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Reflections on the Amidah

All prayer is an opportunity to converse with G-d, to reach out to Him and make contact. The Jewish prayer service in synagogue involves a loud and lively give and take between the Cantor and the Congregation, and it is not unusual for everyone to break into song. Sometimes things get downright energetic and there’s a glorious roar of voices calling out to G-d, the ancient chants and melodies reverberating through the walls of the house of worship.

Perhaps that’s why the “Amidah” is such a special part of the prayer service. Sometimes it is hard to find and maintain the focus needed to pray. And the “Amidah”, also called “The Silent Meditation”, has just the right built-in elements to help set the mood for the quiet of introspection needed to talk to the King of Kings.

Prayer services take place in the synagogue three times a day but I only attend the service on Shabbat morning. I recite the Amidah prayer each morning at home, but it is in the synagogue, surrounded by hundreds of people, where, ironically, I feel the full impact of the silent prayer.

As the last words before the “Amidah” fade away, we take three steps back to ready ourselves with the correct frame of mind to begin this special prayer, and then take three steps forward, symbolizing our eagerness to get close to our Maker. During those steps we whisper the verse, “My Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.” That sentence is remarkably effective and psychologically satisfying and sets the tone perfectly for my conversation with G-d. It prepares me, gives me a chance to absorb myself in the prayer I am about to say. To humble ourselves before G-d, we bend our knees and bow at both the beginning and the end of the first blessing, and for the rest of the “Amidah” we stand erect, our feet pressed closely together in a stance of respect.

And soon the shuffling of footsteps fades and there is a stark reverent hush. I take care to say the words of the “Amidah” quietly so as not to disturb those around me, but I try to make the words audible, at least to myself, so I can allow the beauty of the words to inspire me as I focus inward and turn to G-d.

The silence during the reading of the “Amidah” lends a feeling of privacy, of intimacy between me and my Maker. The “Amidah” is such a major part of the prayer service that sometimes it’s given the general, all inclusive name of “Tefilla”- prayer. It’s a prayer said three times a day, a key component of the morning, afternoon, and evening services. The Amidah consists of nineteen blessings and is split into three sections. In the first part the person praises G-d, preparing himself for the chance to make requests of G-d in the second part. The middle section contains the supplicants’ needs and requests. And in the last part we express our thanks to G-d for His graciousness.

Some people have asked me if I find it off-putting… if I find it limiting and confining that so much of the Jewish prayer liturgy is standardized, that the prayer book tells us exactly which words to say and when. But I don’t feel that way at all. And the “Amidah” prayer is a perfect example of why not. The text we read so religiously, asks for everything that our hearts are filled with, that our souls could possibly cry out for. We pray for health, repentance, forgiveness, insight, sustenance, peace and redemption.

And there is always room for making our prayers personal…making them our own. During the blessing for health, an individual can put in a plea for a loved one who is unwell, who is suffering and in pain. We can actually take this touching opportunity and mention the person by name! I find it very comforting that G-d wants to “hear from us” and gives us a chance to turn His attention to the person we are aching for. It becomes such a personal, central part of the prayer that if the person I’m praying for unfortunately dies, there is a hole left, for me, in the space of that passage. I remember when I was in fourth grade, my teacher encouraged us to give her names of sick people we would like the whole class to pray for, and insert in the blessing for health. She would keep the names written on the board and you would see each of us looking up, as we got to the appropriate blessing in the “Amidah”, to include the names of ill friends and family members of our classmates. I can still picture the smudged, rubbed out spots on the board where the teacher would erase the names of the people who had recovered or who, unfortunately, had died and no longer needed our prayers…

Since moving to Israel, my favorite blessing of the “Amidah” is the one for the Ingathering of Exiles: “Sound the great trumpet for our freedom, raise the banner to gather our exiles and speedily gather us together from the four corners of the earth to our Land. Blessed are You, who gathers in the dispersed of His people Israel.” I remember reading this blessing when I still lived in America and thinking, “This is a call to arms. This is a wake up call to Jews living all over the world—a call to ME to make Aliyah and move to Israel.” And now that I have answered that trumpet call, it somehow still thrills me to say the words. Because now I use it as a plea to G-d to bring all the Jewish people back to His land: My mother, my sisters and their families, and everyone else who yearns to return… who wants to come home.

I am moved when I read the words “speedily gather us together… to our land.” Because it’s happening. In the past two decades we have seen an influx of Jews from “the four corners of the earth”—from Ethiopia, Yemen, Iraq. It’s happening. We are in a time preceding the era of the complete Redemption. And the Redemption can only be complete when Jews from all over the world have returned to the land.

The “Amidah” takes a few minutes to recite and the silence allows me to block out the world around me and focus inward. But I am still very aware of the people standing next to me. And that’s fine. I believe that part of the reason we are encouraged to pray with a congregation, is so that we feel like we are part of a whole. When I read the blessing for prosperity and say the words, “Bless on our behalf… and give a blessing on the face of the earth and satisfy us from its bounty”, I am meant to share the pain of those standing alongside me who cannot put food on the table for their children. When I utter the blessing for repentance and say, “Bring us back, our Father… and influence us to return in perfect repentance before you”, I am meant to notice and admire the woman swaying fervently in front of me… a woman who has recently found her faith and returned to the fold.

My private conversation with G-d is nearly done and I try holding on for a bit to the sense of peace and calm that the “Amidah” has filled me with. The last paragraph of the prayer helps me ease back, gradually, into the more public remainder of the prayer service. It’s a beautiful supplication to G-d, asking Him in a very general yet somehow all inclusive way, to guide us through the rest of our day, in our dealings with Him and our fellow man.

“My G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent… Open my heart to Your Torah, then my soul will pursue Your commandments… May it be Your will that human jealousy may not rise up against me, nor my jealousy upon others; may I not become angry today and may I not anger You. Rescue me from the Evil Inclination and place in my heart submissiveness and humility. O our King, rebuild Your city… perfect Your Sanctuary… redeem Your sheep… act for Your Torah’s sake; act for Your sanctity’s sake. That Your beloved ones may be given rest… May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You…Amen.”

 

Shalom,

Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities

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