Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Prayer Experience: Part II – What I Prayed

My previous post was about how I realized that where I prayed - specifically Ezrat Yisrael or Robinson's Arch - impacted my prayer experience. What I need to talk about now was something that happened during my prayer experience that morning. I’ve been teaching a Learner’s Minyan course this summer at the Conservative Yeshiva (CY) – the how’s and why’s of prayer, the technical part and the spiritual/emotional part.  What I hadn't realized was how much more aware of my own daily prayer experience I would become by teaching about prayer. 

So Sunday morning (July 6) I was in the zone. The davening was lovely – niggunim, proper nusach (I’m a sucker for proper nusach), voices raised in community.  I was saying the words, singing, swaying, dancing, meditating – all my usual prayer modalities. I felt… connected, like I was being filled up at some deep level that hadn’t been filled in a while.  Especially after a lovely, restful Shabbat with davening that soothed and touched me and after spending time with folks that felt like family when I’m so far from home.  So spiritually/emotionally things were going well.

Until I started my recitation of the silent Amida. Things were going well until I got to the 12th blessing of the Amidah.  And I read the following words in the Hebrew: 

 וְלַמַּלְשִׁינִים אַל תְּהִי תִקְוָה. וְכָל הָרִשְׁעָה כְּרֶגַע תּאבֵד. וְכָל אויְבֵיךָ מְהֵרָה יִכָּרֵתוּ. וְהַזֵדִים 
מְהֵרָה תְעַקֵּר וּתְשַׁבֵּר וּתְמַגֵּר וְתַכְנִיעַ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵינוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', שׁובֵר אויְבִים וּמַכְנִיעַ זֵדִים: 
v'La'malshinim al t'hi'ii tikva......

I was gobsmacked. Everything just stopped for me. I physically took a step back and stumbled out of the spiritual "zone"that I'd been in. Reality had intruded. The matzav, the day to day reality of what was going on in Israel hit me in the face. The four murdered boys - the three Israeli Jewish boys, the one Palestinian Muslim boy. The venomous hate spewing from mouths on both sides. The calls for love and peace coming from the parents of the Jewish boys. The protests, the riots, the anger, the fear, the rumors, the gossip, the unknown total truth, the calls for justice, the calls for peace, the calls for revenge. 

Now six Jewish young men ranging in age from 16-25  have been arrested for murdering the Arab boy. Will justice be served? What is justice in this situation? And why haven't the murderers of the 3 Jewish boys been found and captured yet? What will be a just punishment for them? Is there one? 

One feels the tension on the street. Emotions are high, tempers flame, people are wrapped very tight, people who don't usually pray are praying and those who do usually pray are questioning what good prayer does.  It feels like the world has turned upside down. 

The prayer... In his article in the My People's Prayer Book: the Amidah, Lawrence Hoffman says this prayer "is actually a malediction not a benediction." (p133).  What is a malediction? Just as a benediction is a blessing, a malediction is a curse or "a phrase uttered with the intention of bringing about evil or destruction." It surely seems that the folks the prayer is talking about - heretics, slanderers - have evil intentions in mind. So what are we praying about? 

Let's look at a few translations of this prayer - Birkat HaMinim - the Blessing of Heretics: 

  • Frustrate the hopes of all who malign us; let all evil very soon disappear. Let all your enemies soon be destroyed. May you quickly uproot and crush the arrogant; may You subdue and humble them in our time. Praised are You, Lord who humbles the arrogant.  (Siddur Sim Shalom, Conservative) 
  • And for the slanderers, let there be no hope; and may all wickedness perish in an instant; and may all Your enemies be cut down speedily. May you speedily uproot, smash, cast down, and humble the wanton sinners - speedily in our days. Blessed are you,  Hashem, Who breaks enemies and humbles wanton sinners.  (Artscroll, Orthodox)
  • V'la'malshinim al t'hi tikvah v'chol harish'a k'rega toved.  Baruch atah YHVH machniyah zedim. Let all who speak and act unjustly find no hope for ill intentions. Let all wickedness be lost. Blessed are You, JUST ONE, who subdues the evildoers. (Kol HaNeshama, Reconstructionist - NOTE: middle line has been removed)

Who are the slanderers? They are traditionally understood to be Jews, heretical Jewish sects in the that existed in Israel some time after the destruction of the Second Temple. Examples are: Sadducees, Essenes, the early Christians and others. 

We pray here for the undoing of the slanderers and the heretics. We pray that our enemies, who are by definition the enemies of God, get what's coming to them. We pray that evil speech is frustrated (always a good thing to wish for). We bless the One who is going to wreak havoc upon all the bad guys.  

Okay. This is a prayer that people might want to say in a time when we believed in a personal God who intervened in the daily world - and though many people find this prayer problematic today, specifically for definitional and intentional reasons, I can see why people might want to put thoughts like this out into the universe in times of crisis.  

But why do we say this prayer daily today? That however, is a question for another time. 

Back to Sunday. Why did it shake me up the way it did?  I still don't know.  Maybe it's because we still say it on a daily basis. Maybe it's just that it is distasteful. This reminder that not only are there mean, evil people in the world but that dafka, these people are all around us, living among us - are in fact US. Maybe, probably, we each even have a little bit of la'malshinim,  the slanderers, the heretics, the ones who bear tales, the ones who get others in trouble -- and extrapolating from there - the ones who don't always do the right thing (whether for the perceived or real "right" or "wrong" reasons), the ones who cause dissent, the ones who cause needless and senseless pain to others. 

When I first started saying and learning about this prayer as a young girl,  the malshinim of blessing #12 in the Amidah always represented "bad" in contrast to the Tzadikim and Chassidim (the righteous) whom we pray for in blessing #13.  Today I am no longer the young girl who took the words of her prayers at face value. I understand that the world is made up of stark contrasts of darks and lights, not muted shades of grey. The "good" of yesterday can be the "bad" of tomorrow. One's former enemy can quickly turn into an ally.  

There are extremists all around and there are those who hold the middle ground.  How do we find those we need to align with for peace? How do we know who to trust? How do we know that those we perceive as enemies are not in fact true allies - with the same hopes, fears and loves that we have - but the barriers between us are so thick that it is nearly impossible to make the necessary connections? 

Living in the multicultural city of Jerusalem, the home of my heart and soul;  standing, not at the "main" section of the Kotel but a smaller egalitarian section, but on ancient, contested and holy ground nevertheless;  and praying words of praise, thanksgiving and petition to the Awesome One, the Creator of All - I experienced a moment.  

In that moment I was transported from a state of complacency to awareness, from an American to a citizen of the World,  from a rabbah who tends to avoid public discussions of politics to a rabbah who realizes that all politics are not only local but in fact internal. 

And what am I left with? At the moment, a large Question Mark?

Note:  as I was about to post this sirens went off in Jerusalem and two booms. My family lives in Ashkelon and Beersheva and they are being barraged daily with missiles - especially Ashkelon. It is time for peace. Now.  

We are all fine. B"H

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