Saturday, October 27, 2012

Following Abram to the Amida

Abram the Hebrew, also known as Abraham the knight of faith, takes center stage in the history of religion in this week’s Torah reading. After he arrives in Canaan, God speaks to him:
“Look up to the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them.” And He said, “So shall be your seed.” And he trusted in the Lord, and He reckoned it to his merit. And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land to inherit.” And he said, “O my Master, Lord, how shall I know?”                           (Genesis 15:5-8)
Yes, immediately after Abram is praised for his belief, he asks a doubtful question, “How shall I know?”
Despite this, in Jewish education and thought the emphasis is placed – rightfully or not – on Abraham’s greatness, on his revolutionary belief and his steadfastness. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult for us to relate to him, and “the God of Abraham” in our prayers feels very distant. However, the hints to events in Abraham’s life that appear in the Amida, don’t refer to the courageous Abraham in next week’s parasha, to neither the confrontation over Sodom nor to the binding of Isaac. Rather, they point to the Abram of this week’s reading, who is just getting started.

Let’s go back a few verses, to the segment that is quoted in the Amida. Then, I will analyze the first blessing[1] against the background of its sources in the Bible, in an effort to extract ideas that will deepen and enrich our understanding:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine, for he was priest to El Elyon. And he blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram to El Elyon, creator of heaven and earth.” (Genesis 14:18 )
The first word: Blessed. Who blesses? Not Abraham, Melchizedek. After the Exodus from Egypt, Jethro will also say a blessing: “Blessed is the Lord who saved you…” (Exodus 18:10). Prayer and thanksgiving are not uniquely Jewish acts, they are human acts. The advantage that Melchizedek and Jethro have over Abraham and Moses may be their broader perspective. During prayer we look at our lives from a higher vantage point or, at least, slightly distanced from the turmoil of daily life, allowing us to see the good and the blessed, not only the pressure and our troubles.

Melchizedek was a priest to El Elyon –  God Most High, and he blesses Abram in his name, “El Elyon, creator of heaven and earth.” We quote him in order to constantly re-affirm that our God, whose name we do not pronounce, contains all of the powers and divinities ever identified and worshiped in the world. In order to further stress the divine unity, in most prayers we upgrade, “Creator of heaven and earth” to “Creator of everything,” in order not to provide an opening for heretics to ask, “And who created the sea?” We have one God, only one. With all of the doubts and questions one principle of faith remains unshaken: the Lord is One
                                        and that God is “the God of Abraham the God of Isaac and God of Jacob.” This expression is not common in the Bible. Where does it appear? At the burning bush. We have moved from the beginning of Abram’s story to God’s first verbal communication with Moses. Not yet a leader, a liberator or legislator, he is a shepherd finding his way in the wilderness. His faith is still under construction; therefore God identifies himself as the God of his ancestors. Moses, unlike Abram, does not pop onto the stage from nowhere. Like us, he is not starting from scratch.

In moments of crisis, we do not need to start from the very beginning. Our ancestors blazed a trail and left us markers. The prayer book is one of them and it can be important guide on our way: not as a text to be recited or a flat map, but rather as a three-dimensional diagram depicting a winding path with many ups and downs. Today’s drasha is a brief sample.[2] I can testify that the effort invested in studying the prayers pays off when praying.

When Moses’ faith matures, he bequeaths us an exulted description, “The great, mighty and awesome God” (Dt. 10:17). I’m not going to discuss this in detail, I just want to note that in the Talmud this expression is the focus of two different discussions about the tension between the actual beliefs and intentions of the person praying and the written text. As long as there have been fixed prayer texts, this tension has existed. There are several solutions, the main thing is not to be embarrassed by it and not to deny it. Tension generates energy and can move our prayer forward.

Moses continues and expands the thought, “Who is impartial and does not take bribes, who provides justice to the orphan and the widow, loves the stranger providing food and clothing” (Dt. 10:17-18). The prayer book summarizes, “Who does acts of loving-kindness.” It’s not the details that matter but the principle: wherever God’s greatness is mentioned, so too is his humility and accessibility. Your spirit won’t take off? Don’t worry about it, you can walk in God’s ways here on earth and feel the holy presence in deeds of loving kindness between people.

I want to conclude not with Abraham and Moses but with Sarah. When we – as a congregation and as individuals – consider whether or not to add Sarah (and the other matriarchs) to our prayers we should ask, “What meaning will the change add?” In my opinion, mentioning Sarah in the Amida affirms that the path of prayer is not reserved only for those who have a direct line of communication to heaven, for Abram who asks questions but also get the answers. It is also open to Sarah, to people who hear only a faint echo when eavesdropping behind the door.

It doesn't matter where you are in your life, in your faith, the path of prayer is open.
If not now, when?

[1] Quotes from the prayer are in bold.
[2] The handout from my class on this prayer is here.

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