to him.”
Another strain of the tradition reads the text of Genesis 22:11-12 as follows (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 30 [in some translations, chapter 31]):
Rabbi Judah said, “When the sword reached his neck, Isaac’s soul fled and left his body. But, when the Lord caused His voice to be heard from between the two cherubs saying, ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the child and do not do anything at all to him,’ his soul returned to his body and Isaac stood up on his feet. And Isaac knew that this is how the dead will be resurrected, and so he opened [his mouth] and said, “Blessed are You, ‘Adonay, Who resurrects the dead.’”
This motif, that Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac and that Isaac was resurrected, was linked with yet a third interpretation (Bereishit Rabba 56:10):
Rabbi Yohanan said: Abraham said before the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the worlds. When You said to me ‘Take your son, your only one,’ I could have responded to You [as follows]: ‘Yesterday, You told me, “for through Isaac You will have seed” (Gen 21:12) and now You tell me “Take your son, your only one”’ (Genesis 22:2). But, God forbid! I did not do that. Rather I overcame my compassion [for my son] in order to do Your will. May it be Your will, oh Lord our God, that when the children of Isaac come before You with sins and evil deeds, that this Akeda be remembered for them, and may You be filled with mercy.”
The sources go on to note that, as Abraham sacrificed a ram, so the ram’s horn (Hebrew, shofar) is sounded every year on Rosh ha-Shana, the Day of Judgment.
The most heart-rending stage of the development of this motif is to be found the in the medieval liturgical poems. During the crusades, many Jewish communities chose mass suicide over forced conversion; that is, they killed one another, including children and women, rather than become Christian. There are searing poems from this period in which one of the cries is, ‘Look! Abraham went to slaughter his only son and he was saved, but we have slaughtered our own Akedot (using the plural of Akeda).’ Actual martyrdom was enacted on the model of the Akeda. Much has been written on these poems, though they still await a proper presentation.
With this background, we return to the second of the early morning prayers (see above). This first paragraph of this prayer (above) calls upon God to remember the ultimate sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac and, with it, His Own oath that He swore to protect us. The second paragraph of this prayer is the actual text of the Akeda from Genesis, chapter 22. The third paragraph is a prayer that invokes the midrashic themes that the rabbis attached to the Akeda (except actual martyrdom which is a later, medieval addition).
Coming as this unit does after the prayer for God to bring us close to His Torah and to protect us from the negative forces of life and before the prayers for fear of God, the acknowledgement of truth and death, and then the expression of complete humility before God, it is perfectly placed as part of the process of “accepting the yoke of the kingdom of God” as we start the day.
“Fear of God, in Secret and in Public”
A person should always be God-fearing
In private, and in public.
Le-`olam yehei ‘adam yerei’ shamayim
The third of these prayers deals first with the “fear of God” (Hebrew, yir’at shamayim).
“Fear of God,” as Judaism understands it, is not an emotion, a feeling that comes and passes, a moment of consciousness that maybe be intense but is also temporary. Rather, fear of God is an ongoing attitude, an “affection” as the term is used in religious philosophy. It is a biblical and rabbinic virtue, a commitment, an ongoing way of thinking and living.
Fear of God is, first of all, fear of punishment. We experience this when we have done something we know deep inside ourselves is morally wrong. Everyone sins; that is, every person commits acts that are seriously wrong. Such acts have real social consequences. They disrupt our careers, destroy our human relationships, and undermine our self-image. These acts also desecrate the Name of God, casting a shadow over God and our service to God. We fear retribution for such acts. This fear is called yir’at ha-`onesh, “the fear of punishment.”
When we sin, however, we are also seized by anxiety. We know that we have been untrue to our inner calling, that we have violated our highest vision of ourselves. When we sin, we know deep down inside that such acts are incompatible with the presence of God in our lives; they are “the other impulse” in us seeking expression. We become frightened by the sense that some ugly truth in us has already partially surfaced and we fear that it will permanently alienate us from the deeper truth of the God’s presence.
Put another way, we fear that God will desert us because of our sins—that God will allow our sinfulness to alienate us from Him such that we stay psychologically, morally, and existentially lost. Such fear is called yir’ah tata’a, “lower fear.”
These two types of fear of God are, however, mitigated by two factors, without which we would be terrorized into compulsive pacification of a tyrannical deity. First, we know that we all have certain merits. Even in our most sinful moments, we remember that we have performed acts of loyalty and dedication to God, and we have confidence that these deeds will mitigate God’s judgment of us. We know, too, that we have a continuing commitment to God’s presence and to the work God has asked us to do. In spite of our stumbling, we affirm this commitment and we trust the future it implies. We are as a ship that has gone off course but which will right itself by its own natural force when the storm has passed. This confidence in the deeper patterns of our being comforts us and enables us to live with our fear of God.
We also know from Scripture, the tradition, and our own experience of God that God is fair, indeed kind and loving. We therefore have faith that God will see our sinfulness as a side-step, a temporary digression from the more basic pattern of our faithfulness. We trust that God will understand. Even concerning those sins within us that are compulsive, which repeat themselves without our being able to stop or eradicate them, we believe that God will look upon them with a compassionate eye. The mystical tradition teaches that God, too, knows anger, frustration, and even fear for God’s creatures. God too “sins”; that is, God strays from the path of loving justice that is God’s usual way. Because of this, God is compassionate. This knowledge, too, helps us live with our fear of God.
However, we must be careful not to let the mitigating factors so encompass the fear that the fear ceases to be fear and becomes an excuse for our own weakness. We must not let weakness justify our inadequacies.
Fear of God also has a third sense: it is a response to the awe one feels in the presence of the holy and the transcendent. We all experience God’s present otherness and we all respond to it with a sense of our own inadequacy. Life requires that we hold ourselves open to this Presence and to the feelings of radical amazement, awe, unworthiness, and fear that the awareness of God calls forth. Such fear is called yir’ah `ila’a, “upper fear.”
In recognizing the different types of fear of God, we pray that God give us yir’at ha-`onesh, “fear of punishment,” in private and in public, so that we may not sin and shame ourselves and God. We also pray that God give us yir’ah tata’a, “lower fear,” the fear that we will become cut off from God and alienated from Him, in private and in public, so that we hesitate deeply before sinning for fear of losing our bearings. And, finally, we pray that God give us yir’ah `ila’a, “upper fear,” the awe of His presence, so that we remain oriented toward Him at all times.
“Acknowledge Truth and Speak Truth”
A person should always …
And acknowledge the truth
And speak truth in his heart
And, on rising in the morning, one should say,
“Master of all worlds,
It is not on the basis of our righteous deeds
That we cast our pleading before You
But on the basis of Your great mercy.
What are we? What are our lives? What are our loving-kindnesses?
What is our self-help? What is our strength? What is our power?
What can we say in Your presence,
Oh Lord, our God and God of our ancestors?
Are not all powerful people as nothing before You?
And men of renown as if they had not existed?
And scholars as if they had no knowledge, and wise men no understanding?
Indeed most their deeds are as chaos
And the days of their years as expelled breath before You.
The advantage of humanity over beasts is nothing.
Indeed, all is futile.
Le-`olam yehei ‘adam…
u-modeh `al ha-‘emet ve-doveir ‘emet be-levavo
Ribbon kol ha-`olamim
lo `al tsidkoteinu ‘anahnu mappilim tahanuneinu lefanekha
ki `al rahamekha ha-rabbim
ma anu, ma hayyeinu, ma hasdeinu
ma yeshu`ateinu, ma kokheinu, ma gevurateinu
ma nomar lefanekha
‘Adonay ‘eloheinu ve-‘elohei ‘avoteinu
halo’ kol ha-gibborim ke-‘ayin lefanekha
ve-‘anshei hashem ke-lo’ hayu
ve-hakhamim ki-vli madda` u-nevonim ki-vli haskel
ki rov ma`aseihem tohu
vi-yemei hayyeihem hevel lefanekha
u-motar ha-‘adam min ha-beheima ‘ayin
ki ha-kol havel.
There are three kinds of truth (Hebrew, ‘emet).
First, there is intellectual truth. The world is not a figment of our imagination; it exists outside of us. Our perceptions and our deepest desires cannot change the world as it is. We learn the truth about the external world from physics, math, and the natural and social sciences. Even if these truths are subject to wide interpretation, we assume that there is an intellectual truth somewhere outside of us and that given enough time and effort, we can come to know this truth. Intellectual truth is generated when that which we know corresponds to the world that is external to us.
To “acknowledge the truth and to speak it in one’s heart,” in this sense, is to acknowledge that there is an external scientific reality, and to admit internally its truthfulness even when it contradicts some of our dearly held beliefs about reality. This prayer is a call to intellectual integrity. We must mean what we say, and we must say what we mean. Further, we must not say what we do not mean.
Second, there is experiential truth. This is the knowledge about the external word that we cannot prove, but that we learn to accept as true. We learn these truths largely from history, the arts, and the humanities—from life. They deal with love, beauty, goodness, and with their opposites, too. Such truths also come to us from tradition: God’s revelation on Sinai, God’s redemption of the Jews from Egypt, and God’s future redemption in the days of the messiah. These are truths, also external to us, where trust, loyalty, and insight count as much as externally verifiable facts.
Elsewhere, the liturgy puts it well: “It is true, stable, correct, enduring, and honest; [it is] faithful, beloved, precious, enchanting, and pleasing; [it is] awesome and powerful; [it is] set in form and accepted. This word is good and beautiful for us forever and ever…. for our ancestors, for us, for our children, for our descendants, and for all the generations of the seed of Israel, Your servant” (from the paragraph just after the Sh’ma).
To “acknowledge the truth and to speak it in one’s heart,” in this sense, is to acknowledge that there is an external non-scientific reality, and to admit internally its truthfulness even when it contradicts some of our dearly held beliefs about reality. This, too, is a call to intellectual integrity. We must recognize and admit emotional, psychological, relational, and valuational truths that we have experienced and tested in ourselves, in our tradition, and in society.
Third, truth, especially in its form as “the truth” (Hebrew, ha-‘emet), means “the ultimate truth.” For Judaism, the ultimate truth is death. Thus, the blessing upon witnessing, or hearing of, a death is: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, the Judge of the truth” (Hebrew dayyan ha-‘emet). Similarly, upon hearing of the destruction of the temple or upon seeing a person with certain terrible diseases, one recites the blessing, “Blessed … the Judge of the truth” (Talmud, Berakhot 58b). Maimonides points out that a person’s sins can be so deep that they cannot be reckoned “until he has to give judgment before the Judge of the truth (Hebrew lifnei dayyan ha-‘emet) (Code of Law, “Hilkhot Teshuva” 6:3).
When we say this prayer, then we acknowledge “the truth”—that God alone is the Judge of mortality, that God alone is the ultimate Arbiter of life and death. To “acknowledge the truth and speak it in one’s heart,” in this sense, then, is to acknowledge and admit internally our own mortality. It is to recognize that our lives and our deeds are like expelled breath in the presence of the ultimate truth, as indeed the text goes on to say. This is existential truth.
Remembering that this prayer begins with the admonition, “A person should always be God-fearing in private, and in public,” we realize that this prayer teaches that one should fear God with the fear of punishment, with the fear of being alienated from God, and with the fear of God that is rooted in awe. Then, one should acknowledge and admit internally the intellectual and experiential truths of the reality of the world in which we live. Finally, one should recognize and internalize the ultimate truth: our own mortality. This prayer also teaches that one should do this always—not sometimes but always—in the privacy of our own minds and hearts, as well as publicly.
The Nusah ha-Tefilla for the Morning Liturgy
“Bless the Lord Who is Blessed” (Bar’khu)
Bless the Lord Who is blessed.
Bar’khu et Adonay ha-mevorakh.
Blessed is the Lord Who is blessed for ever and ever.
Barukh Adonay ha-mevorakh le-`olam va`ed.
The Bar’khu is a short prayer, a call by the leader of prayer and a response by the community. It is only recited when there is a community, that is, a group of ten men (in some places, women are counted too). Bar’khu introduces the nusah ha-tefilla; it is also used to introduce the blessings to the Torah. Wherever one is in reciting the liturgy privately, one stops to recite the Bar’khu with the community.
The words and their meaning are complex. First, the words: Bar’khu (“bless”) is a verb in command tense; it commands us to do something. Barukh (“blessed”) is an adjective; it describes a state of being, a quality of existence. Mevorakh (“blessed”) is a present tense passive participle; it describes being the recipient of an action. Here, I follow the Hebrew text and use two slightly different spellings to distinguish the adjective from the present tense participle.
To understand, and meditate on, this call to worship, one must first ask, what is “blessing” and what is “blessedness,” such that God Godself can be described as “blessed” and be said to “be blessed.”
For humans, blessedness is a state of being. It is being the object of God’s attention. It is being the recipient of God’s spiritual energy. It is knowing we are, or have been, in the Presence. In this sense we humans are “blessed” (Hebrew, mevorakh) because we, as God’s creatures, are the object of God’s attention and presence. However, because we are also aware that we are the object of God’s attention, energy, and Presence, we are also blessed (Hebrew, barukh), that is, we are in an existential state of blessedness.
Further, because we humans are blessed, that is, aware that we are in a state of being the object of God’s attention, we can also convey this state to someone else. We can invoke God’s presence and, with proper kavvana, pass it on to a child or to some other person. We can receive God’s energy and attention, and we can convey it to another. This deserves more study.
But how is God Godself barukh, that is, in an existential state of blessedness? And how is God mevorakh, that is, a receiver of blessing from us?
God is the source of all spiritual energy, the fountain from which divine attention and care flow. In this sense, God’s blessedness is different from ours, for we are not the source of any blessing; we are only the vessels that receive God’s blessing and through which God’s blessing is passed to others. God, by contrast, is the source of this flow of attention and care, and barukh (blessed) on its account.
In addition, we receive God’s energy only to “return” it to God. We receive God’s flow of care and attention, and then we consciously acknowledge that God is God and that we are God’s creatures. We open ourselves to God’s presence and then we acknowledge our sense of that Presence, to God. We “return” the blessing; we “return” the energy to God. We are prisms that refract the blessing we receive. Human beings, alone in all creation, know; we understand and we “bless” God in return for the blessing God has given us. When we recite Bar’khu and “bless” God, we put ourselves into the spiritual presence of God, acknowledge as an act of faith and experience that God is the source of all spiritual energy, and refract the energy we receive back toward God. In this sense, God is mevorakh (blessed) by us, God is the object of our act of “blessing.”
“Lord of Our Strength, Rock of Our Fortress”
Lord of our strength. Rock of our fortress. Shield of our salvation. Fortress for us.
Adon `uzeinu. Tsur misgabeinu. Magen yish`einu. Misgav ba`adeinu.
God of the universe. Our king. Rock of Jacob. Shield of our salvation. From generation to generation, He exists.
Elohei `olam. Malkeinu. Tsur Ya`akov. Magen yish`einu. Le-dor va-dor hu kayyam.
Rock of our lives. Shield of our salvation. You are He Who endures from generation to generation.
Tsur hayyeinu. Magen yish`einu. Ata hu le-dor va-dor.
The first phrase is taken from the morning version of the blessing over creation, the second from the morning version of the blessing over redemption, and the third from the first of the last three prayers of the Amida, the prayer of acknowledgement and thanksgiving. Each is statement of what Jews believe about God, an affirmation of the nature of God’s existence.
The overlapping language is clear; but what does it mean? What do these images suggest? Why does the formulation from the Amida have fewer terms in Hebrew, when that is the context of the liturgical profession of faith? These phrases have puzzled me for a long time; I am not finished pondering them.
The problem of understanding these phrases begins with an anomaly of Hebrew, indeed of semitic, grammar: ‘adon `uzeinu can mean “the Lord of our strength” or “our Lord of strength,” or even “our strong Lord.” The same is true of the other terms: “rock of our fortress,” “our rock of fortress,” or “our fortress-like rock”; “shield of our salvation,” “our shield of salvation,” or “our saving shield”; and “rock of our lives,” “our rock of life,” or “our living rock.” To complicate matters, the meaning changes slightly with the grammar. Thus, “the Lord of our strength” would mean that God, as Lord and Master of creation, is the source of our strength, while “our Lord of strength” or “our strong Lord” would mean that the powerful God is our God. Which did the authors of the liturgy mean to say? Or, did they mean to say all of the above and so purposely used a term that has multiple meanings? Which do we mean to say: that God is the source of our strength, or that the God of power is ours? (The same is true the other terms.) For myself, I prefer “the Lord of our strength,” that is, I affirm that God is the source of my strength, the Rock of my fortress (or) life, and the Shield of my salvation. Nonetheless, I understand those who prefer to affirm that the God of power, fortress-likeness, life, and salvation is their God.
The real issue, however, is not the grammar; it is the nature of these images: rock, shield, fortress, king, Lord, God, You. The terms “Lord,” “God,” and “You” are not really images or metaphors but names for, or appellatives of, God. The terms “rock,” “shield,” “fortress,” and “king,” by contrast, are clearly images or metaphors. On the one hand, no one would claim that these metaphors describe God as God actually is; He is, after all, above all description. On the other hand, all these images are biblical, though that alone does not explain their use in the liturgy since other well-known biblical images do not appear here. Why were these particular images chosen? What is the meaning of the double metaphor: rock of our fortress? And, more broadly, why use images at all? What is the advantage of image over direct theological statement?
As images, rock, shield, and fortress evoke an aura of strength, power, and protection. One feels sheltered when these images are called to mind. This is all the more true if one links them with fortress, life, and salvation. as in: rock of our fortress, rock of our lives, and shield of our salvation. The God these metaphors portray is the Rock of our lives which, in and of themselves, are all too fragile; He is the Shield of our salvation which is far from fully achieved; and He is the Fortress for us in times of trouble when one needs and uses a fortress. The double image of Rock of our fortress—the mighty outcropping that protects; the ledge which, being impregnable, protects—is very powerful here; it is a reinforced metaphor. The representations and especially the piling of image upon image are highly suggestive. They portray and evoke a protecting God, and do it much more vividly than a series of theological statements about the omnipotence of God.
The meaning of these three phrases is now clearer.
The first phrase appears in the blessing over creation before the Sh’ma as follows:
He Who, in His mercy, causes light to shine upon the earth and upon those who dwell on it and Who, in His goodness, always renews every day the works of creation. “How great are those things which You have made, Lord; You have made them all in wisdom; the earth is filled with Your possessions” (Psalms 104: 24). The exalted King; Alone from then; Who is praised, glorified, and towers above since the beginning of time. Lord of the world, in Your great mercies, have mercy upon us, Lord of our strength….
We have here, then, a theology of creation which praises God as creator but also as a source of mercy, and which then goes on to use four powerful images of protection—Lord of our strength. Rock of our fortress. Shield of our salvation. Fortress for us. Adding the four images of protection to that of the transcendent King of creation impresses upon us that God not only creates, God protects. Creation implies protection.
The second phrase appears right after the Sh’ma as follows:
It is true, stable, correct, enduring, … set and accepted. This word is good and beautiful for us, forever. It is true. God of the universe. Our King. Rock of Jacob. Shield of our salvation … God’s words are alive, enduring, faithful, and cherished for ever and ever—for our ancestors, for us, for our children, for our descendants, and for all the generations of the seed of Israel, Your servants.
We have here, then, a theology that affirms the truth of God’s Torah, that is, of God’s revelation. Adding the images of protection impresses upon us that God not only creates and protects, God also reveals and protects. Revelation too, implies protection.
The third phrase appears at the beginning of the first of the last three blessings of the Amida but its context is not praise but confession of faith. The Hebrew word, modim has two meanings: to acknowledge and to thank. The beginning of this prayer is a real confession of faith. It is as close as Jewish liturgy gets to a formal “I believe.” The full text reads as follows:
We acknowledge You—that You are Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, forever and ever. Rock of our lives. Shield of our salvation. You are He Who endures from generation to generation.
The prayer goes on to thank God—modim in its other sense—for the many miracles of daily and national life. We have here, then, a confession of faith which acknowledges God as Lord, and as our God and the God of our ancestors forever, which then goes on to use two powerful images of protection—Rock of our lives and Shield of our salvation—and which then concludes with a profession of God’s eternity. Praising God Who creates and protects and Who reveals and protects is not enough; one must also confess God as Lord and protector.
We have much to think about: the use of imagery, the centrality of God’s protectiveness in Jewish religion, the integration of God’s protectiveness into the theology of creation, revelation, and lordship, and the use of these images and themes both in moments of praise and in a formula of confession.
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts”
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the fullness of the universe is His Glory.
Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Adonay tseva’ot, melo’ khol ha-’arets kevodo
Blessed is the Glory of the Lord from its place.
Barukh kevod Adonay mi-mekomo.
The Bible contains only two direct quotations from the angels (doxologies). The first is drawn from Isaiah 6:3. There, the prophet recounts that he saw God sitting on a throne surrounded by fiery angels, each of which had six wings: two covered its body, two covered its face, and two were used for flying. These angels, the prophet records, “were calling one to another and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the fullness of the universe is His Glory.’” (The early translations read “the earth is full of His Glory” though the grammar favors my translation.) The theme of the fiery six-winged angels (seraphim) and their hymn of praise to God appears in rabbinic liturgy as well as in Christian liturgy (Sanctus). It is also very widespread in western art and music.
The second quotation from the angels is drawn from Ezekiel 3:12. The prophet has recounted in chapter one his vision of a figure that is half fire and half a gold-silver alloy called “electrum.” The figure is sitting on a sapphire throne that, itself, rests on a vault of ice. At each of the four corners of the vault is a creature. Each creature stands upright, has four wings (two for covering the body and two for flying), and four faces on its head (one for each primary direction: forward, backward, right, and left). Between each two creatures is a set of two wheels. The two wheels intersect at right angles and, in the rims of the wheels, are eyes (indicating intelligence). In the center, under the vault, is a circle of fiery coals that send forth flashes of lightning. The vision, altogether, is called the “Glory of the Lord” (Hebrew, kavod); later rabbinic sources called it the “Chariot” (Hebrew, merkava). When the vision moves, there is great noise.
The prophet’s initiation begins with the approach of the vision in chapter 1. This is followed by God’s charge to the prophet in chapter 2. The vision concludes in chapter 3, verse 12. There, as the vision lifts off the ground, the verse of praise—“Blessed is the Glory of the Lord from its place”—is heard. This vision of Ezekiel, perhaps because it is so complex, did not achieve the centrality of the vision of Isaiah in western art and liturgy; however, in rabbinic liturgy, the quotation from Ezekiel merited an equal rank with that of Isaiah.
The liturgical weaving of these two biblical quotations, sometimes with other verses, is known as the Kedusha (the holy praising of God) and it occurs in several forms and in several places. One occurrence is in the blessing over nature that precedes the Sh’ma. There, all the heavenly beings, which are also created and hence are as much a part of “nature” as any other being, are portrayed as praising God as follows. (The repetitiousness and rhyming of the text is typical of rabbinic Hebrew in general, and of rabbinic liturgy in particular. It creates a “flywheel” effect, drawing the one who recites it ever deeper into the rhythm of the liturgy and evoking a trance-like state. Some of the repetitions, here as elsewhere, are short alphabetic sequences that may indicate that the text at one time contained a full alphabetic sequence, which would have increased the flywheel effect.)
He creates holy ones … He makes ministers, all of whom stand erect in the highest places of the universe, and proclaim in awe, together … They are all beloved, they are all refined, they are all mighty, and they all do the will of their Master with fear and awe. They all open their mouths in holiness and in purity, in song and in melody, and they bless, praise, glorify, acclaim, and proclaim as holy and as king, the Name of God, the King, the great, powerful, and awesome One; He is holy. They all accept the yoke of the heavenly kingdom one from another, and give permission one to another, to proclaim their Maker as holy, in a tranquil spirit, in a refined language, and in a holy melody. Together, as one, they chant and say in awe, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the fullness of the universe is His Glory.” The wheels and the holy creatures, raise themselves up facing the fiery angels in a great noise, uttering praises opposite them saying, “Blessed is the Glory of the Lord from its place.”
The Kedusha occurs again in the Amida. In the silent prayer, the actual verses are omitted and there are only a short few phrases and a blessing on God’s holiness. But, in the public repetition of the Amida, the prose version is expanded into a poetic form, the verses are inserted, and a new verse (Psalm 146:10) is added. The basic text reads as follows:
Let us proclaim Your Name holy in the world as they proclaim it holy in the heavens above, as it is written by the hand of your prophets: “they were calling one to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the fullness of the universe is His Glory.” Those opposite them proclaimed, “Blessed is the Glory of the Lord from its place.” And in Your holy Scripture it is written, “May the Lord rule forever, your God oh Zion, from generation to generation; halleluya (yimlokh Adonay le-´olam ‘elohayikh Zion le-dor va-dor; halleluya).”
In various services, the narrative of the setting changes and sometimes the Sh’ma is added, but this is the basic form of the public Kedusha, the one which requires a quorum of ten for its recitation.
The Kedusha occurs yet again in the Kedusha de-Sidra where the three key verses are given with the Aramaic translation and its accompanying midrash (the original Hebrew biblical text is in italics and the Aramaic in regular typeface):
They were calling one to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the fullness of the universe is His Glory”—they received [permission] from one another and said:
holy—in the high heavens, in His dwelling place;
holy—on earth, the work of His power;
holy—for ever and ever and ever;
the Lord of hosts […]—the whole earth is filled with the radiance of His glory.
A spirit lifted me and I heard behind me the sound of a great noise: “Blessed is the Glory of the Lord from its place”—a spirit lifted me and I heard behind me the sound of a powerful movement which recited praise saying, “Blessed is the Glory of the Lord from the place of His dwelling.”
The Lord will reign forever and ever—The kingdom of the Lord will exist forever and ever and ever
All three versions of the Kedusha depict very well the sense of the angelic praise of God in rabbinic prayer. Even if one is intellectually skeptical of the existence of angels and of the literal veracity of the prophetic and liturgical texts, one does gain an appreciation for the grandeur, holiness, and awe of the worship of God. To pray is to enter that realm.
“Cause Our Eyes to Sparkle with Your Torah”
Cause our eyes to sparkle with Your Torah.
Cause our hearts to cling to Your commandments.
Unify our hearts to love and to fear your Name –
so that we shall not ever be ashamed.
Ve-ha’er ´eineinu be-Torahtekha,
ve-dabbeq libenu be-mitsvotekha,
ve-yahed levaveinu le-‘ahava ule-yir’ah et shmekha –
velo neivosh le-`olam va`ed.
This prayer comes from the blessing on revelation just before the Sh’ma. It speaks to the study of Torah and its relationship to clinging to God and to fear of God.
There are two kinds of study: one in which we keep up to date in the area of our competence, and one in which we study for its own sake. The former is necessary; the latter is a source of joy. The study of Torah, in its broadest sense, is of the latter kind; it is study we undertake for its own sake. Even those of us who are “professional” Jews (should) have some domain of Torah that we study for its own sake.
The study of Torah yields joy because it allows us to set ourselves into a context of meaning and value that transcends ourselves. The study of Torah brings us into the presence of the Jewish people, Jewish history, and Jewish spiritual striving. Even more important, the study of Torah brings us into the presence of God, for to study any of the sacred texts is to explore God’s presence among us. It is to study how God relates to us, and how we relate to God. The study of Torah puts us face-to-face with God. When we study Torah, we can feel the presence of God looking over our shoulders. The study of Torah is not just an intellectual enterprise; it is studying together with God, and this brings us joy.
Because the study of Torah brings us into direct contact with God and God’s interaction with us, it brings a special joy that is reflected in our eyes. They twinkle as we wrestle with the texts. They sparkle as we appreciate the wordplay. They radiate as we fathom the depths of the theology and sense God’s closeness. This is the meaning of the phrase, “Cause our eyes to sparkle with Your Torah.”
By nature, human beings cling to patterns, feelings, ideas, and people. Some of these are good; some are not. Yet we cling to them, especially those from our past, with great force. To cling to the wrong set of ideas and feelings is called “neurosis.” To cling to the right set of feelings and ideas is called “commitment.” The process is the same. The second part of this prayer recognizes this phenomenon. We must cling; the question is to what. Since we are not always sure what to cling to, the text tells us, “cling to God’s commandments.” In its simplest form, clinging means two things: First, “When in doubt, don’t.” We know what God’s commandments are, especially the moral ones. When in doubt about whether something is right or wrong, don’t do it. And, second, if you sense it is the right thing to do and it does not contradict any of the commandments, do it. “Don’t miss the opportunity to do an act of kindness.” We cling to the commandments, in sureness and in doubt, and so we pray, “Cause our hearts to cling to Your commandments.”
The Hebrew word for heart is lev and it comes from the root l-v-v, also written: l-b-b. There are two plural forms for “our hearts”: libeinu and levaveinu. The former expresses the two consonants as one letter (b) with a dot in the middle; the latter expresses the two letters by placing a vowel between the double consonants (vav). The first form occurs here in the phrase, “Cause our hearts (libeinu) to cling to Your commandments”; the second form occurs in the phrase, “Unify our hearts (levaveinu) to love and to fear your Name.” Why use the two forms? And, more importantly, why use the second form (levaveinu) in the phrase about unifying our hearts? This text cries out for interpretation.
Rabbinic Judaism teaches that we really do have two “hearts,” that is, two basic human tendencies: the yetser ha-tov, the tendency to do good, and the yetser ha-ra`, the tendency to do bad. A moment of self-reflection will allow anyone to realize that this is substantially correct. We all do have basic tendencies, almost instincts, for good and for bad. The two tendencies are represented by the form of “our hearts” levavenu. This prayer asks God to help us unify those instincts into one dedication to love and to fear God. It asks that we be able to serve God, in love and in fear, not only with our yetser ha-tov but also with our yetser ha-ra`. That is what it means to “unify the heart”—to make both dimensions of our heart, the good and the bad, serve God as one.
Another interpretation of the double heart: One can pray to have one’s yetser ha-tov love God and one can pray to have one’s yetser ha-ra` fear God. In this way, one still has two hearts. They operate in different areas and yet, together they form a functional unity.
Study for its own sake, clinging to the commandments and not to the many other goals of life, and unifying one’s heart to love and fear God whether wholly or functionally—these keep us from being ashamed, for shame is a feeling we have when we have done something that we know is deeply wrong or not done something that is deeply good. Shame is more than regret. Shame “covers our face.” Shame makes us blush and hide. Eyes that sparkle from the study of sacred texts, commitment to sacred deeds, and a clear and unified heart keep us from shame.
“Hear, oh Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One” (Sh’ma)
Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Sh’ma` Yisrael, ‘Adonay ‘Eloheinu, ‘Adonay ehad.
Blessed is the name of the glory of God’s kingdom for ever and ever.
Barukh shem kevod malkhkuto le-`olam va`ed.
The Sh’ma is one of the two foci of the core liturgy. It is not a prayer but three paragraphs quoted from Scripture. The first paragraph is from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. It begins with the very line of the Sh’ma (“Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) and continues with verses that urge the people to listen to and obey God, and then to love God with all their hearts, with all their souls, and with all their might. The first paragraph concludes with instruction on how to do this: one must teach God’s Torah to the next generation; one must recite prayers; and one must consecrate one’s house. The second paragraph of the Sh’ma comes from Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and it contains the subject of the study and meditation below. The third paragraph of the Sh’ma comes from Numbers 15:37-41, and it teaches how to invoke the presence of God’s commandments and God’s redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt through clothing. (Note that the word “Sh’ma” can refer to the first line, the first paragraph, or the liturgical unit of three paragraphs.)
The word “the Lord”/ “Adonay” is rendered in the Hebrew with four Hebrew letters: YHVH (sometimes written YHWH). Jewish tradition no longer knows how to pronounce this word. We do know the following four pieces of information:
(1) While the temple stood in rabbinic times, the high priest would enter the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement and, as part of the ritual of atonement, he would recite the verse from Leviticus 16:30: “For on this day, He will grant atonement to you to purify you from all your sins; before YHVH, you shall be purified.” The Mishna (Yoma 3:8) records that the high priest would, on this occasion only, recite the Name of God in its original pronunciation and, when the people heard him pronounce it, they would “kneel, prostrate themselves, acknowledge God, fall on their faces, and say ‘Blessed is the name of the glory of God’s kingdom for ever and ever.’” This moment is still remembered as part of the recitation of the Musaf service for Yom Kippur.
(2) After the destruction of the temple, the rabbis consciously forbade the original recitation of Name for two possible reasons: the temple no longer stood and the atonement service was no longer performed and, hence, it seemed inappropriate to allow the original pronunciation of the Name. Further, it seems that the rabbit wanted to suppress the use of the original Name for magical purposes.
(3) Still, the word YHVH does occur in the Bible, and the Bible is read out loud. One must say something. So, the rabbis ordained that whenever one saw the word YHVH, one should say “Adonay.” And so it has been ever since: when Jews read the Bible or pray and the name YHVH occurs, we say “Adonay.” There are, however, many persisting signs of respect for the name YHVH: A scribe of the Torah washes his hands each time before writing it. A document with YHVH written in it cannot be disposed of offhandedly; it must be buried with other such documents. One does not say or write even “Adonay” offhandedly but uses a substitute (e.g., HaShem). One extends these marks of respect to other names of God such as Elohim, Shaddai, etc. Some say that the marks of respect extend even to translations; hence, “L-rd, G-d,” etc.
(Non-Jewish scholars of the nineteenth century tried to reconstruct the possible pronunciation of YHVH and they came up with “Yahveh” or “Yahweh.” They assumed the root of the word to be hyh, meaning “to be,” and it assumes a fourth conjugation construction which would mean “He Who causes things to be.” This is not an unreasonable reconstruction, but no one actually knows how the word was pronounced because its pronunciation was suppressed. Interestingly, if one takes the consonants YHVH and the vowels of Adonay and combines them, one gets “Jehovah”; hence that common rendering of God’s name. Traditional rabbinic scholarship has a different view of the origin, pronunciation, and prohibitions pertaining to this Ineffable Name.)
(4) Rabbinic tradition, in recognition of the importance of the Tetragrammaton (YHVH), took the response phrase of the people on Yom Kippur, “Blessed is the name of the glory of God’s kingdom for ever and ever,” and used it in other places; hence, its occurrence here in the Sh’ma, even though this phrase is not at all in the Deuteronomic text of the Sh’ma.
What does it mean to say that God is “one”? As Maimonides points out, it certainly cannot mean “the one amongst many,” nor can it mean “the best amongst many.” It might mean “the unique one,” or “the only one,” or “the transcendent one.” I think it means “the one to Whom I completely submit myself.” In this sense, to recite the Sh’ma is to “accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven”; it is to recognize and confess that we are not the ultimate source or decisor of anything. We accept God’s sovereignty. We submit ourselves, of our own volition, to God.
With this, we leave the realm of study and enter the realm of prayer. The Sh’ma, as a text of prayer, must be studied; hence, these comments. However, the Sh’ma, as a text of prayer, must also be prayed. This deserves more study.
“And You Shall Love the Lord, Your God, with All Your Heart”
And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.
Ve-‘ahavta ‘et Adonay Elohekha be-khol levavekha uve-khol nafshekha uve-khol me’odekha.
And these words that I command you this day shall be upon your heart.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your home, when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you wake up.
Ve-hayu ha-devarim ha-eileh ‘asher Anokhi metsavekha ha-yom `al levavekha.
Ve-shinnantam le-vanekha ve-dibbarta bam be-shivtekha be-veitekha uve-lekhtekha va-derekh uve-shokhbekha uve-kumekha.
And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.
U-keshartam le-‘ot `al yadekha ve-hayu le-totafot bein `einekha.
And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
U-khetavtam `al mezuzot beitekha uvi-sh`arekha.
The first paragraph of the Sh’ma continues with these commandments. They define how to “accept the yoke of the kingdom of God.” The text begins by commanding us to love God with all our hearts, our souls, and our might” and then goes on to prescribe three concrete sets of actions that tell us how to love God: educating the next generation, prayer, and home.
And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might—three possible interpretations:
One interpretation: “Heart” is feeling, “soul” is intellect, and “might” is physical strength. To love God, we need to use all three.
A second interpretation: “Heart” is the combination of our impulse to do good and our impulse to do bad, for even with the latter we can love God. “Soul” is our spiritual, aesthetic sense. “Might” is material blessings. To love God, we need to use all three.
A third interpretation: “Heart” is compassion. “Soul” is mind.“Might” is our humanity. The Hebrew word for “might” is me’odekha. If one permutes the letters, from me’odekha comes, ‘adamkha, from “Adam”; hence, “humanity.” To love God, we need to use all three.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children: Education does not take place in a classroom. Education is a full-time, ongoing process. It takes place everywhere.
And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes: The “sign” and the “frontlets” are the tefillin, the phylacteries, that Jews wear in prayer. They are small boxes that contain small hand-written scrolls with quotations from the Torah, and they are bound by straps to the arm and to the head. They are used in prayer; hence, the importance of this commandment.
And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates: These are the mezuzot, a small hand-written scroll with verses from the Torah. They are placed on the doorpost of each house and on the doorpost of most rooms in a house. (A mezuzah is not properly used if worn as a piece of jewelry.)
“If You Loyally Obey All My Commandments”
And it shall be that, if you loyally obey all My commandments …
That I shall give rain to your land in its due time …
And you will harvest your grain, your wine, and your oil …
And you shall eat and be satisfied.
Ve-haya ‘im shamo`a tishme`u ‘el mitsvotai …
ve-natati metar ‘artsekhem be-`itto …
ve-‘asafta deganekhka, ve-tiroshkha, ve-yitsharekha …
Beware lest your hearts be misled
And you turn and worship other gods …
For the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you
And He will close up the heavens and there will be no rain
And the earth will not yield its produce
And you will disappear quickly from the good land that the Lord gives you.
Hishammeru lakhem pen yifte levavekhem
ve-sartem va-`avadetem ‘elohim ‘aherim …
ve-hara ‘af Adonay ba-khem
ve-`atsar ‘et ha-shamayim ve-lo yihyeh matar
veha-‘adama lo titen ‘et yevula
va-`avadetem meheira me-`al ha-‘arets ha-tova ‘asher Adonay noten lakhem.
You shall put these, My words, upon your hearts and upon your souls.
And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hands …
And you shall teach them to your children …
So that your days and those of your children may be lengthened
On the land that the Lord has sworn to your ancestors
To give to them, for as long as the sky is above the earth.
Ve-samtem ‘et devarai eileh `al levavekhem ve-`al nafshekhem
u-keshartem ‘otam le-‘ot `al yedkhem …
ve-limmadetem ‘otam ‘et beneikhem …
lema`an yirbu yemeikhem vi-mei veneikhem
`al ha-‘adama ‘ahser nishba` Adonay la-‘avoteikhem
latet lahem ki-mei ha-shamayim `al ha-‘arets.
This second quotation (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) deals with fear of God; it has three parts. The first part sets forth the reward for obeying God’s commandments: rain in its proper time, which leads to harvest in its proper time and food for cattle, which leads to having enough food to be able to eat and be satisfied. The second part is a warning of the punishments that will follow if one does not obey God’s commandments: the heavens will be closed and there will be no rain, which leads to the earth not yielding its produce, which leads to people disappearing quickly from the land. The third part reaffirms the promise that putting God’s commandments into one’s heart—specifically prayer education, and home—will lead to the reward of living on the land forever.
Two points of study are worth noting: the shift from reward to punishment to promise, and the recurring sequence of the crucial commandments of education, prayer, and home. What prompted this juxtaposition?
Having dealt with acceptance and love of God in the first quotation, the rabbis take the opportunity in the second quotation to deal with success and failure. Success in obeying God’s commandments leads to physical well-being. More importantly, it leads to spiritual well-being. When we observe God’s commandments, there is a blessing that flows from God—a spiritual rain. That rain allows us to flourish spiritually; it allows us to be fruitful, productive, and, hence, satisfied. Conversely, when we fail to observe God’s commandments, the blessing from God is blocked, the heavens are closed and there is no spiritual rain. That, in turn, causes us, the earth, to dry up. We are not fruitful and productive. We are cut off from blessing and we wither quickly.
The passage, however, teaches that being cut off from God’s blessing does not need to be a permanent state. One can always do teshuva, repentance, to God. The very first step, we are told, is to return to the basic commandments: prayer, education, and home. When we are in the spiritual desert, we need only seek the water of the Torah and God’s commandments to be revitalized.
This is not as simple as it sounds. Having sinned and then having been cut off from one’s spiritual sources can be very depressing. One does feel as if the earth has dried up and that one has disappeared from the face of the earth. Disorientation sets in, followed by helplessness and then by despair. Despair is terrible; it is a lack of hope; one cannot see the future for the desolation of the present. In the confusion of meaninglessness, the Torah tells us to start praying, teaching, and reinvesting in home. Depression and despair are not an option.
Interestingly, when teaching about love of God, the sequence is: teaching, praying, and home. But, when teaching about repentance, the sequence is: praying, teaching, and home. Love starts in teaching; repentance starts in prayer.
“Straying After Your Hearts and Your Eyes”
You shall see them
and you shall remember all the commandments of the Lord
and you shall do them.
u-zekhartem ‘et kol mitsvot Adonay
And you shall not stray after your hearts and after your eyes
with which you prostitute yourselves.
Ve-lo taturu ‘aharei levavekhem ve-‘aharei `eineikhem
‘asher ‘atem zonim ‘ahareihem.
This verse is taken from the third paragraph of the Sh’ma. The quotation comes from Numbers 15:37-41 and teaches us how to invoke the presence of God through clothing. Jews are commanded to create tsitsit, special fringes for their garments, the very sight of which will cause them to remember God, God’s commandments, and God’s redemption of the people from Egypt.
Today, these tsitsit are used in two ways: they are put on a special shawl worn during prayer (tallit) and they are worn by some all the time on a special garment under one’s shirt (tallit katan). Some people have recreated the custom of having one of the threads of the tsitsit dyed with the special blue/purple dye used in ancient days. The blue thread (tekhelet) can be worn either on a tallit or on a tallit katan.
The purpose of the tsitsit is to create a piece of clothing that urges the viewer to remember God. They are not for warmth, decoration, or style: the very sight of the tsitsit achieves its purpose because it has none other.
Why does one stray first with one’s “heart” and then with one’s “eyes”? And, how does one “prostitute oneself” with one’s heart and one’s eyes? This is pretty strong language.
When one considers our very material culture, one can see how easy it is to “stray after your hearts and after your eyes.” Advertising sets before us the lure of clothing, of vacations, of cars, of technological gadgets, and hundreds of other consumables. And we stray after our hearts and our eyes. We see these advertisements, and we desire the things they hold up for us to see. We want these objects, and we look for them in magazines, in television commercials, and elsewhere. The same holds true for the sexually explicit culture in which we live. A person of natural sexuality who lives in our open culture looks and sees, and then desires. A person of natural sexuality who lives in our world sees cars, beer, soap, and real estate marketed with sexual symbols, and this person desires, then searches out what is desired. One who has unlimited access to sexually explicit material (and, today, everyone does) certainly strays after one’s heart and one’s eyes.
The text, however, teaches us that straying does not begin with the eyes; it begins with the heart. Straying begins with an inner desire for what one does not have. One wants, and so one sees. If we didn’t want, we wouldn’t see. If one does not want a large eighteen-wheel truck, one doesn’t look for one or see one. If one doesn’t want a sports car, one doesn’t look for one. Straying begins in the imagination. One imagines having a fancy telephone, and one looks for it. Straying begins in the mind. One thinks about a vacation on the beach, and one looks for it. It is just as the text says: straying begins in the heart; then, one sees.
When straying of the heart spreads to the eyes and, then, becomes a habit , a recurring pattern, we are worshipping strange gods. When a desire for what we do not have, whether it is material or sexual or social, becomes ingrained in us, we become slaves to it. When straying of the heart spreads to the eyes and becomes a habit, we are worshipping strange gods. When the desire and the pattern of actions action it provokes become so addictive that we cannot break out of the pattern, we “prostitute ourselves with [the desire].”
This is the meaning of the passage: “You shall see them [the tsitsit] and you shall remember all the commandments of the Lord and you shall do them. And [by doing so], you shall not stray after your hearts and after your eyes with which you prostitute yourselves.” After accepting God, after practicing love, after failing and returning to God, there is this prescient warning – right at one of the two foci of the daily morning liturgy.
“He Protects, He Resurrects” (Amida)
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…
‘Elohei ‘Avraham, ‘elohei Yitshak, ve-‘elohei Ya`akov…
He grants good kindnesses…
gomel hasadim tovim…
King, Who helps, Who saves, and Who protects
melekh `ozer u-moshi`a u-magen
Blessed are You, oh Lord, the shield of Abraham.
Barukh ‘ata ‘Adonay, magen ‘Avraham.
The Amida always opens with three blessings. The first praises the God of history Who has granted “good kindnesses” to the ancestors and Who will yet bring the redeemer to their descendants. For this reason, this blessing is called ‘Avot/the blessing pertaining to the ancestors.
How does one invoke the ancestors? The traditional text invokes only the patriarchs; more modern texts also invoke the matriarchs and add: “God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and and God of Leah”/’Elohei Sara, ‘elohei Rivka, ‘elohei Rachel, ve-‘elohei Leah. For myself, I have always wondered why the list of matriarchs does not include the “concubines” of Jacob, Bilha and Zilpa. After all, their children are full tribes in Israel; they inherit with the others. In fact, most people do not know which tribe belongs to which matriarch.
How can a kindness not be good? Put another way: What would make a kindness “good” such that it is more than just a “kindness”? Reflection allows us to realize that good intentions are sometimes harmful. A person can want to do an act of kindness, but it turns out to be exactly the wrong thing to do. As the Psalmist puts it: “The Lord be with me for those who would help me! I shall see to my enemies” (Psalm 118: 7). Or, as the popular saying has it, “God protect us from good intentions.” We hope that God will bestow upon us only kindnesses that are good, and we praise God for that before we enter petitionary or holiday prayer.
The first paragraph of the Amida concludes by summarizing God as the “King, who helps, saves, and protects.” This is followed by the blessing, “Blessed are You, Adonay, the shield of Abraham (and the help of Sarah).” The question here is whether the terms “King, helps, saves, and protects” are synonyms or sequential Perhaps the sequence is as follows: First, we bless God as King, and then we define the King’s functions.
A human king must first help his subjects, as that is the minimum that he can do for them—support them in time of usual need. If he is inclined to be more than helpful, a king should save his subjects from the serious crises that face them. Finally, if he is inclined to be more than saving, he must provide ongoing, active protection for them—always, not just in time of normal need or serious crisis. The text teaches that we acknowledge God as King, and that God has three tasks that increase in importance: helping in normal need, saving in time of serious crisis, and providing sustained protection.
In the first blessing of the Amida, we praise God in history: past, present, and future—in the merit of our ancestors, in the present of our own existence, and in the messianic promise.
He sustains life with loving-kindness
He revives the dead with great compassion
He supports those who have fallen
He heals the sick
He releases those in bondage…
Mekhalkel hayyim be-hesed
mehayyeh meitim be-rahamim rabbim
King, Who grants death and grants life
and causes salvation to grow…
Melekh meimit u-mehayyeh
Blessed are You, oh Lord, Who resurrects the dead.
Barukh ‘ata ‘Adonay, mehayyeh ha-meitim.
The second of the three introductory blessings of the Amida praises the God of nature, the God Who grants and takes life itself. Therefore, we insert praise into this blessing for the God Who gives us rain in its time and dew in its time. Traditional Judaism also inserts the theme of the resurrection into this blessing; moderns delete it and substitute “Who grants life to everything”/mehayyeh ha-kol. Note, too, that the theme of salvation, in an almost agricultural mode, is also woven into this blessing (“and causes salvation to grow”).
The history of the doctrine of the resurrection is long and complicated. Briefly: the resurrection is only alluded to in Scripture, but its doctrine developed after the period of the systematic martyrdom of Jews for the act of being Jewish and being loyal to God in second temple times. This tenet was rejected even in ancient times by some, and to draw the line doctrinally, the rabbis consciously introduced it into the second blessing of the Amida, in order to deprive anyone who denied the doctrine of the resurrection of participating in the service. As part of that process, the doctrine of the resurrection became a mark of adherence to traditional rabbinic Judaism. It occurs in the Mishna, Sanhedrin 10:1, and it is the thirteenth of the Thirteen Principles of the Faith according to Maimonides.
Why was the theme of the resurrection inserted into the prayerbook and then into Jewish faith? Or, to put it as the medieval polemicists put it: Why, if one already has a doctrine of life after death (the world to come), does one need a doctrine of resurrection? What does resurrection add religiously that life after death does not already offer?
The doctrine of life after death (also known as “the world to come”) provides a dimension in which the righteous will be rewarded for their faithfulness to God’s covenant after their sojourn in this world. Rabbinic tradition contains widely differing views on the nature of this world but acceptance of it is tacit and widespread.
By contrast, the doctrine of the resurrection provides that, at some point after death, the righteous (in rabbinic Judaism, most peoplz come under this category, including righteous non-Jews) will get a second chance; that is, the righteous will return to this world, conscious of having been here once before and having more or less failed, and they will be given a second chance to live in this-worldly covenant with God. Some say this will take place before the coming of the Messiah; others say it has no connection thereto. No one knows. But, the basic insight strikes one as fundamentally fair: We expect God to be fair, meaning that God would not only judge us fairly, but would also give us a second chance. (As a professor and as a parent, I get this request all the time, and sometimes it is indeed a fair expectation.)
For this reason, even though many traditional Jews may have some doubts about how the resurrection will take place and the details of life therein, they perceive the idea of a second chance as a good one. Hence, acceptance of the resurrection is tacit, and widespread, and affirmed in prayer.
You are holy, and Your name is holy
And the holy ones praise You every day, selah.
Blessed are You, oh Lord, the holy God.
‘Ata kadosh, ve-shimkha kadosh
u-kedoshim be-khol yom yehallelukah selah.
Barukh ‘ata ‘Adonay, ha-‘el ha-kadosh.
The third of the introductory blessings to the Amida occurs in two forms: this one for private prayer and the Kedusha for public recitation.
Holiness is a quality. One senses it in objects, in moments, in texts, and in certain people. It is not a feeling like joy or anger. It is not a commitment like love or loyalty. It is not a state of mind like happiness or gloom. It is not a thought or concept. It is an awareness of the sacred, a consciousness of the spiritual. As Rudolf Otto writes, the holy is an experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a contact with the numinous. It is a perception of otherness, an intimation of the beyond.
The holy is encountered in many places and moments: in the grandeur of nature, in the still small voice of conscience, in the silence of the soul, and in the rapture of beauty. It can be found in the creativity of the mind, in the gentleness of the heart, in the eye of a lover, and in the innocence of a child. The holy meets one in the depth of sacred texts, in moments of prayer, and in those rare moments when one truly meets an-other.
As one integrates the holy into life, one needs other, less mundane words. One reaches outward: King, Lord, Name, justice, beauty, purity, Shabbat, Israel, You. One probes inward: awe, wonder, radical amazement, sublime, love, joy, bliss, bless, worship. One gropes for forms: holy day, temple, mitsva, liturgy, charity, study, Torah, acts of kindness, martyrdom. The failure of language is transformed into a rich vocabulary of response, always haunted by its own muteness. Silence overflows into words, an echo of an unfathomable depth.
Holiness overwhelms. It compels; it frightens. Holiness also comforts; it draws forth; it embraces. Holiness pervades existence and consciousness. There is no escape—neither from the tremendum nor from the intimate holiness of God’s presence.
The human flees the holy. Moses pleads inexperience (Exodus 3:11 – 4:17). Isaiah pleads impurity (Isaiah 6:5). Jeremiah pleads youth (Jeremiah 1:4-10). Ezekiel must be coerced (Ezekiel 2:8 – 3:3). Jonah takes flight. The Psalmist cries: “Where can I go away from Your spirit and where can I flee from Your Face? If I rise to heaven, You are there; if I plunge into the netherworld, You are there. If I travel on the wings of dawn or dwell at the horizon of the sea, there too Your hand will rest upon me and Your right hand will seize me. If I say, ‘Let darkness envelop me and let night be light for me,’ even darkness is not dark for You and night is as lit up as day; like darkness, like light. For You have possessed my insides; You encompassed me even in the womb of my mother” (Psalms 139:7-13).
Sin leads one away from the holy.
Joy is not happiness.
Happiness comes from setting goals and achieving them. Happiness is social. It is a state of well-being derived from those around us. Not all are happy, and no one is always happy, yet we all know happiness from time to time.
Joy is an inner awareness, a moment of insight through our selves into that which is beyond. It is a connectedness between our inner being and that which transcends it. Joy is our connection to the holy.
Happiness requires contention, fighting for what one believes, compromise; joy is a moment of wholeness, and of purity. Happiness is rooted in time and space; joy suspends us in a realm beyond ourselves.
Joy can strike us at any time, but it is more likely to come to us in moments of service, at times when we see ourselves within the larger meaning that embraces reality. Joy does not derive from accomplishment, but from centeredness within the greater whole. The holy is joy-ful, even as it is fear-ful.
The three introductory blessings to the Amida praise God as the God of history, as the God of nature (including the resurrection), and as the God of holiness. We are ready now to enter into prayers for petition or prayers for Shabbat and holidays.
“Knowledge, Repentance, Confession, Healing, and Blessing”
The first six petitions are personal. There is a logic to their order. The first is for knowledge, understanding, and commonsense.
What is the difference between “knowledge,” “understanding,” and “commonsense”? Why are they in that order?
Knowledge is composed of facts, and the rules that govern them. We learn to know the world and life by confronting reality. Often we make mistakes, we analyze the facts, or the rules, wrongly. Correcting such errors is part of accumulating knowledge. We pray, first, for knowledge.
Understanding comes when the facts and rules arrange themselves into a deeper pattern. Pondering the facts and mulling over the rules helps us understand the world and life. This is particularly true of our relationship to our fellow human beings: We can have great stores of knowledge about them, but not really understand them. We need to know how to perceive and relate to the deeper pattern of their humanity. We pray, second, for understanding.
The most knowledgeable person, even the most understanding person, can be at a total loss as to what to do if he or she does not have commonsense, for it is commonsense that enables us to use our knowledge and understanding wisely. It is commonsense that sets boundaries to our knowledge and to our understanding, and integrates them into our lives. We pray, therefore, finally, for commonsense.
Bring us back, in full repentance, to Your Presence.
Ve-hahazireinu be-teshuva sheleima lefanekha
The second personal petition is for full repentance.
What is “full repentance”? Can repentance be partial?
Yes, repentance can be partial. In fact, most of our repentance is partial. We try, but we do not usually succeed fully; we succeed in part. Maimonides has defined full repentance as follows (Code of Law, “Hilkhot Teshuva,” 2:1): “What is complete repentance? It is the case of someone who has the opportunity to commit a sin he or she has committed, and has the ability to commit it [again], and yet separates from it and does not commit it because of having done repentance, not because of fear or because of lack of power. How? If a man committed a sin with a woman and, after a time, was alone together with her — and he still loved her and still had his physical faculties — in the same city in which he [first] sinned, but he separated himself and did not commit that sin, such a man is a master of complete repentance (ba´al teshuva gemura ).”
Not many of us could stand this test. Nonetheless, we yearn, deep inside ourselves, for complete repentance from our sins and for the fullness of return to God. We pray for this, even if we doubt our ability to achieve it. This requires more study. Meanwhile, the following non-liturgical text embodies the concern of rabbinic Judaism with repentance:
Rabbi Eliezer would say (Mishna, Avot 2:10): “Repent one day before your death. His disciples asked: “Does a person know on which day one will die?” He replied: “Precisely so; therefore, one should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow one will die. Indeed, all one’s days should be passed in a state of repentance. As Solomon in his wisdom said: ‘At all times, your clothes should be white, and oil should not lack from your head’ (Ecclesiastes 9:8).” (Talmud, Shabbat 153a).
Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned.
Forgo our debts, our Father, for we have rebelled.
For You are forbearing and forgiving.
Selah lanu ‘avinu ki hata’nu
mehal lanu malkeinu ki fasha`nu
ki moheil ve-soleiah ‘ata.
The third personal petition is for forgiveness and forbearance.
Knowledge and understanding leads to the awareness of the need for repentance, indeed full repentance. Awareness of the need for repentance leads to the consciousness of sin and the plea for forgiveness and forbearance.
Look upon our oppression and fight our battle.
Redeem us speedily for the sake of Your name
for You are a mighty redeemer.
Re’ei ve-`onyeinu ve-riva riveinu
u-ge’oleinu lema`an shemekha
ki go’el hazak ‘ata.
The fourth personal petition is for personal redemption from oppression.
What is “personal oppression”? There are so many types of personal oppression: war, being a refugee, hunger, an enemy who is out to ruin one’s career, a family member who is very difficult to get along with, even mental depression. After asking for forgiveness, we ask for personal redemption from personal troubles.
Heal us, oh Lord, and we will be healed.
Save us, and we will be saved.
Grant full healing for all our illnesses
for You are a King Who heals, faithfully and mercifully.
Ref’einu ‘Adonay ve-neirafei’
ve-ha`aleh refu’a sheleima le-khol makkoteinu
ki ‘el melekh rofei’ ne’eman ve-rahaman ‘ata.
The fifth personal petition is for healing. Here we insert mentally or verbally the names of those for whom we pray for healing – healing of body and of spirit.
Bless this year of ours like the good years.
U-varekh shenateinu ka-shanim ha-tovot
The sixth personal petition is for economic well being, for financial success. We ask God to make us successful and prosperous.
But why, after we ask God to “bless this year,” do we ask God to make this year “like the good years”? There are always good years and lean years, times when we have a lot of money and times when we are short. If one takes into consideration several generations, there may have been some truly exceptional years. This prayer for sustenance asks that God bless this year so that it be as good as the really good years.
“Justice, Grace, and Fair Judgment”
And give us our fair judgment.
(Another translation: “Judge us in fairness”)
Blessed are You, oh Lord, King Who loves righteousness and fairness.
Barukh ‘ata ‘Adonay, Melekh ‘oheiv tsedaka u-mishpat.
The petitional section of the Amida begins with a series of six personal prayers: for knowledge, for repentance, for forgiveness, for release from personal oppression, for personal healing, and for economic well-being.
This is followed by a series of six distinctly political prayers: for ingathering of the Jewish people, for just rulers, for the destruction of our enemies, for the protection of the righteous, for the restoration of Jerusalem, and for the ultimate redemption. This post deals with the second of the political prayers.
What is the difference between “justice,” “righteousness,” “grace,” and “fairness”? This question is profound.
“Justice” (Hebrew, tsedek) has to do with strict adherence to legal and moral standards. Justice, in Jewish mysticism, is God’s capacity to draw a line; that is, his ability to make a law of nature, to reveal a law for humans, to set a moral standard for creation. The word “justice” invokes the image of a God of law Who punishes severely, except insofar as God’s mercy overrules the strict requirement of God’s law; it may also conjures the person compulsively pursuing the letter of the law, ignoring the spirit thereof.
“Righteousness” (Hebrew, tsedaka) is also a harsh word, though less so than “justice.” It, too, invokes strict moral standards. It resides in the same negative semantic circle as “self-righteousness,” calling up the image of people who think they are always right but who are without true compassion and understanding.
“Grace” (Hebrew, hesed) evokes a God Who has no standards of justice, Who forgives all wrongdoing, thereby undermining God’s own teaching of justice. Grace, in Jewish mysticism, is God’s unconditional love for all of His creation, of a love that abides even in the presence of great evil.
“Fairness” (Hebrew, mishpat), in contrast with the other terms, pertains to balancing strict standards with compassion and understanding. “Fairness” means that one must know what justice, righteousness, and grace require, and then one must reach out in empathy, in understanding, and in compassion. “Fairness” evokes a person who judges compassionately, taking into account the requirements of the law and morality but also taking into account the inherent weakness of humanity and the need to embrace, even while punishing, the wrongdoer.
A child who has done something wrong knows that he or she will be punished. The child has violated some rule, and justice requires that the child be punished for that transgression. However, sometimes the rules are too strict, or there are extenuating circumstances, or the child is just a child. So, adults try not only to be just, but also to be fair.
Similarly, adults do wrong, sometimes serious wrong. We know that justice requires that we be punished, but if we know that the serious wrong was not done in malice but was an act rooted in weakness, or that it was an act of desperation or the result of a moment of moral madness and not part of our otherwise normal good character and behavior, we expect to be punished, but fairly. In these cases, we know we deserve punishment, but we think we do not deserve the full weight of justice. In these cases, we do not ask for mercy; we do not ask for pity. We ask for fair judgment; we ask for a fair hearing, and we accept a fair punishment.
This is especially true for those who believe in a judgment after death, a final judgment. No person can come before God without sin. Very few humans make it through life without having committed a serious sin. What are we to expect? Do we expect that God will “do justice”; that is, do we believe that God will judge us with strict adherence to the legal and moral standards He has set? If so, we are doomed. Do we expect that God will “have mercy and pity” and forgive all wrongdoings and not enforce any punishment at all? If so, creation is doomed, for even Hitler will not have been punished.
In rabbinic tradition, God, as the ultimate Judge, must act fairly. He must know what justice, righteousness, and grace require but He must act in compassion. God, as the ultimate Judge, must punish the wicked, but He must do so appropriately. He must punish the wicked, including ourselves, and He must also reward the faithful, including our enemies. We know we have sinned and we know we will indeed get punished, but the punishment must fit the crime. In Judaism, therefore, there is no such thing as eternal damnation because that would be inherently unfair. Nor is there excruciating torture in hell, as in some medieval art, because that, too, would be unfair.
The texts in the tradition supporting God’s fairness are numerous: Abraham arguing with God over the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 18), Job’s uncompromising defense of his innocence, Levi Yitzhak’s defense of the sinners of Israel.
“Loving justice” or “just compassion” are also ways to express God’s mishpat, God’s fundamental fairness.
In rabbinic theology, one affirms God’s ongoing providence; that is, God’s presence in all events. This raises the problem of acts of God that are not fair, that do not embody God’s just compassion: the suffering of the innocent and the just, natural and human disaster which strikes good and evil persons indiscriminately, child abuse, infant death, debilitating pain, the shoah. This problem is not new and many answers, or theodicies, have been proposed. The beginning of a solution to the problem of theodicy is to say that fairness implies dialogue, debate, and even protest; that there is a standard by which to judge and a means of accumulating credit and debit in all relations, even in our relationship with God and in God’s relationship with us. All humankind’s acts are debatable; all God’s judgments are arguable. This is God’s covenant with us. God gave us the Torah. We try to obey His commandments. We sometimes fail and, when we do, we repent and try again. We are entitled to confront God when it seems to us that He has violated the covenant. We are entitled to fair judgment and fair reward, even (and maybe especially) in the last judgment.
This petitionary prayer affirms this theology. We do not pray for mercy and pity, though we certainly do that in other prayers. Rather, in this prayer, we ask for fair judgment.
“Enemies, Saints, and the Israel Defense Forces”
As to the purposefully wicked, may You speedily
uproot and smash, and terrify and humble them
quickly, in our days.
Blessed are You, oh Lord,
Who smashes enemies and humbles the purposefully wicked.
te`akker, u-teshabber, u-temagger, ve-takhni`a
Barukh ‘ata ‘Adonay
shoveir ‘oyivim u-makhni`a zeidim.
The petitional section of the Amida begins with a series of six personal prayers: for knowledge, for repentance, for forgiveness, for release from personal oppression, for personal healing, and for economic well-being.
This is followed by a series of six distinctly political prayers: for ingathering of the Jewish people, for just rulers, for the destruction of our enemies, for the protection of the righteous, for the restoration of Jerusalem, and for the ultimate redemption. This post deals with the third and fourth of the political prayers.
The prayer for just rulers begins as follows: “Return our judges as they were of old, and our councilors as they were in the beginning, and remove from us pain and sighing.” However, because human political judgment is always faulty, the prayer for just rulers goes on to ask that God rule over us, giving us our fair judgment.
The prayer for destroying our enemies, cited above, begins with asking that all evil be immediately erased, goes on to pray for the destruction of our enemies, and concludes with a blessing praising God for doing just that.
Some rabbis felt that it was improper to pray for the death of the wicked; rather, they believed that one should pray that the wicked reform themselves (Talmud, Berakhot 10a), and we have texts of the Amida that reflect that point of view. Nevertheless, the mainstream tradition preserved the sense of national animosity toward our enemies. Enemies are real. They wish us harm. They do us harm when they can. Sometimes the harm they inflict is very deep: the murder of 1.5 million children during the shoah, the vicious Jew hatred that characterizes large sections of Christian and Muslim culture and which has led, and continues to lead, to murder, rocket attacks, riots, and hate-filled preaching and teaching. The Jewish people do have enemies, and we pray that they be destroyed. We do not turn the other cheek, certainly not in prayer. Psalm 83 is a biblical prayer for the utter destruction of our enemies.
What is the meaning of the sequence, “uproot and smash, and terrify and humble”? The words are very strong. We pray that our enemies be “uprooted and smashed”; that is, that they actually be destroyed, be killed. But, since some of them will survive, we also pray that those who remain be “terrified and humbled”; that is, that they be traumatized, that they be frightened into not attacking us again. Pogroms and annihilation are not a game. Jew hatred is not a social disease. For that reason, we believe that our enemies do not need to love us. They do not even need to respect us. They can think what they want. We pray that those who kill us be killed, and that the surviving perpetrators should keep their hands off Jewish children.
May Your mercies be aroused upon the saints, on the pious, on the elders of Your people Israel, on the remnant of its scribes, on the righteous converts, and upon us…
`Al ha-tsaddikim, ve-`al ha-hasidim, ve-`al ziknei `amkha bet Yisrael, ve-`al peleitat sofreihem, ve-`al geirei ha-tsedek, ve-`aleinu, yehemu na’ rahamekha…
And give a good reward to all who truly trust in Your presence
And put our lot in with theirs…
Ve-ten sakhar tov le-khol ha-botehim be-shimkha be-‘emet
ve-sim helkeinu `imahem…
Blessed are You, oh Lord, Who is a support and a source of trust
for the righteous.
Barukh ‘ata ‘Adonay, mish`an u-mivtah la-tsadikim.
The prayer for the protection of the righteous gives the list above. But, who are the “saints” and who are the “pious”? The text assumes them to be those who observe rabbinic law and piety, and includes specifically the small number of dedicated pious scribes who are left and all righteous converts. But, is that it? Is there no one today who could be considered a saint? What does one have to do to be considered a saint?
I think that, in this day and age, we should include as saints those who defend the Jewish people in their homeland. The soldiers, intelligence agencies, and special units who sacrifice their own young lives to protect the State of Israel are, as I see it, modern saints. We should really pray for them – not just in special supplemental prayers inserted into liturgically “safe” places. We should pray for these brave men and women also inside the Amida, in the petitionary core of the liturgy, in the very heart of nusah ha-tefilla. So, after the words “righteous converts,” I add the following:
And on the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces
and on the Border Guards
and on the Israel Police
and on the Internal Security Agency
and on the Mossad
and on the Military Intelligence Agency
and on the Special Units.
Ve-`al hayyalei tsva hagana le-yisrael
ve-`al mishmar ha-gevul
ve-`al mishteret yisrael
ve-`al ha-shin bet,
ve-`al ha-yehidot ha-meyuhadot
Then, I continue “and upon us.” I do this every time I recite the Amida. So should everyone who believes that sainthood is given to those who assume the sacred task of protecting the Jewish people in their homeland. We should pray for them here, in the core of the liturgy, and we should pray that our lot be cast in with theirs. That is how we “trust in God’s presence.”
The petitional section of the Amida that began with a series of six personal prayers and continued with a series of six distinctly political prayers concludes with a very poignant prayer that God hear all our spoken and unspoken prayers:
Hear our prayer, oh Lord our God.
Have pity on us and be compassionate with us.
and receive our prayers in compassion and favor
for You are a God Who hears prayers and pleadings.
And do not send us away empty, oh our King, from Your presence…
Sh’ma koleinu, ‘Adonay ‘eloheinu, hus ve-raheim `aleinu
Ve-kabbel be-rahamin uve-ratson ‘et tefillateinu
Ki ‘el shomei`a tefillot ve-tahanunim ‘ata
Umi-lefanekha malkeinu reikam ‘al teshiveinu…
“We Acknowledge That You Are … and We Thank You For … ”
We acknowledge that You are the Lord our God and the God of our ancestors forever.
Rock of our lives. Shield of our salvation. You are from generation to generation.
Modim ‘anahnu lakh she-‘ata hu Adonay Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu le-`olam va`ed.
Tsur hayyeinu. Magen yish`einu. ‘Ata hu le-dor va-dor
We thank You and we sing Your praises
For our lives that are given into Your hand,
For our souls that are in safekeeping with You,
For Your miracles that are with us each day,
For Your wonders and Your goodnesses that are with us at all times,
Evening, morning, and afternoon.
Nodeh lekha u-nesapper tehilatekha
`al hayyeinu ha-mesurim be-yadekha
ve-`al nishmoteinu ha-pekudot lakh
ve-`al nissekha shebe-khol yom `imanu
ve-`al nifl’otekha ve-tovotekha shebe-khol `et
`erev, va-voker, ve-tsahorayim
The Hebrew root modeh is used twice in this passage that begins the second of the last three blessings of the Amida. It is recited every day, three times a day. Its full range of meaning is, therefore, very important. The first time the word occurs, it is modim … she-… and the second time it is nodeh … `al.
The first meaning, modim … she-…, is best translated as we confess as a matter of faith,” not unlike the Latin, confiteor. The purpose here is for the person praying to say, “I believe/accept/acknowledge as a matter of faith that You are the Lord our God, the God of our history, and the eternal source of our being and salvation.” Indeed, when we recite these phrases, we bow our heads, bend our bodies downward, and then return to upright position as a sign that we do acknowledge and accept God.
When this Amida is repeated out loud and the cantor reaches this blessing, he continues out loud with the text as we have it. However, the congregation recites under its breath a parallel version as follows:
We acknowledge that You are the Lord our God and the God of our ancestors.
The God of all flesh.
The Creator of all creation.
Modim ‘anahnu lakh she-‘ata hu Adonay Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu
‘Elohei khol basar
The first line is almost the same, but the subsequent lines introduce the theme of acknowledging/believing/accepting God as our Creator and as the Creator of all creation.
The second meaning, nodeh … `al, clearly means ‘to give thanks for’ and the passage goes on to list those matters for which we are thankful/grateful to God.
The parallel passage uses a noun form of the root for thanks (Hebrew, hoda’ot) but omits a specific list of matters for which we are grateful, as follows:
Blessings and thanks to Your great and holy Name
That You have given us life and kept us alive.
May You continue to give us life and keep us alive …
Berakhot ve-hoda’ot le-Shimkha ha-gadol veha-kadosh
`Al she-heheyitanu ve-kiyyamtanu
Ken tehayyeinu u-tekayymeinu…
The first insight of this very important part of the liturgy, then, is that we both confess as a matter of faith/acknowledge/accept/believe in God, and we give thanks to God for God’s blessings.
This brings us to the second insight of this passage: What are the specific blessings for which we thank God? More explicitly: What is the difference between a “miracle,” a “wonder,” and a “goodness” such that we thank God for each separately?
God’s “miracles” (Hebrew, nissekha) are historical: the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Sinai, and so on. These miracles are indeed with us daily, for they are the formative moments of our identity as religious Jews. God’s miracles make us who we are: the people chosen by God. Even modern historical miracles, like the establishment of the State of Israel, are formative moments in our religious identity. We are grateful to God for those moments in which we truly sense who and where we are.
God’s “wonders” (Hebrew, nifle’otekha) are natural; they are the wonders of creation: the leaves of fall, the flowers of spring, the rain and the dew, the blue sky, the beauty of creation. All these point toward the Creator Who brought them into being and Who maintains them. We are grateful to God for the moments when we are aware of the God’s wonders.
God’s “goodnesses” (Hebrew, tovotekha) are those moments when things just seem to go right for us. Sometimes, it is big things that go right: a job, a success, a moment of intimacy. Sometimes, it is little things that go right: prose which flows freely, a startlingly clear diagnosis, a “coincidence” which brings good “luck,” a moment of friendship, the grace of another human presence. We thank God for these favors, these moments of grace.
To thank God, modeh in its second sense, is to be grateful for God’s miracles, God’s wonders, and God’s goodnesses.
Another interpretation: God’s miracles (Hebrew, nisekha) are indeed historical, but they are in the past. What is “miraculous” about our present lives that is not one of God’s natural wonders or moments of goodness and grace? Sometimes I think that our very ability to persevere is a miracle; that our very ability to pick ourselves up after we have fallen and failed, to set our sights on the future, and to go on with life is a miracle. How easy it is to let deep failure or profound loss shape our lives. How easy it is to let health issues, or economic difficulties, or family problems depress us to the point of no-action, of a certain kind of despair. This passage teaches us that it is a real miracle that we can recover, that we can go on with our lives. After being grateful for this “miracle,” we can be grateful for the natural wonders and the goodnesses of God’s grace to us.
“The Good One…the Compassionate One”
The Good One – because Your compassionate deeds have not ended.
The Compassionate One – because Your loving-kindnesses have not been exhausted.
We hope for You forever.
Ha-Tov – ki lo khalu rahamekha
veha-Merahem – ki lo tammu hasadekha
me-`olam kivinu lakh.
The Modim, the blessing of acknowledgment and thanks from the Amida, draws toward its end with the above phrases.
The insight, here, is that God is considered “good” because God does compassionate deeds, and that God is considered “compassionate” because God does deeds of loving-kindness, of grace. This constellation of good traits and actions gives us reason to hope for God.
Being good is not a matter of being obedient or of doing one’s duty. Being good is not a matter of doing what one is supposed to do or of being a good citizen of one’s many communities. Being good, we are taught, is managing life through doing compassionate deeds. It is seeing the need of the other and acting. It is seeing the pain of the other and acting. It is helping someone elderly with a package, or offering someone a cup of tea, or not talking but listening to someone. Being good is organizing one’s life so that one does compassionate deeds.
The story is told of the Hasidic master who would disappear from the synagogue during the height of the penitential season. An anti-Hasidic skeptic hid under the master’s bed one night and followed him, only to find out that the master had changed into peasant’s clothes and gone to the woods to chop wood for a poor non-Jewish peasant woman who had no one else to do this for her.
God, we are taught, is good (Hebrew, tov) because God orders the world by doing compassionate deeds (Hebrew, rahamekha). We, too, can be like that, but we must open our hearts and our eyes and ears, and then we must organize our life to live that way.
But the text also says that God is considered “compassionate” (Hebrew, merahem) because God does deeds of loving-kindness (Hebrew, hasadekha). So, what makes a deed of loving-kindness even more profound than a deed of compassion?
A compassionate deed results from our perceiving the need or pain of the other, and then acting to relieve that distress. Compassion is a response to another’s anguish. A deed of loving-kindness or grace (Hebrew, hesed) is not a response to the other. It is a flowing forth of being from us to someone else, or to the world. A deed of loving-kindness is an act of unconditional love that surges forth from deep inside ourselves without having been triggered by the discomfort of the other. Our concern for all creation is an act of loving-kindness. Our concern for all humanity is an act of loving-kindness. Sometimes, our concern for a particular other is an act of loving-kindness, an awe we feel in the presence of another human being, even someone we don’t “know” in any of the usual ways.
God is compassionate (Hebrew, merahem/rahaman) because God, first, does acts of loving-kindness (Hebrew, hasadekha). God, first, loves creation unconditionally. God, first, loves humanity unconditionally. God, first, loves each person unconditionally. Then, God looks into our hearts and sees our individual pain, our personal anguish, and our particular needs. God acts out of compassion; after that, God orders the world by acts of compassion.
We, too, can be like that, but we must first be able to think of ourselves in these categories: capable, first, of unconditional love (hesed); capable, second, of compassion (rahaman); and then, capable of organizing our lives so that we can be good (tov).
Put differently: goodness is a result of compassion, which in turn is a result of gracious, unmerited love.
God is to be “hoped for” precisely because God is gracious, then compassionate, and then good.
Zoharic kabbala agrees with this profound thought, for the sefira of Hesed precedes the sefira of Rahamim, which precedes the sefira of Malkhut. Put differently: Malkhut (God’s governance of the world) derives its force from Rahamim (God’s compassion), which derives its force from Hesed (God’s loving-kindness, God’s unconditional love or grace).
“Grant Peace, Goodness, and Blessing”
Grant peace, goodness, and blessing,
graciousness, loving-kindness, and compassion
upon us and upon all Israel, Your people.
Sim shalom, tova u-verakha
hen va-hesed, ve-rahamim
`aleinu ve-`al kol Yisrael `ammekha
Peace (Hebrew, shalom) is a universal hope. Everyone yearns for a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and people will not practice war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3). Everyone hopes for a time when it will not be necessary to justify and defend one’s very existence to others, when “each person will sit under his or her vine, and under her or his fig tree” (Micah 4:4). For this reason, Shalom is one of the Hebrew words known universally.
Peace is also a specifically Jewish hope. This final prayer of the Amida continues:
Bless us, our Father, all of us together with the light of Your Face. For, with the light of Your Face, You have given us, oh Lord our God, the Torah of life, and the love of loving-kindness, and righteousness, and blessing, and compassion, and life, and peace. May it be good in Your eyes to bless Your people, Israel, at all times and at all moments with Your peace. Blessed are You, Lord, Who blesses His people Israel with the peace.
Bar’kheinu ‘avinu … ha-mevareikh ‘et `ammo Yisrael ba-shalom.
How do the universal and the particular dreams of peace relate to one another? In Jewish tradition, there is the belief that peace for and among Jews will bring about peace for and among everyone. National peace is the prerequisite for universal peace. For this reason, most of this final prayer of the Amida is a prayer for peace for Israel but the blessing concludes by praising God as the source of “the peace” (Hebrew, ba-shalom), that is, of universal peace. Everyone needs the peace.
There is other evidence of the delicate interweaving of the universal and the particular dreams of peace. The text of this prayer for the afternoon and evening services puts more emphasis on the universal mode, without neglecting the particular mode:
May You grant great peace upon Your people forever
because You are king, lord of all the peace…
Shalom rav `al `ammekha tasim le-`olam
ki ‘ata hu melekh ‘adon le-khol ha-shalom…
Note the phrase “lord of all the peace.” Also, on the High Holidays, in accordance with the universal motif of the season, most texts change the final blessing to the more universal mode: “Blessed are You, Lord, Who makes the peace” (Hebrew, `oseh ha-shalom). Further, many modern Jewish prayerbooks change the liturgical text to reflect the more universal yearning for peace; for example: “Grant peace, goodness, and blessing upon the world and upon Israel, Your people.”
An additional reflection: What is “peace”? Both universal and particular peace are a dream: no war, no hatred; only loving-kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, and life. But, this is not the way life really is. In real life, there are periods of quiet, not ideal periods of peace, but periods of quiet. Thus, in interpersonal relations, “peace” does not mean freedom from conflict; rather, it means that only low-level conflict is present. Similarly, in the life of nations, “peace” does not mean brotherhood/sisterhood and love for all; rather, it means that only low-level conflict is present. As Scripture (Judges 3:11, etc.) puts it: “And the land was quiet for forty years” (Hebrew, va-tishkot ha-‘arets ‘arba`im shana).
When we pray for peace, we pray for the dream. But, we should keep in mind that, in real life, we have done very well if we have achieved quiet for a period of time.
An additional reflection: “There is a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8). Sometimes, it is not appropriate to pray for peace. Unfortunately, the world is composed of wicked people, as well as good people. And, sometimes, the wicked people get the upper hand. When that happens, it is “a time for war” and not “a time for peace.” When the wicked rule, it is “a time to hate” and not “a time to love.” When one’s enemies rise up, it is not the time to pray for peace. It is time to pray for their downfall and for our victory.
It has happened to me that, in times of war, I have been asked to participate in a “peace rally” or “peace vigil.” I always go, but I always indicate that now is not the time to pray for peace; rather, now is the time to pray for victory. I read psalms and prayers to that effect. Always, there are others in attendance who share my views, and they are grateful that I hold the dream of peace in my prayers but that I also pray for the victory of righteous and the safety of those who offer their lives for the cause.
After the Nusah ha-Tellifa for the Morning Liturgy
“Oh, One Who is Appeased through Compassion and One Who is Reconciled by Pleading”
Oh, One Who is reconciled through compassion and One Who is appeased by pleading!
Be reconciled with, and be appeased by, a poor generation, for there is no help.
Mitratseh be-rahamim u-mitpayyeis be-tahanunim,
hitratseh ve-hitpayyeis le-dor `ani ki ‘ein `ozeir
After the Amida has been recited silently and then repeated publicly, there comes, on most weekdays (but not on Shabbat and holidays), a section of penitential prayers called Tahanun. Certain prayerbooks begin this section with the ritual confession of sin and the invocation of Moses’ prayer for the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf. Others use a mosaic of verses from the Bible and prayers by the rabbis. Toward the end, we recite the lines above.
Two problems present themselves in this simple appeal for God’s mercy. The first revolves around the verbs mitratseh and mitpayyes: What do they mean? What is the difference between them?
The verb mitratseh (“to be reconciled”) means “to reach a state of wholeness or harmony.” The verb mitpayyes (“to be appeased”) means “to be pacified, calmed.” How do these verbs work in actual human relations? If one has offended someone seriously, the first thing one wants is to appease them; that is, to bring them to a state of not being so angry. One wants them to be appeased, pacified, calmed down. If one can achieve that much, then, one wants the other person to be reconciled; that is, one wants the relationship to return to a deeper and fuller understanding of, and love for, one another. After calming down, we want our relationships to regain wholeness.
In our relationship to God, we, as individuals and as His chosen people, sin; we do wrong. And God is justly angry with us. No matter how sinful we have been, we want to appease God; that is, we want Him to be pacified, not to be angry with us. More deeply, we really want God to be reconciled with us. We want Him to restore the fullness of His relationship to us; to love us again, as His child(ren).
The second problem with this appeal for God’s mercy is in the description of how God should be reconciled and appeased. What does it mean to say that God is “reconciled through compassion” and “appeased through pleading”?
Pleading (Hebrew, tahanunim, after which this entire section of the prayers is named) means that we confess our sins, we acknowledge our guilt, and we plead with God to forgive us. We know that, if God were to judge by the facts of what we have done, God would have to condemn us. So, we cast ourselves on God’s mercy, we beg for His forgiveness. We know that we have no merit, no credit, and so we beg for mercy. This arouses God to being appeased. It is this pleading that appeases God.
By contrast, compassion (Hebrew, rahamim) works differently. Compassion is the point where unconditional love (Hebrew, hesed) and judgment (Hebrew, gevura) meet.
We all have a capacity for hesed, the elemental, unconditional love that all humans have for one another, indeed that all humans have for all of creation. We, too, are created; we, too, are human; and we are encompassed by, and are part of, God’s hesed, God’s unconditional love for all creation. This is why we feel a spiritual and existential identification with all beings.
Humans also have a capacity to draw lines, to set standards, and to judge ourselves and others. These laws of nature and morality are our gevura. Without them, creation could not survive; without moral standards and the ability to judge, human society could not exist. If we were to act only out of hesed, there would be no justice and, if we were to act only out of gevura, there would be no mercy.
Compassion (Hebrew, rahamim) is the point where we judge ourselves and one another with “com + passion,” with a feeling for, and understanding of, the weaknesses and the strengths of others and of ourselves.
These qualities of hesed, gevura, and rahamim exist in us because they exist in God. They are the “image of God” in which we are made. We feel them because God feels them. We act on them because God acts on them. If God were to judge us only with hesed, there would be no justice and, if God were to judge us only with gevura, there would be no mercy. Rather, we ask God to judge us with rahamim, compassion.
What, then, does this prayer from Tahanun mean? It could mean “God Who is reconciled through His own compassion, be reconciled to us.” The second half of the prayer, however, reads “God Who is appeased by our pleading, be appeased by us.” The second half implies that it is we who must act in order to invoke God’s action; that it is we who must plead in order to appease God. The first half, as it now stands, makes God’s action totally dependent upon God; the second makes God’s action dependent upon us.
To give balance to this prayer and to increase our understanding of what Tahanun is, the first half should be read as follows: “God Who is reconciled by our acts of compassion, be reconciled to us.” This restores the symmetry of the prayer by urging God to act in response to our actions in both clauses. In doing so, this reading also comes closer to the rabbinic view of teshuva: repentance is in our hands. We need to recognize our guilt, to confess, to do acts of compassion, and also to plead with God in order to be “re-turned” in our relationship to Him.
Note, too, that the Siddur reverses the sequence of the two verbs: we first ask God for reconciliation and then for appeasement. We first express our deepest wish, and then we go to our more immediate request, realizing that there is no other source of appeasement and reconciliation.
The full text of this prayer, then, should be: “Oh, One Who is reconciled through our acts of compassion and Who is appeased through our acts of pleading, be reconciled with, and (if not, then) be appeased with this poor generation by our pleading, for there is no other source of help.”
Another interpretation: After we have confessed our sins and offered verses of supplication, we cast ourselves on God’s pity. No arguing. No excuses. No pleading from a perceived strong position. Just mercy, pity.
When we have run out of arguments, we ask God to be appeased; not persuaded, but appeased. When we have exhausted our rational means, we ask God to be appeased; not dissuaded from anger, but appeased. For, ultimately, there is no help in the reasoned arguments of the covenant. In the end, there is no help in our paltry merits and deeds. There is only God’s willingness to be appeased. There is only God’s desire to be reconciled. This thought is also reflected in the next line of Tahanun:
Our Father, our King! Be gracious unto us and answer us for we have no [worthy] deeds.
Act with us in charity and unconditional love, and redeem us.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, honneinu va-`aneinu ki ‘ein banu ma`asim;
`aseh `imanu tsedaka va-hesed ve-hoshi`einu.
“Indeed, We Do Not Know What to Do”
Indeed, we do not know what to do, for our eyes are upon You.
Va-‘anahnu lo’ neda` mah na`aseh, ki `alekha `eineinu
This is a fragment of a verse is embedded in Tahanun, the penitential prayers that follow the Amida on most weekdays, toward the end. The original context (2 Chronicles 20: 1-30) is a pending battle between Jehoshafat, king of Judah and Jerusalem, and the hordes of Amon and Moab. The king gathers the people for prayer, two prophets are filled with the spirit of God and prophesy victory, the levites sing God’s praises and, the following day, the troops assemble only to find out that their enemies have been decimated, thus giving the forces of Jehoshafat a great victory without even having entered into battle. The fragment here comes from the prayer offered before the prophecies. The full verse (2 Chronicles 20:12) reads: “Our God, will You not do judgment against them? For we do not have the strength [to stand] before this mighty horde that is come against us. Indeed, we do not know what to do, for our eyes are upon You.”
The biblical quotation is appropriate for Tahanun, for these supplicatory prayers are deep petition for God’s mercy and, particularly, for His help against our enemies. Indeed, Tahanun took much of its present form in the period after the crusades. While the biblical setting is lost on most modern readers, pre-modern users of the prayerbook were likely to have known this context of successful supplication.
But, what is the meaning of the words: “We do not know what to do, for our eyes are upon You”? If our eyes are upon God, we should know what to do. If we are focused on God. we should know the correct direction in which to go. In classical biblical and rabbinic thinking, if we do not know what to do, it is because we have lost sight of God and God’s ways.
One way to solve this problem is to translate the verse differently. Thus, most people translate: “We do not know what to do, but (or, indeed) our eyes are upon You — hoping that You will tell us what to do to save ourselves.” The problem with this solution is that one would expect the Hebrew to read “our eyes are toward You,” not “upon You” (Hebrew: ‘eilekha and not `alekha, i.e., with an aleph and not an ayin).
Another interpretation: There are times when we are so filled with the immediate moment that we really do not know what to do. There are moments when we are so filled with that which is before us that we are speechless, stunned into non-movement. A moment of beauty, or a moment of terror; a flash of truth, or a in-breaking of love — any of these can bring us to a kind of paralysis.
This is true of religious experience, too. A moment can be so filled with the presence of God that we are temporarily unable to act. An experience of God can be so intense that we do not know what to do, nor do we know what comes next. In the midst of the supplicatory prayers of Tahanun, we pray for such a moment. In the midst of trouble, we pray that God’s presence be so intense that we not know what to do. Perhaps, this is the meaning of the fragment that has come into the prayerbook here.
“May God Heal the Sick”
May God Who blessed our forefathers and our foremothers, Abraham and Sarah, Rebecca and Isaac, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, bless and heal the person who is ill, (name of the person who is ill) son or daughter of (name of his or her mother).
May the Holy One, blessed be God, be filled with mercy upon him (her) to heal him (her) and to restore him (her), to strengthen him (her) and to revive him (her).
May God speedily send full recovery from heaven to him (her) – a healing of spirit and a healing of body in all its limbs and organs, together with all those in Israel and in humankind who are ill.
Now, quickly, in the very near future. Amen.
Mi she-beirakh ‘avoteinu ve-‘immoteinu, Avraham, Yitzhak, ve-Ya`akov, Sara, Rivka, Rachel, ve-Le’a, Hu yevareikh ‘et ha-holeh (ha-holanit) …. ben (bat) ….
ha-Kadosh, barukh Hu, yimmalei’ rahamim `alav (`aleha) le-hahalimo(a), le-rap’oto(a), le-hahaziko(a), ule-hahayoto(a)
ve-yishlah lo(a) bi-meheira refu’a sheleima min ha-shamayim – refu’at ha-nefesh u-refu’at ha-guf, le-khol ‘eivareha ve-gideha be-tokh she’ar holei Yisrael hashta’ ba-`agala uvi-zeman kariv
Illness comes upon us all. Parents, spouses, children, friends, even strangers who touch us get ill. e struggle with how to deal with illness. To be sure, the first step is to get competent medical advice. God has given humanity the power to think and, through that, the power to heal. Healing the sick is a positive commandment from God (Exodus 21:19). To seek healing is obligatory. To follow intelligent medical advice is obligatory.
Then, comes the part that medicine cannot control. Some say that it is just fate, but Jewish tradition accepts the view that God is active in our lives, even if we don’t always understand how and why God acts. In illness, after we have sought competent medical advice, we turn to God.
If someone we love is sick, we use the above prayer before, during, or after the ritual reading of the Torah. (Note: I have changed the Hebrew text to reflect a more gender-equal and a more universal view of prayer.) There is a beautiful modern rendition of this prayer called “Mi Shebeirach,” by Debbie Friedman, from her album “Renewal of Spirit.” You can also watch her live performance after it was widely known that she was very ill.
We also insert the name of the ill person into the prayer for healing in the Amida, as follows:
Heal us, oh Lord, and we shall be healed,
Save us, and we shall be saved
For You are the One whom we praise.
Send complete healing to … son (daughter) of …
And to all those who are stricken
For You are God, King, faithful and merciful Healer.
Blessed are You, Lord, the Healer of the ill of His people, Israel.
Ref’einu ‘Adonay ve-neifarei’
Ki tehillateinu ‘ata
Ve-ha`alei refu’a sheleima le- … ben (bat) …
Ki ‘el melekh rofei’ ne’eman ve-rahaman ‘ata
Barukh ‘ata ‘Adonay rofei’ holei `amo Yisrael.
Some modern prayerbooks also insert a prayer for the doctors and, more poignantly, for the caregivers (including yourself) who tend to the sick day and night for long periods of time.
The tradition teaches that one should not leave this world with the knowledge that one has sinned; therefore, one should confess one’s sins every day, as we do in the Amida three times a day. It is certainly a mitsva to do so before one dies. Therefore, if the patient is dying, he or she should recite confession as follows:
My God and God of my ancestors, accept my prayer; do not ignore my supplication. Forgive me, I beseech You, for all the sins that I have committed in my lifetime. I am abashed and ashamed of the wicked deeds and sins that I have foolishly committed. Accept, I pray You, my pain and suffering as atonement, and forgive my wrongdoing, for I have truly sinned against You.
May it be Your will, O Lord my God and God of my ancestors, that I sin no more. With Your great mercy, cleanse me of my sins, but not through suffering and disease. Send full healing to me and to all who are stricken.
I acknowledge before You, O Lord my God and God of my ancestors, that my healing and my death are in Your hands. May it be Your will to heal me completely. Yet, if you have decreed that I shall die of this affliction, may my death atone for all the unintentional sins, intentional sins, and rebellious sins that I have committed before You. Shelter me in the shadow of Your wings and grant me a share in the eternal life.
Parent of orphans and guardian of the bereaved, protect my beloved family with whose soul my own soul is bound.
“Into Your hand I commit my soul. You have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.”
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
“The Lord is God. The Lord is God. The Lord is God.”
If the patient cannot recite the whole confession, she or he should recite:
May it be Your will that my death be atonement for all my sins.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
“The Lord is God. The Lord is God. The Lord is God.”
Yehi raton mi-lifanekah she-tehei mitati kapparati
Sh’ma` Yisrael, Adonay Eloheinu, Adonay ehad.
‘Adonay Hu ha-Elohim. ‘Adonay Hu ha-Elohim. ‘Adonay Hu ha-Elohim.
If the patient cannot recite confession, the family, friends, or clergy should do it in the hearing of the patient even if the patient is in a coma. If you are the dying patient, you should do this for yourself, or have someone help you with this.
There are also Psalms that one can recite for someone who is ill, particularly Psalms 139 and 121. It is also customary to give charity.
Doing everything the doctors say to do does not always prevent death. Neither does saying prayers for the dying. We must only do the best we can, in prayer as in science.
“So That We Not Strive for Nothing or Be Born to Futility”
Blessed be our God Who created us for His glory,
And Who separated us from those who err.
And Who gave us His Torah.
Barukh ‘Eloheinu she-baranu li-khevodo
ve-hivdilanu min ha-to`im
ve-natan lanu ‘et Torato
It is He Who will open our hearts to His Torah.
And it is He Who will put love of Him and fear of Him into our hearts
To do His will and to worship Him with a complete heart
So that we not strive for nothing or be born to futility.
Hu yiftah libbenu be-Torato
ve-yasem be-libbenu ‘ahavato ve-yir’ato
la`asot retsono ule-`ovdo be-leivav shalem
lema`a lo niga` la-rik ve-lo neileid la-behala
The Kedusha de-Sidra occurs in the closing section of the morning service, in the introductory section of the Shabbat and holiday afternoon service, and in the introduction to the closing service on Yom Kippur. It opens with a verse that promises that the Torah will never depart from the lips of Israel, and it proceeds to a Kedusha composed of the three key biblical verses from Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Psalms with the Aramaic translation (and interpretation) of each. After this Kedusha, there are a series of verses, an in-breaking of rabbinic liturgy, and some closing verses. The lines cited here come from the rabbinic, liturgical section.
There are two motifs here. First, that it is God Who opens our hearts and puts love and fear of God into our hearts. It is not we who, by our efforts, do this. We try, sometimes we even try hard, to open our hearts to God. We make an effort, sometimes a great effort, to love and to fear God. But, in the end, there is so much to distract us: family, job, money, psychological problems, community responsibilities, etc. In the end, too, how open to God can our hearts be? How open do we want them to be? How much love and fear of God do we really want to have in our lives? How much can we let God into our lives, even if part of us knows we want more? Being open to God and loving and fearing God are not easy tasks. We are ambivalent, and even when we try, we do not always succeed. It is God, then, Who opens our hearts and puts love and fear of God into them.
Second, the purpose of religion is nicely summarized here: so that we not strive for nothing or be born to futility. We all ask ourselves, what is the purpose of life? When one is young, one asks, what is the purpose of life? What should I do with my life? Where should I be going? Again, when one is middle-aged, one asks with greater poignancy, what is the purpose of life? Toward what have I been working over these past years, even decades? Why am I doing this work? Where should I be going now? And, when one is old, one asks the question yet again with almost despairing urgency, what is the purpose of life? What have I worked so hard to build? What, in the end, have I really accomplished? What must I do before I leave this life?
This text, sandwiched in between verses at the end of the morning service, reminds us that there is purpose and meaning to life and, that there is also an opposite of purpose that is nothingness and futility. This prayer reminds us that when we are open to God, we swim in the stream of purpose; that when we serve God in love and fear, we breathe the air of meaning. This verse reminds us that when we are in the presence of God, we have purpose, and that when we study God’s Torah and observe God’s commandments, our lives have meaning. Conversely, when we are not open to God, we strive after nothingness, and when we are not acting in love and fear of God, we are working futilely. When we are not in God’s presence, we are in the domain of nothingness, and when we do not reconnect with God through study and deeds, we are in the realm of futility.
All of us do a certain amount of flailing around in nothingness and futility; that is part of the human condition. But, all of us also have occasional moments of meaningfulness and transcendent purpose; this, too, is part of the human condition. The goal of religion is to offer us opportunities for meaning; life gives us too many occasions for futility. As this prayer reminds us, it is not always we who direct ourselves to meaning. Sometimes meaning is given to us. We need only be open to it.
May His great Name be declared tremendous and holy
in the world that He created according to His will.
May He cause His kingdom to reign (the sephardi rite adds: and His salvation to sprout and may He bring His messiah closer)
in your lives and in your days, and in the lives of the whole house of Israel,
quickly and soon. And say, “Amen.”
Yitgaddal ve-yitkaddash Shmei rabba
be-`alma di-vra’ khi-re`utei
(ve-yatsmah purkanei vi-yekareiv meshihei)
be-hayyeikhon uve-yomeikhon uve-hayyei de-khol beit Yisrael
ba-`agala uvi-zeman kariv, ve-‘imru “Amen.”
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever and ever.
Yehéi Shméi rabbá mevarákh le-álam ule-alméi almayá
May the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, be blessed, praised, glorified, uplifted, raised, beautified, exalted, and extolled,
above all blessings, songs, praises, and consolations
that we say in this world. And say “Amen.”
Yitbarakh ve-yishtabbah ve-yitpa’ar ve-yitrommam ve-yitnasse’
ve-yithaddar ve-yithallel shmei de-Kudsha berikh hu
le-`eila min kol birkhata ve-shirata tushbehata ve-nehemata
da-‘amiran be-`alma, ve-‘imru “Amen.”
May the prayers and supplications of the whole house of Israel
be accepted before their Father in heaven. And say “Amen.”
Titkabbel tselotehon u-va`utehon de-khol beit Yisrael
Kodam ‘avahon di vi-shmaya, ve-‘imru “Amen.”
May the great peace from heaven and life
(the sephardi rite adds: plenty, salvation, comfort, rescue, healing, redemption, forgiveness, atonement, enlargement, and saving)
be upon us and upon all Israel. And say “Amen.”
Yehei shelama rabba min shemaya ve-hayyim
(ve-sava` vi-yeshu`a ve-nehama ve-sheizava u-refu’a u-ge’ula u-seliha ve-khapara ve-revah ve-hatsala)
`aleinu ve-`al kol (lanu ule-khol) Yisrael, ve-‘imru “Amen.”
May He Who makes peace in His high places,
may He make peace for us and for all Israel. And say “Amen.”
`oseh shalom bi-meromav
hu ya`aseh shalom
`aleinu ve-`al kol Yisrael, ve-‘imru “Amen.”
The Kaddish is among the most well-known Jewish prayers, familiar to Jews who are not observant and often to non-Jews. Its history is complex and deserves more study, as do the variations on the text of the Kaddish.
A brief history: The Kaddish was most likely originally composed only of its central phrase, “May His great Name be blessed forever and ever and ever” / Yehéi Shméi rabbá mevarákh le-álam ule-alméi almayá. This central phrase, which occurs in no other text in this form, is a re-sounding of Ps. 113:2 with analogous biblical and targumic texts. This phrase is well documented during the third to fifth centuries C.E. (talmudic period), though its use is unclear. Perhaps, it was recited after rabbinic homilies. In the sixth to twelfth centuries C.E. (post-talmudic period), the central phrase developed into formal texts that were used for four purposes: (1) One form of the Kaddish was used as a public liturgical text to conclude a homily or study session. (2) Various other forms of the Kaddish were developed to signal transitions in the liturgy, the half-Kaddish signifying a minor division and the full-Kaddish signifying a major division. And, (3) beginning in the ninth century C.E., (the geonic [early Islamic] period), one form of the Kaddish began to be used at the graveside only. Later, in medieval Europe and then elsewhere (tenth century C.E. and onward), it was recited by individual mourners for periods of varying length. Tensions developed between who had priority to recite the Kaddish for which deceased relative and so, in the modern period, the rule was established that all mourners would recite the mourner’s Kaddish at the same time.
The custom today among traditional Jews is to recite the Kaddish when concluding a homily or significant unit of study, to signal a transition in the liturgy, and as a sign of mourning. As a sign of mourning (traditional Jewish mourning customs), the Kaddish is usually recited for eleven months after the death of one’s immediate relatives, and annually on the day of the death (Yiddish, Yahrzeit) of a relative, a distinguished teacher, or a good friend. Among some liberal Jews today, it is custom for the whole community to recite the mourner’s Kaddish for all the deceased, regardless of whether one is a mourner oneself or not.
The history, the words, the ideas, and the usage of the Kaddish are not commensurate with the full meaning of the prayer. The history is complex but, then, so is the history of most of the liturgy. The words are words of praise for God, not dissimilar to many other passages in Scripture and in the Siddur (prayerbook). The ideas behind the words are not uncommon. The usage as a division of the liturgy into parts, and even as a prayer for the dead, is not striking in and of itself. Yet, the Kaddish evokes deep feelings and arouses participants to moments of spiritual awareness. Why?
Sometimes, there is a disparity between the words of prayer and the music to which the text is sung. This is true of the Kaddish, in its various forms. As a divider of the liturgy into its sections, the melody changes according to the liturgical calendar. Thus, the melody for the half-Kaddish, as the introduction to the Silent Devotion of the Musaf of Yom Kippur, brings the hearers into the presence of the King and Judge of all humanity. The same half-Kaddish with yet another melody opens the service of the closing of the gates on Yom Kippur, sounding our last chance for repentance, forgiveness, mercy, and life. And, with yet another melody, the half-Kaddish that is used to announce the beginning of the prayers for rain and, later in the year, for dew, also brings us to those moments in which life and sustenance hang suspended against drought and deprivation.
The full-Kaddish too, as the closing of a significant part of the liturgy, changes its melody with the liturgical calendar. Thus, the Musaf service on Yom Kippur, which includes the reliving of the successful atonement sacrifices as they were practiced in the great temple when it yet stood, concludes, in European tradition, with a melody for the full-Kaddish that is particularly joyful. This melody also appears, with its full-Kaddish, on Rosh HaShana as we celebrate the universal kingship of God and again on Simhat Torah as we celebrate the renewal of the God’s revelation among us.
The recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish has a completely different spiritual dynamic. There are some deaths with which we reconcile ourselves easily: the death of an aging parent or the death of a very sick loved one. But there are some deaths with which we have difficulty: the death of a young parent, the sudden death of a loved one, the unbearable death of a child, and the mass death of our people. In all these, we human mourners, need comfort. We need the closeness of family and the presence of community. We must belong to something greater than ourselves. We must fit into a context that transcends our loss, especially when it is severe.
Reciting the mourner’s Kaddish does that for us. It forces us into community, for the Kaddish cannot be recited with less than ten people present. Reciting the Kaddish forces us into a rhythm of regular synagogue attendance, morning and evening. It stops the rush of the day, before it begins in the morning and towards the end of the day. Reciting the Kaddish forces us to take note of sunrise and sunset, the times of prayer, though as moderns, we do not usually organize our time around these natural phenomena.
Reciting the mourner’s Kaddish also forces us into the presence of our ancestors, for it was their way to say this prayer. It reconnects us with the generations: I said the Kaddish for my father and my mother, as he said it for his father and mother, and his father said it for his father and mother, and so on back to some far point in Jewish time.
Reciting the mourner’s Kaddish also brings us to the presence of God. Our lives are often alienated from God and from spirituality. Reciting the Kaddish is an opportunity to remedy that. If the death has been a hard one for us, reciting the mourner’s Kaddish is also a way of seeking God’s Face in spite of the injustice of the death. The mourner’s Kaddish becomes a form of Tsidduk ha-Din, of allowing us the time to make some kind of peace with the judgment of God. In reciting the text, day after day, for the prescribed period, we come to reestablish relationship with God, even if we don’t fully understand. In reciting the Kaddish over and over again, we come repeatedly to meet God, Person-to-person, Presence-to-presence. We con-template (come into the temple together with) God’s presence. Even if God’s judgment is harsh, perhaps unjust, we are still in covenant with God. Reciting the Kaddish is an act of covenanting.
Finally, reciting the mourner’s Kaddish brings us face to face with the person who died. The tradition teaches that there are three ways to understand this encounter and each person must choose his or her own way in this matter.
The first is that the recitation of the Kaddish brings salvation to the dead person. This idea originates in the geonic period in the story of Rabbi Akiva who searches out the son of a dead man who has appeared to him. Rabbi Akiva teaches the son to say the Kaddish, and the son’s recitation redeems his father from hell. This motif became central in crusader Europe and remains current in many Jewish circles.
The second way of understanding the encounter with the deceased is rooted in a talmudic statement that “the son brings merit to the father”—not in the sense of redeeming him from hell but in the sense of fulfilling the charge that the father gave to the son in his lifetime. One recites the Kaddish. One studies Torah. One gives charity.
The third understanding of the child-parent encounter in the Kaddish reads God, the Father, as the true mourner, not the child. For, as the Talmud notes, when God hears His people reciting the Kaddish, He says, “Happy is the King Whose people praise Him so in His house! Woe unto the Father Who has exiled His children and woe unto the children who have been exiled from the table of their Father” (Talmud, Berakhot 3a). In this sense, the mourner is also the comforter, and one mourns “together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” which are the traditional words for parting from a mourner. In its deepest mystical sense, then, the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish reunites the Godhead that has been fragmented by pain, sorrow, and exile.
In the period after the shoah, the mourner’s Kaddish has taken on special meaning. How does one recite the Kaddish for 6,000,000 people? The mathematics is staggering: It takes 45 seconds to recite the mourner’s Kaddish at medium speed. To recite it six million times would take 270,000,000 seconds, which equals 4,500,000 minutes. If one were to do nothing else but recite the Kaddish for twelve hours a day, it would take 6,250 days, or just over 17 years, to recite one mourner’s Kaddish for each of the six million dead—not to speak of the year of Kaddish to which each would be entitled.
But it is not just the mathematics; it is the pain. How does one mourn the pain and the suffering? How does one mourn the oblivion to which so many were consigned—in unmarked graves, in concentration camp latrines, in piles of anonymous ashes? How does one imagine an act that brings their deaths to closure, that sets their deaths in a transcendent context? How can one comfort another for the shoah, and how can one be comforted?
And yet we persist. We gather for Yom ha-Shoah ceremonies, and we recite the mourner’s Kaddish. We gather at the prescribed times for Yizkor, the memorial service for the dead, and we add a special prayer for those who were murdered in the shoah, and we recite the mourner’s Kaddish. We say the martyrologies as part of the penitential services and we think of, and sometimes use special texts for, the exterminated. We gather on Tish`a Be-‘Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the two temples, and we acknowledge that it has become the day for commemorating the shoah, and we recite the mourner’s Kaddish. We also go to visit the extermination camps, and we recite the Kaddish. It is my own custom that, if there are no mourners present at any service I attend, I recite the mourner’s Kaddish as often as it occurs—for the dead of the shoah. After the shoah,o service should pass without a Kaddish.
Even secular Jews, often even Jewish atheists, honor this custom. For these Jews, the mourner’s Kaddish is an expression of solidarity with the victims. It is an identification with the Jewishness that binds the victims to us. And it is a promise of resistance to the forces that brought about the shoah, wherever they may be.
From Elsewhere in the Daily Liturgy
“Indeed, in Your Hands are the Souls of the Living and the Dead”
Blessed are You during the day, and blessed are You at night.
Blessed are You when we lie down, and blessed are you when we get up.
Barukh ‘ata ba-yom, u-varukh ‘ata ba-laila
Barukh ‘ata de-shokhbeinu, u-varukh ‘ata be-kumeinu
Indeed, in Your hand are the souls of the living and the dead —
“In Whose hand is the soul of every living thing
and the spirit of every human body” (Job 12:10).
Ki ve-yadkha nafshot ha-hayyim veha-metim —
“‘Asher be-yado nefesh kol hai
ve-ruah kol besar ‘ish.”
Into Your hand I commit my soul —
“You have redeemed me, Lord, the God of truth” (Psalm 31:6).
Be-yadkha ‘afkid ruhi –
“Padita ‘oti, Adonay, El ‘emet”
This very beautiful prayer is part of the last blessing before the Amida in the evening service of most communities. The blessing as a whole begins with fourteen verses from Scripture before transitioning into this prayer. Note the very beautiful weaving of rabbinic liturgical Hebrew with the two verses, one from Job and the other from Psalms. It is almost a liturgical midrash. Both prayer-verses deal with death, truth, and the soul. Both are a committing of oneself to God’s care as evening approaches. The liturgy continues for another paragraph dealing with God’s personal providence in our lives.
We do not control our lives. We think we do. We act as if we do. But, really, we do not control our lives. Just think of what has happened in the past three years. Could one have foretold what was going to happen? What about the unexpected—for better and for worse? Yes, we set goals and we work toward them. But, that is only part of the process of life. Much of life is unexpected: disease, death, depression, and serious failure; and good things, too: a late marriage, a child or a grandchild, a business success, or recognition for one’s work. To say “Indeed, in Your hand are the souls of the living” is to recognize that there is some Power that participates in our destiny over which we have no control; it is to accept the presence of that mysterious Power in our lives. We may not understand it, but we accept it and we commit our being into its hand.
We do not control death either. We make a big effort to do so through diet, exercise, and investment, through wills and instructions, and through plain denial. But none of that works. Each of us—and each of our loved ones—dies, and ceases his or her physical existence. Where do we go after death? Who knows? Who can say? Jewish tradition teaches many things, some of them contradictory, about existence after death.
Most of Jewish religious tradition accepts the following analogy: If an embryo were asked about the world-to-come, it might rationally say, “There is no world-to-come. Life in this warm, comfortable sac is all there is. Who needs more? Breathing, what is that? Eating, what is that? Other beings, what is that?” But, the embryo would be wrong. There is a world-to-come for embryos; it is life in this world. By analogy, when we are asked about life after death, we could be tempted to say rationally, “There is no world-to-come. Life is pretty good here. There is certainly no firm evidence of anything after this life.” We would, if the analogy is holds, be wrong. There just might be an existence after this one, an existence we are no more capable of imagining than an embryo is capable of imagining life in this world.
The teaching of traditional Judaism on life in the world-to-come begins with this analogy and asserts, ‘Yes, there is a life after death, even though we do not know the details thereof.’ For us to say, then, “Indeed, in Your hand are the souls of the living and the dead” is, in part, to affirm this belief. It is to accept that the Power that is present in our present lives is also present in our future lives, whatever that may entail. To say this prayer is to accept that life does not end with death. It is to say that life continues, somehow, encompassed by the presence of God.
It is my opinion that life is characterized by power and moral responsibility. Thus, a child has little power but little responsibility. Teenagers have more power and, hence, more responsibility; growing up is realizing this. Adults have even more of both. Political leaders, doctors, and certain others have yet more power, yet more responsibility. The One with the most power is God, but God also has the most responsibility. It seems to me to be possible, even probable, that existence after death is part of this continuum; that, when we die, we have more power and also more responsibility than we have in this world, even though we cannot imagine how that power is exercised. We will not have as much as God, but we will have more. There may even be a level of existence that has more power and more responsibility than the one after this. Why not? The continuum goes on until one reaches ultimate power and ultimate responsibility, not a position many of us would want to be in. Saying this prayer opens us up to that dimension of existence that is so far beyond us that we can only remain puzzled, and yet comforted.
(The concept of “fate” or “destiny” may seem more appealing to those not inclined to believe in God or to accept God’s presence in their lives. However, fate or destiny as a concept is no clearer than the concept of the world to come. Fate is blind; destiny is arbitrary. Neither is in our hands or in the hands of a transcendent power. Fate and destiny are deliberately devoid of any concept of transcendent justice, spiritual bliss, or divine caring. It seems to me, then, though I respect those who disagree, that since the religious worldview has other emotional, intellectual, and spiritual advantages, it is best to take the afterlife in its simplest form—that there exists a life after death and that we know very little, if anything, about that existence – and to accept it as part of the worldview of religious living.)
When else would one use these very beautiful reflections on life and death that we recite at the end of each day? One might use them in any situation where one has done all one can and where the only thing left to do is to commit oneself into the care of that which is beyond us. When I was very sick and on the way to intensive care, I recited these verses. It was all that was left to do.
“The King Who Personally Will Always Reign”
Blessed are You, Lord, the King Who Personally
Will always reign over us forever and ever
And over all His works.
Baruh ‘ata Adonay, ha-Melekh bi-khevodo
tamid yimlokh `aleinu le-`olam va`ed
ve-`al kol ma`asav
In most rites, the last prayer before the Amida of the evening service ends with this blessing. It is preceded by fourteen verses and a beautiful paragraph that weaves liturgical rabbinic Hebrew with two more verses. Then comes the final paragraph that, again, weaves liturgical Hebrew with a fifteenth verse, thus paralleling the fifteen Psalms of the Steps, 120-134, that were recited by the levites on the fifteen steps of the temple (Mishna, Sukka 5:2). As the closing blessing indicates, the motif of this concluding paragraph is God’s personal providence in our lives.
There is a tension in the biblical story of the Exodus. On the one hand, we read, “And the Lord will pass through to strike Egypt” (Exodus 12:23) indicating that God Godself carried out the tenth plague. This is supported by a later verse (Exodus 13:29), “And the Lord struck every firstborn in the land of Egypt.” On the other hand, we read in the continuation of the same verse (Exodus 12:23), “and will see the blood on the threshold and on the two doorposts, and the Lord will pass over the opening and will not allow the Destroyer to come into your houses to strike” which indicates that it is the Destroyer who executed the tenth plague, not the Lord. The text of the Passover Haggada resolves this problem by creating a midrash that integrates a third verse (Deuteronomy 26:8) which, in turn, cites a fourth verse (Exodus 12:12) as support:
“And the Lord took us out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 26:8)—not by an angel, and not by a fiery being, and not by an agent. Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, Personally as it says, “And I shall pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I shall strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from humans to animals, and I shall pass judgment against the gods of Egypt, I am the Lord” (Exodus 12:12).
The Haggada, thus, understands the fourfold use of “I” in Exodus 12:12 as probative—it was the Lord, not the Destroyer, who carried out the tenth and final plague.
The word from the Haggada that I have translated as “Personally” is bi-khevodo; literally, “in His Glory.” There is a common variant of the Haggada text that reads the midrash even more strongly: bi-kehvodo uve-`atsmo, “in His Glory and in His Himself-ness.” I would translate this variant as “Personally and Individually” to make the point that the rabbis understood that it was God, Godself, and not any other heavenly agent at all, Who redeemed the Jewish people from Egypt. (The medieval philosophers understood this variant as, “in His physical manifestation and in His essence.”)
The word bi-khevodo appears in this last blessing of the evening liturgy. Its thrust is to teach that it is God, Godself—or God, Personally—Who will rule over us, and over all God has made, always and forever.
The thought is an important one: God’s kingship is not remote. God is not an impersonal Force, somewhere, out beyond everything. God is not just the Power, the Energy, of the universe. Rather, when we recite this blessing, we affirm that God’s kingship is personal, physically manifest among us; that God, personally, is involved in the lives of all that God has created. A good motif on which to enter the evening Amida.
“Salvation and Consolation”
For You are the master of salvations and the master of consolations.
Ki ‘ata hu ba`al ha-yehsu`ot u-va`al ha-nehamot.
He will be generous unto us … for blessing, for salvation, for consolation …
ve-hu yigmeleinu la`ad … li-verakha, vi-yeshu`a, le-nehama …
May the Merciful One send us Elijah, the prophet, may he be remembered for good, and announce to us good tidings, salvations and consolations.
ha-Rahaman hu yishlah lanu ‘et ‘Eliyahu ha-navi’ zakhur la-tov ve-yevasser lanu besorot tovot, yeshu`ot ve-nehamot.
This motif of salvation coupled with consolation occurs three times in the Birkat ha-Mazon (Grace after Meals). The first occurrence is in the third blessing, in the paragraph added on Shabbat. The second is in the fourth blessing, toward the beginning. And the third is in the same fourth blessing, toward the end. The phrase occurs in the singular form (Hebrew, yeshu`a ve-nehama) and in the plural form (Hebrew, yeshu`ot ve-nehamot). Because it is in the Grace after Meals, which is recited every time one partakes of bread, this phrase is known to every observant Jew.
The same motif occurs in three other prominent places in the liturgy:
May it be the will of our Father in heaven that we hear and be given announcement of good tidings, salvations and consolations. May He gather those dispersed from the four corners of the earth. And let us say, Amen.
Yehi ratson mi-lifnei ‘Avinu sheba-shamayim she-nishma` ve-nitbasser besorot tovot, yeshu`ot ve-nehamot, ve-yikabbets niddaheinu ma-‘arba` kanfot ha-‘arets, ve-nomar Amen.
(recited on weekdays while binding the Torah scroll for return to the ark)
May the Holy One, blessed be He, renew it [the new month]
for us and for all his people, the house of Israel,
for life and for peace, for joy and for happiness,
for salvation and for consolation.
And let us say, Amen.
Yehaddesheihu ha-Kadosh, barukh hu,
`aleinu ve-`al kol `amo beit Yisrael
le-hayyim ule-shalom, le-sason ule-simha,
(prayer for announcing the New Moon)
Our God, and God of our ancestors, renew this month for us
for good and for blessing, for joy and happiness,
for salvation and for consolation …
’Eloheinu ve-‘elohei ‘avoteinu, haddesh `aleinu ‘et ha-hodesh ha-zeh
le-tova veli-verakha, le-sason ule-simha,
li-yeshu`a ule-nehama …
(Musaf for the New Moon)
There are only two related texts that I am aware of. The first, which does not use exactly the same language, is in the prayer used just before one calls up the first person to the reading of the Torah: “And may He fill the desires of our hearts in good measure [with] salvation and mercy” (Hebrew, vi-yemalle’ mish’aloteinu be-midda tova yeshu`a ve-rahamim). The second is not in a liturgical text, but does use the exact language; it is in a midrash that states that “whenever R. Yishma’el wanted to go up to heaven [in a mystical trance], he would make use of the Name and he would go up. And the angel Gabriel would show him the salvations and consolations (Hebrew, yeshu`ot ve-nehamot) that would come upon Israel in the future” (Otsar Midrashim, Nidda 7).
What a strange juxtaposition. First comes salvation(s) and then comes consolation(s). Why would salvation need to be followed by consolation?
“Salvation,” in Jewish tradition, is not individual; it is national. Salvation, in Jewish tradition, also takes place in this world. It is the collective redemption of Jews from Egypt or from Exile. It is the political, social, and religious reconstitution of the Jewish people, as a community, in its homeland. In Judaism, salvation is not for the individual and it is not other-worldly, as is the case in some other religions. Salvation takes place inside human history. The messiah will be a real person. The messianic period will be a real moment in history, no matter how far away it may seem from the politics of our times.
Because salvation will take place in real time, it will require sacrifice. Since it will take place in our world of good and evil, God’s salvation will have a price. And it will be a big price. Salvation will cost us lives and considerable substance. Many will be displaced. Many will lose what they have. And, many will die. For this reason, the prayerbook teaches us that we will experience salvation(s) followed byconsolation(s).
And, as this is true of the ultimate salvation, so it is also true of the local salvations. The salvation of the Jewish people in its homeland has repeatedly brought with it the cost of young Jewish lives and, with that, the consolations to their families and to the whole Jewish people. There is no salvation without consolation.
From The Shabbat Liturgy
“Peace Unto You, Oh Angels”
Peace unto you, oh angels of service
Who are from the King of the king of kings
The Holy One, blessed be He.
Shalom `Aleichem, mal’akhei ha-sharet
mi-Melekh malkhei ha-melakhim
ha-Kadosh, barukh Hu
Come in peace, oh angels of peace
Who are from the King of the king of kings
The Holy One, blessed be He.
Bo’akhem le-shalom, mal’akhei ha-shalom
mi-Melekh malkhei ha-melakhim
ha-Kadosh, barukh Hu
Bless me with peace, oh angels of peace
Who are from the King of the king of kings
The Holy One, blessed be He.
Barekhuni le-shalom, mal’akhei ha-shalom
mi-Melekh malkhei ha-melakhim
ha-Kadosh, barukh Hu
Go in peace, oh angels of peace
Who are from the King of the king of kings
The Holy One, blessed be He.
Tseitkhem le-shalom, mal’akhei ha-shalom
mi-Melekh malkhei ha-melakhim
ha-Kadosh, barukh Hu
This poem is the beginning of the home service for Shabbat. It is recited then because tradition teaches that angels accompany one home from synagogue after the evening service, and they stay with us for the whole Shabbat.
The problem here is why one would wish the angels “go in peace”; they have, after all, just arrived. Some texts solve the problem by changing the text to be-tseitkhem, “when you go…” That seems to be a stretch.
We learn from the tradition that when Jacob returned to the Holy Land after his sojourn with his uncle in Syria, he stopped at a place called Mahanayim, the place of the two camps (Genesis 32:3). The rabbis understand this to mean that the angels who watched over him in his exile left him and he was joined by a host of angels who would watch over him now in the Land of Israel.
Following this midrash, I prefer to think that we have angels all the time, and some of them work to make peace among us. Some work to make world peace; others work to make family peace. By Friday night, they must be exhausted. So, we wish those angels who have worked for peace all week, “Go in peace, oh angels of peace, who are from the King of the king of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
“Wondrous Power and Faithfulness”
Wondrous power and faithfulness belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-‘aderet veha-‘emuna le-hayy `olamim
Deep understanding and blessing belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-bina veha-berakha le-hayy `olamim
Mystical power and grandeur belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-ga’ava veha-gedula le-hayy `olamim
Knowledge and speech belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-de`ah veha-dibbur le-hayy `olamim
Awesome beauty and majesty belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-hod veha-hadar le-hayy `olamim
Time and reliability belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-va`ad veha-vatikut le-hayy `olamim
Clarity and radiance belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-zokh veha-zohar le-hayy `olamim
Strength and abundance belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-hayyil veha-hosen le-hayy `olamim
Order and purity belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-tekes veha-tohar le-hayy `olamim
Oneness and awe belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-yihud veha-yir’a le-hayy `olamim
Crown and glory belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-keter veha-kavod le-hayy `olamim
Teaching and rapture belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-lekah veha-libuv le-hayy `olamim
Kingship and dominion belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-melukha veha-memshala le-hayy `olamim
Pure beauty and timelessness belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-noy veha-netsah le-hayy `olamim
Sublimity and transcendence belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-sigui veha-segev le-hayy `olamim
Might and humility belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-`oz veha-`anava le-hayy `olamim
Splendor and miracle belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-pe’er veha-pele’ le-hayy `olamim
Desire and just measure belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-tsvi veha-tsedek le-hayy `olamim
Calling “Sacred” belongs to the One Who lives forever.
ha-keri’a veha-kedusha le-hayy `olamim
Melody and exaltedness belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-ron veha-romeimut le-hayy `olamim
Song and praise belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-shir veha-shevah le-hayy `olamim
Psalm and magnificence belong to the One Who lives forever.
ha-tehilla veha-tif’eret le-hayy `olamim
Found in the Pirkei Heikhalot, this hymn is one of the oldest mystical poems in Jewish liturgy, perhaps as early as the 2nd century C. E. It is one of the songs of celestial praise that the angels sing to God in God’s Throne room. It has the form of a double alphabetic acrostic and a regular refrain. It is recited in certain traditions on Shabbat and holiday mornings.
Each term describes an aspect of God’s power and majesty. Indeed, each of these words is from the realm of the numinous; each is a synonym for holiness. Note the multiple terms for power (“wondrous power,” “mystical power,” “strength,” “might”), for beauty (“awesome beauty,” “pure beauty”), for majesty (“grandeur,” “majesty,” “kingship,” “dominion,” “splendor,” “magnificence”), and for purity (“clarity,” “radiance,” “purity). Note, too, that there are very few moral terms (“faithfulness,” “reliability,” “humility,” “just measure”). Each, in its turn, is ‘awesome,’ a synonym for holiness.
Aderet – is “the cloak of power” like the cloak Elijah uses to split the river
Emuna – is “faith-ful-ness,” not “belief”
Ga’ava – is the spiritual power of the mystics in this literature, rooted in Ps. 93, ge’ut
Va`ad – is God’s power over time
Vatikut – a rabbinic term denoting God’s reliability (see Talmud, Shabbat 105a)
Hosen – “The faithfulness of your times will be the abundance of redemptions, wisdom, and knowledge; the fear of God will be its treasure” (Is. 33:6).
Tekes – is a ceremony, an ordering of things
Libuv – “Make me at one with your heart, my sister, my bride” (Song of Songs 4:9).
Sigui – “How sublime is God; we cannot comprehend it” (Job 36:26).
Segev – with the Hebrew, nisgav
Pe’er – Tefillin are humankind’s crown; hence, “splendor”
Pele’ – I follow alternate versions here with “miracle” being more numinous language than “redemption” and, hence, closer to the overall tone of the hymn.
Tsvi – “From the ends of the earth we have heard melodies, a desire of the Righteous One” (Is. 24:16).
Keri’a – Kedusha – referring to the angels calling Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh…to one another
Tehilla – is a psalm
(Translation by Sally Chambers Pias and David R. Blumenthal)
“Our Limbs Will Give Thanks, Bless, Praise…”
Our limbs will give thanks, bless, praise, extol, exalt, glorify, sanctify, and proclaim Your name as King.
Hem yodu, vi-yevar’khu, vi-yeshabb’hu, vi-yefa’aru, vi-yerommemu, vi-ya`aritsu, ve-yakdishu, ve-yamlikhu ‘et shimkha.
For to You, oh Lord our God and God of our ancestors, belong song and praise, hymn and song, might and majesty, eternity, greatness and power, praise and glorification, holiness and sovereignty, blessings and thanksgiving.
Ki lekha na’eh ‘Adonay ‘eloheinu ve-‘elohei ‘avoteinu shir u-shevaha, hallel ve-zimra, `oz u-memshala, netsah, gedula u-gevura, tehilla ve-tif’eret, kedusha u-malkhut, berakhot ve-hoda’ot.
These two short quotations come from Nishmat kol hay, the blessing just before the beginning of the Nusah ha-Tefilla for Shabbat morning. They are, however, very typical of rabbinic liturgical Hebrew in that they consist of a list of synonyms, which also has a distinct rhythm.
Here, the first list is eight terms long; the second is fifteen terms long. One cannot tell from the English, but reading the Hebrew will quickly show that these terms also have a rhythm and often have the same concluding syllable, thus giving the impression of being rhymed.
Sometimes the shorter lists are arranged in a chain. The following example comes from the daily liturgy (which is also used on Shabbat and holidays):
They [the angels] – all are beloved, all are pure, all are powerful
Kullam ‘ahuvim, kullam berurim, kullam gibborim
They all do the will of their Creator in fear and trembling
Ve-khullam `osim be-‘eima uve-yir’a retson konam
They all open their mouths with holiness and purity, with chant and song
Ve-khullam pot’him ‘et pihem bi-kedusha uve-tahora, be-shira uve-zimra
And they bless, praise, extol, glorify, sanctify, and proclaim as sovereign…
u-mevar’khim, u-meshabbehim, u-mefa’arim, u-ma`aritsim u-makdishim, u-mamlikhim…
Note that the first line is the beginning of an alphabetic acrostic that was probably much fuller at one time. Note, too, that the rhythmic repetition of the first line is interrupted by the second line but resumed in the following two lines.
Sometimes the list is more complicated as in the following example, also from Nishmat kol hay, but it still has the style of the rhythmic list:
If our lips were as full as the sea with song, and our tongues as rejoicing as the roaring of its waves, and our eyes as shining as the sun and the moon, and our hands as spread out as the wings of eagles, and our feet as light-footed as gazelles, we would not be able…
‘Ilu finu male’ shira ka-yam, u-leshoneinu rinna ka-hamon gallav, ve-`eineinu me’irot ka-shemesh vekha-yareah, ve-yadeinu perusot ke-nishrei shamayim, ve-ragleinu kallot ka-‘ayalot, ‘ein ‘anahnu maspikim…
One can call this distinctive rabbinic style of liturgical writing: the rhythmic list. It is found in shorter and longer forms throughout the prayerbook. Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, found this rabbinic style to be common in early Jewish mystical (Merkaba) writing, and he identified the “flywheel effect” of this writing; that is, the mere recitation of these rhythmic lists has a hypnotic effect and, if the lists are long enough, can induce a trance state. A full text of one of these hymns survives in the prayerbook of today. Another survives in the Friday night prayer at table that begins: Melekh ‘abir, Melekh barukh, Melekh gadol, Melekh dover shalom, Melekh hadur … (“Oh King Who is …”). Both of these hymns is a list of twenty two alphabetically arranged adjectives describing God. More such rhythmic hymns survive at the end of the Selihot (penitential prayers preceding Yom Kippur).
The rabbis who shaped the liturgy were familiar with such mystical texts and chose to insert very mild forms thereof into the Siddur – not enough to induce a trance, but enough to hint at such states of religious consciousness, as well as to remind those who were already initiated that such states existed. Some rabbis even chose to preserve a few of these hymns in their entirety within the Siddur.
Studying the Siddur requires one to be aware of this form of rhythmic lists every time it occurs, to wonder whether there was once a more intensely mystical set of lists whose very rhythmic, rhyming, and sometimes alphabetical arrangement led to a more intensely mystical form of rabbinic Jewish worship, and to open oneself to the flywheel effect of these hymns.
“There is None Like You”
“God” – in the stronghold of Your strength
“the Great One” – in the glory of Your Name
“the Powerful One” – for all time
“the Awesome One” – in Your wondrous acts
“the King” – Who sits on the high and exalted throne.
ha-’El – be-ta`atsumot `uzzekha
ha-Gadol – bi-khevod shmekha
ha-Gibbor – la-netsah
veha-Nora’ – be-nor’otekha
ha-Melekh – ha-yosheiv `al kisse’ ram ve-nissa’
This passage is taken from the Shabbat morning liturgy, right after the psalms of praise and right before the Nusah ha-Tefilla (the Core Liturgy) of the morning service. It is part of the praise of God. What is unusual about this prayer is its form, for it is in classic midrashic form in which a verse is broken down into its constituent parts and each part is commented upon. The verse is as follows: “God, the Great One, the Powerful One, the Awesome One” (Ha-’El, ha-Gadol, ha-Gibbor, veha-Nora’). It is not actually cited in the text because it is so well known. It originates in Nehemiah 9:32: “And now, our God, God, the Great One, the Powerful One, the Awesome One, Who remembers the covenant….” More importantly the phrase “God, the Great One, the Powerful One, the Awesome One” appears in the first paragraph of the Amida and is recited and repeated out loud three times a day. After citing the verse, the rabbis added here the additional appellative “the King” (ha-Melekh). The motif of God as King is one of the most central rabbinic motifs: Referring to God as King is central to the High Holiday liturgy. The motif of “accepting the yoke of God’s kingdom” is central. And so on.
Having cited the verse, the rabbis, in classical midrashic form, split it into separate words and commented, or expanded, upon each word: “’God’ – in the stronghold of Your strength”; “‘the Great One’ – in the glory of Your Name”; and so on.
Every traditional Jew knows this original verse and its paraphrase, and many are familiar with the midrashic form of “split [the verse into words or phrases] and comment,” so this “liturgical midrash” was easily embedded in the liturgy.
The liturgical midrash, as a form, is intuitively so acceptable that another follows a few pages later in the Nusah ha-Tefilla for Shabbat morning itself:
“There is none comparable to You,
and no one other than You.
There is no one but You,
and no one who resembles You.”
‘Ein ke-`erkekha, ve-’ein zulatekha
‘efes biltekha, ve’ein domeh lakh
“There is none comparable to You” – Adonay, our God,
in this world
“and no one other than You” – our King,
for the world to come
“There is no one but You” – our Redeemer,
for the days of the messiah
“and no one who resembles You” – our Savior,
for the resurrection.
‘Ein ke-`erkekha – ‘Adonay ‘eloheinu,
ve-’ein zulatekha – Malkeinu,
le-hayyei ha-`olam ha-ba’
‘efes biltekha – Go’aleinu,
ve-’ein domeh lekha – Moshi`einu,
The structure of this liturgical midrash is clear: The verse is cited first. Then, the liturgist splits the verse into its components and comments, or expands, upon each one. Note that, when the verse is split, appellatives are added.
The interesting point here is that this is not a biblical verse at all! It is an original rabbinic text whose source is unknown. It may come from an early rabbinic liturgical text or, it may come from a contemporaneous rabbinic mystical text. Either way, its authority as a text upon which one can build a midrash is accepted, and then the text and its midrash are incorporated into the Core Liturgy! Note the reference to the world to come, the days of the messiah, and the resurrection of the dead.
There is yet another liturgical midrash though it is more complicated in its form. It is found in the daily evening service, from the last prayer before the Amida in most traditions. The prayer as is composed of nine biblical verses, followed by the rabbinic tapestry cited here:
Blessed is Adonay by day.
Blessed is Adonay by night.
Blessed is Adonay when we lie down.
Blessed is Adonay when we rise up.
Barukh ‘Adonay ba-yom.
Barukh ‘Adonay ba-layla.
Barukh ‘Adonay be-shokhveinu.
Barukh ‘Adonay be-kumeinu.
Indeed, in Your hand are the souls of the living and the dead –
“In Whose hand is the soul of every living thing
and the spirit of every human body” (Job 12:10).
Ki ve-yadkha nafshot ha-hayyim veha-metim –
“‘Asher be-yado nefesh kol hai
ve-ruah kol besar ‘ish.”
Into Your hand I commit my soul –
“You have redeemed me, Lord, the God of truth” (Psalms 31:6).
Be-yadkha ‘afkid ruhi –
“Padita ‘oti, ‘Adonay, ‘El ‘emet”
First, comes the short litany (“Barukh”). Then, there are two texts, each with a one-line rabbinic prayer that is followed by a quotation from Scripture. This is a midrashic form in which Scripture is used as a proof-text for the thesis of the prayer.
Without careful study of the prayers, we would miss the elegance of the compounded forms and their seamless integration into one prayer.
“Blessed is He”
Blessed is He Who, in His holiness, gave the Torah to His people Israel.
Barukh she-natan Torah le-`amo Yisrael bi-kedushato.
The liturgy for Shabbat follows the daily liturgy rather closely. The introductory prayers are the same. The psalms of praise are slightly expanded. The Nusah ha-Tefilla is the same except that the petitions of the daily Amida are removed, and prayers relating to Shabbat are inserted. Further, the closing prayers are almost the same on Shabbat and on weekdays. To this basic liturgy one adds, on Shabbat, the Musaf Amida that contains a prayer for the restoration of the temple and the sacrifices.
The main difference between the Shabbat and the daily liturgy is in the presence of the reading from the Torah for, although the Torah is read on Monday and Thursday mornings, that reading is very short (one seventh of the weekly reading) and usually very quick because the people present have to get to work. On Shabbat, the full weekly reading and the Haftara (reading from the prophets) are both read.
For liturgical purposes, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is divided into units that can be read weekly such that one completes the whole Torah in one calendar year. (There was a time when the liturgical division was such that the cycle was completed once in three years, but that was abandoned.) This means that 5-6 chapters of the Torah are read publically every week. (The actual division into chapters is a much later phenomenon and does not guide the rabbinic lectionary cycle.)
Normally, the weekly liturgical reading is divided into seven parts, and members of the congregation are called up to the Torah. They recite the blessing, the Torah is read, and they recite a concluding blessing. In Orthodox synagogues, only men are called to the Torah; in liberal synagogues, men and women are called. The importance of the reading of the Torah is highlighted by the silver ornaments and the linen covering of the Torah, and by the public procession of the Torah from the ark to the reading table and the public procession returning it to the ark. Being called to the Torah has also become the center of the Bar and Bat Mitsva ceremony in most communities.
Why is this extended reading of Scripture added into the liturgy? The answer to this question goes to the core of `Iyyun tefilla, the interwoven nature of study and worship in traditional Judaism.
Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is one of the principle value-concepts of rabbinic Judaism. It is only through intellectually aggressive study that one comes to know the will of God as expressed in sacred texts. Mere recitation of sacred texts is almost useless, precisely because the listener does not need to think about the text. In rabbinic Judaism, to listen to the text, to hear the text, even to recite the text is not enough; one must study it.
In the pursuit of Talmud Torah, no question is forbidden. Some questions are more useful than others, and some lead nowhere. Some are naïve, and some are learned. Some are wise, and some are impertinent. But even the wicked son of the Passover Haggada has a right to ask his question.
Maimonides, the great philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, is adamant on the subject. Two examples: First, Maimonides adopts the philosophic view that God is pure intellect, without any physical (anthropomorphic) or emotional (anthropopathic) dimensions. However, the Bible uses both anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language when talking of God: God sees and God talks; and, God loves and is angry. Maimonides harmonizes these two systems of thought by teaching that God is pure mind, and that the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic descriptions of God in Scripture are metaphors and images (Code of Law, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 1:12). That is, Maimonides does not rule out an intellectually valid line of thought even though it contradicts the plain sense of Scripture.
Second, the neo-Aristotelian cosmology of Maimonides’ day taught that the universe was eternal, a doctrine that flatly contradicts the plain meaning of the Genesis story. Maimonides, however, does not rule such thought out of order; rather, he writes: “Know that our shunning the affirmation of the eternity of the universe is not due to a text in the Torah which teaches that the world was produced in time … because we could interpret [such texts as Genesis, chapter one] as figurative, as we did when proving that God has no body” (Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25, emphasis added). Maimonides, thus, rules that every intellectually respectable question is allowed, perhaps even encouraged.
The ritual reading of the Torah in the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays is, first, an opportunity to confront our most sacred text. It is an opportunity to listen and to question. To be sure, we are not the first to ask most questions. So, the reading of the Torah is also an opportunity to see what others (maybe those more learned) have already said on the subjects that surface through reading the Torah. This opportunity to study is very central. I knew a rabbi who would leave the pulpit during the ritual reading of the Torah and conduct a study session in the synagogue library during the ritual reading. Many synagogues have study sessions before or after the liturgy. I know people who skip the liturgy and come only to the study sessions. In addition, the afternoon service on Shabbat includes a time set aside for the study of sacred texts. Talmud Torah is a central value, and the ritual reading of the Torah is the opportunity for that, bearing in mind that no question is forbidden, though we may always have answers.
The second reason for the centrality of the reading of the Torah is that it gives us a chance to enter into sacred history, to participate in the story of our people. This is not the same as studying. Franz Rosenzweig once commented that reading the story of Balaam’s talking ass (Numbers, chapters 22-24) in the study hall is not the same as reading it in the synagogue because, in the study hall, one questions aggressively but, in the synagogue, one suspends one’s critical sense and one enters into the story as a moment in holy history. To read the story of the Akeda, or the story of the Exodus, or the story of Sinai in the synagogue is to enter into the sacred history of our people. One cannot really do that on weekdays. One needs the sacred space of the Shabbat synagogue and the sacred time of the Shabbat and holidays to do that. One needs the rituality of the ritual reading to enter into sacred history.
Having read the weekly reading from the Torah, one reads the corresponding weekly reading from the prophets, the Haftara—for the same two reasons: one engages in close critical reading of the prophetic texts, including wondering why this text was chosen and not that; and, one enters into the moral of the lessons the prophets teach, into the eternal call to conscience that the prophets sound for us.
The ritual reading of the Torah and of the Haftara are, thus, central to the liturgy of Shabbat and holidays, in ways in which this is not possible on weekdays.
“We Will Do and We Will Sacrifice”
May it be Your will, oh Lord our God and God of our ancestors
that you bring us, in happiness, up to our land
and plant us within our boundaries.
There, we will do before You the sacrifices incumbent upon us —
the daily offerings according to their order
and the added offerings according to their laws.
We will do and sacrifice before You the added offering of this Shabbat
in love, in accordance with the command of Your will,
as You prescribed in Your Torah…
Yehi ratson mi-lefanekha, ‘Adonay ‘eloheinu ve-‘elohei ‘avoteinu
she-ta`aleinu be-simha le-‘artseinu
ve-sham na`aseh lefanekh ‘et korbenot hovoteinu
temidim ke-sidram u-musafim ke-hilkhatam
ve-‘et musaf yom ha-Shabbat ha-zeh na`aseh ve-nakriv lefanekha
be-‘ahava ke-mitsvat retsonekha
kemo she-katavta ‘aleinu be-Toratekha…
In the temple where sacrifices were practiced tamid and temidim were offered as the first sacrifice of the day at dawn and the last sacrifice of the day just before sunset. In between, other obligatory and voluntary sacrifices were offered. On Shabbat and holidays, additional sacrifices (Hebrew, musaf/musafim) were offered. When the temple was destroyed, the rabbis substituted an added Amida, also called Musaf, the beginning and ending of which were the same as the liturgy of the day, but whose middle prayer lamented the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people from the land and especially from Jerusalem, listed the appropriate sacrifice, and prayed for the restoration of the temple and the sacrifices offered in it. The paragraph above comes from the Musaf Amida.
Prayers for the restoration of the sacrifices are recited in traditional synagogues. Liberal synagogues reject the hope for the restoration of the sacrificial system and, hence, omit the Musaf service or use a substitute.
Why, after more than 1900 years of not having sacrifices, would one still pray for the restoration of sacrificial worship? Why, in a world in which animal rights are becoming more and more of a social issue, would one pray for the return of sacrifices (some of which involve animals) as a form of worship of God?
In a society made up of farmers and small merchants—and biblical and rabbinic Judaism were such a societies—animals are a part of one’s life. Not pets, animals: sheep, goats, cows, and so on. These animals are bred, cared for, and either sold or used for food. To have meat, one must kill one of these animals, either personally or through someone relatively close to home. Originally, all animal killing of was probably a sacrifice; that is, the meat resulting from a killing, perhaps done by an official, was shared between the official God by burning it on an altar. Killing an animal for food was thus a religious act.
In such a society, it would also have been natural to sacrifice part or one’s home-grown animals to God on occasions that warranted it: staunch petition, profound gratitude, and holidays. Furthermore, not only individuals but also whole communities felt the need to worship God through animal sacrifice daily, as well as on holidays and special occasions. Sin offerings were particularly impressive: one placed one’s hand on the animal, confessed one’s sins, and then killed (or had someone else kill) the animal before burning its various pieces giving them to the priests. After such offerings of staunch petition, profound gratitude, holidays, and especially confession, the person offering the sacrifice certainly felt as if something had been truly “sacrificed”; indeed, it had. A living animal, maybe one from one’s own farm, had lost its life. Its blood had been sprayed on the altar. Depending on the type of sacrifice, part of its flesh would be consumed by the family, part would be given to the priests, and part would be totally burned as an offering to God, the Creator of all life.
How different from a way of life in which meat is purchased already wrapped in plastic, or bought already cut and cleaned. How different from a way of life in which worship is composed of reading responsively, or of singing together, or of the recitation of texts. There is something very real about a life in which food, gratitude, and blood are all integrated. There is something very real about a life in which life, sin, death, and God all happen together. Such a way of life seems more substantial, more concrete than the disembodied forms of food provision and worship present in our own society. In our society, food is important socially but not religiously. In our society, worship is communal and sometimes meditative, but it is not the meeting point between life and death and the divine.
Praying for the restoration of the sacrifices is our opportunity to remind ourselves of the primacy of the linkage of food, blood, life, death, and God. Praying for the restoration of the sacrifices is our opportunity to yearn for the wholeness of the life-death-God biome. It is our opportunity to yearn for the concrete reality of real sacrifice.
From the Holiday Liturgy
“You Have Chosen Us”
You have chosen us from among all the peoples.
You have loved us, and desired us,
and lifted us up above all the languages,
and You have sanctified us with Your commandments,
and You have brought us close, our King, to worship of You,
and have called us by Your great and holy Name.
‘Ata behartanu mi-kol ha-`ammim
‘ahavta ‘otanu ve-ratsita vanu
ve-romamtanu mi-kol ha-leshonot
ve-keiravtanu malkeinu la-`avodatekha
ve-shimkha ha-gadol veha-kadosh `aleinu kara’ta.
The middle prayer of the Amida for all the services for the holidays begins with the above paragraph dealing with the chosenness of the Jewish people. The text then goes on to talk about the specific holiday and to pray for blessings.
In 1945, Mordecai Kaplan published the Sabbath Prayerbook of the Reconstructionist movement in which, among many modern innovations, he rejected the chosenness of the Jewish people and deleted all references thereto from the new prayerbook. This series of moves resulted in the burning of copies of the Sabbath Prayerbook and in the excommunication of Rabbi Kaplan. Looking back at the Introduction and the text of the Sabbath Prayerbook, one realizes that Kaplan was following the logic of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on the universal nature of humanity, with all the rights and responsibilities that that entails. Jews were like everyone else: members of the human race, and not chosen or singled out in any way by the divine. His saying this, and more importantly his publishing it in an otherwise very literate and learned Siddur, in the turbulent wake of the shoah was certainly part of what led to the traditional community’s extreme reaction. For his part, however, Kaplan anticipated the general openness to difference that has come to characterize contemporary society.
What does it mean to say that God “chooses”? No one likes to hear this, but God chooses and, having chosen, God jealously guards that which is His; God demands loyalty from those whom He chooses.
God chose to create the world. It is God’s possession. It belongs to God. For exactly that reason, no one may abuse or lay absolute claim to it.
God chose the Jewish people. They too, in their flesh, are God’s possession. They, too, belong to God. For exactly that reason, no one may abuse them or lay claim to absolute authority over them.
God chose the holy land. God resides in it. God’s people reside in it. The holy land, in its mountains and valleys, in its rocks and trees, is God’s possession. It belongs to God, and to God’s people. For exactly that reason, no one may abuse the land or the people’s right to it. The people, too, must respect God’s land because the land is theirs, from God.
The election of the Jews was always a scandal, an incomprehensible thought. How could a universal God elect one people among the myriads of creation? Non-Jews never understood, and they have hated Jews because of the claim, especially Christians and Moslems who trace their own chosenness to the same God. Jews have differed in their reactions. Some have rejoiced in their specialness; others, particularly modern Jews, have been embarrassed by it. But God, as God is presented in biblical and rabbinic tradition (as well as in Christian tradition) has personhood. God, as we know God from Scripture and tradition, has personality (in a broad sense of the word). And so it follows that God has preferences.
Personhood means having a character and a history, and character and history mean having preferences, being partial, partisan. One need not always act on one’s preferences. And, one must always carefully consider one’s preferences and the consequences of acting on them. But preference is core to personhood, to personality, in God and in humanity. Therefore, the scandal of particularity is core to Jewish (and to Christian) theology.
Among humans, there is no real reason for one’s preferences. It is chemistry, history, the template of the face, a look in the eye. It is biological, corporeal; it may be spiritual. It is blood. In real human life, preference is balanced by culture, reason, and religion. Therefore, preference may not be used to justify a misuse of power, but preference itself is real, unreasoned.
To choose is to be partisan, to be loyal, and to demand loyalty. It is to accept the election and to remain faithful to the elector, whether human or divine. It is to acknowledge that the one who chooses has a right to demand fidelity.
Choosing creates a bond. Among humans, preference is almost absolute; in God, preference is inalienable. Among humans, a marriage can end in divorce; not so, God’s marriage to humanity, in general and, more specifically, to the Jews. The Jews are God’s bride, God’s children, God’s bloodline. There is no escape, either for God or for the Jewish people. God does, and must, guard the Jews and the Jews do, and must, remain loyal to God.
One may challenge certain acts of loyalty or protection. Indeed, the blessing of moral judgment obligates one to do this. One may question specific demands of the covenant. Indeed, the blessing of mind obligates one to this. Revelation and creation empower, and make it one’s duty, to question, to challenge, and to disagree. One may even disown a demand or disclaim an act, but never the bond. Election and covenant demand faithfulness, even as the specifics are debatable.
The joy of chosenness is the knowledge that one is special. It is the joy of the first born, the comfort of knowing one is elected, forever, absolutely. The pain of chosenness is the sureness of being hated by everyone else, the certainty of persecution at the hands of others independent of one’s behavior toward them. Nothing I can do will change my status; this is joy, and burden.
What does it mean to be chosen by God?
To be chosen by God could mean that one is more human or more divine than everyone else. This belief, in turn, could lead to an entitlement, to a conviction that one has a monopoly on truth or on goodness. It could lead to uncompromising fanaticism. Many religions adhere to the belief of chosenness and to the sense of intellectual, moral, and political entitlement that that belief can entail. Traditional Judaism is not immune to this, either.
To be chosen by God could mean that one is chosen, not to dominate but to suffer; not to be superior, but to be the victim. Taken to a fanatic level, this could lead to a sense of entitlement, to a conviction that one’s own way is the only way. Some religions take this path, including certain streams of Jewish religion.
Mainstream Judaism, however, accepts the act of choosing, which is an act of love, and strives to live with the fact of being chosen—sometimes to question it in covenant, but always to live with it in covenant.
“Give Thanks unto the Lord” (Hallel)
Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His loving-kindness endures forever.
Let Israel say, “for His loving-kindness endures forever.”
Let the house of Aaron say, “for His loving-kindness endures forever.”
Let those who fear the Lord say, “for His loving-kindness endures forever.”
(Psalms 118: 1-4)
Hodu la-’Adonay ki tov, ki le-`olam hasdo.
Yomar na’ Yisrael, ki le-`olam hasdo.
Yomru na’ veit ‘Aharon, ki le-`olam hasdo.
Yomru na’ yir’ei ‘Adonay, ki le-`olam hasdo.
Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His loving-kindness endures forever. (Psalms 118: 29)
Hodu la-‘Adonay ki tov, ki le-`olam hasdo.
On certain holidays, the liturgy prescribes the recitation of Psalms 113 through 118, which together are called Hallel. There is much to say about these psalms: about the biblical style of rapidly shifting voices, about the sharp insights of individual verses or groups of verses, and about their choice as the liturgical expression of gratitude. Here, I wish to focus on this small piece because, like “Please, Lord, save, please,” it seems to me to be central to the idea of what it means to praise God, and because the ritual attached to these verses is very deep.
The short version “for His loving-kindness endures forever” occurs 41 times in Scripture, including 26 times in Psalm 136, a hymn of praise that may have been recited responsively even in temple times, and 5 occurrences in Hallel (Psalms 118:1-4, 29). The long version “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His loving-kindness endures forever” occurs 14 times in Scripture, including 7 times in this exact form and another 7 times in related forms (e.g., “Give thanks unto the Lord of lords, for His loving-kindness endures forever” Psalms 136:2). Two occurrences of the long version are in Hallel (Psalms 118:1, 29).
This expression of gratitude, then, was central to biblical worship and was later included in rabbinic worship as follows: Psalms 136 is included in the preliminary psalms on Shabbat and holidays, and is also included in the liturgy of the Passover Haggada; Hallel is recited on most holidays.
Why is the expression of gratitude so central to religious life?
There are some moments that are just miracles. The very fact that in good times and bad, we can just open our hearts and our being to God and sense His Rresence is a miracle. “If you seek the Lord, your God, from anywhere, you will find [Him]—if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Dt. 4:29). One only has to turn to God to see His Face. One only has to admit the hand of God in one’s life, even in deep trouble, to feel His Presence. When this happens—and it does—we say, “Give thanks unto the Lord, for His loving-kindness endures forever”; that is, the infinite Presence of God’s loving-kindness is always available to us. Reciting this verse in Hallel acknowledges, and affirms, this.
The miracle of God’s Presence sometimes comes to us after great personal accomplishment: a marriage, the birth of a child or grandchild, being saved from a terrible accident or a terrible illness, or an unexpected kindness from someone else. When this happens—and it does—we say, “Give thanks unto the Lord, for His loving-kindness endures forever”; that is, the infinite loving-kindness of God is felt by us in the special events of our lives. Reciting this verse in Hallel acknowledges, and affirms, this.
The miracle of God’s Presence sometimes comes to us after a great national moment: release from a war, a great scientific advancement, a pilgrimage, and so on. Here, too, when this happens—and it does—we say, “Give thanks unto the Lord, for His loving-kindness endures forever”; that is, the infinite Presence of God’s loving-kindness is felt by us in our life as a community. Reciting this verse in Hallel acknowledges, and affirms, this.
There are many, many melodies for these verses. Some positively jump with joy in the Presence of God. Others re-sound the depths of holiness. And still others pour out the pain of the heart of the one who sings them.
On Sukkot, when one recites verses 1-4 and, again, when one recites verse 29, one takes the lulav (palm branch) and the ‘etrog (the citron) and one “moves” (or “shakes”) them as one is chanting the verses. There are different traditions for these “movements”; I give here only one:
One begins by grasping the lulav and ‘etrog in both one’s hands at chest level, and one faces east. When one says hodu/“Give thanks,” one moves one’s hands with the lulav and the ‘etrog forward and then back to chest position, three times. (Many people also shake the lulav and ‘etrog each time they are extended.)
When one recites la-‘Adonay/“to the Lord,” one holds the chest position and does not move at all out of respect for the Ineffable Name of God.
When one recites ki/“for,” one turns one’s body to the right (south), repeats the three-fold movement (with shaking), and returns to the first position facing east.
When one recites tov/“He is good,” one turns one’s body again to the right, facing backwards (west), repeats the three-fold movement (with shaking), and returns to the first position facing east.
When one recites ki/“for,” one turns one’s body from the beginning position (east) to the left (north), repeats the three-fold movement (with shaking), and returns to the first position facing east.
When one recites le-`olam/“endures forever,” one turns from starting position (east) and lifts one’s head upward (above), repeats the three-fold movement (with shaking), and returns to the first position facing east.
And when one recites hasdo/“His loving-kindness,” one turns from starting position (east) and bends one head downward (below), repeats the three-fold movement (with shaking), and returns to the first position facing east.
In doing this, the person following the liturgical movements has turned and “moved” (shaken) the lulav and ‘etrog in all the six directions of space (forward, right, behind, left, up, and below).
In most congregations, the primary line “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His loving-kindness endures forever,” is recited as a refrain four times during verses 1-4 and a fifth time when reciting verse 29.
Having mastered the words, the melody, and the movements, the person reciting this line must now add the kavvana, that is, the intentionality of the prayer. Here, too, there is much to know and hold in one’s mind. But, to start, one would want to proclaim and acknowledge God as King in all the six directions of space. One would want to experience God’s Presence by directing one’s actions to all the dimensions of space.
“Please, Lord, Save, Please”
Please, Lord, save, please
Please, Lord, grant victory, please. (Psalm 118: 25)
‘Ana ‘Adonay, hoshi`a na’
‘Ana ‘Adonay, hatsliha na.
On certain holidays, the liturgy prescribes the recitation of Psalms 113 through 118, which together are called Hallel. There is much to say about these psalms: about the biblical style of rapid shifting of voices, about the sharp insights of individual verses or groups of verses, and about their choice as the liturgical expression of gratitude. Here, I wish to focus on this small piece because, like “Give thanks to the Lord,” it seems to be central to the idea of what it means to praise God, and because the ritual attached to these verses is very deep.
Perhaps the most complex piece of rabbinic liturgy is the recitation of Psalm. 118:25, “Please, Lord, save, please. Please, Lord, grant victory, please.” This verse, which is toward the end of Hallel, can be recited with varying levels of awareness.
On the cognitive level, the rabbinic Jew or Jewess reciting this verse must become aware of the various meanings of the words. One must first become aware of their simple, direct meaning. Then one must become aware of their context within this very beautiful psalm, which itself speaks of “crying from the straits” and of God’s response. Then, one must become aware of the report in the Mishna (Sukka 4:5) concerning the circumambulation of the altar during which this verse was recited, and that, according to another sage, a strange metamorphosis of this verse was recited: “I and Ho, save, please,” and that this metamorphosed version occurs in the later liturgy and is reputed to have magical properties. Then, one would have to learn the melodies for this verse that vary from occasion to occasion and from community to community. Ultimately, the praying rabbinic Jewess or Jew would need to be aware of the kabbalistic “unifications” attendant upon recitation of this verse.
On the performative level, the rabbinic Jewess or Jew reciting this verse must become aware of the relevant rabbinic regulations: that it is recited by the leader first and then by the congregation; that, on Sukkot, there are prescribed “movements” of the lulav and ‘etrog which accompany the recitation of this verse, and that all movements cease when the word “Adonay/Lord” is said. (The principle of the movements is the same as those for “Give thanks” but, since the words are different, so are the movements.) And then, one would actually have to perform these movements, together with the words and the melody. Ultimately, the praying rabbinic Jew or Jewess, being already aware of the kabbalistic “unifications” attendant upon recitation of this verse, would actually “make” them.
On the intentional level, the rabbinic Jew or Jewess reciting this verse must make herself or himself aware of what it is one is praying for — of that from which one wishes to be “saved,” of what kind of “victory” one wishes to have. One must begin with simple personal needs: health, sustenance, strength, love, and insight. Then, one must broaden one’s awareness to include the needs of one’s family, immediate and more remote. Then, one must make oneself aware of the needs of Jews elsewhere: their need for peace, for security, for freedom. Then, one must make oneself aware of the needs of humankind for peace, for sustenance, and for life.
On a deeper intentional level, the rabbinic Jewess or Jew reciting this verse must become aware of himself or herself. One must first become aware of one’s own physical presence; then, of one’s presence in the greater congregation of worshiping Jews the world over; then, of one’s presence in the greater congregation of worshiping Jews through time; and so on.
On yet a deeper intentional level, the rabbinic Jew or Jewess must also become aware of herself or himself and, indeed, of all people, as truly, existentially alone, separated from one another by the silence that separates all being, and realize that one’s prayer to be saved is a primal cry into eternity — for oneself, for one’s children, and for all people everywhere.
On yet an even deeper intentional level, the rabbinic Jewess or Jew would have to become aware of those sisters and brothers of the flesh and spirit who cannot pray, whose lives were cut off in the crematoria; they, too, deserve to have their prayers recited. In this way, the praying rabbinic Jewess or Jew becomes more than herself or himself; one’s consciousness becomes the instantiation of theirs. Our presentness becomes their presentness, and we speak, or rather cry out, for them, too.
On the spiritual level, the rabbinic Jew or Jewess reciting this verse must become aware of God. One must become aware of God’s absolute transcendence, of the utter power of God, which knows no limits but those which are Self-imposed. Then, one must become aware of God’s absolute love of humankind, of the inalienable bond to which God has committed Godself. Then, one must contemplate the types of fear and love of God. And, one must meditate on the essential contingency of all reality upon God—that nothing exceeds God’s knowledge, power, and providence. And, one must ponder the acts and the Person of God as reflected in the traditional texts.
On a deeper spiritual level, the rabbinic Jewess or Jew reciting this verse must confront her or his own real fear of God, and his or her own real love of God. One must confront the reality of one’s relatedness to God. Then, one must consciously broaden one’s awareness to let the Presence into the mind and heart. One must knowingly broaden one’s consciousness to permit oneself to stand in the presence of God—person to Person, presence to Presence.
On yet an even deeper spiritual level, the praying rabbinic Jew or Jewess must, in his or her own awareness, be ready to die, in that moment. She or he must be ready to immediately cast herself or himself into the abyss. He or she must be completely ready to give up his or her soul for God, for God’s Truth, for God’s Torah, for God’s people.
After one has prepared oneself cognitively, performatively, intentionally, and spiritually for prayer, then one must actually pray. After one is ready, one must really say what one has to say, for whom one has to say it, while reciting the words of the psalm, “Please, Lord, save, please; Please, Lord, grant victory, please” and while performing the attendant actions. After one has arranged one’s intentions and spiritual awarenesses, one must actually put oneself in the presence of God and then say the words of the liturgy while thinking the thoughts, intending the intentions, and praying for specific acts of saving and victory. This very deep prayer is also a form of Hallel, of praise of God.
“As You Saved Yourself, Save Us Now”
As You saved “the heavenly beings” who were [enslaved] with You in Egypt
when You set out to save Your people,
so save us now.
As You saved a “nation and its leaders”
interpreted to mean ‘a nation and its God,’
so save us now.
As You saved a large number of “hosts”
and with them the hosts of angels,
so save us now.
As You saved the pure ones from the house of bondage
and the Merciful One [from] those who enslaved Him with their very hands,
so save us now.
As You saved those about to drown in the depths of the sea
who were bearing Your Presence with them,
so save us now.
As You saved the garden that sang “And the Lord saved on that day,”
to its Creator,
interpreted to mean ‘And the Lord was saved on that day,’
so save us now.
As You saved according to your word, “I will take you out,”
interpreted to mean, ‘I will be taken out with you,’
so save us now.
As You saved those who circled the altar,
who were laden with willow branches with which to go around the altar,
so save us now.
As You saved the ark when it was sinned against,
punishing the Philistines, and being saved [with it],
so save us now.
As You saved the communities that You sent away to Babylonia,
Merciful One, You were sent away there for their sake,
so save us now.
As You saved the tribes of Jacob from [the first] exile,
may You return, and bring back the people of Jacob from [this] exile,
and save us.
This remarkable poem/prayer (Hebrew, piyyut) is recited as part of the very complicated liturgy for the holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles). That liturgy has four main additions. The first is the recitation of Hallel (the psalms of praise, Psalms 113-118), including the special movements of the lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron). The second is the reading of passages from the Torah that are special for the holiday. The third is the recitation of Musaf that commemorates the complicated set of sacrifices offered in the temple during Sukkot. And the fourth is the hakafot, the procession of the lulav and etrog around the synagogue. (In some rites, the order of these additions differs). During the hakafot, various poems/prayers are recited called hosha`not; that is, prayers that end with some variant of hosha`na, “save us.”
The text above is one of the hosha`not. It is a poem in that it has a rhyme scheme and also a refrain. It was composed by Rabbi El’azar ben Kalir (600 C.E.) in the Land of Israel. It is very learned and, to understand it, we need to study it.
“the heavenly beings”: Hebrew, ‘eilim (Exodus 15:11, “Who is like You among the heavenly beings, oh Lord”). This phrase is understood by the rabbis to refer to the heavenly angels. The liturgist, then, is suggesting that God saved the angels who had also been enslaved in Egypt, together with the Jews themselves. (There is an alternate interpretation where the Hebrew to the Jewish people.) The next phrase, “who were [enslaved] with You in Egypt,” is surprising because it specifies that God was enslaved with the Jews in Egypt.
The motif of the self-enslavement, or self-exile, of God is known in rabbinic literature (Tanhuma, ed. Buber, 36a; Otsar Midrashim, Pesikta 4; taken with Tanhuma, ed. Buber, 34b and elsewhere that interpret Psalms 91:15, “I am with him in trouble,” as referring to God going into exile with the Jewish people).
In this piyyut, the liturgist takes the motif a step further and prays, “as You saved the angels and Yourself from Egypt, so save us now.” ‘Were it not written, it would be impossible to say such a thing’; that is, this motif—and it repeats itself in almost every stanza—is hardly believable, and yet there it is, in print, for us to use.
“nation and its leaders”: Hebrew, goi ve-ilohim (2 Samuel 7:23, “which You redeemed for Yourself from Egypt, a nation and its God”). Again, the theme that God delivered Godself from Egypt together with the Jewish people and, with it, the concluding prayer.
a large number of “hosts”: Hebrew, hamon tseva’ot (Exodus 12:41, “On that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt”). Again the liturgist, interpreting the word “all,” says that the angels that had been in slavery with the Jews were also saved at the Exodus and, hence, he prays: “As You saved the angels and the Jews from Egypt, so save us now.”
the Merciful One [from] those who enslaved Him with their very hands: Another reference to God Godself having been enslaved by the Egyptians and then having been saved with the Jews (“the pure ones”) during the Exodus and, with it, the concluding prayer.
who were bearing Your Presence with them: (Hebrew yekarkha). The midrash says that God went down with the Jews into the Red Sea and crossed with the Jewish people (Mekhilta, Beshalah, Shira, 3); they, thus, bore God’s presence with them. This generates the concluding prayer.
“And the Lord saved on that day”: Hebrew vayosha` (Exodus 14:30, “On that very day, the Lord saved Israel from the hands of Egypt”). The Hebrew letters VYSh` can be read with different vocalization as vayivasha` which would mean “And He was saved on that very day from the hands of Egypt’’; hence the midrash that God was also saved at the Exodus (see above for the sources) and, with it, the concluding prayer. (On the “garden” as Israel, see Psalms 80:15, “and the garden planted by Your right hand.”)
“I will take you out”: Hebrew ve-hotseiti (Exodus 6:6, “Therefore say unto the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the sufferings of Egypt’”). The Hebrew letters VHTsTY ‘TKhM can be read with different vocalization as ve-hutseiti ‘itekhem which would mean “And I will be taken out with you”; hence the motif that God, too, was taken out of Egypt with the Jews and, with it, the concluding prayer.
who were laden with willow branches with which to go around the altar: This is a reference to the circumambulation of the altar in the temple (Mishna, Sukka 4:5), of which the hakafot in the synagogue are a remembrance. Note that there is no reference to the self-saving of God in this stanza.
As You saved the ark … and being saved [with it]: The Bible relates (I Samuel, chapter 6) that the Israelites took the ark of the Lord with them into battle. They should not have done this and, as a result, the ark was captured by the Philistines, though it was eventually returned. The ark represented the presence of God (all the names of God are said to have been inside the ark) and, so, its being saved from the Philistines was seen by the liturgist as yet another instance in which God Godself was saved; hence, this stanza and, with it, the concluding prayer.
You sent away there: Hebrew shilahta. The Hebrew letters ShLHT can be read with different vocalization as shulahta which would mean “You were sent away”; hence, the motif of God sending Godself into exile and, with it, the concluding prayer.
saved the tribes of Jacob from [the first] exile: As related in the book of Nehemiah and elsewhere, the Jews were allowed by the Persians to return to the Holy Land after the exile to Babylonia; hence, the concluding prayer. Note that there is no reference to the self-saving of God in this stanza.
(The printed versions of this poem/prayer include an additional stanza that does not match the rhythm, rhyme, or theme of the rest of the poem. It is regarded by scholars as a later addition and is not cited here.)
To recite this poem/prayer which invokes God sending Himself into slavery and exile and which, then, prays to God to save us as He previously saved us and Himself, as one circumambulates the synagogue with the community and while holding the lulav and ‘etrog is a very special spiritual moment.
“In the Beginning, God Created Heaven and Earth”
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…
And there was evening and there was morning, day one…
And there was evening and there was morning, the second day…
And God created the human being;
in the image of God, He created him;
male and female, He created them…
And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day…
The heavens and the earth and all their hosts were completed…
And God blessed the seventh day, and He proclaimed it holy
for on it, He rested from all His work that He had created and made.
Bereshit bara’ ‘Elohim ‘et ha-shamayim ve-’et ha-’arets…
Va-yehi `erev va-yehi voker, yom ‘ehad…
Va-yehi `erev va-yehi voker, yom sheini…
Va-yivra’ ‘Elohim ‘et ha-‘adam
be-tselem ‘Elohim bara’ ‘oto
zakhar u-nekeiva bara’ ‘otam…
Va-yehi `erev va-yehi voker, yom ha-shishi…
Va-yekhulu ha-shamayim veha-’arets ve-khol tseva’am…
Va-yevarekh ‘Elohim ‘et yom ha-shvi`i va-yekaddesh ‘oto
ki vo shavat mi-kol melakhto ‘asher bara’ ‘Elohim la-`asot.
The lectionary cycle of the reading of the Torah is set to complete itself in one calendar year starting and ending on Simhat Torah, the last day of the holiday of Sukkot. On that day, all the scrolls of the Torah are taken out of the ark and they are danced around the synagogue, seven times, to liturgy, singing, and dancing. These are (also) called hakafot (circumabulations).
Then, in the most common custom, the congregation is then broken up into smaller groups and every man is (in liberal congregations, every man and woman are) called to the Torah. They recite the blessing before and after a section that is read for them from the last chapters of Deuteronomy. Following this, the congregation reassembles and one person is called up with all the children. A super large tallit (prayershawl) is spread and that person and the children recite the blessing before and after a section of the Torah that is read. Finally, with great fanfare, one person is called up for the ritual reading of the last verses of Deuteronomy, after which all recite, “Be strong, be strong, and may we be strong.”
The scroll with Deuteronomy is, then, rolled up and set to the side, and a scroll set to Genesis is taken out. With great fanfare, a person is called up for the ritual reading of the story of Genesis (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4).
After the Genesis reading, the scroll is set aside and a third scroll set to the reading of the sacrifice for the day is read. The Haftara (reading from the prophets) is read. The scrolls are returned to the ark. And the Musaf Amida is recited, followed by the concluding hymns.
In Providence, R.I., during the years I prayed there, Rabbi Nachman Cohen instituted an exceptionally beautiful way to celebrate Simhat Torah in the Providence Hebrew Day School. When the time came for the hakafot and the reading of the Torah, Rabbi Cohen skipped forward in the liturgy to the reading of the Torah and Haftara (see below). Then, he recited Musaf, together with the final hymns, thus terminating the liturgy. Rabbi Cohen then paused for Kiddush (refreshments), after which, he reconvened the school and the congregation for the hakafot.
For the hakafot, all the scrolls of the Torah were taken out of the ark, and the dancing and singing began. There are seven hakafot, each with a piece of liturgy and with as many songs as one has strength for. We sang and danced for several hours. The last, seventh, hakafa was especially lively for, during it, we sang all the messianic songs: “David, King of Israel, is alive and active”; “Gather our exiles from the corners of the earth”; “The temple will be rebuilt”; and more. One really felt that, if it is possible to “bring” the messiah, we were doing it.
For the Torah reading itself, the congregation was split into groups and all the males were called to the Torah. Then, Rabbi Cohen brought everyone together and called up the person with all the children who, since we were a school, were very numerous. There was singing. After that, Rabbi Cohen called the person for the last section of the Torah. This, too, was followed by singing.
Rabbi Cohen would, then, demand silence and address us (approximately) as follows: “Fifty-two days ago, on Rosh Hodesh Elul, we began our season of repentance. Throughout this time, we have tried to identify all the wrongs we have done, the big ones and the little ones, the serious ones and the trivial ones. And, more importantly, we have spent much time trying to repent for our wrongdoings. We made good on our errors. We promised never to commit those sins again and we asked forgiveness from those we offended. A few days before Rosh ha-Shana, we began reciting selihot (penitential prayers) to awaken us further to repentance. Then came Rosh ha-Shana, the days of judgment, and we proclaimed God as King and accepted His supreme sovereignty. Then came the ten days of repentance with more selihot and more acts of searching out, repairing, and asking forgiveness. Finally, Yom Kippur came and we confessed our sins and recited the atonement liturgy of the High Priest in the temple. Then, came the period before Sukkot during which we prepared for the holiday, building our sukkot and buying our lulavim and ‘etrogim. Then came Sukkot, during which we celebrated only in joy; no repentance and no confession. Now we come to Simhat Torah, the ending and the beginning of the reading of the Torah. This is the highest point in the entire season, for now we read the story of creation, but we read it without the reading of the sin of Adam and Eve. This is the moment of greatest purity, the moment we have been striving to create through the long period of repentance, confession, and then joy.”
And we all stood as Rabbi Cohen read these verses from Bereshit. He did not use the regular melody; rather, he used the special melody used only on Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur. And, just before “And there was evening and there was morning,” he stopped and we sang with him a special melody, the one that had been sung to introduce the section on God’s kingship during the Musaf of Rosh ha-Shana. When we finished singing, he recited, “And there was evening and there was morning….” After a moment’s silence, he began the next day with the same pause for the melody and his concluding verse “And there was evening and there was morning….” At the end, we all knew that Rabbi Cohen (and we) had re-created the world, in its state before the fall.
I remember all this as if it were yesterday, though it is over 40 years later. When we moved to Atlanta, I began the custom of reading the Genesis passage this way, together with the High Holiday melody and the special song that Rabbi Cohen had sung. Others took the custom and spread it further, even to Petach Tikva in Israel. (I have not been able to persuade synagogue leaders to do the delayed hakafot, though it is surely the best way to have enough time for dancing and singing.)
In the course of the years, I learned the types of kavvana to have while singing the song. There are several levels:
Just before the verse “there was evening and there was morning, day one,” one images darkness and then light, night and day. Just before the verse “there was evening and there was morning, the second day,” one images the splitting of the waters. Just before the verse “there was evening and there was morning, the third day,” one images the gathering of the waters, the appearance of dry land, and then the development of vegetation. Just before the verse “there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day,” one images the creation of the sun, the moon, and the stars. Just before the verse “there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day,” one images the variegated fish of the sea and the many birds of the air. (One may add dinosaurs here.)
Just before the verse “there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day,” one images the creation of the wild beasts, the domesticated animals, and the crawling things. At “And God created the human being…,” one images humans, male and female. Then, one sings the song a second time with the following images evenly divided into four units while singing the song only once: (a) light and darkness, together with splitting of the waters; (b) the gathering of the waters, dry land, and vegetation, together with the sun, the moon, and the stars; (c) the fish and the birds, and the land animals: and (d) human beings created in the image and likeness of God. This is hard to do but it can be done with practice.
Later, following the kabbalistic understanding of creation, I learned to add in the six sefirot (Hesed, Gevura, Tif’eret, Netsah, Hod, and Yesod), as the kavvana for each of the six days, with the seventh sefira (Malkhut, God’s kingship) being the kavvana for the Shabbat, the seventh day. Keeping all this intentionality focused, and performing it, is itself a re-creation of creation – complete, with blessing, and without sin.
From the High Holiday Liturgy
The Selihot/Penitential Prayers are a liturgical unit unto themselves. They are intended to arouse us to repentance, that is, to identify our misdeeds, to promise never to commit them again, to correct our wrongs, and to confess our sins. For this reason, selihot occur in several places in the prayerbook. In sephardic tradition, they occur in shortened form every Monday and Thursday (the ashkenazic tradition skips these selihot and enters Tahanun directly). The selihot are also recited on fasting days (except Tish`a be-‘Av), and are especially prominent during the High Holiday season. The sephardic tradition begins reciting them right after the new moon of Elul (the month preceding Rosh ha-Shana), and the ashkenazic tradition begins reciting them the Saturday night before Rosh ha-Shana. Selihot are not recited on Rosh ha-Shana itself, but they are recited during the days between Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur, as well as on Yom Kippur itself. (Note: The word seliha/selihot can be used to refer to individual penitential poems and also to the liturgical sequence of poems, prayers, etc.)
The selihot liturgy, like the daily liturgy itself, is ordered like an ellipse; it has two foci. The first is the Thirteen Attributes; the second is the two confessions.
Chart of the Order of Selihot
Ashrei (Psalms 145)
an anthology of verses with rabbinic lines inserted
THE THIRTEEN ATTRIBUTES
seliha (penitential poem)
recurring introductory paragraph: “God, Who sits on the throne of mercy…”
the Thirteen Attributes (Exodus 34:5-8)
prayer for forgiveness
each preceded by a short line of prayer
two rabbinic prayers, one of which stresses that we are God’s and God is ours
FIRST ALPHABETIC CONFESSION and SECOND ALPHABETIC CONFESSION
each preceded and followed by short prayers
Selihot (penitential poems)
many alphabetic, some in form of a litany
interspersed prayers in Aramaic
Concluding prayer: ‘Avinu malkeinu…/“Our Father, our King…”
The Thirteen Attributes
The nested sequence of the Thirteen Attributes repeats itself several times, each time with a different poem. The sephardic tradition uses the same poems every day, and the ashkenazic tradition changes them every day. The text of the recurring introductory paragraph, the Thirteen Attributes, and the prayer for forgiveness is as follows:
God, King Who sits on the throne of mercy,
Who acts with great kindness, Who forgoes the sins of His people…
God, You have instructed us to recite the thirteen [attributes].
Remember for us on this day the covenant of the thirteen … as it is written…
‘El melekh yoshev `al kisse’ rahamim,
mitnaheg be-hasidut, mohel `avonot `ammo…
‘El, horei’ta lanu lomar shelosh `esreh
zekhor lanu ha-yom brit shelosh `eshreh… kemo she-katuv…
God of compassion and graciousness
Full of grace and truth
Who stores up grace for the thousands
Who forgives intentional sin, rebellious sin, and inadvertent sin
And Who cleanses…
‘El rahum ve-hanun
ve-rav hesed ve-‘emet
notser hesed la-‘alafim
nosei’ `avon, va-fesha` ve-hata’a
Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned.
Forgo our debts, our Father, for we have rebelled.
Indeed, You are the Lord, good and forgiving,
and full of unconditional love for all those who call upon You.
Selah lanu ‘Avinu ki hata’nu
mehal lanu malkeinu ki fasha`nu
Ki ‘ata ‘Adonay, tov ve-sallah
ve-rav hesed le-khol kor’ekha.
The moment after the sin of the golden calf was most dangerous in Jewish history. The Jews had been redeemed from Egypt by many miracles. They had been the recipients of direct revelation from God. Then, they had “quickly turned away” and built and worshiped the golden calf (Exodus 32:28). God wanted to destroy the Jewish people; Moses wanted God to forgive them. At the most crucial moment of this confrontation, God taught Moses a prayer to recite and promised that, whenever the Jewish people have sinned and are in danger, they should recite this prayer and they will be assured forgiveness. (There is a parallel in the Akeda.) The prayer itself is a fragment of Exodus 34: 6-7.
The selihot liturgy, in the introductory paragraph “God, Who sits on the throne of mercy…,” calls upon God’s promise to listen to the prayer and then proceeds to the recitation of that prayer which, in its rabbinic form is known as “The Thirteen Attributes.”
One always stands to recite the Thirteen Attributes. The sephardic community bows slightly before reciting them. One contemplates each word and its meaning. One should also study and determine how to combine the words and groups of words into a total of thirteen attributes (there are different ways of doing this). Then, one does not just recite them; one should call them out, bearing in mind the meaning and the numerical sequence.
Having invoked the “Jewish Lord’s prayer,” one proceeds, in the prayer that follows the Thirteen Attributes, to ask for seliha/“forgiveness” and for mehila/“forbearance.” Selihot, individual penitential poems and the liturgical unit as a whole, then, are “forgiveness poems/prayers.” The poems lead to the invocation of the prayer God taught, and that leads to the request for forgiveness.
The Two Confessions of Sin
Confession of sin occurs in many contexts: it is the third personal petition in the daily Amida; it is part of Tahanun in the sephardic tradition; and it is a major motif of the High Holidays in the selihot services, in the prayer that recalls the confessions of the High Priest, and in the Amida for Yom Kippur.
One cannot confess one’s sins until after one has done repentance. If the sin is between one human being and another, one cannot ask forgiveness from God until after one has asked forgiveness from the offended person and made amends as best as one can. Further, if the sin is between oneself and God, one cannot ask for forgiveness until after one has examined oneself, corrected what was wrong, and promised never to do it again.
How does one confess one’s sins after having done repentance? In rabbinic tradition, confession is not to another human being; it is between each person and God. There are two ways to confess one’s sins.
The first way to confess one’s sins is to recite the liturgical confessional formulas. One formula is a simple alphabetic acrostic: “ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibbarnu dofi….” There is no effective way to translate an acrostic; attempts to write a series of synonyms for “we have sinned” following the English alphabet have proven very awkward. The best “translations” are renderings that list 22 sins (actually 24 for stylistic reasons) without any order, but with some differentiation and variation.
The other formula is a refrain in double-acrostic form: `al het’ she-hata’nu lefanekah be-…, ve-`al het’ she-hata’nu lefanekah be-…. “For the sin that we have sinned before you with A, and for the sin which we have sinned before you with A….” Here, too, a translation that follows the alphabet is impossible and such attempts have proven very awkward.
In both cases, the alphabetic sequence that is the key, for reciting our sins in alphabetic order implies our request for forgiveness of everything ‘from A to Z.’
How does one personalize the recitation of an alphabetic sequence? Study, as usual in Jewish prayer, is the answer. One must study the words: “We have betrayed You,” “We have stolen,” “We have acted wrongly purposefully,” “We have committed acts of violence,” “We have given false advice,” “We have lied,” “We have rebelled,” and so on. Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I have not done that,’ one must think ‘Oh, I really did that,’ or ‘What did I do that was close to that.’ Most human beings really do not want to know that they have done wrong, and they respond defensively to lists of sins to be confessed. But, to ask forgiveness, one must be willing to admit wrongdoing. The list of sins provides one with the opportunity to consider how much one has done that was wrong. Reciting the list become a confession of sin only after recognizing one’s sins.
The first formula has 24 opportunities and the second formula has 44 opportunities. Even if one cannot find personal applications for all 68 sins, many will resonate if we are honest with ourselves.
How does one nationalize the recitation of an alphabetic sequence? We confess sins not only as individuals, but as a people. It is the same process: we study the sins and we contemplate how, as a people, we have committed these sins. When we recite the formulae, we bear in mind that we, as a group, have indeed done these deeds, and we ask forgiveness.
When I recite the confessions in the Amida silently, it is my custom to concentrate on my personal sins. When I recite the confessions in the public repetition of the Amida, I concentrate on our national sins. Singing the confession with the community during the public confession also gives me a sense of unity with the whole Jewish people.
It is the general custom to strike one’s breast as one recites these formulae as a sign of contrition. By the end of Yom Kippur, during which one has fasted from all food and all water and prayed almost all day, striking one’s breast has a force of its own.
The second way to confess one’s sins is to pick a moment during the liturgy in which to personally talk to God. One must study, in advance, one’s actions and identify specific sins committed. Then, one needs to make a list of them, in writing. Then, when one arrives at the proper moment, one pulls out the list, reads it to God, and asks forgiveness. For myself, I do this at the end of each silent Amida.
The Litanies and the Aramaic Prose Prayers
Answer us, Lord, answer us
Answer us, our God, answer us
Answer us, our Father, answer us
Answer us, our Creator, answer us…
Answer us, God of Abraham, answer us
Answer us, Fear of Isaac, answer us…
Answer us, Protector of the matriarchs, answer us…
`Aneinu ‘Adonay `aneinu
`Aneinu ‘Eloheinu `aneinu
`Aneinu ‘Avinu `aneinu
`Aneinu Bor’einu `aneinu…
`Aneinu ‘Elohei ‘Avraham `aneinu
`Aneinu Pahad Yitshak `aneinu…
`Aneinu Misgav ‘Imahot `aneinu…
Act for the sake of …
Act for the sake of those who have died for Your holy Name.
Act for the sake of those who have been slaughtered for the sake of Your oneness.
Act for the sake of those who have died in fire and water to sanctify your Name.
Act for the sake of those who sucked milk and who did not sin.
Act for the sake of those who had just been weaned and who did not sin in rebellion.
Act for the sake of those children who were still in school.
Act for Your sake, if not for ours.
Act for Your sake, and save us.
`Aseh lema`an …
`Aseh lema`an harugim `al shem kodshakh.
`Aseh lema`an tevuhim `al yihudakh.
`Aseh lema`an ba’ei va-mayim uva-‘esh `al Kiddush shemakh.
`Aseh lema`an yonkei shadayim she-lo’ hat’u.
`Aseh lema`an gemulei halav she-lo’ pash`u.
`Aseh lema`an tinokot shel beit rabban.
`Aseh lema`anakh ‘im lo’ lema`aneinu.
`Aseh lema`anakh ve-hoshi`einu.
He Who answered Abraham on Mt. Moriah, He will answer us.
He Who answered Isaac his son when he was bound on the altar, He will answer us.
He Who answered Jacob in Beth El, He will answer us…
Mi she-`ana le-‘Avraham ‘avinu be-har ha-moria, hu ya`aneinu.
Mi she-`ana le-Yitshak beno keshe-ne`ekad `al gav ha-mizbeah, hu ya`aneinu.
Mi she-`ana le-Ya`akov be-veit ‘el, hu ya`aneinu…
These three poems, which come after the confessions, are litanies—that is, prayers with a repeating pattern. They are all alphabetic acrostics and have groups of rhyming endings. The use of repetitive patterns, especially alphabetic ones, and the use of rhymed endings, is characteristic of early rabbinic liturgical poetry.
The first, “Answer us,” begins with a double address to God, shifts into an alphabetic address to God, and finishes with historical appeals to God. Note the appeal to the merit of the matriarchs.
The second, “Act for the sake of,” also opens with a general address to God, follows an alphabetic list, and then transitions into a series of appeals based on the merit of those who have died in martyrdom. Note the second from the last: that God should act for His own sake, if not for ours. This theme also repeats itself in the well-known ‘Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, our King”) that terminates selihot.
The third, “He Who answered … will answer us,” is a series of historical appeals based on the merit of our ancestors. The order follows the order of Scripture, and it takes some study to understand the references, once one gets past the more widely known first few.
Your people and Your inheritance are hungry for Your goodness,
thirsty for Your loving-kindness,
yearning for Your salvation.
May they recognize and acknowledge that to the Lord, our God
belongs mercy and forgiveness.
`Ammekha ve-nahalatekha re`eivei tuvakh,
Yakiru ve-yeide`u ki la-‘Adonya ‘eloheinu
May the Merciful One Who answers the poor ones, answer us.
May the Merciful One Who answers those broken in heart, answer us.
May the Merciful One Who answers those who are broken in spirit, answer us.
Oh Merciful One, answer us.
Oh Merciful One, have pity.
Oh Merciful One, save us.
Oh Merciful One, redeem us.
Oh Merciful One, have mercy on us,
now, quickly, and soon.
Rahamana de-`anei le-`aniyei, `aneinan.
Rahamana de-`anei le-tevirei liba’, `aneinan.
Rahamana de-`anei le-makikhei ruha’, `aneinan.
Rahamana reham `alan
hashata ba-`agala uvi-zeman kariv.
Our Master in heaven, we plead with You
as a servant who pleads with his master.
We are oppressed. We dwell in darkness.
Our souls are bitter from much subjugation.
We have no more strength to pacify You, oh Master.
Act for the sake of the covenant that You made with our ancestors.
Maran dive-shemaya lakh mithanneinan
ke-`avda de-mithannein le-marei.
`ashikei ‘anan uva-hashokha shareinan
meriran nafshin me-`aktin de-nifishin.
heila leit ban le-ratsuyakh maran.
`avid bedil keyama’ di-gezart `im ‘ahavatana.
These three short prayers also come after the confessions. They are woven together with the preceding poems (and others like them) into the concluding section of the selihot liturgy.
The first, “Your people and Your inheritance,” does not follow any alphabetic order; however, the short phrases rhyme in the mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Note the beautiful sequence of “are hungry for Your goodness, thirsty for Your loving-kindness, yearning for Your salvation.” It is in crescendo form: we hunger — for goodness; we thirst even more than we hunger – for loving-kindness; and we really yearn – for salvation.
The second, “May the Merciful One,” is in Aramaic and does not follow any alphabetic order; however, the repeating Rahamana creates a rhythm of its own. Note the beautiful reference to “those broken in heart” and “those broken in spirit.” The “broken in heart” is one who is truly sorry for his or her sinful deeds. The “broken in spirit” is one who is shattered by realizing that he or she was even capable of such acts.
The third, “Our Master in heaven” is in Aramaic and does not follow any alphabetic order; however, like other such poems, it appeals to the deep image of the servant, the enslaved one. Jews in physical exile feel like that. Jews in spiritual exile from God feel like that. We feel helpless. Note the very poignant continuation of this motif: “We have no more strength to pacify You, oh Master.”
“Lord, Lord, God of Compassion”
God of compassion and graciousness
Full of grace and truth
Who stores up grace for the thousands
Who forgives intentional sin, rebellious sin, and inadvertent sin
And Who cleanses.
‘El rahum ve-hanun
ve-rav hesed ve-‘emet
notser hesed la-‘alafim
nose’ `avon, va-fesha` ve-hata’a
In Exodus, chapter 32, the Jewish people, still at the foot of Mt. Sinai after the overwhelming revelation of God in chapters 19-20, become impatient that Moses has not returned from the mountain with the Ten Commandments. God fashions them an idol of gold in the form of a calf and begin to worship it. God tells Moses to descend and see the corruption of the people. Moses descends, smashes the tablets that God had made and inscribed, destroys the golden calf, punishes the people and, realizing that he now has to deal with God, he returns to the top of the mountain, pleads for God to forgive the people, and descends again to them.
In Exodus, chapter 33, God tells Moses to separate himself from the people, and God will destroy them and rebuild the Jewish people from Moses. Moses argues against this and then sets his own tent outside the encampment. There follows the very complicated negotiation with God in which Moses demands to see God’s “ways,” then God’s “glory,” and then God’s “face.” God accedes to most of this, but says that Moses cannot see His face, only His “back.”
In Exodus, chapter 34, God tells Moses to carve out new tablets of stone and God will write upon them the Ten Commandments (unlike the first tablets that were carved by God). Moses does this and goes back up the mountain. There we read (34:5-8):
And the Lord came down in a cloud and He stood with him there with him
And H/he called in the Name of the Lord.
And the Lord passed before him, and H/he called,
Lord, Lord, God of compassion and graciousness,
Patient One, full of grace and truth,
Who stores up grace for the thousands
Who forgives intentional sin, rebellious sin, and inadvertent sin
But Who surely does not cleanse
He recalls the sins of the fathers upon the children and the descendants,
on the third and fourth generations.
Moses quickly bowed down and prostrated himself on the ground…
One could write a long book on the exchanges between Moses and God in these chapters. In chapter 33, we need to ask, what exactly did Moses ask for, and what did he get? What are “ways,” “glory,” “face,” and “back”? Maimonides’ probable answer is surely not the only one. In chapter 34, we need to ask: What is the difference between `avon, pesha`, and hata’a, rendered as “intentional, rebellious, and unintended sin”? And we need to ask, what is this prayer? Who says it? How was it used in later Jewish tradition?
The core of the textual and theological problem lies in the twofold appearance of the word va-yikra’. In the first occurrence, “and H/he called in the Name of the Lord” (Exodus 34:5), the Hebrew third person singular verb does not allow us to distinguish who the “he” is; it could be Moses, but it could also be God. In the second occurrence in the next verse (Exodus 34:6): va-yikra’, “and H/he called,” that is, “recited,” the prayer that follows (i.e., the rest of verse 6 with verse 7), we again cannot distinguish the subject of the verb.
The rabbis (Talmud, Rosh ha-Shana 17b) read this very powerfully:
Rabbi Yohanan said: Were it not written, it would be impossible to say this: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself [in a prayer shawl] like one who leads the prayers and showed Moses the order of prayer, and He said to him, “Whenever Israel sins, they should follow this order [of prayer] and I will forgive them.”
The tradition follows Rabbi Yohanan in two important points: first, the tradition interprets the verses such that it is God who is “calling”; that it is God Who teaches Moses this particular (order of) prayer. It is not Moses who made up this prayer; rather, Moses recited the liturgy that he was taught by God. (This has the strange effect for those of us brought up in Christian culture of making this ‘the Jewish Lord’s Prayer.’)
Note, too, the stunning metaphor of God wrapping Himself in a tallit like a cantor. This leads to the realization that the person leading the community in prayer stands in the place of God, Who, in the time of greatest crisis, also represented the people to Himself.
Second, the Talmud in the lines that follow Rabbi Yohanan teaches that, in this crucial moment in the history of the Jewish people, after the worst sin of Jewish history, God sealed a covenant with Moses. According to the covenant, this prayer should be recited whenever the Jewish people are in trouble, and God will forgive them their sins. There is a parallel in the Akeda.
The tradition, then, went on to create a penitential liturgy in which these “Thirteen Attributes” (there are different ways to count them) are recited. This liturgy is used on Yom Kippur itself, during Selihot (penitential prayers before Yom Kippur), on fast days and, in certain communities, on ordinary weekdays for Tahanun.
Further, in creating this penitential liturgy around the Thirteen Attributes, the rabbis, in an act of amazing midrashic courage, consciously edited the text from Exodus to omit the negative conclusion of verses 7-8 (“But Who surely does not cleanse; He recalls the sins of the fathers upon the children and the descendants, on the third and fourth generations”), consciously truncating it to read: “And Who cleanses.” It is this truncated text that is used liturgically in the penitential services.
This, then, is the ‘prayer of prayers.’ It is our opportunity to pray, as God has taught us. We do sin and God, in His mercy, gives us a prayer to say. We imitate Him. This prayer must be recited in true awe.
“Our Father, Our King”
Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You.
Our Father, our King, we have no King other than You…
Our Father, our King, bring us a good new year.
Our Father, our King, render void all evil decrees against us…
Our Father, our King, annul the designs of our enemies…
Our Father, our King, forgive and forgo all our purposeful sins.
Our Father, our King, erase and expunge our rebellious sins and our unintentional sins from Your presence…
Our Father, our King, grant us complete repentance before You.
Our Father, our King, send full healing to the sick of Your people.
Our Father, our King, tear up the bitterness of the decree against us…
Our Father, our King, inscribe / seal us in the book of good life.
Our Father, our King, inscribe / seal us in the book of redemption and salvation.
Our Father, our King, inscribe / seal us in the book of sustenance and livelihood.
Our Father, our King, inscribe / seal us in the book of merits.
Our Father, our King, inscribe / seal us in the book of forgiveness and forbearance…
Our Father, our King, fill our hands with Your blessings.
Our Father, our King, fill our storehouses with abundance…
Our Father, our King, have pity on us and on our infants and babies.
Our Father, our King, act for the sake of those who were killed for Your holy Name.
Our Father, our King, act for the sake of those who were slaughtered for Your unity.
Our Father, our King, act for the sake of those who died by fire and water to sanctify Your Name.
Our Father, our King, avenge the spilled blood of Your servants before our very eyes.
Our Father, our King, act for Your sake, if not for ours…
Our Father, our King! Be gracious unto us and answer us for we have no [worthy] deeds.
Act with us in charity and unconditional love, and redeem us.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, hata’nu lefanekha.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, ‘ein lanu melekh ‘ela’ ‘ata…
‘Avinu Malkeinu, haddesh `aleinu shana tova.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, battel me-`aleinu kol gezeirot kashot…
‘Avinu Malkeinu, hafeir `atsat ‘oyiveinu…
‘Avinu Malkeinu, s’lah u-m’hal le-khhol `avonoteinu.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, mehei ve-ha`aveir pasha`einu ve-hato’teinu mi-neged `einekha…
‘Avinu Malkeinu, hahazireinu be-teshuva sheleima lefanekha.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, shelah refu’a sheleima le-holei `ammekha.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, kera` ro`a gezar dineinu…
‘Avinu Malkeinu, kotveinu / hotmeinu be-sefer hayyim tovim.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, kotveinu / hotmeinu be-sefer ge’ula vi-yeshu`a.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, kotveinu / hotmeinu be-sefer parnasa ve-khalkala.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, kotveinu / hotmeinu be-sefer zekhuyot.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, kotveinu / hotmeinu be-sefer seliha u-mehila…
‘Avinu Malkeinu, malle’ yadeinu mi-berkhotekha.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, malle’ ‘asameinu sova`…
‘Avinu Malkeinu, hamol `aleinu ve-`al `olaleinu ve-tappeinu.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, `aseh lema`an harugim `al shem kodshekha.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, `aseh lema`an tevuhim `al yihudekha.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, `aseh lema`an ba’ei va-‘esh uva-mayim `al kiddush shemekha.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, nekom le-`eineinu nikmat dam `avadekha ha-shafukh.
‘Avinu Malkeinu, `aseh lema`ankha ‘im lo’ lema`aneinu…
‘Avinu Malkeinu, honneinu va-`aneinu ki ‘ein banu ma`asim;
`aseh `immanu tsedaka va-hesed ve-hoshi`einu.
This litany is recited at the end of every selihot service. It is also recited on Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur. It is long, and there are varying versions of the text. It is not alphabetic. The scope of its content and the depth of its appeal to God, however, are breathtaking. This litany is central to understanding the penitential prayers.
The content of ‘Avinu Malkeinu includes: confession of sin and acknowledgment of God’s ultimate kingship over us, petition for God to annul the evil designs of our enemies, prayers for forgiveness, prayers to be written in (at the end of Yom Kippur: sealed in) the books of blessing, prayers for prosperity, entreaties to God to act for the sake of those who have died for His Name, and a final prayer for mercy, given our lack of merit.
Many of these themes are dealt with elsewhere. The reader needs to follow the Table of Contents on these themes.
One theme—prayers for God to act on behalf of those who have died for Him – requires more contemplation.
What does one feel when one prays, “Our Father, our King, have pity on us and on our infants and babies” or when one prays, “Our Father, our King, avenge the spilled blood of Your servants before our very eyes”? What does one feel when one prays, “…act for the sake of those who were killed for Your holy Name… for those who were slaughtered for Your unity…. for those who died by fire and water to sanctify Your Name”?
To be sure, one feels humbled by the sheer power of God. One feels chastened by the might of One Whose acts are far above and beyond anything we can imagine. We pray that that Power act now to honor those who have died for God, voluntarily and often involuntarily.
It seems to me, though, that one also feels abashed at the fact that so many of us who love God have had to die for Him. We do not deny God; we acknowledge God as supreme. We do not reject God; we love God. We make mistakes, but we try to be loyal servants of God. Why have so many had to die for God? We are mortified by this question.
If we follow this line of thought further, we realize that having to deal with this question embarrasses, even shames us. Deep down, we are ashamed to admit that we believe in a good God, but that the evidence of real history does not always support God’s love for us. The question of the justice of the loving God is a terrible question to face if we face it honestly.
We know that biblical and rabbinic Judaism teaches the doctrine of “fair judgment.” We know that God made a covenant with us—at the Akeda and again at Sinai—that we would act in good faith with God and God would act in good faith with us. This covenant teaches that we will be punished for our wrongs butthe punishment will be fair. What is “fair” about the death of millions of Jews—many of whom died terrible deaths—who died because they were Jews, because they believed (or didn’t believe but died anyway) in God?
If we dare to follow this line of thought further, we need to ask, ‘What kind of God lets His people die so terribly, and in such large numbers?’ ‘What kind of Father treats His children so?’ This question is even more terrible than the preceding one.
The problem of how a good and loving God can allow evil is known as the problem of theodicy. There are many answers, most of them not very good. The only answer that has seemed reasonable to me, and that also honors the doctrine of the covenant of fair judgment, is the answer that we must first confront the problem; we cannot sweep it under the intellectual rug. Then, whenever God appears to us to have done something unjust, we must confront God in prayer; that is, we must use protest prayer.
This problem and my answer deserve more study. Here, I can only point out two things.
The idea of protest prayer is biblical. In Genesis 18, God wants to destroy Sodom and Gemorah, but Abraham protests vigorously and God relents. In Exodus 32, after the incident of the golden calf, God wants to destroy the Jewish people, but, again, Moses protests and God relents. There are other such moments in Moses’ long relationship with God. In Psalm 44 (more fully and with commentary), the psalmist expresses his full rage at God for having broken the covenant of fair judgment. Were this Psalm not in Scripture, no one would dare to write (or recite) such a prayer.
In rabbinic Judaism, protest prayer is included in an indirect form because the rabbis did not allow direct protest to God in the formal liturgy, though they did allow it in midrash. Hence, we have such lines as: “Our Father, our King, have pity on us and on our infants and babies,” “avenge the spilled blood of Your servants before our very eyes,” “…act for the sake of those who were killed for Your holy Name… for those who were slaughtered for Your unity…. for those who died by fire and water to sanctify Your Name.” These lines (as I read them) contain a certain anger against God for what God has done to our people, an anger surely understandable in the post-shoah period. These lines contain an insistent appeal to God to correct the wrong that has been done, to redeem these evil deaths, especially the babies. They are, thus, prayers of protest—for the evil that has been allowed and for the violation of the covenant. If one contemplates the reality of the acts mentioned and the presence of this reality in one of the central prayers of the penitential liturgy, one realizes that these lines confront and protest to God. We affirm our belief in the covenant and we call on God to do the same.
At the close of Yom Kippur, the community stands and recites ‘Avinu Malkeinu. If time allows, it is recited responsively: the cantor chants and we repeat. Because of the great scope of the content, we have a chance to pray each and every line, as individuals and as a people. When ‘Avinu Malkeinu comes to a close, the ark is closed, and the community recites the following responsively:
Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Sh’ma` Yisrael, ‘Adonay ‘Eloheinu, ‘Adonay ehad. (once)
Blessed is the name of the glory of God’s kingdom for ever and ever.
Barukh shem kevod malkhkuto le-`olam va`ed. (three times)
The Lord is God.
‘Adonay Hu ha-‘Elohim. (seven times)
Three times, in my long life in the synagogue, I have been moved intensely by the recitation of ‘Avinu Malkeinu and the closing lines of the liturgy for Yom Kippur which comes after a long day of fasting completely from food and drink, and spending most of the day in prayer, much of it standing.
In New York in the late 1960s, we prayed with the German and French Jewish community of New York. They had a very special rabbi, Rabbi Simon Langer, who believed deeply and commanded respect. The synagogue’s cantor chanted all day, but Rabbi Langer would recite the closing service (Ne`ila). When he came to ‘Avinu Malkeinu, he usually had time to recite it responsively, line by line. But, it was the timbre of his voice, deep, confident, and believing, that sustained us all. I can still hear him clearly.
In Paris in 1970, we prayed with the sephardic community, most of whom were from North Africa. When they came to the closing lines, we went out to the courtyard and every man who had a shofar brought it out, and each sounded his own shofar at his own speed and in his own rhythm while the rest of us shouted the closing lines. It was a messianic moment. If I close my eyes, I can be there.
In Atlanta in the 1980s, we prayed with the Orthodox congregation. As we approached the ‘Avinu Malkeinu, a violent thunderstorm broke and we lost electric power. It was already dark, and there were no lights by which to read the prayers. The janitor brought a giant candle for the cantor, and many of us left our places to gather around the cantor, Shaul Bleichbart, a young Israeli who had come to Atlanta with his family to teach and who was much beloved by all. We gathered around him in the light of the giant candle and prayed as hard as we could. The moment still rests with me.
“Put Fear of You into All Your Works” (Rosh Ha-Shana)
And then, put fear of You, oh Lord our God, into all Your works
and dread of You upon all that You have created
so that all the works shall fear You
and all the created beings bow down before You.
May they unite in one unit to do Your will with a whole heart.
For we know, oh Lord our God, that sovereignty is Yours,
power is in Your hand, and might in Your right side,
and Your Name is awesome over all that You have created.
Uve-khen tein pahdekha ‘Adonay ‘eloheinu `al kol ma`asekha
ve-‘eimatekha `al kol ma she-bara’ta
ve-yira’ukha kol ha-ma`asim, ve-yishtahavu lefanekha kol ha-beru’im
ve-yei`asu kullam ‘aguda ‘ahat la-`asot retsonekha be-leivav shalem
kemo she-yada`nu ‘Adonay ‘eloheinu sheha-shilton lefanekha
`oz be-yad’kha u-gevura bi-yeminekha
ve-shimkha nora’ `al kol ma she-bara’ta.
The paragraph above is the first of four added to the third blessing of the Amida, privately and publicly, during the entire ten days of repentance, from Rosh ha-Shana through Yom Kippur. These paragraphs herald the theme of God’s kingship (Hebrew, malkhut shamayim), of God’s ultimate sovereignty over all of creation. Indeed, the word ha-Melekh/“the King” is the refrain of the entire season. To recite these words is to put oneself in God’s presence, to acknowledge His Kingship, and to accept it into our hearts and minds.
How does God’s kingship manifest itself concretely? What would God’s kingship look like in real life?
First and foremost, we ask that God put the fear of God into all creatures. Fear of God’s punishment, dread, is the most important manifestation of the kingdom of God. We pray that God makes everybody afraid of Him. Why? Because, “were it not for the fear of government, people would devour one another alive” (Mishna, Avot 3:2). It would be wonderful if humans could love one another, if they could get along in peace; but they don’t. Humans hate, and humans fight, and humans exploit one another. We pray, “Put fear of Your punishment into [fill in the name]. [Fill in the name] does not have to love us, or respect us or our rights. Just put dread of You into [fill in the name].” This is the manifestation of the kingdom of God.
We also pray that, as a manifestation of God’s kingship, God give strength to humans to unite, with a full heart, to do God’s will; that is, to make the world a manifestation of God’s kingly creation—a place where God, and humans, work to protect, sustain, and support humanity in the doing of good toward one another and toward creation itself.
The phrase “and then” (Hebrew, uve-khen) is taken from Esther 4:16. In the story, Haman has hatched his plot against the Jews. Mordecai warns Esther, who is now the queen, that she cannot escape the fate of her people. He instructs her to go to the king to intercede. Esther replies by ordaining a fast of three days for the people and herself, “and then, I shall go to the king without being invited and, if I die, I die.” To recite these paragraphs is to stand in Esther’s.
And then, grant honor, oh Lord, to Your people,
praise to those who fear You, confident hope to those who seek You,
and an opening for those who yearn for You.
Joy to Your land, elation to Your city,
growing salvation to David, Your servant,
and the lighting of a candle for the son of Jesse, Your messiah,
speedily, in our days.
Uve-khen tein kavod, ‘Adonay, le-`ammekha
tehilla le-yerei’ekha ve-tikva tova le-dorshekha
u-fithon peh la-meyahalim lakh.
Simkha le-‘artsekha ve-sason le-`irekha
u-tsemihat keren le-David `avdekha
va-`arikhat neir le-ven Yishai meshihekha,
The second of the paragraphs added to the third blessing of the Amida for the High Holiday season follows the first logically; when God will put fear of God into oppressors, this will be a better world. The second sign of the reign of God’s kingdom will be the honor brought to God’s people, God’s land, and God’s city in the form of the messiah, the seed of David whose rule echoes God’s rule on earth.
The sequence of the four righteous people is: the people generally, those who fear God, those who seek God, and those who yearn for God. These are arranged in narrowing concentric circles. And, each gets what they deserve: the people get honor, the God-fearers get praise, the God-seekers get confident hope, and the God-yearners get an opportunity to talk to God.
The sequence of four dimensions of redemption is: the land, the city of Jerusalem, the seed of David, and the candle for the messiah. This, too, is arranged in narrowing concentric circles. And, each gets what it deserves: the land gets joy, Jerusalem gets elation, the seed of David gets cultivation or growth, and the candle of the messiah is finally lit.
Both sequences are very beautiful; they are the manifestations of God’s kingship.
And then, the righteous will see and rejoice, the upright will delight,
and the pious will celebrate in song.
Wickedness will shut its mouth, and all evil will vanish like smoke
when You cause the kingdom of purposeful evil to pass from the earth.
Uve-khen tsaddikim yir’u ve-yismahu, vi-yesharim ya`alozu
Va-hasidim be-rinna yagilu
Ve-`olata tikpots piha ve-khol ha-rish`a ke-`ashan itkhleh
Ki ta`avir memshelet zadon min ha-‘arets.
The third of the paragraphs added to the third blessing of the Amida for the High Holiday season follows the first and second logically: When God will put the fear of God into oppressors, and when God will grant honor to those that are His, the righteous will have reason to rejoice because the kingdom of purposeful evil will have been eradicated.
The sequence of the righteous is again in concentric circles: the righteous, the upright ones, and the pious ones. Each gets what they deserve: the righteous get joy, the upright get delight, and the pious get song. Modern day Hasidim (the pious) think that the sequence is perfect because the non-hasidim (the righteous and the upright) only get delight but the real inner circle gets celebration in song.
You alone will reign, oh Lord, over all Your works
on Mt. Zion, the sanctuary of Your glory,
and in Jerusalem, Your holy city, as it says in Your holy scriptures …
Ve-timlokh ‘ata ‘Adonay levadekha `al kol ma`asekha
be-har Zion mishkan kevodekha
uvi-Yerushalayim `ir kodshekha, ka-katuv be-divrei kodshekha…
The fourth added paragraph does not begin with “And then,” but it is a logical part of the sequence of the liturgy. After creating dread, after giving a place of honor to the people and the land, and after the rejoicing of the righteous, God, from God’s temple, will reign supreme. There will be no counter-kingdom of evil and suffering. God alone will reign. There will be no challenge to the divine care for creation. (Note that the Hebrew has a series of final syllables that appear to rhyme.)
After these insertions, the liturgy returns to the theme of holiness, which is the theme of the third blessing of the Amida—except that, in this paragraph, holiness is integrally linked to fair judgment:
You are holy and Your Name is awesome
and there is no God other than You, as it is written,
“And the Lord of hosts is raised high in fair judgment
and the holy God is proclaimed holy in righteousness” (Isaiah. 5:16).
Blessed are You, the holy King.
Kadosh ‘ata ve-nora’ shemekha
Ve-‘ein ‘eloha mi-bal`adekha ka-katuv
“Va-yigbah ‘Adonay tseva’ot ba-mishpat
veha-‘el ha-kadosh nikdash be-tsedaka.”
Barukh ‘ata ‘Adonay ha-Melekh ha-kadosh.
“In the Book of Life”
May we be remembered and inscribed before You
in the book of life, blessing, and peace, and a good livelihood,
We and all Your people, the house of Israel
For good life and for peace.
Be-sefer hayyim, berakha, shalom, u-farnasa tova
Nizzakher ve-nikkateiv le-fanekha
‘Anahnu ve-khol `amkha beit Yisrael
le-hayyim tovim ule-shalom
This prayer occurs in the second of the closing three prayers of the Amida, every day, several times a day, from Rosh ha-Shana to the end of Yom Kippur. In the very last service of Yom Kippur, the text is changed to “May we be remembered and sealed…”
The motif of the book of life is a recurring theme of the High Holiday season. Psalm 139 speaks of a heavenly book in which the intimate details of one’s body and one’s life are written. Other verses of the Bible, such as Isaiah 30:8 and 34:16. Rabbinic literature, also take up this theme; hence, its appearance in the liturgy.
Maimonides adumbrates the doubts of many modern Jews about the literal truth of this motif, calling it one of many metaphors that teaches proper behavior. However, the power of a metaphor is exactly its ability to call upon us to suspend our rational faculties and to participate in the sacred space that the image invokes. Hence, the continued appeal and use of the motif of the book of life in which our good deeds, our bad deeds, and God’s judgment of them are inscribed. Students are familiar with this reality in the records that teachers keep, employees with the records that employers keep, and, indeed, we are all familiar with the records that others keep of our deeds and misdeeds and those that we keep of the deeds and misdeeds of others. We are always being judged, and judging; the process of ongoing record keeping and judgment is always with us—especially in the season of judgment between Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur.
What blessings do we want for the coming year? What do we want God to write for us into His book of life? If one were to list four blessings for which one would pray for oneself and one’s dear ones, what would they be? Contemplating this question is a very spiritual activity. It calls for an evaluation of what we have and what we would really like to have.
This prayer, recurring very often during this season, teaches that we should ask for “life, blessing, peace, and a good livelihood … a good life and peace.” What are these blessings, and why are they in this particular order?
Life is the greatest gift from the Creator. It is absolute. For that reason, we do not take another’s life purposely. We may not “help” a person to die. We may not “save” a damaged infant from a handicapped life by killing it. For that reason, we punish one who murders by taking that person’s life, after full due process.
Human life is more special than animal life. You cannot “murder” an animal. You can kill an animal to eat it.
If someone is older or ill or otherwise not able to care for themselves, we help them with their life. Many of us do not get a chance to honor our parents until they are older. Only then can we give back what we have received; only then can we give in honor. An elder parent is an opportunity to observe the fourth commandment.
We pray for life, absolutely, and for health for ourselves and our dear ones.
Blessing is a state of being. It is being the object of God’s attention, the recipient of God’s spiritual energy. It is knowing we are, or have been, in the Presence. Blessing has its obligations, too. We must be a blessing to others. We must bless others with an awareness of God.
So, we pray for blessing; for an awareness of being the object of God’s attention—for ourselves and of our dear ones.
Peace is also a state of being. It is, first, being free from serious trouble: from the threat of violence, from the hazard of exile and wandering, from the menace of economic need, from the danger of ill health, and from pain and suffering. Peace is also being free from internal emotional problems; it is having peace of mind. Peace is an opportunity—an opportunity to set oneself before God, to put oneself into the realm of meaning.
We pray for peace; for freedom from want and for the opportunity to face God—for ourselves and of our dear ones.
A good livelihood is just that: a life in which our needs for food, shelter, water, air, space, and sunshine are met. Not just met, but met generously; met well enough so that we can share with those we love, and also with those who do not have such a good livelihood: orphans, widows, veterans, the deeply hurt, the poor, the uneducated. We need a livelihood, and we need a good livelihood, not to enrich ourselves but to have enough to share with others.
We pray for a good livelihood; for economic abundance for ourselves and of our dear ones.
A good life is an even greater blessing. It is not just being alive. It is leading a life that has meaning; it is living with a sense of purpose. We are put here by God, not to subsist as do plants and animals, but to make some order and meaning out of life. That is the “good” life, and we pray for that.
We pray for a good life; for a life of meaning and higher purpose for ourselves and for our dear ones.
The order of these prayers is also instructive. This text tells us that one must first have life; one must be alive in order to to do anything. Second, one must receive blessing and be a blessing to others. Third, one must have peace: freedom from pain and need. Fourth, one must have a good livelihood: one must be at ease to share with others. Finally, one must lead a life of meaning and purpose; a good life. This text is a lesson in blessing, but it is also a lesson in priorities; some things really are more important than others.
And Elkanah, her husband, said to her,
“Why do you cry? Why do you not eat? Why are you sick at heart?
Am I not better to you than ten sons?”
And Hannah arose …
And she was bitter in her soul
And Hannah prayed against God
And cried deeply…
Va-yomer lah Elkana ‘ishah,
lameh tivki, ve-lameh lo’ tokhli, ve-lameh yeira` levaveikh
halo’ ‘ani tov lakh me-`asara banim
Va-takom Hannah …
ve-hi marat nefesh, va-titpallel Hannah `al Adonay, u-vakho tivke…
And Hannah was talking to herself,
Only her lips moved but her voice was not heard
And Eli thought her to be drunk
And Eli said to her,
“How long will you remain drunk? Remove the wine from yourself!”
And Hannah answered saying,
“No, my lord. I am a woman of hardened spirit.
I have drunk no wine or liquor.
I just poured out my soul before the Lord.”
Ve-Hannah medabberet `al libbah
rak sefateha na`ot, ve-kolah lo’ yishama`
va-yahsheveha Eli le-shikora
Va-yomer ‘eileha Eli,
`ad matai tishtakarin, hasiri yeineikh me-`alayikh
va-ta`an Hannah va-tomer
lo’ ‘adoni, ‘isha keshat ruah ‘anokhi
ve-yayin ve-sheikhar lo’ shatiti
va-’eshpokh ‘et nafshi lifnei ‘Adonay
On the first day of Rosh ha-Shana, one reads in the Torah the story of Sarah who was barren and of the birth of her child, Isaac. We, then, read the story of Hannah and the birth of Samuel for the reading from the Prophets. Both are classic biblical stories.
Hannah is childless. Her husband’s other wife, Penina, already has children and she aggravates Hannah every year when they go to the sanctuary in Shiloh to pray. Her husband, Elkanah, tries to understand Hannah’s anguish and lamely tries to comfort her. Hannah gets up and goes to the sanctuary, at whose threshold the high priest, Eli, sits. There, she prays fervently to God. These two moments in the story deserve a little more attention.
In the first of these moments, Elkanah sees Hannah’s anguish. In a deeply family-oriented society, it is terrible to be without children. Hannah feels that she has failed to give her husband a child; that she has failed as a woman. Other women in the Bible felt this way too: Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel; they, too, were bitter, angry, maybe ashamed. To make matters worse, Hannah’s co-wife Penina, who already has children, teases, aggravates, and provokes her when the family goes on family pilgrimage to Shiloh. One can imagine how hurtful that must have been.
So, Elkanah tries to comfort his wife, Hannah. First, he asks, “Why do you cry? Why do you not eat? Why are you sick at heart?” The discontinuity with the next phrase suggests that Elkanah tried this questioning several times and received no satisfactory response. Finally, he realizes that it has to do with Hannah’s barrenness and he asks, “Am I not better for you than ten children?” As the text indicates, Hannah does not even answer this well-intentioned but ultimately silly question for, no matter how good a husband is, one’s spouse is never one’s child. Hannah gets up from the table and goes to pray in the sanctuary.
How poignant this story is. Here we are in the depths of a couple in crisis. He has what he expects life to give him: enough wealth to be able to go on family pilgrimage, one wife with children, and another whom he clearly loves even though she has not born him a child. She does not have what she expected life to give her: a child, even though she has no economic worries and the attention of her husband. He wants to help but it takes him time to figure it out and, when he does, his attempt is lame. She knows it, doesn’t want to offend, and so she goes off to pray. Sometimes, a little privacy and prayer are all we have.
The text here reads as follows: “She was bitter in her soul and Hannah prayed `al ‘Adonay and cried deeply.” There are 80 occurrences of the root hitpallel (to pray) in the Hebrew Bible. All of them use hitpallel ‘el (to pray to) or hitpallel lifnei (to pray before). This is the only one that uses hitpallel `al (to pray against), as in “and they complained against God” (Exodus 16:7-8 and elsewhere). This text, then, teaches that Hannah prayed “against” God. In her bitterness, she protested to God vehemently and cried profoundly. Sometimes, this is the only kind of true prayer.
In the continuation of the story, Hannah is praying silently and crying hard. The officiating clergyperson sees her, thinks she is drunk, and rebukes her. Hannah, completely taken aback, defends herself saying that she was actually pouring out her soul to God. Eli recognizes his mistake and covers it up by promising her that her prayer will be answered.
This story is a good lesson to clergypersons. Like the story of Balaam and his talking ass (Numbers 22:28), it makes one wonder who is the figure that is really close to God. Eli should have been able to recognize true prayer, but he doesn’t. It is Hannah, in her misery, who is closer to God, not the duly appointed clergy person.
All three lessons—that privacy and prayer are sometimes all we have, that vehement protest is sometimes the only true prayer, and that true prayer is a function of the heart and not of the job—fit the Day of Judgment that is Rosh ha-Shana.
On the second day of Rosh ha-Shana, we read in the Torah the story of the Akeda, the almost-sacrifice of Isaac, and then Jeremiah’s great prophecy of comfort (Jeremiah 31:1-19). The former, 19 verses long, tells of a child who was not killed; the latter, also 19 verses long, tells of children who were killed and sent into exile.
Toward the end of the reading from Jeremiah, the prophet, who lived during the exile of the Jews in 586 B.C.E., hears God saying that God Himself has heard the lamentation of Rachel over the death and exile of her children. She is in mourning because, as they left for exile, they passed her grave (still located outside Jerusalem). She keens and mourns. She refuses to be comforted for the loss of her children. They simply are no longer there.
Thus said the Lord:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping
Rachel cries for her children
She refuses to be comforted for her children
for they are no longer.”
Koh ‘amar ‘Adonay
Kol be-Ramah nishma`, nehi bekhi tamrurim
Rachel mevaka `al baneha
Me’ana le-hinnakhem `al baneha
God, moved by compassion and pity, responds immediately by reassuring Rachel that her children will return. God instills hope in the mother without hope.
Thus said the Lord:
“Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from crying
for there is a reward for your effort,” says the Lord
“they shall return from the land of the enemy.
And there is hope at the end for you,” says the Lord
“and the children shall return to their boundaries.”
Koh ‘amar ‘Adonay
Min`i kolekh mi-bekhi, ve-`enayikh mi-dim`a
Ki yesh sakhar li-fe`ulatekh, ne’um ‘Adonay
Ve-shavu me-‘erets ‘oyeiv.
Ve-yesh tikva le-‘aharitekh, ne’um ‘Adonay
Ve-shavu vanim li-gevulam.
Jeremiah, recalling the exile of the ten northern tribes (Efraim) in 722 B.C.E., continues with God talking.
I have surely heard Efraim keening,
“You have chastised me and I have been chastised like an untrained calf.
Return me, and I will return, for You are the Lord, my God.
Even after I did repentance, I feel remorse
and, [even] after I became aware [of my sins], I smite my thigh [in regret].
I am shamed and humiliated, for I bear the sins of my youth.”
Shamo`a shama`ti ‘Efraim mitnoded
Yissartani va-‘ivasser ke-`egel lo’ lummad
hashiveini ve-’ashuva, ki ‘ata ‘Adonay ‘elohai
Ki ‘aharei shuvi nihamti,
ve-‘aharei hivadde`i safakti `al yarekh
boshti ve-gam nikhlamti ki nasa’ti herpat ne`uray
Having heard the anguish of Efraim who, even after he has done repentance and even after he has become conscious of the irreducibility of his sins, is still remorseful, ashamed, and humiliated, God has mercy on him and seeks to comfort him.
“Is Efraim not a precious child to Me, a child with whom I played?
Whenever I speak of him, I still remember him.
For that reason, My inner Being churns for him.
I shall surely have mercy on him,” says the Lord.
Ha-ven yakir li ‘Efraim, ‘im yeled sha`ashu`im
ki midei dabri bo zakhor ‘ezkerenu `od
`al ken hamu mei`ay lo
raheim ‘arahemenu, ne’um ‘Adonay
Jeremiah, thus, tells us in very beautiful language, that God has heard the lament of Rachel over the exile of her children, and He has reached out to comfort her. The prophet then tells us that God has heard the pain and prayer of Efraim, and He has reached out to comfort him, too. (Note the chiliastic structure: one verse of lamentation and two of comfort [31:14, with 15-16] for Rachel, followed by two verses of lamentation and one of comfort [31:17-18, with 19] for Efraim.)
On the day of Rosh Ha-Shana, we read these words of deep comfort. On the Day of Judgment, the Akeda and the chapter on comfort are each a source of strength for the terrors of life in this world.
“Who Has Commanded Us to Sound the Shofar”
Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, king of the universe
Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us
to hear the sound of the shofar.
Barukh ‘ata ‘Adonay ‘eloheinu melekh ha-`olam
‘asher kiddishanu be-mitsvotav ve-tsivanu
lishmo`a kol shofar.
The most visible symbol of the Jewish New Year is the shofar. Information on the shofar—it origins, its construction, its sounds, and its usage—is readily available. Briefly, the ram’s horn was used in biblical times as a means of communicating with large masses of people. A ram appears in the story of the binding of Isaac. The shofar was sounded at Mt. Sinai before the revelation of the ten commandments. The shofar is the herald of the kingship of God, the sound of the King. Then, there is the “great shofar” that will be sounded to herald the messiah. (For this last reason, the shofar is also blown on occasions of very important national redemption.)
There are three calls of the shofar of the same total length: (1) teki`a—a simple sound, (2) shevarim—a broken or sighing sound, and (3) teru`a—a rapid-fire sound.
In most traditions, a set of shofar sounds would be: (a) teki’a, shevarim-teru`a, teki`a—repeated three times, (b) tek’ia, shevarim, teki`a—repeated three times, and (c) teki`a, teru`a, teki`a—repeated three times, with the last teki`a (Hebrew, teki`a gedola) being longer than all the rest.
In most traditions, a full set of shofar sounds is blown after the reading of the Torah and the Haftara, and parts of the whole set are blown during the silent, and then the public, recitation of the Musaf Amida of Rosh ha-Shana. (The shofar is not sounded on Yom Kippur, except at the very end of the day and, then, in most traditions, only one long teki`a is sounded.)
The sounding of the shofar is so central to Rosh ha-Shana that even Jews who do not stay for the liturgy come to hear the shofar. Children, whose attendance in the formal services is dealt with very leniently because the liturgy is so long and it deals with very serious issues, also come into the synagogue for the blowing of the shofar.
What is the purpose of the sounding of the shofar? Of the many explanations, three seem to be more central than others.
There is the connection with the Akeda. The midrash teaches that when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice the ram instead of Isaac, God promised Abraham that, whenever the Jewish people would sin and be in trouble, they should sound the shofar and God would hear it, forgive their sins, and save them from trouble. Since Rosh ha-Shana is the day of judgment and the beginning of the ten days of repentance, the Akeda was chosen as the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh ha-Shana and the shofar is sounded on both days (except Shabbat). To hear the shofar sound on Rosh ha-Shana, then, is to invoke the merit of the Akeda; it is to follow the procedure for God’s promise of forgiveness of sin and of redemption.
The shofar is meant as a wake-up call for all who hear it. We are called to search ourselves for our sins, to repent, to make good on the evil deeds we have done, and to confess our sins. As Maimonides puts it (Code of Law, Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4): “Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh ha-Shana is a decree of the Torah, there is a message in it; to wit, ‘You who sleep, wake up from your sleep; and you who slumber, rouse yourselves from your slumber. Search your ways, return in repentance, and remember your Creator….’” To hear the sound of the shofar on Rosh ha-Shana is to heed the call to look into oneself and ask, “What have I done?! How did I do this and that? Am I really sorry? And, have I really done everything I can to fix the wrong I have done?”
The shofar is also a wake-up call for God. It is a call to God to remember the Akeda and the promise He made to listen when we sound the shofar. It is also a call to God to judge fairly. Further, it is a call to God to do more than judge fairly, to “get off His seat of judgment and move to His seat of mercy” (Talmud, Avoda Zara 3b). Rabbi Nachman Cohen of Providence, RI, taught us that, just as animals hear sounds we do not hear and, just as we hear meanings in word-sounds that animals do not hear, so God hears something in the sound of the shofar that we do not hear. The sound of the shofar is God’s sound; it is heard by God, on a level we cannot comprehend. To hear the sound of the shofar on Rosh ha-Shana, then, is to call to God in His language.
There is a story told of the Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, interviewing people to serve as cantor and to sound the shofar in his synagogue. The first person came in and announced that he had practiced all his life, and that had a beautiful voice and a shofar with a beautiful sound that he always used. Levi Yitshak dismissed him politely. The second candidate came in and explained that he had studied the liturgy and the laws of the shofar all his life and was confident he could do the job very well. Again, Levi Yitshak dismissed him politely. The third candidate added that he knew all the kabbalistic kavvanot for the prayers and the sounding of the shofar. As before, Levi Yitshak dismissed him politely. The last candidate came in, and when asked why he should get the post, he replied, “To tell the truth, I am familiar with the liturgy and can blow the shofar. I am good at these, but I am not the best. However, I am a poor man and I have three daughters for whom I need to build dowries.” Rabbi Levi Yitshak turned to him and said, “You are the person I am looking for. You will lead us in prayer and you will sound the shofar for us.”
We stand when the shofar is blown. We are completely silent when the shofar is sounded. We cover, and bow, our heads. We receive God’s kingship. We acknowledge that God is the Judge. And we look into ourselves, and we pray.
All vows, prohibitions, oaths …
that we vowed, swore, took upon ourselves…
from last Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur
and from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur,
we [declare that we] regret.
They will all be dissolved, canceled, and rendered void…
Our vows are not vows, our oaths are not oaths…
Kol nidrei ve-‘esorei u-shevu’ei…
de-‘indarna ude-‘ishtaba`na ude-‘aharimna…
mi-Yom Kippurim she-`avar `ad Yom Kippurim zeh
umi-Yom Kippurim zeh `ad Yom Kippurim ha-ba’…
be-khulhon ‘iharatna be-hon,
kulhon yehon sharan, shevikin, shevitin, beteilin…
nidrana la nidrei… u-shevu`atana la shevu`ot…
“And the Lord said, ‘I have forgiven, according to your word.’”
Va-yomer ‘Adonay, salahti ki-devarekha. (Numbers 14:20)
The liturgy of Yom Kippur begins with Kol Nidrei. Two Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark and a Jewish court is constituted by three men (the two holding the scrolls and the cantor). They ask permission of the community, and Kol Nidrei is then recited three times, followed by verses, concluding with the one cited above.
The excerpt shows clearly that Kol Nidrei is not properly a prayer. Instead, it is an act of the court dissolving all vows, oaths, promises, etc. made during the past year or going to be made during the coming year. With that act of the court, the congregation is freed from most commitments and can start the New Year with a clean slate.
From the point of Jewish law, however, this procedure presents some very severe problems:
(1) The very complex verbal commitments tlisted require an enormous knowledge of Jewish law to know the proper form for each.
(2) There is a complicated but established procedure for dissolving vows, but this is not it. The usual procedure involves cross-examination of the individual by a very learned court, and a personal renouncement by the individual of the specific conditions. Kol Nidrei, by contrast, is not recited by the community or the individuals, but by the cantor. Furthermore, it is never recited in translation so that participants could know what they are saying; it is always sung in Aramaic, a language unknown to most contemporary Jews.
(3) One cannot dissolve vows communally, only personally.
(4) According to most authorities, one cannot dissolve vows that have not yet been made (“from this Yom Kippur to next Yom Kippur”). Even according to those authorities that do allow such annulment, the grammar of the paragraph does not reflect that.
(5) There are certain verbal commitments that simply cannot be annulled by a court. In addition to the legal doubts, there is some dispute about the origin and history of Kol Nidrei.
Although the purpose and text of Kol Nidrei is wrapped in doubt, its importance to the Jewish community is beyond all doubt. Jews who are completely secular come to hear Kol Nidrei. People who are normally late to synagogue never miss Kol Nidrei. I know some who come for Kol Nidrei and leave right afterwards, before the evening liturgy actually begins. Others turn on their radios or go to the internet to hear Kol Nidrei from their homes. There are versions of Kol Nidrei on Youtube, and people listen to serious musical renditions of all kinds at the beginning of Yom Kippur.
What, then, accounts for its importance in the Jewish soul?
In a compelling essay on Kol Nidrei, Theodore Reik points out that the words of the Kol Nidrei are a legal formula, recited three times, for absolving one from oaths. Indeed, the “prayer” is no prayer at all; rather, it is the act of a rabbinic court sitting in the last hour before the Day of Atonement. And yet, Reik notes, the congregation is often moved to tears. Reik accounts for this by looking at the music. In European tradition, the text is chanted in a plaintive melody recognized by most ashkenazic Jews. It has even been rendered for cello by Max Bruch.
It is the melody, not the words, Reik maintains, that evokes the feeling. It is through the music that the participant subconsciously becomes aware of his or her status as a sinner. It is through the music that the participant subconsciously becomes aware of his or her status as a child who has done wrong before her or his Father, and who seeks forgiveness and reconciliation with Him. This constitutes the theme of Yom Kippur, and it is given its expression in the music of Kol Nidrei even though the words do not fit the music.
As the day fades and Yom Kippur begins, we approach God aware of our sinfulness, and we experience a deep longing to be reconciled (mitpayyes) with God even, and maybe especially, for the sins we have committed that we couldn’t help, for the failures that we know are systemic. We experience, too, a sense of humility, for we are aware that we have tried to do teshuva and to make good on our wrongs, and we know that we have not succeeded. Every soul yearns to be free of sin and to be at one with God. The melody of Kol Nidrei expresses that for us. That is why it really doesn’t make a difference, except to rabbinic scholars, what the text actually says or what its halakhic limits are. The sense of wanting to be children, reunited in harmony with our Father, is embodied in the music, and that is what counts.
“I Have Sinned, Transgressed, and Rebelled”
And thus would he [the high priest] say:
I beg of you, the Name,
I have sinned unintentionally, I have sinned intentionally, and I have sinned rebelliously before You,
I and my household.
I beg of You, the Name,
Grant atonement for the unintentional sins, the intentional sins, and the rebellious sins
That I have unintentionally, intentionally, and rebelliously committed before You,
I and my household, as it says in the Torah of Moses …
Ve-khakh haya ‘omer,
hata’ti, `aviti, pasha`ti lefanekha
kapper na’ la-hata’im, vela-`avonot, vela-pesha`im
she-hata’ti, veshe-`aviti, veshe-pasha`ti
‘ani u-veiti ka-katuv be-torat Moshe…
There are two moments in Jewish understanding in which the fate of the whole world hung in the balance. The first was after the sin of the golden calf: Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to seek forgiveness and God came down and taught him the proper prayer to say (the original “Lord’s Prayer,” so to speak). The full text reads as follows: “God came down in a cloud. H/he stood with him there, and H/he called in the Name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and H/he called out: ‘Lord, Lord—God, Who loves compassionately and is gracious, Who is patient and full with grace and truth. He stores up grace for the thousands [of generations]. He forgives `avon, pesha`, ve-hata’a. He cleanses’” (Exodus 34:5-7).
The second moment was during the annual atoning for the sins of the people and the sanctuary. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest went into the sanctuary, performed the daily sacrifices and then, over specially designated animals, he recited the confession of sins three times: once for himself and his household, once for the priests, and once for the people of Israel. The blood of two of these sacrificial animals was used to purify the sanctuary while the third animal, the goat upon whose head the sins of the people had been confessed, was sent to the desert and killed (the original “scapegoat”; Leviticus 16). The text of the high priest’s confessions is not given in the Bible but a disagreement about it is recorded in the Talmud (Yoma 36b) as follows:
How did he confess? [He said], “`aviti, pasha`ti, ve-hata’ti” [over his animal and] over the scapegoat, as it says, “He shall confess over it all the `avonot of the Israelites and all their pesha`im, even all their hata’ot” (Leviticus 16:21). Similarly, Moses prayed, “He forgives `avon, pesha`, ve-hata’a” (Exodus 34:7). This is the opinion of Rabbi Me’ir.
But the sages say: `avonot are intentional sins as it says …; pesha`im are rebellious sins as it says …; and hata’ot are unintentional sins as it says….
[They add:] Since [according to Rabbi Me’ir] the high priest confessed the intentional and rebellious sins [first], how can he then confess the unintentional sins, [the latter, being much less serious, belong logically first]?! Rather, thus would the high priest recite confession: “hata’ti, `aviti, pasha`ti , I have committed unintentional sins, I have committed intentional sins, and I have committed rebellious sins.”
Two issues are at stake here: the meaning of the three terms, and the conflict between the Scriptural and the logical sequence for the sins within the actual text of the confession of the high priest.
On the matter of the meaning of the terms, the typology of the rabbis prevailed. And so the respective meanings are as follows: hata’a (alternate form, hata’t) = unintentional sin, `avon = intentional sin, and pesha` = rebellious sin. (The English translations in most prayerbooks do not make this typology clear.)
On the matter of the sequence, Scripture, in the two most significant places (Exodus 34:7, the narrative of Moses’ plea after the sin of the golden calf, and Leviticus 16:21, the actual instruction for the Yom Kippur atonement sacrifice), favors `avon, pesha`, hata’a. Nonetheless, the rabbis favor the logical sequence, hata’a, `avon, pesha`—that is, unintentional, intentional, and rebellious sins. The Talmud resolves this question in favor of logic, not Scripture. And it is this usage that was incorporated into the liturgy of the sacrificial service on Yom Kippur and which is still present in the conceptual substratum of one of the two recurring public confessions recited every Yom Kippur.
One additional point of study in this Yom Kippur text deserves mention. While the temple stood in rabbinic times, the high priest would enter the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement and, after each of the three confessions, he would recite the verse from Leviticus (16:30): “For on this day, He will grant atonement to you to purify you from all your sins; before YHVH, you shall be purified.” The Mishna (Yoma 3:8) records that the high priest would, on this occasion only, actually pronounce the Name of God (YHVH) in its original pronunciation and, when the people heard him pronounce it, they would “kneel, prostrate themselves, acknowledge God, fall on their faces, and say ‘Blessed is the Name of the glory of God’s kingdom for ever and ever.’”
This moment is remembered as part of the recitation of the Musaf service for Yom Kippur. The confession is recited three times: once for the high priest and his family; once for the high priest, his family, and the other priests; and once for the children of Israel. (The text and the grammar change accordingly.) And, each of the three times when the word HaShem, is recited as part of the accompanying verse from Leviticus 16:30, it is customary to bow down to the floor in reverence and recite “Blessed is the Name of the glory of God’s kingdom for ever and ever.” As noted, after the recitation of the Sh’ma, one recites the same line (though one does not bow down), perhaps in recollection of a time when the Name was also pronounced during the recitation of the Sh’ma.
The actual pronunciation of YHVH, the original Name of God, is not known. Modern scholars have reconstructed this name as a third person, singular, fourth (causative) conjugation of the verb hyh, “to be,” used as a noun. This would generate “Yahweh” or “Yahveh,” meaning “He Who causes being” or “He Who brings being into existence.” This is an intelligent reconstruction, but no one knows the actual pronunciation because, after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., the rabbis forbade the pronunciation of this Name. Its pronunciation was repressed, perhaps as a sign of mourning for the loss of the temple, perhaps because people were using the Name in magical formulae. Whatever the reason, its pronunciation is lost.
The word YHVH, however, occurs in the Bible and one must read something when one comes to that word. The rabbis ordained that one should see YHVH but one should read ‘Adonay, (“Lord”) and this is universal practice among Jews: When one encounters YHVH, one uses ‘Adonay in the liturgical reading from the Torah and in prayer; however, when one encounters YHVH / ‘Adonay in non-liturgical situations, one substitutes various other words for it. There is one exception: this passage in the Yom Kippur Musaf service where one encounters YHVH in the verse from Leviticus and one says “HaShem” (“the Name”).
In addition to the ban on pronouncing YHVH, there is a ban on writing it. And so, one never writes YHVH in Hebrew in common writing and, if one were to do so, it cannot be erased. Hence, old or damaged Torah scrolls and prayer books, in which one does write YHVH, must be buried. In common writing, one substitutes various other words for it.
This is the only time during the year when a traditional Jew bows all the way down to the ground and accepts the kingdom of God. It is a spiritually intense moment.
“Forgive Us. Forgo Our Debts. Grant Us Atonement”
For all of these, God of forgiveness,
Forgo our debts, and
Grant us atonement.
Ve-`al kullam, ‘eloha selihot,
There are two forms of public confession that are recited on Yom Kippur, both known by their initial words. The first, ‘Ashamnu, is an alphabetic acrostic, one sin per letter. The second, `Al het’, is a double acrostic, two sins per letter. Three times during the second confession one recites the refrain above in which we ask God’s forgiveness.
Forgiveness follows repentance (Hebrew, teshuva). Without repentance, one cannot ask for forgiveness; without repentance, one cannot be forgiven. After repentance, there are three types of forgiveness.
In a civil contract, one party incurs a debt to, or obligation toward, or claim against another. In such a situation, the creditor can forgo the debt, waive the obligation, or relinquish the claim. The creditor can do this for no reason at all, though usually, the creditor has some grounds for being willing to forgo the debt. Similarly in the matter of sin. When one sins against another, one incurs an obligation to right the wrong that one has committed. This is a debt toward the offended party borne by the offender. The more serious the wrong, the more serious the obligation to set it straight. In rabbinic thought, only the offending party can set the wrong aright and only the offended party can forgo the debt of the sin. This means that, if I have offend someone, it is my responsibility to do whatever it takes to set matters aright and, conversely, if someone has offended me, it is my responsibility to allow the offender to do teshuva (repentance), that is, to correct the wrong done to me. Teshuva is part of the structure of God’s creation; hence, the sinner is obligated to do teshuva, and the offended person is obligated to permit teshuva by the offender.
The most basic kind of forgiveness, then, is forgoing the other’s indebtedness (Hebrew, mehila). If the offender has done teshuva by ceasing the offending activity, by making restitution where possible, by feeling remorse, by actually asking forgiveness of the offended person, and finally by confession before God; and, if she or he is sincere in his or her repentance, then and only then, the offended person should offer mehila; that is, the offended person should forgo the debt of the offender, relinquish her or his claim against the offender. This is not a reconciliation of heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes the offended anything for whatever it was that he or she did. Mehila is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.
The tradition, however, is quite clear. On the one hand, if the offending person has done all that can be done to make things aright, the offended person is morally bound to forgo the debt incurred. Maimonides is decisive on this subject: “The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not offering mehila, for this is not the way of the seed of Israel. Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims and has] asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner mehila” (Code of Law, “Hilkhot Hovel u-Mazzik,” 5:10).
On the other hand, the tradition is equally clear that the offended person is not obliged to offer mehila if the offender is not sincere in his or her repentance and has not taken concrete steps to correct the wrong done. Thus, a woman who has been battered by her husband, or abused by her father, is not obliged to grant such a person mehila unless he has, first, desisted from all abusive activity; second, reformed his character through analysis of sin, remorse, restitution, and confession; and third, actually asked for forgiveness several times. Only then, after ascertaining that he is sincere in his repentance, would a woman in such a situation be morally bound, though not legally obligated, to offer the offender mehila.
The principle that mehila ought to be granted only if deserved is the great Jewish “No” to easy forgiveness. It is core to the Jewish view of forgiveness, just as desisting from sin is core to the Jewish view of repentance. Without good grounds, the offended person should not forgo the indebtedness of the sinner; otherwise, the sinner may never truly repent and evil will be perpetuated. And, conversely, if there are good grounds to waive the debt or relinquish the claim, the offended person is morally bound to do so. This is the great Jewish “Yes” to the possibility of repentance for every sinner.
The second kind of forgiveness is forgiveness (Hebrew, seliha). This is an act of the heart; a reaching of a deeper understanding of the sinner; an achieving an empathy for the troubledness of the other. Seliha, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an act of mercy than to an act of grace. Sometimes, human conflict reaches the level of seliha, of forgiveness in the heart. It is hard to achieve and, hence, rather rare. As a result, people often use the phrase “I forgive you” rather lightly. Thus, a woman abused by a man may never reach the level of forgiveness; she is not obliged, nor is it morally necessary for her, to do so though it is certainly desirable.
The third kind of forgiveness is atonement (Hebrew, kappara) or purification (Hebrew, tahora). This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness. It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but it is granted only by God. No human can “absolve” the sin of another. No human can “atone” for the sin of another. No human can “purify” the spiritual pollution of another. Only God can cleanse a relationship, insofar as that it is possible at all.
When we ask God for forgiveness, we ask for all three types: “God of forgiveness, Forgive us. Forgo our debts. Grant us atonement.”
The liturgy is not uniform or even completely clear in describing which types of sins go with which types of forgiveness. I would suggest that, for unintentional sins (hata’a), we ask forgiveness (seliha); for intentional sins (´avon), we ask for forgoing of the debt they incur (mehila); and for rebellious sins (pesha´), we ask atonement (kappara). Using this understanding, we ask God for actual forgiveness for the sins we didn’t really mean to commit precisely because we didn’t mean to commit them. We ask God to at least forgo the debt of the sins we consciously commit because we have done teshuva (or as much repentance as we can) for those sins. And we ask God to just wipe away those sins that we commit in rebellion against Him because we simply cannot get down to the root of these sins enough to be able to correct them; we cast ourselves on His mercy.
The work of repentance precedes forgiveness. But the work of forgiveness lies in recognizing that we commit different types of sins and that each requires a different type of forgiveness. The period of judgment is hard work.
“Praying Next to a Survivor”
This poem is not in any Siddur. It is a poem I wrote.
Very soon after we moved to Atlanta in 1976, I met Alex Gross at a performance in which our children were taking part in the local Jewish school. Our youngest, Benjamin, only 2 years old, was with us. As was his custom, he went around talking to everyone: “Hello, my name is Benjamin. What is yours?” He came up to a short, stocky man with his usual greeting, and Alex Gross picked him up “My name is Alex, and I used to have a Benjy just like you.” Later, I learned the story: Alex Gross was a survivor of the shoah with a number on his arm who had eventually settled in Atlanta where he had a construction business. He had three girls and one boy. The boy, Benjamin, had been killed in an accident with a piece of machinery on one of Alex’s sites not too long before he met our Benjamin. It still moves me to recall this incident.
Some years later, as a professor of Jewish Studies at Emory University, I agreed, with some hesitation, to teach a course on the shoah. As part of the course, I called upon Alex Gross to speak in class. Alex, who was one of the early survivors to speak regularly, came to our class willingly. At the end, I couldn’t talk; I let my colleague thank him for all of us.
For many years, Alex and I sat next to each other every Shabbat and holiday morning in the synagogue. We were a strange couple: Alex, the survivor, the experienced businessman who never received a Jewish education and who received a secular education only while serving in the American Armed Forces during the Korean War; and myself, the rabbi, son of a rabbi, professor of Jewish Studies who understands very little of the business world. But, we enjoyed being together and we were bound by the special bond between him and our son, Benjamin.
One Yom Kippur, we were praying next to one another, reciting the penitential prayers and reciting confession of sins, when it suddenly struck me that I had no right, really, to be praying next to Alex. The following poem is the result. (The lines in quotation marks are from the liturgy and I have responded to them in midrashic-liturgical form. The lines in single quotation marks that begin “How horrible…” and “An eye…” are a reversal of the meaning of Psalms 31:20 and Isaiah 64:3 respectively.)
We recited confession;
I was astounded.
What was he confessing, and why?
Who was asking forgiveness from whom?
We recited the penitential prayers;
the shadow that crossed his face,
memories welling up from the depths.
“Therefore, put fear of You into all Your creatures” —
an anger hidden in his body.
Why were they not afraid?
Why did He not put fear into them?
We recited the Sh’ma;
I was ashamed.
Who am I to recite the Sh’ma next to him?
What is my faith next to his?
“Our Father, our King” —
he has the advantage.
Job, faithful servant.
‘How horrible are the terrible deeds You have set aside for those who fear You’
‘An eye other than Yours has seen, O God.’
“Act for the sake of suckling infants who have not sinned” —
Were they my children?
Woe unto the eyes that saw such things.
I do not want to see; I cannot.
He too does not want to see, but he is compelled,
and I am compelled in his compulsion
My son …
“If as children, if as servants” —
Lord, we really and truly only wanted to be good children, loyal servants.
“We are Your children, and You are our Father,”
“We are Your servants, and You are our King.”
Have mercy on us.
Heal us, and we shall be healed.