The Siddur, the Jewish prayer manual, is a rich, perhaps sometimes too-rich, historical collection of prayers, praise and, most-overlooked but most important, mantra meditations. It is unfortunate that, over the years, these prayers have been preserved and integrated in a serial, rather than an array format. By that I mean that a current siddur overwhelms us all with too many words within too short a time-frame. Prayer, both Jewish and non-Jewish, is a dialogue, a relationship, an attempt to merge with the Creator, with the underlying yet transcendental and universal Power/Consciousness/Awareness/Wisdom beyond the limitations of our own imaginations and analyses. It isn’t merely presenting a “wish list” and, even more so, it isn’t, as it all-too-often can seem, an exercise in foreign-language speed-reading. We pray not to achieve nor to receive, but to experience, to join in the eternal process we call “tefilla” or “davening”.
As I began to explain, much of the service was originally intended as mantra meditation. It was probably not the original intention that everyone make the same meditations every day. The daily psalms and the liturgical differences between weekday, Shabbat and holiday all point to that. Either alone or with guidance, we were probably intended to choose a manageable amount of material, not necessarily the same every day, for each morning. Several units, however, should probably be included daily.
Rabbi Twersky z”l had suggested that we try to concentrate on the first sentence of the “Shema” and on no more than two or three sections of the “Amidah”. I’d like to present a series of thoughts and associations which might aid you in contemplating the “Shema” and the first prayer of the “Amida”. I know that for me, while somehow getting through the entire service every day, if I feel I performed these two brief sections with true “kavana”, intention/intensity/sincerity, I am pleased. I don’t always achieve it. Try to take at least five seconds thinking about each of these words. It isn’t necessarily that easy.
Shema means to listen, not merely to hear. It’s activating a process which is all-too-often, in our very noisy world, passive. It means opening ourselves up to what is already there to be heard.
Yisrael is one name for the Jewish people. It’s also the named earned by our ancestor Jacob after a night of wrestling with a higher power. Jacob personifies balance and integration and he also personifies struggle. This meditation isn’t exclusive to a single ethnic or religious group but is addressed to that part in all of us which struggles to make sense, to find a way, to take what has come before us and to transform it and balance it for future use. We resist complacence.
The Lord, God’s name which we use here is a pointer to time as a dimension, as an integral part of the time-space-spirit reality. Transcending our human limitations, time becomes an expanse, not a flow. But that point of view is that of the infinite and the eternal.
Is our God does not make an ethnocentric statement that our candidate is the top contender for top god. Rather we realize that among the infinite powers of God is the ability to penetrate our world on a personal basis, to somehow self-transform from unreachable to intimately approachable. This name for God is often associated with the concept of compression and constriction, the Infinite taking on the appearance of the finite so we may approach.
The Lord once again returns our thoughts to the infinite, the eternal, the all-encompassing.
Is One is not merely a formal statement of monotheism. It’s much deeper and more profound than that. We should try to experience how ultimately everything is unified through sharing the essence of the One. No other person, no other creature, no other object, no other thought, no other emotion is of less importance than I. We, and everything else, are unique aspects of the All.
Baruch, Blessed is related to the word for knee. We begin a ritual bow on this word by bending our own knees. Not merely do we want to reinforce whatever humility we might have developed, we also can imagine the Creator metaphorically “lowering” to the threshold of our human perception.
Ata, Art Thou (literally “you”), not aloof as Creator, Judge, Transcendent Nature, but a partner in dialogue.
Adonai, Lord, who even while relating to us on a human scale remains wholly transcendent over time-space. We recall the infinite and eternal.
Elohainu, our God reminds us of the personal and unique relationship we all have with the Creator. We think of the unimaginable power to self-bind the infinite into unique, individuated facets, each of which reflects the All but is custom-suited to each of us.
V’Elohai Avotainu, and the God of our ancestors: This prayer is, on a certain level, a specific approach from a specific culture. Judaism is more than a religion but is also a People, an extended family, and even in our current diversity we share roots. On a deeper level, we remember that we’re not self-made nor isolated. We come from a past, genetic, cultural, family and more and we lead to a future. We are part of the mysterious flow of time.
Elohai Avraham, God of Abraham: Generally seen as the paradigm of chesed, overflowing generosity and loving-kindness, Abraham’s door was always open. Nonetheless, he was the product of struggle. We need to activate our innate goodness, to nurture it, to give it the environment and the energy to manifest.
Elohai Yitzchak, God of Isaac: Isaac embodies strength, gevurah, but not chaotic power. This is the strength, self-control and discipline we need to achieve any goal. Like Isaac survived the disorienting terror of being offered as a human-sacrifice by his loving father, we often need strength to continue on our way when the signposts are dim.
Elohai Yaakov, God of Jacob: Jacob who balances strength with good nature, who lives a life of exile, bereavement, betrayal and exploitation but also sees his family flourish. Never able to enjoy long-lived happiness but never giving into despair. Always wrestling and growing, he gives his name to the people he founds.
Ha-El HaGadol HaGibor v’HaNora, the God great, strong and honored: We once again remind ourselves of the infinite power beyond even our imaginations, transcending space, time and even our concepts of abstract spirit.
El Elyon, sublime God: We think in absolute silence for a moment of what it means to be even beyond what we imagine as beyond our greatest conceptual abilities. Our human greatness and history of achievements, when seen through this lens of humility, further magnifies the mystery of the unknowable.
Gomel Chasadim Tovim, bearing Abundant Loving-kindness: Bearing “personally”, the essence of all this power and energy is reflected in our world of experience as true, knowing and unconditional love.
V’Koneh Ha-Kol, and Master of all: Not expressing ownership or impressing an obligation of gratitude, but much more fundamentally describing our unity within the all-encompassing.
V’Zochayr Chasdai Avot, remembering the achievements of our forebears: We don’t start from scratch, either in our material or our spiritual pursuits. We build on the foundation and accumulated wisdom of those who went before us. No matter the social, technological, economic or cultural changes, we remain human, endowed with all the dignity and faced with all the challenges that implies.
U-Mayvee Goel Livnai V’nayhem, who redeems their childrens’ children: On the one hand, this refers to us as we try to further the work of partnership in the creation and stewardship of the world. But “children” also implies the future and “childrens’ children” reminds us that there are always unforeseen consequences. Our knowledge is limited but we still do our best to love and nurture, to prepare a better future than the present.
L’Ma’an Sh’mo B’Ahava, for the sake of his Name with love: Again confronted with the infinite, the unknowable, the all-powerful, we have, finally, only one possibility, Love.
Melech, King: We start the journey to ourselves from the most aloof, distant, unchanging imperturbable image of “king”.
Ozer, Helper: Distant, yet available, but we need to initiate this aspect of the relationship by asking, by recognizing our finiteness, by trying to develop humility and compassion.
Moshiah, Savior: Perhaps the “parent” paradigm is useful here. We learn by mistake but somehow need to survive them. Call it “luck” or divine-intervention, our own recklessness, even in our danger-fraught century, has yet to destroy us. We’re all-too-often unaware of the daily miracle of life.
U’Magen, and Shield: Even closer than our own skin, we’re bathed in the web of existence. The light, the love which surrounds each of us.
Baruch Ata Adonai Magen Avraham, Blessed art Thou our God, shield of Abraham: Having danced this dance of thought and feeling, of high and low, of our uniqueness and our finiteness, having marvelled at the Eternal and Infinite, rather than having reached the end, we are finally,with the loving-kindness of Abraham, with a new beginning, prepared to start.
Rabbi Harry Zeitlin, September 1997