Prayer In a Time of Disasters

Image: Storm and lightning. (triff/Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, who created all things great and small. You are the Maker of life, the Fashioner of the World; You decreed the laws of physics and set the world in motion with Your word.

We were not there when You laid the foundations of the world. You laid the cornerstone, and we were not yet born; we did not hear the song of the morning stars or the sound when Your creation shouted for joy. We have not entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep. We have not surveyed the breadth of the Earth, and despite the study of scientists, we have not mastered all her secrets.

Have mercy on your creation, mighty God; remember the fragility of some of your creatures. We know better than to ask that you revoke the laws of nature; but we ask for your mercy in time of peril.

Remind us of the powers we possess in time of storm and trouble: the power of reaching out one to another, the power to share resources, the power to study and better understand. Help us to be merciful in expression of Your mercy, make us abundant in kindness. Remind us to be tolerant, fair, and forgiving. For as you have taught us, we are holy as You are holy – without Your holiness we are truly lost.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who decreed the laws of physics and set the world in motion with Your word.

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“Return Us” – A Daily Prayer

Image: Two people and an open Torah scroll. (Photo by Linda Burnett)

Return us to Your Torah and draw us to Your service,

and in complete repentance restore us to Your Presence.

Blessed are You, Adonai, who welcomes repentance.

Mishkan Tefilah, p 84

In English, this prayer doesn’t immediately signal that it is about repentance, but in Hebrew the first word gives it away: Hashiveinu. Hashiveinu means “return us” but nestled in the heart of it is the root shuv, which can mean “turn” or “return” but often something having to do with repentance. The word teshuvah (repentance) comes from the same root: see the shuv right at its heart?

For Jews, repentance is all about turning and return: turning away from one behavior, turning towards another, returning to the values of Torah. Turn is a key image:

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”

Ben Bag Bag, in Pirkei Avot 5.22

In Ben Bag Bag’s famous line, there is no shuv, instead he’s using the verb hafuch: turn it over, turn it over, which is what we do with the etzim, the “trees” of a big scroll. We turn and we overturn. We turn so that we do not run in circles. Turning returns us to the beginning, to the heart, to the end of the scroll and then back again: repentance as homecoming.

There is comfort in this blessing. “Return home! Your place at the table is waiting!”

“You grace us with knowledge” – A Daily Prayer

Image: An outline of a head, with many colored lights. (geralt/pixabay)

Atah chonen (“You grace”) is one of the blessings that make up the weekday Amidah.

The Amidah is one of the two central prayers of the Jewish synagogue service, the other being the Shema with its blessings. Those who go to services only on Shabbat may not realize that the weekday Amidah is different from the Shabbat version. There are some beautiful blessings in the weekday service.*

You grace humans with knowledge and teach mortals understanding. Graciously share with us Your wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Blessed are You, Holy One, who graces us with knowledge.

Mishkan Tefilah, p. 84. (translation mine)

On the face of it, this prayer reminds us that knowledge is a gift of God. Jews believe that human intellect is a gift to be used to make the world better and to care for our families and community. For instance, we do not accept illness simply as “God’s will” – we engage in the sciences to find ways to alleviate pain and cure sickness.

However, intellect should not make its possessor arrogant. For a person who has a tendency towards arrogance or lack of humility, one very good practice is to recite this prayer, which reminds us that wisdom, understanding, and knowledge are gifts, not a moral accomplishments.

Looking a little deeper, the qualities that may read to an English speaker as near-synonyms (knowledge, understanding, wisdom) are translations of Hebrew words with very specific meanings. Da’at (knowledge,) Binah (understanding) and chokhmah (wisdom) are names of three of the sefirot, attributes of God, in Jewish mysticism. So the word “share” is appropriate: we are asking God to share God’s self with us.

When I feel challenged intellectually, I find this prayer very strengthening. Even if I do not see myself as “smart enough” for a particular task, this prayer reminds me that I have resources: if I am humble, I may be able to rise above my usual capabilities with a little help from above.

*For more about the structure and outline of the Jewish service, see What Goes On in a Jewish Service? on this blog.

“Disturb us, Adonai!”

Image: A “do not disturb” door hanger, with “do not” replaced with “PLEASE” (Shutterstock with amendation, all rights reserved.)

Mishkan Tefilah, the Reform siddur, is full of “alternative readings” – prayer and poetry that may be read alongside or even instead of the usual prayers. One caught my eye this week, and I spent the rest of the service sneaking back to reread it and think about it some more:

Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;

Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,

the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,

the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

Shock us, Adonai, deny to use the false Shabbat which gives us

the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;

Wake us, O God, and shake us

from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by

half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears…

Mishkan Tefilah, 173

The prayer was precisely what I needed that night: a kick in the pants.

Curious, I went to the back of the book to see who wrote it, and I discovered a wonderful, almost-forgotten character, Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher, a Reform rabbi from the early 20th century who left the rabbinate for a law practice in 1930 because he was frustrated with the limits of the pulpit. More about him in a future post!

I’ve held off from copying the entire prayer out of respect for the copyright, but you can find this prayer in any copy of Mishkan Tefilah.

If ever there was a prayer for our times, it is this one.

Blessing for a Drink of Water

Image: Water, glass, ice cubes. (By Bruno Glätsch / Pixabay)

We will die without water. The human body can survive no more than a few days without water, depending on the temperature, the exposure to direct sunshine, and many other variables. It makes sense, then, that there is a blessing for a drink of water.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ‑יָ אֱ‑לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהַכֹּל נִהְיָה בִּדְבָרוֹ:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haOlam, she-ha-kol ni-hi-yah bid-var-o.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, by Whose word all things came to be.

This blessing is also used for other things we eat that do not come from the ground: meat, eggs, fish, chicken, and other drinks (except wine, which has its own blessing.)

Before a full meal that includes bread, we say only the blessing over bread and that covers everything on the table.


Prayer for the Country in a Time of Division

Image: People watching the sunset from a bridge. (By Gerd Altmann / Pixabay)

El Rachum v’Chanun, Merciful and Gracious God, Healer of the sick, Source of all Wisdom, we ask You for Your help in this time of trouble. Help us to see Your world as it truly is. Help us to tell the truth, and to recognize lies and half-truths. Give us discernment, and share some small measure of Your Wisdom, so that we may find our way through the present discord.

We ask that You, whom we call Erech apayim v’rov chesed, “slow to anger and abundant in kindness,” grant us the ability to look upon one another with eyes of compassion. Help us look past our anger, past our fears, past our grudges and recrimination to truly see one another in all our humanity.

Give us a thirst for true justice, instead of the poisonous drink of revenge. Open our eyes to genuine need, and open our ears to the cries of the hungry and the sick.

Make us bridge builders, instead of grave diggers. Inspire us to bind up each other’s wounds. Open our ears to each other’s stories, and soothe the defensiveness that rises like bile in our mouths. Help us listen, and truly hear.

O God, who has commanded us, “Be holy, as I your God am holy,” help us find our way to goodness.

Help us, O God, and we will try harder.

Amen.

What is Rachamim?

Image: Infant in mother’s arms (samuel Lee / Pixabay)

Jews hear the word rachamim (RAH-khah-meem) at the worst moments of their lives, when they are mourning the death of a loved one. It is in the first line of the prayer for the dead:

…אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים

El, maleh rachamim…

El Male Rachamim, Prayer for the Dead

According to Alcalay, a good Hebrew-English dictionary, rachamim can mean “pity, compassion, love… mercy.” I usually prefer “compassion” as an English translation, because it seems to me to come closest to the spirit of the word. Why would I say that?

The word for uterus or womb, רחם (REH-khem) has the same root consonants. “Compassion” in English is derived from two Latin words “com” (with) and “pati” (suffer.) It seems to me that one metaphor for the kind of closeness required for “suffering with” is the closeness of a mother and the child in her body. If you starve one, the other starves.

So when we say the prayer El Male Rachamim, we begin with the statement that God is full of compassion for us. In Exodus 39, God describes God’s nature to Moses thus, and we repeat the words back to God in the High Holy Day liturgies, when we are praying for forgiveness of our sins:

יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ זנֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

“Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and pardons.”

– High Holy Day Liturgy

The very first attribute of God listed is rachum, compassionate.

We are commanded to be holy, like God at the very beginning of Leviticus 19:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.

Leviticus 19:1-2

The only way I know how to “be holy” is to imitate the attributes of God, to embody them in the world. It doesn’t matter what my theology is: whether God is a person or a concept. Torah teaches me to “be holy” because God is holy, so I will use the attributes we have been given for God as a model for myself.

The first item on the list is rachum, compassionate. When have I been compassionate? When have I experienced compassion? When have you? Those moments were holy: God was there.

So when I hear the prayer El Male Rachamim I remind myself that I must comfort this mourner, I must be the compassion of God, so that this will be a holy place.