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  • Rabbi Edward Friedman

A Thought on the Uv'chen Prayers

All of our services follow a basic structure and those who are familiar with the weekday prayers can see what is added into them on Shabbat and holidays and thereby grasp the overall outline of the service. The Amidah, for example, has three opening blessings which offer praise to God and three closing blessings of thanksgiving. In the middle on weekdays are 13 petitions. On Shabbat and festivals those thirteen are omitted and replaced by a single blessing that speaks about the special occasion, the Kedushat HaYom, giving a total of 7 blessings on those days. Rosh Hashanah is unique because rather than a single blessing in the middle, we have three blessings inserted during the Musaf prayers focusing on three themes of the holiday, Malchuyot, God's sovereignty, Zichronot, God's remembrance not only of our sins, but of our faithfulness to Him as well, leading to Shofarot, the shofar verses proclaiming our renewed covenant with God. Aside from these differences, numerous poems known as piyyutim have been composed over the centuries and have been introduced into various points in the service. While the traditional machzor retains many of these poems, the more recent volumes that are used in Conservative and Reform services have removed many of them that are filled with difficult language and allusions and retained only the most familiar ones in our current service.

Aside from these additions, there are a number of brief insertions in the Amidah that continue to be recited not only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but throughout the week between as well, throughout the Ten Days of Penitence. Many have familiar melodies associated with them such as Zochreinu l'chayim, Remember us for life, and B'Sefer Chayim, Inscribe us in the book of life, blessing and peace, that we sing each year as a congregaition. There are however three paragraphs that are added into the third blessing of the Amidah, the Kedushah prayer, that we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but not during the ten days of penitence in between. Each of these three begins with the word “Uv'chen” “and therefore.” Scholars believe that these are among the oldest poetic additions to the service and may date to the third century C.E. They provide a vision of the Messianic future in a progression of prayers.

The first, and longest, of these additions is Uv'chen tein pachd'cha...al kol ma'asecha. Before getting into the essence of this prayer, we first should consider the word that begins each of these three passages, uv'chen, and therefore. Though there are several different paragraphs which lead into these prayers in different services, all seem to have the common denominator of proclaiming God's rule over the world and His holiness throughout Creation. We must remember that we are in the midst of the third blessing of the Amidah known as Kedushah, Holiness, and that when we complete these three prayers, we will once again proclaim “Yimloch Adonay l'olam...God will reign forever, your God O Zion, from generation to generation.” a verse which we have already chanted once shortly before this section. That, in turn will lead into the closing eulogy, the blessing of HaMelech HaKadosh, praising God as the Holy King, that phrase replacing our usual ending of HaEl HaKadosh, the Holy God, recited the rest of the year.

So, if God is Sovereign over all the world, therefore we call upon Him to instill pachad, fear, awe, reverence, in all of the creatures on earth, particularly among all people. “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of (or reverence for) God. “ (I couldn't remember if this verse appears in Psalms or Proverbs. Turns out it appears in both: Reishit chochmah in Psalms and Techilat chochmah in Proverbs, both meaning the beginning of wisdom.) In the Bible yirat HaShem, fear of God, is shorthand for basic morality, a just society, an ethical community. Without this basic foundation, there is no civilized society. Abraham explains to King Avimelech of the Philistines why he claimed that Sarah was his sister rather than his wife: “Ein yirat Elohim bamakom hazeh, there is no fear of God in this place.” There was nothing to keep the people of Gerar from taking his wife from him and murdering him. So Abraham resorted to deception. The term “fear of God' appears in many places including in the Joseph story where Joseph reassures his brothers who do not recognize him that he is a God-fearing person and will treat them justly. Later in the book of Exodus, we're told that the two pious midwives who refused Pharaoh's order to kill the Israelite boys feared the Lord and let the boys live.

Uv'chen, and therefore we ask God to establish this basic quality throughout the world among all people so that all will acknowledge God and bow before Him. V'yeasu kulam agudah achat la'asot r'tzoncha b'levav shalem. We ask that God make a single “bundle” of them to carry out His will wholeheartedly. I often mention this verse when I speak of the symbolism of the bundle of plants that we take up on Sukkot, the lulav, myrtle, and wllow along with the etrog. The rabbis identify the qualities of these four species with four different types of Jews. When we pick up the bundle together it symbolizes the unity of the Jewish people who are gathered together to “carry out God's will wholeheartedly,”each making up for the shortcomings of the others. While too many people in the world are busy trying to impose their authority over others, creating authoritarian regimes, we state in this prayer unequivocally that “we know that true sovereignty is Yours, power and strength are in Your hands, and Your name is to be revered beyond any of Your creations.”s This simply reinforces the message in the Kedushah that the Lord shall reign forever throughout the generations. All those who think they are powerful will meet their end and perish from the earth, while God will endure forever.

While the first uv'chen focuses on God, the second one turns toward us, His people Israel. As God is sovereign, therefore we call on Him to bestow honor, Kavod, upon His people.“Praise to those who revere you,” again mentioning that underlying quality of reverence and “hope to those who seek You.” This, in turn, will result in joy in Your land and gladness in Your city, Jerusalem. We pray for the arrival of the Messiah, “the flourishing of the horn of Your servant David and the lamp of the son of Jesse, speedily in our days.” David son of Jesse, of course refers to King David and the royal line from which will come forth the Messiah resulting in great joy and gladness throughout the land to all the people of Israel. This is stage two after the establishment of God's sovereignty.

As a result, we come to stage three and the third uv'chen. When the Messianic era dawns then “the righteous will see and rejoice and the upright will be glad and the pious celebrate with song.” We have three synonyms for joy listed here, Simcha, Aliza, and Gilah. It sounds like a happy bunch of triplets. When all the righteous people are filled with joy, this first phrase a quotation from Psalm 107, and parallel with it comes the following phrase, “v'olatah tikpatz piha” a difficult phrase to translate precisely, it basically says that those who do evil (avlah) will be silenced. “And all the wicked will disappear like smoke when you remove memshelet zadon, the arrogant government, from the earth.” Those who know my politics can see why that line is a favorite of mine. A similar expression is part of our daily Amidah in the brachah of Lamalshinim about the destruction of those who seek to slander us and do us harm. That prayer has raised controversy with various rulers and governments over the centuries and appears in a variety of versions after undergoing censorship. I am currently using the Koren siddur for my daily prayers, the authorized prayerbook of the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. They have chosen to use the version which says, “Umalchut zadon m'heirah t'aker ut'shaber ut'mager v'tachnia bimheirah v'yameinu.” “May the arrogant kingdom be speedily uprooted, smashed and crushed, and subdued speedily in our day.”

So when God's sovereignty is established and Israel is raised in honor, there will be joy in the land and in the city of Jerusalem. The descendant of King David will arise to bring redemption to the world and all of the righteous will rejoice and evil will disappear.When all of that takes place, we pray“V'timlokh ata Adonay l'vadcha, You alone, O Lord, will reign over all Your creatures from Mount Zion, the dwelling place of Your glory and Jerusalem Your holy city.” All of this as was written by the Psalmist in the closing line of the Kedushah, “Yimloch Adonay l'olam Elohayich Tziyon l'dor vador Haleluyah!The Lord will reign forever, Your God, O Zion from generation to generation.Haleluyah! Praise the Lord!”

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