Prayers and Their Meaning

Jewish prayer evokes all kinds of feelings. Sometimes it’s all about the familiar mantra-like experience of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. Few people know what the words mean, or that there is no mention – no mention! – of death or dying in the prayer. Yet there is something profoundly moving about saying these Hebrew and Aramaic words – the sound, the rhythm, the cadence, the response of the congregation. The meaning of reciting the Kaddish transcends the meaning of the words.

Recently I’ve run into a Jewish prayer dilemma. A standard part of our liturgy has begun to bother me. It evokes some ire;  it stirs me in a very disquieting way. I love the prayer in Hebrew.  I enjoy chanting it in a variety of different melodies.  When I’m singing along, I don’t focus on the Hebrew – at all. The transcendence of the music lifts me, puts me in a place of calm and Shabbat. It’s the Jewish equivalent of zen.

But lately, I’ve gotten hung up on the English. I’m not quibbling over the authenticity of the interpretation or the grammar. In fact the problem has to do with leaving the melody and entering the meaning. What follows is the text that so bothers me.

Grant us peace, Your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth. Bless our country, that it may always be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate among the nations. May contentment reign within its border, health and happiness within its homes. Strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands, and may the love of Your name hallow every home and every heart. Blessed is the Eternal God, the Source of peace.

What’s so problematic? The English is so passive. The entire supposition that peace is something that God can give us if we ask nicely. Or that peace is a gift we get at Dave and Buster’s after we win enough tickets playing Skee-Ball.

Peace does not come from God. It is not some divine, ethereal category of being. Peace, contentment, and the bonds of friendship are not from heaven. They are ideas that so many many people have desperately fought for and died to achieve, for themselves as well as their family, their friends, their community.

Suggesting that God doles out peace demeans the people who have tried to create it. Asking God to strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands is the ultimate cop-out.

It’s up to us to make peace. God may inspire us to do the work. God may remind us that there is divinity in every living being. But God doesn’t grant peace any more than God heals the sick.

God is the great presence that undergirds our sense of purpose. We were created to do that which must be done. The story of manna was inspiring, but no one gets fed without effort. There is no free lunch.

My English version of Sim Shalom or Shalom Rav or Oseh Shalom is more like, “Dear God, remind us that we are the authors of peace. Help us, with your love, to gather the broken pieces and put them together. Help us to feel strong in the face of weakness, to rise to the occasion when we see evil, to extend ourselves to others who may not believe what I believe but who deserve compassion and empathy.”

I’ll keep singing the Hebrew words. Whenever I sing these prayers, I will focus on the music, on the soulfulness of the moment. But if I think about the words and their meaning, I know I can never again wish for God to make peace. It’s almost a shanda, a shameful thing to request. It goes from prayer to an empty gesture.

 The good news and the bad: it’s all up to us.  There’s no divine reckoning.  No Messiah.  No outstretched arm of God enforcing anything. No free parking. We’re all we’ve got. 

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