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Sunday, October 31, 2010

"May it be Your will..." / More from Berakhot 16 and 17

A few weeks ago I wrote that our studies in Baba Metzia led us on an excursion into masechet Berakhot, specifically searching out prayers beginning, “May it be Your will…”

Today, for your pleasure and enjoyment, several of the Sages’ prayers recorded on dapim 16 and 17. Often, we think that Jewish prayer is restricted to the “authoritative” prayers published in authorized siddurim (prayer books). In fact, originally all Jewish prayer was the spontaneous creation of each individual engaged in prayer to God. Our Sages ordained the themes and order of the prayers, but not the precise wording. At a later point in time, it became clear that it was onerous to compose prayers each and every day to cover the lengthy order of prayer themes, so the Rabbis commissioned the writing of prayers, resulting in many of those we use today.

Among those recorded on dapim 16 and 17 is the prayer of Rav that was used as the foundation of Birkat HaChodesh (the prayer to announce the coming of the new moon) and prayer of Mar b. Ravina that is recorded in most siddurim following the Amidah as an example of personal prayer. In fact, the Talmud tells us that all the prayers on these pages were the personal prayers of the Sages following the recitation of the Shema. These days, we think of them as being more appropriately appended to the Amidah because there is a tradition that merely reciting the words of the Amidah, without adding something from one’s own heart, is insufficient. God wants to hear what’s on our minds. Given that prayer is not about making ourselves subservient to God and acting the role of obedient automaton, but rather about forging a meaningful relationship with God, this makes perfect sense.

Here are some lovely examples from the Talmud. Perhaps you might like to “take them out for a spin.” See if they work for you. Perhaps they will inspire your own expression in prayer.
R. Eleazar, on concluding his prayer, used to say the following: May it be Your will, O Lord our God, to cause to dwell in our lot love and brotherhood and peace and friendship, and may You make our borders rich in disciples and prosper our latter end with good prospect and hope, and set our portion in Paradise, and confirm us with a good companion and a good impulse in Your world, and may we rise early and obtain the yearning of our heart to fear Your name, and may You be pleased to grant the satisfaction of our desires. (16b)
Here’s another beauty:
R. Safra on concluding his prayer added the following: May it be Your will, O Lord our God, to establish peace among the celestial family, and among the earthly family, and among the disciples who occupy themselves with Your Torah whether for its own sake or for other motives; and may it please You that all who do so for other motives may come to study it for its own sake! (16b, 17a)
There is a disagreement concerning whether the following prayer was said by R. Hamnuna or R. Alexandri. What I love about it is that it acknowledges that our failures, while sometimes due to outside forces, cannot be entirely blamed on others. We must take responsibility, too. The prayer names the failure of human will before external influences, reminding us that we should look within before casting around elsewhere for blame:
Sovereign of the universe, it is known full well to You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough [i.e., the evil inclination] and the subjection to the foreign powers. May it be Your will to deliver us from their hand, so that we may return to perform the statues of Your will with a perfect heart. (17a)
Rav Sheshet, when he fasted, would say this prayer, in which he draws a fascinating parallel between the blood and fat offered on the altar in the Jerusalem Temple, and the blood and fat he would lose through his fast. Rav Sheshet offers up his blood and fat for atonement. Given Judaism’s stance against asceticism, we might wonder that this prayer was included, yet you might want to consider it next Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur.
Sovereign of the universe, You know full well that in the time when the Temple was standing, if a man sinned, he used to bring a sacrifice, and though all that was offered of it was its fat and blood, atonement was made for him by it. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Your will to account my fat and blood which have been diminished as if I had offered them before You on the altar, and please favor me. (17a)
If you have a favorite prayer you have composed and would like to share it here, by all means, please do.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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