Who Am I to Pray?

In the beginning of the communal amidah, there is a line inserted for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

On the basis of the wise ones and those with understanding, and on the teachings of those who understand their opinions, I open my mouth in prayer and supplication. . .Misod chachmim u’nevonim umilemed da’at mevini’im, eftechah fi b’tfillah uv’tachanunim. . .

In religious traditions, there is often a tension between the humility of the individual who prays and their presumption in asking for something from God. Thus we often have formulations that read something like, “God, I am nothing before you, but could you do me a favor and . . .” One of the elements I find particularly endearing about some prayers in Judaism is that they take this tension on explicitly, and define who we are, and by what merit we ask God to hear our prayers.

In this case, we are saying that it is not on our own merit that we believe we have anything to say, but because we have learned these words from those who came before, those who had true wisdom. But I think this goes even further: we pray these words not because we claim to understand them, but because those who have understood them tell us they have meaning. I may not yet understand them, but perhaps, in time, I will come to understand them, through repeated repetition, study, and prayer.

This is not to say that my own prayers, my own words, are inappropriate. This is to say that the old words have value within them, and over time, I must find that value, and find that meaning. Until then, I repeat the words in the hope that the meaning will reveal itself to me, and that God will understand what I might someday intend.

Light in LIfe’s Treasury

I am continuing my exploration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers today with a brief line which  follows the Barechu (the call to prayer) in the morning.

Eternal light is in the storehouse of life. “Light from the darkness!” said God, and it was so. Or olam b’otzar chayim, orot m’ofel, amar vayehi.

We are the storehouse of life, and the eternal light resides within each of us.

In the account of creation, we are taught that light was created the first day, but the sun was not created until the fourth. The eternal light, Or olam, was this first light of transcendence. It is knowledge and clarity, purity and joy. When we use light as a metaphor, it is this light that we speak of.

Each of us is a repository of life. We are where life is stored, and this eternal light rests inside each of us, waiting for us to manifest it with our actions. When we act justly, we bring this light into the world, answering God’s dictum, “Light from the darkness!” When we help another, we bring the “and it was so” into the present, an ongoing creation of light in darkness.

On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that God may have created the light, but it is up to us to dispense it from our treasury of life.

May All People Form a Single Group

In the Amidah of the Rosh Hashanah (and Yom Kippur, for that matter), there is an insert, called uvechen (and therefore). It begins:

Therefore, O Divine One, Our God, instill fear among all you have made, and awe in all your creatures. May all that you have made revere you, and all you created bow down to you, and may they all form a single group to do your will with a whole heart. [my translation]

Fear, awe and reverence are tough concepts for us, today. We do not easily accept that which is beyond our control: we teach that fear is something to be overcome. Rosh Hashanah is, partly, about accepting that there is that which is beyond us.

The awe of the power of the universe, whether we call that power “God,” “nature,”  or “the universe,” is what can unite all people, as this prayer suggests. When we are filled with awe of creation, we begin to see ourselves, and all others, as part of the same endeavor. When we join together in reverence for the Divine, we are able to come together to achieve the Divine purpose. Whether we call God “Allah” or “Adonai” or “Lord,” we are all reaching towards the creation of a more just, more Holy world. And when we do so with fear and awe, we are able to join together in humility, to achieve Divine goals.

Remember Us For Life: Zochreinu L’chayim

The evening of Rosh Hashanah, the services begin like many other evening services. The words are the same, but the melody is different. But we come to the Amidah, and we have a special insert for Rosh Hashanah:

Zochreinu l’chayim, melech hafetz bachayim, v’chotveinu besefer hachayim, l’mancha elohim chayim. “Remember us for life, O King who delights in life, and write us in the book of life, for your sake, God of life.”

This phrase will come around over and over again over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Remember us for life…” What do we mean by this. Is it a plea that we be allowed to live through another year? That’s not the God I believe in, one who controls to quite that extent.

More troubling, perhaps, is what we mean by asking God to remember us. It rather implies a God who might forget us. Again, an idea I have trouble with.

For me, the key is in the second phrase: O King who delights in life. We are asking to be remembered and inscribed for the kind of life that God delights in. Let us make our life this year one worthy of remembrance. Let our lives be such that they are lived for the sake of the God of life.

This plea, to me, speaks to the question of what we make our lives. Will they be lived as something to be survived, or as something to be treasured? Will we make something of our days, or will they be wasted? For the sake or what, or whom, shall we live the next year?

Zochreinu l’chayim. Remember us for life, O God of life.