When the new edition of a Reform Siddur for Shabbat and Festivals, Mishkan Tefilah, was published a few years ago, some of the changes and some of the choices embedded in the liturgy necessitated conversations in congregations about how we would pray some of the prayers.
One example was the second paragraph of the Amidah, often referred to as the ‘Gevurot’ (strength/power), for it begins with the phrase, ata gibor l’olam Adonai – Your power is eternal, Adonai. In earlier generations of Reform prayer books a change had been made to the language of this prayer as you would find it in a Conservative or Orthodox prayer book. In three instances the traditional prayer referred to God as m’chayei hameitim, literally ‘who brings the dead back to life’. For decades in Reform congregations we recited this prayer with a change in the wording, declaring m’chayey hakol – who gives life to all things. Conceptually, this didn’t rule out the idea, discussed in early rabbinic sources, that one day the dead would come back to life. But neither did it assert this doctrinal belief in the way that the traditional phrase seemed to do so definitively.
So why, when a new edition of a Siddur was created, do we now find the words ‘hameitim’ offered in brackets as an alternative choice to ‘hakol’? There were those who argued that there were allegorical ways of understanding ‘who brings the dead back to life’ and that we could use the more ancient liturgical language without having to accept a messianic doctrine of the revival of the dead. We all have times when we feel like we’ve hit a dead end. Maybe we are stuck trying to solve a problem at work, deal with a difficult family member, or so lost in grief that we cannot imagine ever experiencing the joy and blessing of life again. And yet… somehow we do. We go home and we start the next day anew, and maybe we see a solution to our problem that was beyond our grasp the day before. Perhaps we try to reach out to that family member in a different way, or perhaps something changes in their life and we unexpectedly get a message from them to indicate a desire for reconciliation. And while we have good days and bad days, perhaps a grandchild comes to visit and brings us joy in the midst of our grief, or a walk in the fields on a particularly beautiful day brings us some awareness of beauty. Each of these are experiences of m’chayey hameitim – we have had a powerful experience of a revival of life. Our ‘being’ is not only in the past tense; now we feel some hope in the potential of our future ‘being’ too.
In Mishkan HaNefesh, the draft Rosh Hashanah morning liturgy presents us with a poem by the Israeli poet, Zelda, as a contemporary text facing the Gevurot passage. In this poem Zelda, in the midst of grief, reflects on how the smallest things around her can suddenly bring her back to life:
In the morning I said to myself:
Life’s magic will never come back.
It won’t come back.
All at once the sunshine in my house
is alive for me
and the table with its bread
and the cups on the table and the flower –
And what of the sorrow?
Even in the sorrow, radiance.
The closing phrase of the blessing (chatimah, or ‘seal’) is translated: You are the Source of all blessing, the life force surging within all things. Bringing our awareness to all that surges with that life force can open up the possibility of feeling the presence of blessing in our lives once more. It is an invitation to return to life.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.