30 June 2010


Answer us, Eternal, answer us on our Fast Day, for grievous trouble has overtaken us.  Consider not our guilt, turn not away from us.  Be mindful of our plea and heed our supplication.  Your love is our comfort; answer before we call.  This is the promise uttered by your prophet:  "I shall answer before they have spoken, I shall heed their call before it is uttered."  You, Eternal, answer us in time of trouble; You rescue and redeem in time of distress.  Praised are You, Eternal, who answers the afflicted.
This paragraph is traditionally inserted into the Amidah prayer on Fast Days.  We had occasion to recite it this week on the 17th of Tammuz, the day on the Hebrew calendar that is understood to be the day on which the Romans breached the walls of the Jerusalem before the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 AD.  This time period begins what are known as the "3 Weeks" of mourning that lead to Tisha B'Av, the Fast Day to commemorate the Temple's destruction.  The breach of the walls during the First Temple's destruction occurred in Tammuz as well, as did Moses' breaking of the Tablets.  It's a rough time.  For observant Jews there is a reduction in the pursuit of pleasure--live music, eating meat and drinking wine (except on Shabbat) and weddings are all restricted. 

The prayer is excised from the Reform movement siddur, a loss for the movement, I believe, precisely because it separates Reform Jews from the liturgical and historical prayer narrative of other Jews.  I prayed it that morning but didn't fast; I'm doing a wedding this weekend but I have marked the time on the calendar, am counting the weeks off until Tisha B'Av.  One might consider ways to live with the paradoxes and contradictions of being a non-observant Jew without simply editing certain words out of the Tradition, but that's a matter for another time.

The lynch pin of the prayer are the words from the prophet Isaiah: "I shall answer before they have spoken, I shall heed their call before it is uttered" and come toward the end of one of Isaiah's most noted and quoted passages because of its evocative messianic imagery.
Before they pray, I will answer; while they are still speaking I will respond.  The wolf and lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the serpent's food shall be earth.  In all my sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done, said the Eternal.  -- Isaiah 65.24-25
So these words we prayed on 17 Tammuz link us to Isaiah's idea that calling out, hearing and being heard, can be understood as a trace of the messianic. 

That night, as the fast day ended, I used these words to thank Rev Daniel Meeter and the leaders of Old First Reformed Church here in Park Slope at a reception our home with leaders from Congregation Beth Elohim.  As many people know, Rev Meeter and Old First's leadership called out to us before we could even call them on the day a section of our ceiling collapsed last September and offered us the use of their sacred space for Yom Kippur--the most sacred of all our fast days.  We were heard before we even called.  Being cognizant of that helped me understand better the Divine attribute of grace, perhaps what we might call more contemporaneously "being in sync." 

When communities work together; when its leaders are friends; and when those communities' congregants realize that in a room together on a warm summer evening there is a greater narrative that binds us beyond our individuated theological frameworks, then we are in the place of prophecy voiced by Isaiah centuries ago. 

A place of truly One God:  not yours, not mine but ours.


BZ said...

One might consider ways to live with the paradoxes and contradictions of being a non-observant Jew

Non-observant? Why not just observant in different ways?

Amanda said...

I liked this, thanks. I don't believe I ever read these words of Isaiah before and find them quite thought provoking.

Andy Bachman said...

BZ--I had a feeling you'd weigh in! Here's the thing--what's the right term for those who "observe" most if not all the mitzvot? The language continues to elude us.