Harshness—Us and Them

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On May 29, 2013 / 5773 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

In the preliminary service (Siddur Sim Shalom: A Prayerbook for Shabbat, 66), there is a short paragraph remarkably written in the first person singular—using “I” rather than “we.” In the Talmud (BT Berakhot 16b), there are a number of personal prayers of the Sages, the prayers that they would say at the end of the ‘Amidah. This text is attributed to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi and is inserted at this point in the service because it is similar in theme to the previous paragraph. There is a telling, and sometimes uncomfortable, phrase that begins very innocently, “tatzileini hayom . . . me’azei panim” (save me this day from those with “hard faces” [from the arrogant]). This is a reasonable hope and a fine, if unremarkable, prayer; it would be good to pass a day (or even longer) without encountering others who are arrogant. But that is not the end of the sentence. The prayer of R’ Yehudah continues, “ume’azut panim” (and from my own “hard face” [my own arrogance]).

It is easy to see flaws in other people, and to seek to avoid being bothered by these flaws in others. The exquisitely nuanced construction of this phrase by R’ Yehudah reminds us that it is precisely that which we dislike most in others that we are most likely to find within ourselves—if we look.

This inner discernment requires that we ask questions, hard and searching questions of ourselves. Perhaps it is no accident that this prayer of R’ Yehudah is a preface to one of my favorite paragraphs of the preliminary service—the paragraph that asks of us all a searching series of questions: “Mah anu, meh chayeinu?” (Who are we, what is our life?). You can read my essay on that prayer here.

The nature of humanity has not changed so much over the centuries and millennia, and it is reassuring and challenging to find in the pages of the siddur these phrases that alert us to our own foibles. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote that “prayer is subversive”; perhaps the subversion is of our inner self-deception. I hope to expand on this idea of Heschel next week, especially in light of the compelling and moving commencement address delivered at The Jewish Theological Seminary’s 119th Commencement Exercises by US Congressman John R. Lewis, an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement.

As always, I am interested to hear comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at sabarth@jtsa.ed