August 26: Prayer before going to sleep
בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי, בְּעֵת אִישַׁן וְאָעִֽירָה.
וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי, יְיָ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא.
The Sh’ma al ha-Mittah (the Jewish bed-time prayer service) demands of us that we not slip mindlessly into slumber, but rather make conscious the transition from the active, daytime world, of business, of relationship, in which we have relative control over our lives, to the realm of sleep, in which we have none, are powerless.
It opens with a dramatic statement, of intention to forgive anyone who may have harmed us, whether intentionally or not, in any way, physically, spiritually, or economically. Of course it is impossible to do this completely and irrevocably, and we are cognizant that many of those old angers and resentments will return, at least in part, on the morrow. Nevertheless, this is an essential accounting, a preparation for the journey into the unknown, into night, as we put behind us the dying day’s unfinished business.
The entire service is marked by a developing sense of humility, of progressively relinquishing autonomy, of faith in divine benevolence, and it concludes with the words from the Adon Olam, printed above, “and into Your hand I commit my soul, when I sleep or awaken, and with my soul, my body too. H’ is with me, I shall not fear.”
The next prayer we utter, on awakening in the morning, is an expression of gratitude for the restoration of soul, of consciousness, of aliveness, Modah (Modeh) Ani.
August 21: The Faithful Servant
יִשְׂמַח מֹשֶׁה בְּמַתְּנַת חֶלְקוֹ, כִּי עֶֽבֶד נֶאֱמָן קָרָֽאתָ לּוֹ
“Moses rejoiced in the gift of his portion, for You called him faithful servant.”
This passage, which we read immediately after the Sanctification (Qedushah) in the Shabbat morning services, slows the pace of the prayer and mutes its language, offering us an opportunity to pause, to contemplate our own spiritual lives. To what extent do we share the characteristics of Moses described in these words? The exercise is of course not to identify with him, but to find, as it were, the Moses within us.
The first of the two clauses depicts an ability to rejoice in one’s lot, accepting one’s life, with all its delights and difficulties, achievements and losses, with no reservations, with no qualifying “if only’s,” as a gift. This is not a unique teaching, and in our times it is commonly regarded as essential to a balanced existence. However, there is a constant peril that such an attitude can lead to the solipsistic sin of self-congratulation. To be “gifted” does not mean that one is a special person; but rather is the recipient of benevolence. So we have the second clause, that we strive to attain the status of faithful servant, not regarding oneself as a “self-made” person, but as an instrument of the Divine will. Our spiritual work is to combine the two.
August 5: Who’s Afraid of the Inquisition?
In the Shabbat morning Torah service there is a short interpolated reading from the Zohar that includes the following phrase:
לָא עַל אֱנָשׁ רָחִֽיצְנָא, וְלָא עַל בַּר אֱלָהִין סָמִֽיכְנָא, אֶלָּא בֶּאֱלָהָא דִשְׁמַיָּא
Now in all the bilingual prayer books that I have encountered, Hasidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, this is translated as “not on mortals do we rely, nor on angels do we depend, but on God who is in Heaven” (with minor denominational variations). Now the Aramaic term “bar elahin” can indeed mean “angel,” but its plain, simple meaning is “son of God.” Now is it possible that a Jew writing in 13th century Spain, an epoch characterized by a ferocious Christian assault on his tradition, would not be aware of his own double entendre, and that he was in fact deliberately penning a not-so-subtle anti-Christological barb?
The Inquisition has been disbanded. No one is looking over our shoulders. Let us admit that this passage actually means “we don’t place our trust in a Son of God,” and emend our (translated) liturgy accordingly.
[Daniel Matt informs me that his translation of the Zohar concurs with this reading.]
July 29: Chosen People, Chosen Peoples?
The blessing recited on being called to the Torah, אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים
“who chose us from among all the nations,” is too narrow in its scope, and can become a bland assertion of Jewish exceptionalism.
There is a simple fix for this, the addition of a single letter, the ע, in which case the phrase becomes:
אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ עם כָּל הָעַמִּים
“who chose us together with all the nations.”
But the significance of this minor liturgical redaction extends beyond the history of a single people and its covenant. It is the cosmic story of the restoration of the primordial ע, and its reunion with the mundane מ
The letter ע is the source, the spring, the beginning, Eden, from which all emerges; whereas מ is the end, מוות, death, telos, completion.
And when the two , the ע and the מ , are joined, all that exists between them, or ever has, or ever will — Jews, gentiles, horses, sparrows, cabbages, daisies, herons, comets, eels, Democrats and Republicans — are one, and creation itself is chosen.
July 22: בָּרְכוּ, the Invocation to prayer
בָּרְכוּ אֶת יְיָ הַמְבֹרָךְ
Bless H’ the Blessed One
The call to prayer: Go, finite individuals, go, bless the Infinite, the Holy One of Blessing! Barekhu, the syllables are open, eager, leaning towards Hamevorakh. But that word is closed, separate, sealed, Other. Go, bless the Unblessable, and be blessed.
July 15: Becoming a Lover of H’
Often translated as the grammatical imperative, “Thou Shalt love H’.” In truth, it is the imperfect continuous, “Become a lover of H’,” embark (or remain on course) on a life-long endeavor of reorientation, purification, to be ever ready for the Encounter.
July 8: Shma Yisrael
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ יְיָ אֶחָד
Shma Yisrael: Call to the other; I and Thou.
H’ Eloheinu: Sacred community; We.
H’ Ehad: Unity; No I, no Thou, no We. Just H’.
July 1: Kingdom
ועינינו תראינה מלכותך
“And our eyes will behold your kingdom.”
This is not a vision of a different future but rather an unveiling of our eyes that we may see the Kingdom as it exists now. Very difficult while chanting it in shul.