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Prayer Ping #33 Getting to Know You (Amidah - paragraph 1)

Rav Yosef

When the sage Rabbi Eliezer was on his deathbed, his students came to visit him and they asked him to impart final words of wisdom. The dying sage shared several pieces of practical advice with them, and then added one word of spiritual instruction as well. "When you pray, know before Whom you stand". Now, by the days of Rabbi Eliezer, the opening paragraph of the Amidah had certainly already been composed. Yet one is tempted to think that its composer had "Know before Whom you stand" very much on his mind. For he made it the goal of the composition.

And this is what the goal of the very first paragraph would need to be, for there is no time to waste once the Amidah has been engaged. What more urgent need could there be for the person who is seizing the opportunity to converse with his creator, than to remember with whom she is speaking, what the animating values are in God's place, what language it is that God speaks? These are the things which the opening paragraph must convey.

And assuming that composers repeat the words which epitomize their message, then we can presume that the language of God, the animating value of the prayer-space that must urgently be understood, is חסד, kindness. Within the first 25 words of the Amidah, we describe God both as a "bestower of good kindnesses", גומל חסדים טובים , and as a rememberer of acts of human kindnesses, זוכר חסדי אבות. We quickly recall that the one before whom we stand, the one whom we have come here to encounter, is the one who transacts in the currency of kindness. חסד is the coin of the realm. And it isחסד  which we need to install as the fulcrum of the conversation.

Which, practically speaking, means two things. One is that we work, while whispering the Amidah, to fully realize - and to experience - that we are in a place kindness. While specific requests that we make while in prayer may or may not be fulfilled, they will certainly be understood. And they will definitely be cared about. Which is all that we seek from our most intimate of companions.

And the other thing it means is that we need to feel prompted, as we say the words of the first paragraph, to restock and deepen our own reservoir of kindness. So that we have more to talk about, so that we can become more sophisticated interlocutors. We need to consider - literally as we stand there - not only how we can better act with kindness, but also how we can speak with kindness, anticipate with kindness, disagree or rebuke or even reject with kindness.

"Know before Whom you stand". The God who prays for kindness. This is what Rabbi Eliezer chose as his final instruction to his disciples. Perhaps because all the rest is commentary.

~Rav Yosef

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780