A story is the easiest, and, I hope, clearest, way for me to convey this thought to open the week of Netzach [“eternity,” also leadership] in the omer journey away from oppression. (apologies for length)
At this morning’s worship service, Temple Micah‘s Rabbi Zemel pointed participants’ attention to the following note, a kavanah [focusing intention] before the Standing Prayer:
Rabbi Ammi taught: A person’s prayer is not acceptable unless one’s heart is in one’s hands. (Taanit 8a)
— Mishkan T’filah, p.243
I attempted to approach the Amidah’s opening blessing in that spirit.
The opening blessing calls on God who “remembers the love of our fathers and mothers” and “brings redemption to their children’s children for the sake of the Divine Name.” Mishkan T’filah includes the matriarchs — “God of Sarah, …Rivkah, …Rachel, and God of Leah” — here. But it does not mention Bilhah and Zilpah, concubines to Jacob and mothers of four of the twelve tribes of Israel.
A Heavy Heart
For some years, I included the names of Bilhah and Zilpah myself in an effort to honor them and the many “fathers and mothers,” Jews or non-Jews, who contribute to the community over the centuries. But a few years ago I stopped on the theory that this, however inadvertently, led to erasing the history of oppression.
Ignoring race or underdog status in an attempt at inclusiveness, I reasoned, can have a negative impact, allowing those of more powerful or privileged status to forget that the underdog/slave still carries effects of that (former?) status.
Nowadays, instead of including the six mothers as equals in the list, I’ve taken to pausing after calling on “God of Abraham…God of Leah,” to specifically call on “God of the Ancestors of all with whom we’ve traveled.”
A note from Judith Z. Abrams on the opening blessing explains
The content of this prayer has to do with the merit of our ancestors. This is traditionally conceived of as a sort of bank account into which the Patriarchs and Matriarchs deposited funds of righteousness that were so great that they covered all future generations.
— Mishkan T’filah, p.244
And, if we’re to invoke the merit of all the ancestors, there are some debts owing as well. So, this morning, I found that my heart, in hand, grew heavy as I invoked the God of all the Ancestors.
By the time I reached Sim Shalom, the closing blessing and prayer for peace, I could hear the wails of so many oppressed descendants of those Ancestors calling on God to “bless all of us as one, through the light of Your Presence” that I wondered how others seemed (apparently) unaware of the din filling the sanctuary.
In many prayerbooks (outside the Reform Movement), the prayer for peace includes the ancient priestly blessing:
May GOD bless you and keep you.
May GOD shine his face toward you and treat you graciously.
May GOD lift his face toward you and grant you peace (from Numbers 6:26).
Priests — and in some communities, all the participants — accompany this blessing with an open-fingered gesture. (See right>>>) And so I got to thinking after the service about open fingers and hearts in hand.
I decided to look up Rabbi Ammi’s teaching in the Babylonian Talmud:
R. Ammi said: A man’s prayer is only answered if he takes his heart into his hand, as it is said, “Let us lift up our heart with our hands” (Lam 3:41). [But a teaching of Samuel asks: Do we not also read] “…For their heart was not steadfast with Him, neither were they faithful in His covenant; and yet, But He being full of compassion, forgiveth iniquity etc.” (Psalms 78:36-38)? — This is no contradiction. The one refers to the individual, and the other to the community.
— Soncino translation, from Halakhah.com
[I added quotation marks for the biblical verses; see also note below]
Samuel uses Psalm 78 to suggest that a community can be answered, even when its collective heart is not steadfast — which seems a great mercy.
Loving-Kindness in Leadership
Today is the day of Chesed in Netzach, loving-kindness in eternity or leadership. And in the spirit of this day, I ask:
- What is the relationship of heart in hands and an open-fingered prayer?
- Can individuals — priests or, in some understandings, all of us — bring blessings on the whole community if our own hearts are in our own hands? Are our own hearts impediments? or an aid to opening our fingers?
- What does it mean that Rabbi Ammi’s proof-text is in the plural “lift up our heart with our hands”? Is there, somehow a collective communal heart and an individual one?
- And, finally: Who else finds the heart they bring to prayer a heavy one these days? And how can we work together to help bring blessing with, or in spite of, that weight?
Lamentations 3:41 —
נִשָּׂא לְבָבֵנוּ אֶל-כַּפָּיִם, אֶל-אֵל בַּשָּׁמָיִם.
Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens.
The bracketed material above:
[But it is not so. Surely]18 Samuel appointed an amora19 to
act for him and his exposition ran thus:
with these notes —
(18) So Bomberg ed. and inserted in cur. edd. in square brackets, p. 33 n. 1.
(19) Same as Meturgeman. V. supra p. 12, n. 4.
And the supra note on “meturgeman” —
The translator or interpreter. The function of this official in Talmudic times was to interpret to the audience in the Synagogue in a popular manner and to enlarge upon the theme of the rabbi lecturing. Rashi, feeling that in our passage no such official could be referred to, explains that here the lecturing rabbi and interpreter are one and the same person, he who lectures on the first day of Passover, and that he included in his address a prayer for rain. V. however, the commentary of R. Hananel ad loc.
Making the Omer Count
from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.
So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:
Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.
Thoughts and sources welcome.
Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.
Aware that we are on a journey toward knowing God — from liberation to revelation — I undertake to know more today than I did yesterday about the workings of oppression.
I bless and count [full Hebrew blessings in feminine and masculine address]:
Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.
Today is twenty-two days which are three weeks and one day in the Omer.
Hayom shnayim v’esrim yom shehaym shloshah shavuot veyom echad la-omer.
In the spirit of the Exodus, I pray for the release of all whose bodies and spirits remain captive, and pledge my own hands to help effect that liberation.