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Nitzavim 5782 - Hannah and the Amidah

Friday, September 23, 2022 - 28 Elul, 5782

We are about to experience a full month of holidays with beautiful, meaningful, very lengthy services. One of the prime reasons our services will be so lengthy is their plethora of Amidot, our standing silent prayers and their repetitions. While Rabbi Natasha and I will try to enhance the experience with kavannot (intentions and explanations), our favorite melodies, and participation from our community’s children and adults, you, too, can take strides towards make your personal prayer experience, no matter how lengthy, as meaningful as possible this High Holy Day season and beyond.

For the Rabbis of Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Berakhot (31a and b), the Biblical Hannah provides ample inspiration for lengthy Amidot. On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, we will meet Hannah, childless and devastated as she watches her sister-wife Peninah raise a household full of children. During one of her family’s yearly pilgrimages to the mishkan at Shiloh, the priest Eli witnesses Hannah’s prayer to God that she should have a son and that she will dedicate him to God. Although at first, Eli thinks Hannah is drunk, he realizes his mistake and blesses her that God grants her wish; the next year, Hannah gives birth to the great prophet Samuel (Shmuel). Over a thousand years later, from Hannah’s particular sounds, words, and movements in the first chapter of Shmuel alef, the Rabbis of the Talmud extrapolate the importance of focus, enunciation, creativity, and personal space in the Amidah.

The Rabbis begin their analysis with Hannah’s volume and intention:

וְחַנָּ֗ה הִ֚יא מְדַבֶּ֣רֶת עַל־לִבָּ֔הּ רַ֚ק שְׂפָתֶ֣יהָ נָּע֔וֹת וְקוֹלָ֖הּ לֹ֣א יִשָּׁמֵ֑עַ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ עֵלִ֖י לְשִׁכֹּרָֽה׃

And Hannah was speaking unto her heart, with only her lips moving; her voice could not be heard. So Eli thought she was drunk. (1 Samuel 1:13).

As Hannah once did, the Rabbis teach, we should recite the Amidah quietly enough so that others, like the priest Eli with Hannah, cannot hear us. Today, although we enjoy an Agudath Achim of vibrant noise, the Amidah is one of the only times we embrace sacred quiet. To enhance that focus, as Hannah explicitly “stands with” Eli when she prays, the Rabbis ask for us not to sit within four cubits of a person engaged in their Amidah. As each person moves at her own pace, as each person intersperses the words of their heart with the words on the page, silence and physical space in the Amidah gives each of us more mental space to share words and ideas with God and to listen closely to God’s response. Throughout our Amidah, both on the High Holy Days, and over Shabbat, we can each make the effort to keep our whispers to a minimum and to stand at a distance from our neighbors, in order to allow each of us more of that space and silence.

Regarding Hannah’s speech unto her heart, the Rabbis demand that we, too, use all of our focus during prayer. As such focus is integral, according to the Rabbis, Eli’s accusation of drunkenness shows that we must not be intoxicated or distracted in any way during prayer. When, in prayer, we focus solely on the words that leave our mouth, we encourage ourselves to say words we truly mean. When we come across words in our liturgy that trouble or confuse us, that concentration allows us to dwell on our theology rather than brush uncomfortable topics aside. Just as Hannah does, the Rabbis encourage us to enunciate each word we say to ourselves during the Amidah, to make sure that we truly know and affirm what we ask of God and for what we praise our Creator and Sustainer. Even if our minds wander during the rest of the prayer service, perhaps to the book we’ve brought or to what we are going to cook for dinner, the Amidah is the moment to train our concentration to words that come straight from the heart.

Early on in her speech, when Hannah refers to God as Adonai Tz’vaot, Adonai of hosts, the Rabbis marvel at Hannah’s creativity:

Rabbi Elazar said: From the day that the Holy Blessed One created God’s world, there was no person who called the Holy Blessed One Adonai of Hosts until Hannah came and called God Adonai of Hosts. (Berakhot 31a).

Just as Hannah creates a new name for God in her prayer, we, too, can speak with God using language entirely our own. While the words in our siddur and mahzor are wonderful jumping-off points, they are certainly not the be-all, end-all of what prayer may entail. When we say modim anakhnu lakh, thank you God, we make space to talk to God about our specific gratitude. When we ask God for peace in Sim Shalom and Oseh Shalom, we have the chance to elucidate the peace we want to see - peace in our chaotic home, an end to the violence present in our city, or the cessation of war in Ukraine. Before we take our three steps back at the end of our Amidah, we have the chance to remind God of any other topics the text of our liturgy does not cover towards which you know God must turn here and now. And if the names for God we see in our text - my Lord, our Father, the Presence, Sovereign, and so on - do not encompass all of whom we believe God to be, we make up our own names for God. In that peace of the silent Amidah, in our four forearm’s lengths of solitude, we have time set aside to experiment with our most productive, perhaps our most daring, conversation with the Divine.

The Rabbis of the Talmud learn about their ideal prayer from Hannah; we, in turn, learn about our ideal prayer from the Rabbis. So, too, we can still keep learning about our own ideal prayer from each other. If you finish your Amidah early, look around the room! You may notice someone swaying, closing their eyes, or standing far away in the back of the room. You may notice smiles or tears, a tallit draped over a head, or a prayer book covering a face. Are there any prayer practices in this room that seem enticing to you? If so, you have lots of time to explore in the next few weeks. You have lots of time to share what “works” for you and to ask others what “works” for them in the Amidah. Whether through movement, through established text, or through creative words, we each inform our prayer experience during these hours of time in this synagogue space. Although not every Amidah will feel like a transcendent experience, we have the luxury the next few weeks of experimenting with different modes of the exact same prayer. During this time, we each must remember the words of Rabbi Elliot Dorff: “Nothing is too personal, and nothing too sublime for prayer” (Knowing God 158).

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784