In light of the challenges I faced when asked to offer simple thanks during one morning’s prayers, I decided to explore the passage, included in many versions of the morning blessings, that begins: “Therefore, we are obliged to acknowledge and thank you…”
Obliged to Thank– Or Not?
This paragraph, which leads to recitation of the Shema, is preceded by the following passage:
You should always fear God inwardly and outwardly, and gratefully acknowledge the truth, and speak truth in your hearts, and rise up early to say:
Master of all worlds, we do not offer our supplications before You based on our righteousness, but rather based on Your great mercy. What are we? What are our lives?….Man barely rises above beast, for everything is worthless [hakol havel].
But we are Your people, the children of Your covenant, the children of Abraham, Your love, to whom You took an oath on Mount Moriah; the descendants of Isaac, his only son, who was bound on the altar; the community of Jacob, Your first-born, whom You called Israel and Jeshurun, on account of Your love for him and joy with him. Therefore…
— My People’s Prayerbook: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,
volume 5: Birkhot Hashachar (morning blessings)**
Some prayerbooks, including Kol Haneshamah (Reconstructionist)** and Mishkan T’filah (Reform),** don’t include the passage above.
Siddur Eit Ratzon,** edited, translated and with commentary by Joseph Rosenstein, compromises by means of commentary:
*Because of all the blessings we receive,* we are
obliged to acknowledge Your presence in our lives,
to extol and to honor You,
to bless and to sanctify You,
and to give praise and gratitude to You.
*In the traditional Siddur, “because of this” [therefore] refers to a passage, omitted from this Siddur, that notes that all human efforts would be vanity were it not for God’s special love for the Jewish people and the covenant with our ancestors and their descendants.
Rosenstein’s pointer to the missing text proved useful in exploring my experience (described in the previous post) of the morning blessings as a long series of seeming criticisms — or, at the very least, challenges.
Too Grumpy for Gratitude?
I was familiar with teachers who discuss the power of blessings to make us aware of, and grateful for, what we have while spurring us to concern for those in need. Max Kadushin’s Worship and Ethics and Marcia Prager’s Path of Blessing come to mind, for example.
But I couldn’t think of any teacher who addressed the power of blessings to make us feel inadequate, defensive or otherwise too grumpy to be grateful.
My People’s Prayerbook offers commentary on this passage from five other scholars, but the piece that helped me in this connection comes from Ellen Frankel:
Because the world seems to conspire against unconditional caring, most children (at some point) doubt that their parents truly love them, no matter what….Even when we come to recognize as adults that we can take care of ourselves, we still long for that unconditional love that inevitably eluded us at moments in our childhood when we found ourselves alone or vulnerable. This prayer admits to that earlier longing and acknowledges the heartfelt truth that only God can offer us this kind of constancy.
Admitting such truth is not simple. It requires that we abandon our grandiose childish sense of entitlement to God’s favor. We…are puny in God’s sight. Ultimately, we can only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.
But is this abject humility an honest expression of how we feel? Must we really live our lives as though we are so worthless, as though hakol havel, “everything is worthless,” as Ecclesiastes lamented?
–Ellen Frankel, pp. 160, 166 IN My People’s Prayerbooks
Self-Surrender and Covenant
The prayerbook passage, and Frankel’s commentary, shift from the concept of bittul, self-surrender, to the balancing concepts of “heroes to plead our cause” and our covenantal relationship with God.
We are finite human beings bound by time and space (yesh), but we are connected to and rooted in the infinite (ayin). We are uniquely endowed with gifts and blessings that we must manifest, yet at the same time we are part of the divine nothingness, mere “dust and ashes” in the sense that we have no independent existence apart from the divine. Healing into our wholeness involves learning how to gracefully navigate our lives between these two opposite poles of yesh and ayin, form and emptiness. To do so we must learn to balance deep humility with a healthy sense of entitlement. We must be able to celebrate our uniqueness and feel a sense of joy, pride, and gratitude for our gifts and blessings, while also practicing bittul, self-surrender.
–Estelle Frankel (no relation to Ellen, as far as I know),
Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness, (Shambhala Publications, 2003), p.82
My guess is that I personally would struggle with the simple thanks/”pshat prayer” challenge, regardless of prayerbook used. But I am now very interested in the practice of editing or eliminating bittul passages from some prayerbooks, whether the reason is theological, stylistic, etc.
Just as we need the up and down, dark and light — “You may weep in the evening, but in the morning you will rejoice,” e.g. — of the Psalms to settle into prayer, other points of balance between the yesh and the ayin seem crucial…
** For full citations and more information on prayerbooks, please see Source Materials.