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.

Open Fingers

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).

Hands-Blessing164Priests — 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?

We counted 21 on the evening of April 24. Tonight, we count….

NOTES:

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.

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10599394_717380508311895_7027393843189443889_n“Every 28 hours across America a black person is killed by security guard, police officer or some other executive of the state,” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson said on the recent “Face the Nation,” adding that President Obama needs to use his “unique position” to explain the rage emanating from Ferguson, MO:

[Obama needs to explain] to white people whose white privilege in one sense obscures from them what it means that their children can walk home every day and be safe. They’re not fearful of the fact that somebody will kill their child who goes to get some ice tea and some candy from a store.”
— Michael Eric Dyson on August 17 Face the Nation

The Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

Meanwhile, the Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

If we turn from Sinai

The portion Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25) includes verses that make up the second full paragraph of the Shema. These words, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, are included within tefillin as well. This passage, therefore, appears several times in many prayerbooks. But it’s far less prominent in, or missing entirely from, some liberal prayerbooks.It’s easy to see why a passage that speaks of reward and punishment as a direct result of the People’s actions was omitted or diminished in Reform Prayerbooks. (See, e.g., Richard Sarason on the Three Paragraphs of the Shema.) But Mishkan T’filah (URJ, 2007) includes, as an alternative reading, a thematic paraphrase of the Shema’s second paragraph.

The reading — by Richard Levy, a member of the editorial committee for the prayerbook and an author of many contemporary liturgical pieces — can be found on page two of these Mishkan T’filah sample pages:


But if we turn from Sinai’s words
and serve only what is common and profane,
making gods of our own comfort or power,
then the holiness of life will contract for us;
our world will grow inhospitable.

Let us therefore lace these words
into our passion and our intellect,
and bind them as a sign upon our hands and eyes….
— from Mishkan T’filah, p.67 and p.235

Levy’s is one of a number of approaches to this paragraph that take what theologian Judith Plaskow calls “a more naturalistic” view, focusing on the need to avoid thinking that “we can trample on or transcend the constraints of nature.”

The passage also seems to capture what another theologian, Elliott Dorff, calls the insistence that God is ultimately just. He points out that the ancient Rabbis had trouble with the way reward and punishment are described in this portion. Still, he says, they included this passage as a central part of the prayers because of their “deep faith in the ultimate justice of God as the metaphysical backdrop and support for human acts of justice.”

(Both Dorff and Plaskow quotes are from Jewish Lights’ My Jewish Prayerbook, vol 1: The Shema and its Blessings)

I see this idea reflected in the passage which is recited when laying tefillin on the hand (wrapping around the finger three times):

  • I will betroth you to me forever;
  • I will betroth you to me through justice and rule of law, kindness and compassion;
  • I will betroth you to me in trust, and you will know that I am God

— Hosea 2:21-22

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First, a note about the password-protected post which appeared earlier tonight: That post is a survey for participants in Temple Micah’s Siddur Study Group seeking preferences for future studies. My apologies to subscribers and other readers who are not in that group for annoying you with something irrelevant. However, a number of recent posts here […]

Pre-script: The 30 days of National Blog Posting Month are coming to a close, and Temple Micah‘s Siddur Study group is studying the closing blessings of the Amidah [standing] prayer. So a few (OK, quite a few) words on the first of Avodah [worship] blessing. (The version in Mishkan T’filah happens to consist of 30 words.)
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The Torah did not tell a Jew to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on Shabbat [as on festivals]. There is no need. On Shabbat the Shekhina [Presence] knocks on the door. All we have to do is let Her in.
— comment on the “Sanctification of the Day” blessing**
Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur, p.520

**On Shabbat/Festivals, one “Sanctification of the Day” blessing replaces the middle 13 blessings of the daily Amidah. The first three and the final three remain unchanged: Avot [ancestors], gevurah [strength], Kedushat Hashem [sanctification of the Name]; Avodah [worship], Hodaah [thanks], Shalom [peace]. This gives the Shabbat Amidah a symbolic seven blessings.
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For years, I’ve been looking at the expression “iyun tefilah,” as in the famous passage from Shabbat 127a, where it is translated as “contemplation [or “meditation,” maybe “devotion”] in prayer.” Mishkan T’filah includes this phrase in the morning study passage, a kind of mash-up of Peah 1:1. and Shabbat 127a. (See pp.206-207 in Mishkan T’filah and below.) We often sing, “…v’iyun tefila-a-ah, v’iyun t’fila-a-ah…,” using Jeff Klepper‘s setting for “Eilu Devarim.

Until a recent Talmud class, however, I didn’t realize that “עיון [iyun]” was the same word translated elsewhere as “study,” “learning,” or “investigation.” In some contexts — a class on the prayerbook, e.g., or the 19th Century siddur commentary known as Iyun Tefillah — “iyun” is understood in terms of “study (of prayers).” But translators seem to agree that the phrase in Shabbat 127a means something more like “contemplation” or “meditation.” My People’s Prayer Book translates it as “paying attention to prayer.”

In both study/investigation and contemplation/meditation, the idea seems to be to delve, go deeper: In the former case, it’s into an idea or text, perhaps the idea or text of a prayer; in the latter, it’s into prayer itself.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, Torah study [la’asok; “to immerse in”] is described as a “remedy” for “vexation of heart” in prayer.

I’m not sure what, if any, conclusion to draw from the delving and immersing. But I think it’s worth pondering relationships among prayer, prayer text, and Torah. And I know from my own experience that the more (non-prayer) time and exploration I spend with a particular prayer, the deeper my encounter with that prayer when I’m actually praying.

L’shana tova/a good year
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El Adon and Another Pinchas Addendum


(5) Glory and honor they give to You
glowing praises to Your rule
You call to the sun and it gives forth light
You set the patterns of the moon

(6) You are honored throughout the heavens with songs of glory and praise
[the Seraphim, Ophanim and holy beings ascribe glory and greatness]

Shevach notnim lo kol tz’va marom
[tiferet ugdulah serafim ve’ofanim vechayot hakodesh]

— from “El Adon,” a hymn of Creation
in the Shabbat and Festival morning services
translation from Mishkan T’filah,
[MT inexplicably omits the final (“tiferet“) line]

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