22 January 2010


Here begins 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


Blessed are you, Eternal our God and God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel and the God of Leah, the great, mighty and revered God, the Most High God who bestows lovingkindness, the creator of all things, who remembers the good deeds of the ancestors and in love will bring a redeemer to their children's children for his name's sake. Sovereign, helper, savior and shield. Blessed are you, Eternal, the Shield of Abraham and the Helper to Sarah.

So reads the first paragraph of the Amidah, or central prayer, recited three times daily, in the Jewish tradition. It is the innermost prayer of our people, and as the first of 19 blessings comprising the Amidah, it represents an introductory moment that is choreographed in a manner similar to what it is when one approaches a king or queen for an audience.

The petitioner steps backward in humility three times, then forward with permission having been granted, bows upon introducing the blessing and bows again at the close of the blessing.

In this way, the conversation begins.

This is a moment of deep humility from the outset. To address the Source of Life by not naming oneself but by claiming the privilege or the right to address God in the name of those who came before--the Ancestors--one acknowledges in the opening statement that we approach our understanding of God through the agency of others who have come before us.

We are not prophets when we speak to God in prayer. We are the inheritors of a wisdom tradition that was formed in Land of Israel and in Exile, a wisdom developed by those Ancestors whose most significant contribution to history was their willingness to stand alone among the many and assert the reality of a God who could not be seen but heard through the mind, soul and heart.

Hirsch points out that while we bow in acknowledging that God revealed the Divine Self to the Ancestors, we apprehend God through various manifestations of what Arthur Hertzberg used to call "Godliness" in the world: lovingkindness, remembrance, help. The Amidah challenges us here: what we experience as good is not exclusively for us but is a gift we receive because those who came before us earned it. (I thought of this recently on a walk through Prospect Park, which I care for in my use of it but do so having received this gift from those who built the Park long before I came into the world.) There is truth in this hierarchical reality for some; for others, the notion of an evolving definition or nature of God speaks to our own sense of the progressive form of revelation in the world. Most important, Hirsch notes, is that once we apprehend this idea, we are able to declare our own presence before God.

And as to the clear reference to a savior--"and in love will bring a redeemer to their children's children for his name's sake"--we must state clearly, especially given the world we live in where messianic and apocalyptic movements stake a claim on their own triumphalist aspirations, Judaism here asserts that if anyone is going to come save the day, it's going to be out of love, not hate or war.

Fundamentally, wisdom being dynamic in nature, the bows we make to open and close this prayer are meant to slow our movements, humble our own insights, and grasp the elemental gifts of those who long ago preceded us in history and time.

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