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Toward a new Jewish domestic agenda

For the good

"One who says 'Your mercy extends even to bird's nests,' and 'for the good which You do shall Your Name be remembered,' and 'we give thanks, we give thanks,' -- he is silenced."

That's a verse from Mishna: tractate Brakhot [here in Hebrew; here in English], chapter 5, mishna 3. Jeff and I spent some time on this verse on Friday afternoon. Translating it was easy enough, but decoding its meaning took a little effort.

First of all, some context: in this part of Brakhot we're talking about ha-tefilah, "the Prayer" -- a.k.a. the amidah, the central prayer of Jewish worship, which is offered daily (on the pattern once established for korbanot, the offerings which drew us near to God) and is always spoken while standing. So the opening words of this verse could be expanded to, "If someone is standing before the congregation as the leader of communal prayer, leading the amidah, and he says..."

What's wrong with the three phrases offered as examples? Hard to say, though they aren't part of the prayer as we know it. Of course, in those days the prayer wasn't necessarily fixed in the form we currently know. (The Talmud records passionate debate about the relative merits of using a fixed form for the words of the tefilah, versus allowing each pray-er to hold forth extemporaneously on the amidah's set themes.) One could read this mishna simply as an admonition against adding unnecessary verbiage...or maybe it's a prohibition against adding these particular phrases to the liturgy. These phrases may be examples of specific heresies, troubling to the rabbis in Mishnaic times but long since lost to us. Maybe each of those phrases evoked a whole host of images and associations; we'll never know.

Pinhas Kehati, in his commentary on the Mishna, offers an interesting suggestion about that second statement, "for the good which You do [to us] shall Your Name be remembered."

The problem, he suggests, lies in the implication that we praise and remember God's name only because of the good which arises for us. If I thank God for the things in my life which I know to be blessings (my family; my home; my husband; my community; my teachers) -- well, that's a fine start, but it's insufficient. The tradition teaches that I should also thank God for the things in my life which don't appear to be blessings, for even the events which are difficult or painful. It's not right to thank God for the good stuff and curse God for the bad stuff. For one thing, I never know what might be difficult for me today but turn out to be a blessing in hindsight; and besides, the whole good/bad binary is enmeshed in mochin d'katnut, limited human consciousness. That's not how God sees.

Were I to lead the community in prayer with the presumption that only those acts of God which are comfortable for me are worth remembering -- then, the Mishna teaches, I should be removed from my post and replaced with a leader-of-prayer who can praise God for the full spectrum of human experience. My task, today and every day, is to muster gratitude and reverence in response to even things which make me sad. It's a humbling responsibility, but a beautiful one. May it be so.

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