Service of the Heart (עבודת הלב): Exploring Prayer

This week's column was written by Rabbi Samuel Barth, Senior Lecturer in Liturgy and Worship, JTS.

"Who Are We?" A "Prayer" That Asks Questions (Part 1)

Many of us are accustomed to the idea that the "prayers" we find in the siddur will be filled with praises for God or with requests. In the first paragraph of our core prayer, the 'Amidah, we praise God as "ha'el hagadol hagibbor vehanora" (the great, mighty and awesome God), and then continue a little further with requests for wisdom, health, good harvest, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, peace—and that our prayer be heard. There are, of course, many further examples in the pslams, in rabbinic texts, and in the great medieval poems.

There are texts within the liturgy that have the capacity to surprise and intrigue us, and since I was a child I have been captivated by a single paragraph in the section of the service known as Birkhot Hashahar (the morning blessings). In a traditional synagogue, this section might last for the first 15 minutes of a three-hour, Saturday-morning service—so many of those who arrive a little (or even a lot) late will miss it. A consideration of whether synagogue services should last for three hours will be presented in a future column.

Our paragraph begins innocently with the words "Ribbon ha'olamim . . . " (Sovereign of all worlds), and can be found on page 66 of Siddur Sim Shalom, widely used in the Conservative Movement. The sentence reads in full, "Sovereign of all worlds, not upon our merit do we rely in our supplication but upon Your limitless love." We might imagine that after a self-deprecating introduction, we would find a request or petition for divine love, support, compassion, or mercy. But our expectation is confounded; instead we find an uncomfortable series of questions that are not addressed to God, but to ourselves:

Mah anachnu: Who/what are we? What is our life? What is our compassion? What is our righteousness? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our power?
Mah nomar lifanekha: What can we say in Your presence?

These are not easy questions, and if we were to take them seriously, it would add no small amount of time (and spiritual effort) to the Shabbat and daily services. We even find in a commentary to the siddur written by Baruch Halevi Epstein (1880–1941, Pinsk) an expression of concern that "this prayer might come to the worshipper like a bitter vegetable following delightful appetizers, . . . and that it might even lead a person to distress or depression." Others see the questions as offering an opportunity for self-examination each day. How does our liturgy deal with these troubling questions, which conclude with an even more troubling quote from the opening of Ecclesiastes: " . . . ki hakol havel" (" . . . for all is in vain")?

The answer is with the powerful word but. The Ashkenazic tradition continues with the phrase, "But we are your People, the children of Your Covenant, the descendants of Abraham . . . ," offering the consoling thought that even if we have no good answer to the question in our own right, we can appeal to yichus—to our ancestry. The Sephardim gloss the quote from Ecclesiastes, affirming the deeper reality of the pure soul: "For all is in vain except for the pure soul that will one day give an account of itself in Your presence."

Maybe, even if we come late to services, we might quickly glance at page 66 and see if we have an answer to just one of the questions: "Who are we? . . . What is our life?"

There will be further exploration of this text next week.

As always, I am interested to hear comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at sabarth@jtsa.edu.