Given that we have had three scrolls today because it is Rosh Chodesh, I am not going to discuss any of the readings today but would just like to say a little about the short meditation at the end of the Amidah. It’s a piece that we almost never read out loud, and which I have talked about before, some seven years ago.
It is supposed to be read and considered in silence, with time around it for reflection. The paragraph I am talking about can be found on page 234 of our Siddur, just before we complete the Amidah with the singing of Osey Shalom.
In my view, we hardly ever leave enough time for this passage to be read. During the silent Amidah, unless one is a speed reader, the service is sometimes restarted before most of us even have a chance to get to this passage, never mind reading it and thinking about its message. And when we do re-start the Amidah as a congregation, reading and singing out loud together, we often go straight from Sim Shalom to the Osey Shalom. We have a lovely tune for the final sentence, Yihyu l’ratson imrei fi, v’hegyon libbi l’fanecha, Adonai tsuri v’go ali. “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O God, my rock and my Redeemer.”
For me this passage is one of the most important guides to help me lead a progressive Jewish life. As a personal creed, these few words do it for me! I acknowledge that one needs more than this to live a complete progressive Jewish life. The other planks to building my house of Reform Judaism include ritual and tradition, for example the celebration of Shabbat and all the festivals, observing mitzvot, at least where I believe and understand their relevance and connection to our lives today, They also include charity, social justice, building community, care and welfare of our members and respect for others and their traditions. The final plank for me is based on inclusivity, egalitarianism and pluralism. Including people in – wherever and whenever and however possible. A wonderful Rabbi in the US called Larry Kushner states that the creativity in a community is inversely proportional to the number of people allowed to say “NO”.
Back to the meditation. This prayer is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (in Berachot 17a) as having been written by Rabbi Mar Bar Ravina, who lived in the fourth century of the Common Era. The Encyclopaedia Judaica states that he was famous for his saintly character, and that in his youth he was carefully tended by his mother, who provided him with clean garments every day, so that he could study in comfort. Although well-to-do, he lived austerely, fasting by day except over Pesach, Purim and on Kol Nidre.
It is also reported that at his son’s wedding he thought that some of the celebrants were getting a bit too merry and carried away, after excessive consumption of wine, so he smashed a very precious cup, perhaps in order to dampen their spirits and focus more on the religious nature of the celebration. This act is believed to have been the start of the custom of breaking a glass at a Jewish wedding ceremony. Just think of how many thousands of glasses have been smashed over the last 1700 years. If we did such things, we could have made him the patron saint of glass blowers!
He had a reputation as a pious, God-fearing man, who regarded the profanation of God’s name as a heinous sin, and through his desire to link his inner thoughts and his outer actions, he wrote the Meditation.
The first line comes from Psalm 34 verse 13. “My God, keep my tongue from causing harm and my lips from telling lies.” Just that short sentence could change the world. How many times in the last week have we opened our mouths and said things that cause hurt and difficulties for others? Or forgotten to engage brain before starting to speak, and made a remark or a criticism that we immediately regret, and wished we could have found another way to say what we wanted more clearly, so that we don’t cause confusion, misunderstandings or unexpected arguments or responses?
Psalm 34 is not in our current prayer book, but it was in the old Siddur. It is described as being written by David, after having had to run away from Saul he sheltered under the area controlled by King Avimelech, who was not all that pleased to have such a soldier in his midst. David decided to convince Avimelech that he was crazy, and was therefore released from captivity. David wrote the Psalm to thank God for his safe deliverance from Saul and then Avimelech.
The middle section of the Meditation appears to be Rabbi Mar’s own words: “Let me be silent if people curse me, my soul still humble and at peace with all.” If only we could. Wouldn’t this be a useful guide for our politicians, especially over the last few weeks.
How often do we get outraged by someone’s chance remark or criticism, or that email that someone sends out and is slightly clumsily written, or we are left off a circulation list in error, or that moment of road rage, when we are cut up, or when someone in front drives more slowly than fits our mood of the moment, and a million other examples, when if only we could take a deep breath and be silent and at peace, life might be so much easier and more fun.
The next phrase is “Open my heart to your teaching, and give me the will to practice it.” This is the call to study and although it is a short statement, it requires a lifetime of effort to achieve. It’s like the story of Hillel and Shammai, both of whom are approached by someone wishing to convert to Judaism and asks each of them if they can teach him the whole of Judaism while standing on one foot. Shammai, who is a builder, chases the man away by threatening to hit him with his ‘measuring stick’. Hillel says to him “Do not do to others what is abhorrent to yourself, the rest is commentary, go and learn.” The key to Hillel’s answer is the those last three words: “Go and learn”. It actually requires a full life time of learning and studying Torah to be able to treat others as one would like them to behave to ourselves.
The last sentence: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer”, comes from another Psalm: number 19, verse 15. It is not known when it was written by David. One description I found suggested that it may have been written one morning when he had been out all night with his sheep. He saw the sunrise over Moab, and what he saw inspired him to think about the beauty of nature and of God. David remembered the stars that he had seen at night. He believed that God had made the stars and, in the morning, he saw another of God’s creations, the sun. All that David saw told him about God. He heard no words, there was no language. But David knew that everything was telling him about God.
David was, perhaps, sitting on the top of a great rock. That spoke to him about God as well! God was like a rock to David. So David called God “My Rock”. He also called God his Redeemer. A Redeemer is someone that pays the price to make a slave free.
As we close out the heart of our prayer, the T’filah or Amidah, we express the hope that the aspirations we have voiced in our prayers and the words we have spoken find favour in God’s sight. Perhaps we should also be focusing more intensely on ourselves, asking ourselves, to the extent that it is in our power, to make our words real in our deeds. The importance of making our words cohere with our lives is a potent message for us and could help us take those few small steps that will help our world to become a slightly better place.