Night: Fear, Power, Divine Presence (Shekhinah)
Transitions are times of vulnerability, anxiety, even fear. The mezuzah guides us through the transition between our home and the outside world. The words of the challenging, non-Israelite Prophet Balaam welcome us into the synagogue: “Mah Tovu (How beautiful are your tents O Jacob).” I wrote several reflections on the prayer texts that support us from sleep to wakefulness, giving thanks for soul and body restored to strength and vitality for another day.
But, the transition into night is more challenging, perhaps even terrifying. I remember well the challenges and fears faced by my children when they were young and facing the night and the journey from wakefulness to sleep. The siddur contains a “liturgy” for the moments before going to sleep that contains the Shema’ (quite naturally), but also some additional texts. Many parents recite the Shema’ with their children at bedtime, and I recommend this to everyone (grandparents, camp counselors, friends) who has the chance to be with a child at night. The ancient text, chanted in Hebrew or whispered in any other language, grows a powerful bond through the years.
The traditional version of this liturgy, known as k’riat Shema’ al hamitah (the Shema’ recited at the bedside), also includes a paragraph that prays for (or affirms) the presence of four “angels” to surround us at night, with the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) above our head. These four angels are Micha’el (angel of triumph to our right), Gavri’el (angel of power to our left), Uri’el (angel of light before us), and Rafa’el (angel of healing behind us). I am saddened that this paragraph is omitted from the current siddurim of the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States, but heartened to find it in the siddur of the Reform Movement in the United Kingdom.
In his early book The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes on page eight, “An angel is a spiritual reality with its own unique content, qualities and character . . . Angels are beings in the world that is the domain of emotion and feeling.” We certainly retain angels prominently in our liturgy, in the kedushah and in the Friday night song Shalom Aleichem, so I see every reason to present to children especially, and for us all in times of fear and dread, the idea that we are, each night, surrounded by powers of strength and triumph, of light and healing, and that the Divine Presence is above us all.
My children, Yishai and Miriam, for many years would not go to sleep without Shema’ and what we fondly called Shir Hamalachim, the Song of the Angels, a beloved melody for this text composed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Now they are teenagers, older and wiser, and still there are nights in times of challenge when I embrace them late and sing to them these ancient words. I believe without any doubt that there are powers of darkness and sources of evil in the world. I believe no less that we are indeed surrounded by strength and light and love, and that God’s Presence is always to be found close by. What better way to make the transition into sleep?
As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.