A Prayer for Beginning an Endeavor

וְעָל כֵּן אֲנִי מִתְחַנֵּן לְשֵׁם שֶׁהוּא בָּֽעַל הַיְּכוֹלֶת הַגָּמוּר וְהָאֱמֶת הַגָּמוּר שְׁיִתֵּן לִי עֹז וְתַעֲצוּמוֹת לְהַשְׁלִים כַּוָּנָתִי וְיַנָחֵנִי בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶמֶת וִילָמְדֵנִי ארָחוֹת יוֹשֵׁר, כִּי בוֹ בַטָחְתִי וְאֵלָיו קִוִּיתִי, כְּמָאֲמַר הַמְּשׁוֹרֵר, “הַדְרִיכֵנִי בַֽאֲמִתֶּךָ ׀ וְלַמְּדֵנִי כִּי־אַתָּה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי אוֹתְךָ קִוִּיתִי כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם: וְזֶה הֶחֱלִי בְּעֶזְרַת שָׁדַּי:

Therefore I pray to God who has absolute power and truth that He may grant me courage and strength to accomplish my purpose, that He may lead me in the way of truth, and teach me the paths of uprightness, for in Him I trust and for Him I wait, as the Psalmist says (Psalms 25:5): “Guide me in Your truth, and teach me; for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all day.” Now I begin with the help of the Almighty.

This t’filah is an excerpt from Ikkarim: Book of Principles, a four-volume beautiful theological statement and explication of Torah by Joseph Albo, completed in 1454. Albo closes the preamble to his work with this prayer.

What a beautiful sentiment with which to begin a journey.

Advertisements

The Redemption Heard ‘Round the World

Every morning, we recite in our morning blessings,
ברוך אתה ה’, א-להינו מלך העולם, מתיר אסורים.
“Praised are You, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who releases captives.”

As we recite the first page of the Amidah, each time, we call God
סומך נופלים, רופא חולים, ומתיר אסורים
“He who raises the fallen, heals the sick, and frees the captives.”

Every time we recite the weekday Amidah, three times in any given weekday, we recite the following:
ראה נא בענינו, וריבה ריבנו, וגאלנו מהרה למען שמך, כי גואל חזק אתה. ברוך אתה ה’, גואל ישראל
“Behold our adversity and we shall be healed. Redeem us soon because of Your mercy, for You are the mighty Redeemer. Praised are You, Adonai, Redeemer of the people Israel.” (Sim Shalom translation)

This morning, for Mussaf of Chol ha-Moed Sukkot, we beseeched God to have compassion on us and on all of His children, calling him
מלך רחמן המשיב בנים לגבולם
“the compassionate King who returns His children to their own borders.”

And then we paraded around the chapel with our lulavim and etrogim, typical of the Hoshanot ritual for Sukkot, and we recited the following passage:
אדון המושיע. בלתך אין להושיע. גיבור ורב להושיע. דלותי ולי יהושיע. האל המושיע. ומציל ומושיע. זועקיך תושיע. חוכיך הושיע. טלאיך תשביע. יבול להשפיע. כל שיח תדשא ותושיע. לגיא בל תרשיע. מגדים תמתיך ותושיע. נשיאים להסיע. שעירים להניע. עננים מלהמניע. פותח יד ומשביע. צמאיך תשביע. קוראיך תושיע. רחומיך תושיע. שוחריך הושיע. תמימיך תושיע, הושע נא.

“Lord who saves, other than You there is no savior. You are powerful and abundantly able to save. I am impoverished, yet You save me. God is the Savior, He delivers and saves. Those who cry to You – save; those who yearn for You – save. Satiate Your lambs, cause an abundance of crops, of trees, of vegetation – save. Do not condemn the ground, but sweeten the luscious fruits – save. Let the wind bring the soaring clouds, let the storm rains be emplaced, let the clouds not be withheld, He Who opens a hand and satisfies Your thirsty ones – satisfy; Your callers – save; Your beloved – save; Your seekers – save; Your wholesome ones – save.” (Artscroll translation)

What a lot of talk about redemption!
What a day to talk about redemption!
What a day to pray for redemption and to praise God for granting redemption to those who are bound and oppressed.

Today, October 18, 2011, Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier now twenty-five years old, was returned home to Israel after five years in captivity by the hands of Hamas terrorists. Israel traded 1,027 Palestinian captives for Gilad’s safe release to his family.

This morning, as I checked Facebook for status updates, it seemed to me that every Jewish person plugged into Israeli happenings had posted about Gilad’s safe return home. The page for Binyamin Netanyahu is littered with pictures of the reunification of Gilad with his family and with the Prime Minister himself.

So much about this sixth day of Sukkot celebrates God as Redeemer. Some of the words I mentioned I say every day, multiple times a day. Some I say several times a year. Some I say once a year. Even so, none of these words have struck me the way they do today, God as Redeemer. God as Savior. Until one witnesses an event like this (and can check the news by 4G network even during the repetition of the Amidah, hearing in real-time what is going on in the world) one never knows the ways simple phrases of daily liturgy can tug at the heartstrings.

I join in the rest of the world in the following blessing, which we are not blessed to say so often:
ברוך פודה שבויים.
Blessed is He who releases captives.
Welcome home, Gilad.

Reconstituting Old Melodies?

Full disclosure: this is a brainstorm. It will not lead to any definitive answers, I will not follow through to any conclusions; but if you have answer to these questions, I’m open to suggestions.

Jewish musical history is filled with a lot of extraordinary music, from the likes of Salamon Sulzer, Louis Lewandowski, Marcus Hast, I.L. Mombach, Froim Spektor, I. Gottbeiter, Israel Goldfarb, Samuel Goldfarb, and others. All incredible composers of varying degrees. All treated the synagogue service with majesty and glory. Except in cases that are few and far between, when melodies stayed beloved to the congregation in communal moments, their melodies have evaporated from communal memory, save from conservatories and seminaries who study them, more as relics than as living, breathing synagogue music.

There must be another way.

There has to be a way that we can preserve, or revive, these melodies. How do we bring them back? As much as these composers would be rolling around in their graves, is there a way for us to “update” these melodies so that they can function as congregational? Can we take snippets of old melodies and reconstitute them so that they work more easily for our constituents? A lost melody no longer exists. Can we at least preserve them as art song?

A Meditation for Yom HaShoah

At Temple Emanu-El in Providence, when someone opens the door to our chapel and leaves it to close on its own, one hears a brief and barely audible “click” as the door hits its frame, and then another loud, definitive, often startling, “clack” as the door finally latches. The louder sound happens only after the door has been closed in silence about ten seconds, long enough that the person who came or left through it is long gone.

Today is Yom HaShoah. Holocaust Remembrance Day. The 27th of Nissan, less than a week after the end of Passover, a holiday on which we celebrate our freedom from slavery and oppression. Our celebration of freedom ended with a “click”, but we are jarred back to reality with the “clack” of our commemoration ceremonies and yellow candles. Maybe we were freed  three-thousand years ago. Our oppression barely ended so recently as 1945. It still lingers.

Although it didn’t seem like a day to teach up-beat music to my students in our Religious School as I do each Sunday morning, all students third grade through seventh today sang “Ani Ma’amin”. Each class had different memories about learning about the Holocaust; each class had different feelings about singing the song, hearing its words, and grasping its meaning.

אני מאמין, באמונה שלמה, בביאת המשיח
ואף על פי שיתמהמה, עם כל זה אחכה לו בכל יום – שיבוא

I believe, with wholehearted faith, in the coming of the Messiah.
And even if he is delayed, even with everything, I will wait for him, every day – that he will come.

Even in the depths of our despair, we believe. As Jews, we believe. As human beings, we believe in the goodness of people, despite all else, that a better time will come and that peace will prevail.

When we read texts, we have a tradition of not ending on a sad or angry note. Often times we add a verse at the end of a negatively or reproachfully themed haftarah in order to rest on a more hopeful idea. My classes today ended by singing “Oseh Shalom,” Judaism’s universal prayer for peace, and “HaTikvah,” the national anthem of the State of Israel, as we prepare for our celebration of the State of Israel with Yom Ha’Atzma’ut next week.

Although the tragedy feels long gone and far removed, it still lingers. We still feel the jolt back to reality as we put the death tolls into perspective for our students, as we show them what it meant to us, our parents and grandparents, and theirs, to remember those who perished.

When We Have No Words

We learn from an early age how to tell stories and how to express our own needs to others. For the first eight to ten years of life, we develop our use of language for survival. When we become old enough to understand the world around us, when we grow to become metacognitive, we begin to use our language to put our emotions, our ideas, and our experiences in to words. Our ability to produce and process complex language is what differentiates us from all other living creatures. It is an incredibly difficult and incredibly human task.

If I asked you, right now, to compose a completely unique prayer, could you? What if I told you it could be about anything?

Try it. It’s not as easy as it might seem.

Of course, most people are really good at what we call “small talk”. Most of us can spend hours just “chatting” about everything and absolutely nothing. I can sit across a table from someone and commiserate about frustrating classes, talk about childhood memories, and waste away a whole few hours. But when it matters most, most of us are speechless. Positive and negative experiences – if they are intense, chances are, we have no idea what to say.

Luckily for us, Judaism gives us scripted lyrics for times when we find ourselves so caught up that we can’t find our own words. Not only do I find that more often than not these words are much more appropriate for a given situation than I could personally compose, but I also find comfort in the fact that I’m not the first one to say them; that uttering these words and phrases connects me to a whole history of Jewish communities.

There are many examples of Jewishly-prescribed words for lifecycle events. “Mazal Tov!” literally meaning “Good luck!” but colloquially meaning “Congratulations!” is a well-known example. A bit lesser-known but commonly used in synagogue is the expression of “Yishar Koah” (sometimes “Yishar Kohekha” for males or “Yishar Koheikh” for females) which literally means “May you have unwavering strength.” We use this phrase, perhaps peculiarly, often to congratulate those who have participated in the synagogue service, but also to congratulate someone on a great accomplishment as well. In his article entitled “Yasher Koach: May You Have Strength!”, Eliezer Segal explores the origins of saying “Yishar Koah”. He fascinatingly goes through the explanations of two rituals surrounding Torah reading, and suggests that the term is a remnant of both of those combined, and concludes that “Yishar Koah” actually literally means, “May you have the strength not to cause the Torah to fall.” (Usually I would summarize the article in more detail but it’s so interesting I’d rather you just read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. I don’t want to spoil the surprise!)

Judaism also provides us with words in times when we are stunned into silence. When a person is ill, we say tehillim, psalms, by their bedside, and we can recite a “mi shebeirakh” for them in the synagogue. When one hears that someone has died, Jewish practice prescribes the phrase, “Barukh Dayan Emet” – “Blessed is the True Judge”. In the Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 59b states that even upon hearing bad news (this blessing can also be said when one hears other bad news), one recognizes the incomprehensible role that God has in this world. When we are faced with comforting a mourner, Judaism prescribes the traditional words, “haMakom yinahem etkhem betokh she’ar aveilei tziyyon virushalayim” – “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” And, when we ourselves are faced with coping with the loss of a loved one, we are prescribed the Mourner’s Kaddish, which, contrary to some popular belief, is not at all a prayer for the dead but rather a prayer of exultation to God and intended to sustain the living.

And for those times when we simply appreciate the world around us, Judaism also gives us blessings to say. Waking up, we are intended to say “Modeh ani lefanekha,” thanking God for restoring our lives and allowing us to wake up in the morning. The first part of davening that we say when we get to minyan in the morning is “Birkhot HaShahar,” which, if you read them closely, basically enumerate the steps in which we engaged to get ready and out of the house in the morning: (1) I woke up, (2) I opened my eyes, (3) I put on clothes, etc.

Most siddurim (plural of siddur) also contain a section of miscellaneous blessings or “birkhot hanehenin” – blessings of enjoyment, perhaps misnamed a bit. These include all kinds of blessings – blessings over food, over smelling sweet trees (welcome to springtime in New England!), over hearing thunder and seeing lightning, over seeing a rainbow. There are other blessings, also, for engaging in Torah study, for seeing a scholar engaged in Torah study, even for seeing “strange-looking people or animals.” Even in this case, when we might be stumped for words, our ancestors have suggested a response.

Being able to appreciate, produce, and process language makes us human. We consider ourselves the highest form of life because we can communicate with this complex system. But there is something else, I think, that makes us human: institutional and communal memory. We as people, as Jews, can benefit from the wisdom of our predecessors. In times of excessive joy and excessive hardship and sorrow, we lean on the words of those who came before us.

Perhaps our generation will produce words which are useful to the next generation. As we come up to Shavu’ot, I notice that perhaps this is one of those pieces that makes us a nation: not only are we connected horizontally with our contemporaries, but vertically to those who came before us and those who will come after us.

And now for another prescribed, but wonderful phrase:
Shabbat Shalom.

Rofei Cholim, u’Matir Asurim

While I was davening this morning, September 6, 2007, I had an epiphany. Sometimes it happens that during davening, a word, a phrase, an idea, will jump out at me. Generally, something I’d never noticed before.

Today, it was in the Amidah. In the first section of the Amidah, we describe God as “Somech noflim, v’rofei cholim, u’matir asurim,” meaning that God (although in Hebrew all in adjective form) “picks up the fallen, heals the sick, and frees those who are imprisoned.”

How are these three ideas connected? Quite frankly, the question has never occurred to me before. As of right now, I haven’t looked at any other text that may have already answered this question, although I’m sure there is one somewhere. In fact, I’m sure that, even if it was never written down, the author of the avot section of the Amidah probably had some rationale in his own mind; but that isn’t what davening from the siddur is all about. Davening is about finding and imposing your own personal meaning on someone else?s universal composition. As I stumbled over these words this morning, I stopped cold in my tracks. Lately I’ve just been blowing through davening as more of a chore than a spiritual experience. Sometimes you have to do that to get the “lo yadati” moment once in a blue moon.

But I digress. What is the relationship between God’s three aforementioned attributes?

The relationship between the first two is easy. Somech noflim, picking up the fallen, and rofei cholim, healing the sick, have an apparent correlation: someone who falls may get hurt. God is the healer of those who are hurt. I relate these not only in a physical sense but also spiritual: someone who has spiritually “fallen” may also need healing. But let us think about the correlation between the second couple: rofei cholim and matir asurim, freeing the imprisoned.

For the last few weeks, I have personally been struggling with the question, “When do we pray for a person to live and get better, and when do we begin praying for him to have an easy death, so that he no longer lives in pain?” Sure, we have his name on the mishebeirach list so that the community prays for his and others’ healing on the days that we read from the Torah; and I add this also to my own personal prayers every time I say the Amidah. But is it in his best interest for us to pray for his healing? Or is it selfish to ask God to keep him here just for us?

Perhaps a person in that state of life — in which people are praying for him and in which doctors are helping him, but in which he is in so much pain that his quality of life will never renewed to the level at which it was and at which he was truly happy — has the status of a prisoner. We are not in a position to make the judgment call about whether or not someone is worthy or wants us to offer our prayers. From this progression in our standard Amidah, and in accordance with our liturgy fro the upcoming High Holidays, we learn that ultimately it is God’s decision: God picks up the fallen, and God heals if the fallen needs healing. Then, if the individual in need of healing is not in need of physical healing but rather is trapped and in a position of true bodily failing, leading to spiritual and emotional failing, God might choose to release him from the prison of This World, and allow his spirit to go happily into the World to Come.