The Opening Blessings of the Amidah
By Andrew Levy
The all-too familiar is very difficult to deal with. The old adage has it that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. The Amidah is said three times daily (four times on Shabbat and festivals); its opening words are some of the most well-known in our liturgy.
So why does the word ‘contempt’ sound so inappropriate for a prayer so familiar? Probably because we rarely consider the words, and often adopt a mantra-like method of mouthing the original Hebrew version, without so much as a thought as to what they mean. We merely associate the act of commencing the Amidah with something central to our religious essence.
There is something unsatisfying about the efficacy of a prayer being dependent on obliterating from our minds the meaning of the words we utter; yet that is exactly what many liturgists argue is at the heart of much prayer. In Undercurrents of Jewish Prayer, Jeremy Schonfield describes the phenomenon of the ‘incuriousness of the Jewish worshipper’. A little curiosity could go a long way and so might a touch of dramatic imagination.
We need to move from mantra to Moses. The opening words of the Amida mention Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but the Jewish figure whom we actually imitate when saying these words is Moses. This is the Moses who grew up as a prince in Egypt, discovered his Jewish identity, killed an Egyptian and then fled to Midian. Within that context, God appears to Moses in that well-known unconsumed burning bush. We can imagine that Moses is frightened and scared; he is in an alien place and is a wanted man on the run.
God then says the words which we know so well from the beginning of the Amidah: ‘[I am] the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’ (Exodus 3:6). This soon becomes a command to go to Pharaoh to free the children of Israel from bondage. Moses’ response to God’s command would surely have been ours if saddled with such immense responsibility: ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring out the children of Israel from Egypt?’ (Exodus 3:11). Indeed Moses describes himself later as ‘of uncircumcised lips’ (Exodus 6:12) – in other words, he lacks the gift of the gab.
When confronted with the command to pray to an unknowable God, should not our response like Moses’ be one of inadequacy? With Moses in mind, the opening (silent) line of the Amidah takes on added poignancy. If one examines those words in their original context (Psalm 51:17), they speak of a person, like Moses, with a broken spirit and downtrodden heart.
By the end of the Amidah though, we have uttered a prayer showing our ability to overcome such failings. In this regard again, we have imitated Moses. A man who described himself as unable to speak utters the longest speech in the Bible – the whole book of Deuteronomy is that speech. The fascinating comparison is invited by the words themselves and the way the liturgists decided to order them. Whilst we could just stay in our mantra, surely moving from mantra to Moses is much more rewarding.
Andrew Levy is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founder of its Assif minyan