Thoughts about Ata B'chartanu
Sukkot begins this weekend on Friday evening and continues throughout the week. As on every other day of the year, we continue to recite the Amidah as our central prayer for each of the three regular daily services as well as for the additional service or musaf which is part of our morning worship throughout the week of the holiday. I've written about the Amidah in past posts and you may recall that every Amidah begins with the same three initial blessings, Avot, Gevurot, and Kedushat HaShem and ends with the same three blessings, Avodah, Hodaah, and Birkat Kohanim or Sim Shalom. At various times during the year, for different seasons or holidays we add some supplementary material, a paragraph or just a line or a few words to these standard blessings, but otherwise they remain the same.
In between the opening blessings and the closing ones, on weekdays we have thirteen petitions, six for personal needs, six for communal needs, and a final prayer asking that God listen to our prayers and respond to our needs. On Shabbat and festivals we omit these thirteen petitions and substitute a prayer known as Kedushat HaYom, the Sanctity of the Day. Some time back, we looked at the Shabbat version of this prayer and saw that for each of the four services on Shabbat there was a different version introducing the same concluding blessing, asking God to accept our rest on that Sabbath day. Kedushat HaYom on the High Holidays is a rather involved and somewhat lengthy series of prayers. My topic today, however, is the Kedushat HaYom prayers for Yom Tov, for major holidays known as the pilgrimage festivals, i.e. Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. Unlike Shabbat, this prayer which begins with the words, “Ata B'chartanu, You have chosen us” is identical in all of the services, except for Musaf where there are several additional passages inserted into the middle of the blessing about the restoration of the sacrificial offerings that would have been brought to the Temple on these days.
During the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot, Chol HaMoed, we recite the regular weekday Amidah with a paragraph inserted (Ya'aleh v'yavo) in the Avodah blessing. However, to remind us that is not a regular weekday, we also have a Musaf Amidah which is the same as we would recite on Yom Tov, the first two days and the last two of the holiday.
In early rabbinic sources there is some question raised about a holiday which falls on Shabbat. Should we recite separate kedushat hayom prayers for Shabbat and for Yom Tov? The rabbis decide to combine the two into one blessing. However, then there is an issue as to which day should predominate in the blessing. Ultimately they conclude that one should end the blessing by praising God who sanctifies Shabbat and the people Israel and the Holy seasons (m'kadesh haShabbat v'Yisrael v'hazmanim.) Though there are variations in the wording in various prayerbooks over the centuries, the basic formulation of this prayer has been very consistent since the first prayerbooks of the Geonim in the 9th century or so.
This blessing begins by asserting the chosenness of the Jewish people, “Ata b'chaertanu mikol ha-amim, You chose us from among all the nations, You loved us and found favor in us, and exalted us above all tongues.” This is a concept that recurs throughout our prayers. We say it when we are called to the Torah,'”asher bachar banu mikol ha-amim” “who chose us from among all nations.” It appears in the Kiddush blessing, “ki vanu vacharta” “for You have chosen us” and also in the blessing of Ahavah Rabbah, right before the Sh'ma, “uvanu vacharta mikol am v'lashon” “and You have chosen us from among all the nations and tongues.” You can find it in many other places in our prayers as well. Many liberal prayerbooks among the Reform or Reconstructionists have been uncomfortable with this apparently chauvinistic statement and have omitted ii or modified it in their prayerbooks. However, its intent is not to exalt the Jewish people and emphasize our superiority to everyone else, but rather it is an expression of gratitude to God who could have chosen any other nation, but chose us to receive the gift of Torah and its commandments. He chose us to sanctify us, as the prayers go on to assert. We offer thanks for God's giving us a mission to the world, to teach the values of Torah to others. Sometimes Jews have felt this chosenness was more of a burden,resulting in persecution and oppression, leading to Tevye's complaint inFiddler on the Roof, “I know we're supposed to be the chosen people, but couldn't you choose someone else for a while?” However, generally, we feel it is a distinct honor to be entrusted with this mission. 'V'kidashtanu b'mitzvotecha v'keiravtanu la-avodatecha, for You have sanctified us through Your commandments and drawn us near to Your service.” “V'shimcha hagadol v'hakadosh alenu karata, and You have proclaimed Your great and holy Name upon us.” As the commentators note, Yisrael includes God's name, El.
After these introductory words, we acknowledge God who has given us in love, appointed times for joy, and holidays and seasons for happiness, including this day which is now designated by name. Passover is called Chag HaMatzot, the holiday of unleavened bread, z'man cheruteinu, the season of our freedom. Shavuot is the feast of weeks, z'man matan Torateinu, the season of the giving of our Torah. And Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are known as z'man simchateinu, the season of our joy, reflecting the multiple commands to rejoice on this festival. All of these days are, like Shabbat, zecher l'yetziat Mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.
As mentioned these holidays are known as the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, on which our ancestors were urged to ascend to Jerusalem wherever they might live throughout the land and celebrate together with their fellow Jews on these special days. These were intended to be joyous reunions of the Jewish people but once the Temple was no more, these pilgrimages ended as well. Thus the next section of this prayer is identical with the Yaaleh v'yavo insertion that we add to the Avodah blessing during Chol HaMoed and on the New Moon, Rosh Chodesh, in which we pray if we cannot go up on pilgrimage to Jerusalem any more, may our prayers ascend to God nonetheless in remembrance of our ancestors and their devotion. As is common in our prayers, intense feeling is expressed by piling on a series of verbs calling God to raise up our remembrance before the Lord. Not only our remembrance and that of our ancestors, but also of the Messiah, the descendant of King David, the remembrance of the holy city of Jerusalem and that of the entire people of Israel, for all sorts of blessing on this festival day. The reader offers three prayers that are each answered with an “amen” by the congregation during the repetition of the Amidah. “Remember us on this day for good. Consider us on it for blessing. And save us on it for life.” We ask all of this from God who is known as gracious and compassionate.
The final section of this blessing begins with the words, “V'hasieinu Adonay Eloheinu et birkat moadecha” “Bestow upon, Lord our God, the blessing of Your appointed festivals for life and peace, joy and gladness.” The rest of the blessing is very similar to the closing blessing of the kedushat hayom on Shabbat. “Kadsheinu b'mitzvotecha v'ten chelkeinu b'toratecha, sabeinu mituvecha, v'samcheinu b'iyeshuatecha.” “Sanctify us through Your commandments and grant us a portion in Your Torah, satisfy us from Your goodness, and cause us to rejoice in Your salvation.” And, as on Shabbat, we add “v'taheir libeinu l'ovd'cha be-emet” “And purify our hearts to serve You in truth.” The last lines depart from the Shabbat text to incorporate appropriate expressions for the holiday, “V'hanchiileinu Adonay Eloheinu” “Grant us a heriitage Lord our God in joy and gladness of Your holy festivals, and may Israel who sanctifies Your Name rejoice in You.” This is followed by the closing, “Praised are You, Lord who sanctifies Israel and the festive seasons.”
When we recite the Amidah on Saturday night, a very beautiful havdalah paragraph is inserted after the opening paragraph that speaks of the distinction between the holiness of Shabbat and that of the festival day. The sages described this prayer as a beautiful gem that came out of the academies of Babylonia.
The Kedushat Hayom for Musaf on festivals begins and ends in the same way as at the other services. However, the ya'aleh v'yavo passage is replaced by a rather lengthy series of prayers, recalling the past services in the Temple and enumerating in detail the specific offerings brought for each holiday, quoting from the book of Numbers where they are initially prescribed. Those citations are sandwiched between two lovely prayers that often have given rise to cantorial flourishes over the years. The first section opens with the poignant confession, “Mipnei chatainu galinu mei-artzeinu...” “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land and sent far from our soil.” Because of this we cannot go up and appear before the Lord as commanded in His great and holy Temple, because of the hand which was sent against that holy place. So we pray for God's mercy, that we might return to our land and rebuild that Temple and magnify God's glory. We call on Him to gather the scattered people from among the nations and bring back the dispersed from the ends of the earth. (V'karev p'zureinu mibein hagoyim.) Then we will offer the appropriate offerings that were due on this holiday. Here we quote the appropriate passages from Numbers.
After we enumerate the offerings, we offer yet another prayer that God may recall the devotion of our ancestors and restore the Temple, returning the Kohanim, the priests, to their service, the Levites to their song, and all of Israel to their dwellings from which we will once again ascend on pilgrimage, three times a year, fulfilling the commandment to appear before God on the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, every person bringing his offerings in accordance with the blessings he has received from the Lord. This image of Israel restored is followed by the closing blessing of V'hasienu.
Thus in our holiday prayers even as we offer thanks for the joyous holidays that we have been granted, there is still that sadness for what has been lost through the destructions of the past, yet, with it, eternal hope for the restoration of our people to its land and the renewal of the ancient Temple and its offerings as in days of old, a symbol of total redemption not only of Israel but for all the world
In our day, I find it sad that often these festivals are neglected by modern Jews. Aspects of the holidays may remain, such as the Passover seder or blintzes and cheesecake on Shavuot, but our houses of worship are often empty and it is hard to create the joyous atmosphere of holiday celebration in many communities when one can barely scrape up a minyan. So often when I chant these prayers, I think less of ancient Temple rites, but of a more observant generation that still maintained the festivals when I was a child and which has not been replaced by subsequent generations. I remember joyous crowds coming out for the holidays and pray for a day when once again we may gather in multitudes to offer thanks for God's blessings at this season and at the other festive times through the year.