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prayer pings #36 the mind makes the world go round

Rabbanit Alissa

Before we pray, we thank God for making prayer possible.

We begin the second section of the Amidah (the bakashot/requests section) with אתה חונן. The Shulchan Aruch tells us that the reason this is the first of our requests in weekday davening is because what it asks for makes prayer (and life) possible. Practically, without it we could not say any of the brachot that follow. This thing is knowledge.

In אתה חונן, we thank God for giving us the capacity to think and reason. We refer to God as, מלמד לאנוש בינה, "The One Who teaches humans understanding". God is the Teacher, investing Himself in every part of us, teaching us His Torah, and giving us the ability to reason and communicate. The capacity to voice our requests to our Creator and to even read the words on the page of our siddur are functions of the mind. It makes sense then that the havdalah insert is added to אתה חונן, because the ability to discern between kodesh and chol comes from the mind. And so, we begin our requests by asking God to bestow us with דעת, בינה, ושכל.

The mind is a gift that we often take for granted. We worry about what we have to get done in our days-- tasks, projects, carpool-- and we rarely acknowledge that a functioning mind is a blessing in and of itself. How do we remember to tie a shoe? How are we able to recognize a loved one? How do we build skyscrapers, write mystery novels, and create iPhones? And how miraculous is it that we can put into words our dreams and fears and communicate them to Ribono Shel Olam?

The mind makes the world go round, and so, as many of us know, when it is broken or ill, it is devastating. Rashi teaches that anyone who is struggling to remember his learning should have special kavanah in אתה חונן. This principle reaches far beyond remembering facts or a daf of Gemara. When our minds are tired, or perhaps when we are in the midst of depression or anxiety, or when we are having a hard time finding inspiration in prayer life or at work, אתה חונן gives voice to our need for knowledge, mental wellness, and discernment. אתה חונן is the beginning of prayer, and life as we know it.

Mon, August 19 2019 18 Av 5779