The Amidah, “The Standing Prayer”, also called the Shemoneh Esrei, “The Eighteen (Blessings)”, is often the hardest part of tefillah (prayer) to properly teach and to to actually do in ones own tefillah practice.
Composed by the Men of the Great Assembly (the greatest Torah scholars and prophets of the generation) about 2,500 years ago in response to the impact of the First Temple destruction and Babylonian exile, and finalized by the Sages in the second century of the Common Era, the Amidah is THE central prayer in our siddur liturgy.
While most of us are generally familiar with its choreography, (facing east, taking three steps back, three steps forward, bowing, then praying silently), the experience of praying the Amidah can be frustrating. For example, during the Amidah, the silence often drags on as everyone seems to be deep in this silent prayer, and common “practice” is to try and speed through it so you can finish along with the congregation before the chazan (prayer leader) begins the repetition of the Amidah. Or there are the times you try and actually pray, and focus on the words and your thoughts and your feelings and you only make it a quarter of the way through the Shemoneh Esrei before the chazan has finished, started the repetition and poof, there goes your focus. And sometimes, even if you can focus, much of what is written in the Shemoneh Esrei may not resonate with you.
As you grow and as you learn, you get used to both realities and both rhythms, and if you are lucky, you can appreciate the Amidah for what it is – a moment in time during the day in which you are in a private audience with Hashem, the King of Kings. It’s your space and your time with God. And you can use that private time to talk to God, ask for healing for family and friends, share your worries or your thanks. With proper practice and kavannah (intent), it is an intensely personal and mindful experience, truly an “avodah shebalev,” a “service of the heart”. While the 19 blessings in the Amidah are given equal standing, in my humble opinion, the last of the 19 blessings is the most important – the prayer and blessing for peace. It states:
“Bestow peace, goodness and blessing, life, graciousness, kindness and mercy, upon us and upon all Your people Israel. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance. For by the light of Your countenance You gave us, Adonai our G‑d, the Torah of life and loving-kindness, righteousness, blessing, mercy, life and peace. May it be favorable in Your eyes to bless Your people Israel, at all times and at every moment, with Your peace. Praised are You, Adonai, who blesses His people Israel with peace.”
It’s placement in the Amidah is by design – there you are, in your private audience with God, and just before you finish and go back to your life, you stop, and make that one final, critical request – you ask God to bless all of us, the people of Israel, with peace.
And so, in the cruelest of ironies, according to all firsthand reports, that exact moment is when, early Tuesday morning, two terrorists burst into the synagogue in Har Nof, Jerusalem, when worshipers were finishing up the silent portion of the Amidah, and began attacking them with a gun, a meat cleaver, and an ax. 5 Jews were brutally murdered. Wearing tallis and tefillin. While they prayed for peace.
So let me come back to my starting point, that the Amidah is the hardest part of tefillah to teach and to to actually learn how to do in ones own tefillah practice. After the nightmare of Tuesday morning, let me broaden the scope and re-frame the educational issue and the spiritual challenge:
In a world that is oftentimes so ugly, how do we (parents and teachers) teach our children how to pray to God, to speak to God, to love and confide in God? When we see the pictures of the bloodied, crumpled tallitot, the blood-covered tefillin, and the blood-soaked siddurim strewn across the floor, and realize that, given our history, that picture could have been taken a thousand years ago, and two thousand years ago (and probably in a thousand years from now), how do we help our children learn to reach out to Hashem in scary and confusing times? How much of the world do we try and filter from our kids, so that they retain their childlike, innocent and pure relationship with God?
I can tell you that Tuesday morning, when I woke up to the news, emails, and Facebook posts sharing the painful news of the terror attack in Har Nof, I instinctively reached for my tallis and tefillin to pray. On the one hand, doing so comforted me, like when you’re a kid having a nightmare, and you run into your parents bed. But I also want to share with you that I really struggled – my tefillin made my skin crawl, my tallis felt itchy, and I felt like what I was doing was almost obscene, so soon after an attack that for a short time at least, blotted out the light of Heaven.
Dear families and friends – I have no answers, only questions. I have no expert advice in how to help our children and students make sense of tragedy and how to cope in these challenging times; there are far better educational and parenting experts who can do that than me. I have no spiritual or theological guidance either; there are others who are better suited for that than me. All I know is that we are Jews, and we have been down this road for thousands of years. We endure, and we keep on going. Three times a day, we take three steps back, three steps forward, and we bow. And in our private audience with God, we say what we need to, scream if we want to, question if we have to. Then we take three steps back and go on with our lives.
Am Yisrael Chai.