One morning recently I was feeling antsy and at-loose-ends, unable to muster the focus to really daven. So I put on tallit and tefillin and opened my siddur to a random page from the quadrant of the book which I knew contained shacharit (morning prayer) to see what message I might find there. My fingers opened the book to the final blessing in the weekday amidah (the prayer, recited standing, which is at the center of liturgical Jewish worship -- the time when we stand before God and connect one-on-one through the ladder of the liturgy.) That blessing is called Sim Shalom: Grant Peace.
I've never spent a ton of time with this blessing; I confess it's one I often kind of breeze past. But when I opened the book to this page, I was struck by one phrase in particular:
ברכנו אבינו כלנו כאחד באור פניך / Barchenu avinu kulanu k'ekhad b'or panecha / Bless us, our father, all as one with the light of your face!
First, with barchenu, we're asking God to bless us. So often we begin our prayers with baruch atah, blessed are You -- but this time we're asking for the blessing to come from God to us. As Rabbi Marcia Prager reminds us in The Path of Blessing, the word baruch relates to breikha, fountain, and berech, knee. This word-root reminds us that we are in a posture (spiritually, if not physically) of bending in awe and gratitude...and that God is the fountain from which all blessings flow. Also, the -nu ending denotes "us." This is a communal request; even when I'm praying alone, I'm praying here for us to be blessed as a group, together.
Then comes avinu: we're reminding ourselves that God is our father -- our parent -- the source from which we come, the One Who continues to speak us into being, the One in Whose likeness we are made, the One from whom we are always running away and then returning as children do. With that one word, avinu, we articulate relationship. The metaphor of God-the-Father can be distancing for some people (some prefer to think of God as Mother; others prefer gender-neutral and non-hierarchical metaphors like Source and Wellspring.) Gender notwithstanding, the parent metaphor is an integral part of our traditional liturgy... and as a parent, I understand it in a different way now than I ever did before. When we call God "our father" (or "our parent") we're casting ourselves as the children who yearn to be cradled and to know that we can always return home.
Both of these first two words show that we're asking for that blessing together: this isn't just one person seeking blessing, but a community asking as one, and even when I pray these words alone I'm aware that I'm part of a community which is collectively in relationship with the holy. The phrase which follows stresses that theme: kulanu k'echad: all of us as one. Give this blessing to all of us, to the whole community of people who wrestle with our relationship with you -- and in the giving, help us to recognize that we are one. We are one people, one family, despite the endless differences in our choices, our appearances, how we dress, how we pray, how we understand You, how we relate to this or that political issue. No matter where we stand on JStreet or AIPAC or Jewish Voice for Peace, please, God, give us this blessing in a way which will unify us.
And the specific blessing we're asking for is 'or panecha, the light of Your face, the light of Your presence. We're reminding ourselves that when we say these words we stand in I/Thou relationship with God, panim el panim, face to face. Give us, together, the blessing which is inherent in the light of Your presence. The blessing we seek is the light which streams from eternity directly to us. Enlighten us together, God. Help us remember, avinu, that we are all Your children. Help us know that we are one community even though we're not all the same. And give us Your light.
A Hasidic reading of this line (by Zev Wolf of Zhitomir, cited in My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 2: The Amidah) asks, how can we ask God to bless us "as one"? Surely our needs are so varied and diverse that this is a strange thing for us to pray. The answer, Wolf writes, is that "each soul yearns for God's beaming face, the Or Hame'ir, 'the One who is the source of all light.'...And in that pure, divine radiance there is, of course, no differentiation whatsoever. There, everything is One."
I think maybe that's why I needed to encounter this line from the amidah. I've been feeling frustrated and saddened lately by instances in which it is pretty clear that we're not all one, or at least that we tend to forget our unity. But Zev Wolf is here to teach me that what we all yearn for most is the divine radiance of connection with the unity at creation's root... and the amidah is here to remind me that when we ask for the blessing of Presence together, that's our path toward seeking peace.