Engaging Prayer

September 1, 2010
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Aryeh Cohen

Living on the cusp of the second decade of the 21st century, we Jews are accustomed to the tripartite division of Judaism that Franz Rosenzweig articulated and popularized: creation, revelation, redemption. This division, which both carries and constructs a narrative arc, has served well in popular thought to limn Jewish theology and practice. It might be somewhat jarring then, that on one of the holiest days of the year, the focal prayer of the day —  the musaf of Rosh Hashanah, the home of the shofar blasts on the “day of shofar blasts” — is divided into three sections that are not necessarily familiar or comfortable for contemporary sensibilities. This, though, is not a bad thing. Prayer is not only the moment when we retreat into the security of the safe and familiar. Prayer is also an act of engagement and confrontation. I find that prayer, to roughly paraphrase Kierkegaard, is the existential suspension of the ontological. To actually pray, I need to abandon the safe ground of “how the world is” and be open to experiences grounded in a very different world of assumptions. Prayer comes out of the struggle between these two places: the place I live and leave (and will return to with the three steps that I take to end the amidah, backing out of the place where transcendence is available) and the place I enter.

Stretching back to at least the third century, the three sections of the musaf — mentioned and debated in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah — are those found in our liturgy: malkhiyot,* zikhronot, and shofarot. Malkhiyot is rendered by Herbert Danby, the early-20th-century Anglican Mishnah translator, as “Sovereignty verses.” Under this rubric, the liturgist, following the Babylonian Talmud, gathers ten verses (three from Torah, three from Psalms, three from the later Prophets, and then a coda from Torah) that invoke God’s sovereignty over Israel, all nations, and the world.

One is hard pressed to find a coherent narrative articulated in these quotations. The first verse is from Exodus, from the Song of the Sea (one of the oldest texts in Torah), yet it points to God’s eternal reign: “The Lord shall be king for all time!” The collection of kingly verses sticks to the prophetic and the salvific. The penultimate verse, from Zachariah 14, points to that day when “there shall be one God with one name,” while the ultimate verse is the most present of invocations, the Sh’ma — God’s oneness invoked here and now.

The second section, zikhronot, which Danby translates as “Remembrance verses,” invokes God’s memory of the covenant — seemingly in order to once again jog the divine remembrance and bring redemption speedily in our days. The three, three, three, one series of verses is repeated here, though with an interesting twist. The third Torah verse quoted is from Leviticus 26:42: “And I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac and also My covenant with Abraham I will remember, and the land I will remember.” Though this sounds promising, the context is Israel’s abrogation of the covenant. Memory of the covenant here has a dark edge to it. The ultimate verse in this section speaks of God reinstating the covenantal promise of redemption. Here, for the educated pray-er, the passage of time from the abrogation of the covenant by Israel to its later reaffirmation by God is indicated by the intervening verses and even the summary prayer.

Finally, the shofarot section partakes of the imagery of Sinai and the end of days, the themes of trepidation and extreme joy before the divine and in holiday community. This section’s concluding prayer deepens those themes with a plea for God to sound the shofar of our freedom and redemption; to lead us to Jerusalem in joy and song and to re-establish the sacrificial service in the rebuilt Temple.

One of the glories of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is the sounding of the shofar, which can be allegorized and metaphorized but not domesticated. It is a bedrock religious moment in that it touches a deep and visceral chord in us that has not been smothered by any layers of bourgeois worshipfulness. It is important for me to confront and embrace, however tentatively, God as sovereign. It is important to me to lie face down on the floor, relinquishing any notion of control over the world for a brief moment. It seems to be important to fervently hope that redemption may one day wend its way toward us.

God as sovereign. God as author of the covenant. God as the triumphalist redeemer sounding the shofar. These concepts are not easily set aside. We may need to violently throw them over — however, we evade that moment of engagement at our own peril and loss.

* This is the pronunciation documented in the earliest manuscripts, though in contemporary literature, it’s often malkhuyot.

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Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, a Sh’ma Advisory Committee member, lives in Los Angeles with his partner, Andrea, and their children, Shachar and Oryah. He teaches Talmud at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; davens at the Shtibl Minyan; and writes about Talmud, justice, Shabbat, and gender, among other topics. He is currently writing a book, Justice in the City: Thinking the Just City out of the Sources of Rabbinic Literature.

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