Thoughts on the Morning Reflections in Birchot HaShachar
The prayers that start off our morning worship, Birchot HaShachar, are an interesting collection of blessings and meditations. So far in our studies, we have examined a few prayers that are generally recited silently before the reader even begins the service, namely the blessings on washing our hands, thanking God for the gift of Torah, and blessings for our functioning bodies and spiritual souls. We also looked at the blessings chanted aloud by the reader as the service begins that acknowledge God for aspects of our identity and for helping us each day to prepare to meet the world as we get up. Following that section are a series of meditations and petitions that are harder to characterize. I've decided to call them “morning reflections” and they will be the subject of this piece.
Our sages hate to waste a good prayer and sometimes take prayers that were proposed for a different place in the service and find another use for them. The first of these meditations comes from a passage in the Talmud (Berachot 16b) which speaks of the prayers recited by each of about ten different rabbis following the completion of the Amidah. One of these by Mar the son of Ravina, “Elohai n'tzor l'shoni meira, My God, guard my tongue from evil,” was selected from this group and appears at the end of every Amidah in our prayerbooks. However, the prayers of other sages have been placed in other settings. For example, Rav's prayer has been incorporated into the blessing for the new moon and that of Rava is added to the concluding prayers of each Amidah for Yom Kippur. The prayer recited by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the editor of the Mishnah, known popularly simply as Rebbi, is the first selection in this morning collection of meditations. Rebbi's original version in the Talmud is in the plural, while our prayerbook puts it into the singular for each individual worshiper to recite: “May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my ancestors, to save me today and every day, from the arrogant and from arrogance itself, from a bad man, a bad friend, a bad neighbor, a bad mishap, a destructive adversary, a harsh trial and a harsh opponent, whether or not he is a son of the covenant.” (Koren siddur)
It is interesting to note that Rebbi's prayer not only expresses concern for outside forces that we might encounter during that day, but also has a recognition that we too need to be careful in the way we present ourselves to the world, to avoid arrogance. We pray to be protected from harmful people, events, and temptations. The Hebrew term translated as a destructive adversary is “satan ha-mashchit.” Rabbi Sacks chooses not to personify this evil force. According to the Tur (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, Baal HaTurim) one is free to offer one's personal prayers as well after reciting Rebbi's prayer.
In some traditional prayerbooks, at this point, we find the entire text of Genesis 22, the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, preceded and followed by appropriate prayers relating to this event in the lives of our patriarchs. Other siddurim omit this passage altogether and even many traditional congregations skip over it, though brief reference is made to it in the prayers which follow. For those who take the time to read this passage each day, it is a classic example of calling on God to have mercy on us for the sake of our righteous ancestors, z'chut avot, we call upon the merit of our ancestors.
The introduction calls upon God to “remember us with a favorable memory and recall us with a remembrance of salvation and compassion from the highest of high heavens.” It goes on to say, “Remember, Lord our God, on our behalf, the love of the ancients, Abraham, Isaac, and Yisrael, Your servants, the covenant, the loving-kindness, and the oath You swore to Abraham our father on Mount Moriah, and the Binding, when he bound Isaac his son on the altar, as is written in Your Torah.” Then comes the full text of the story from Genesis.
Following the passage of the Akedah, one prays, “Master of the Universe, just as Abraham our father suppressed his compassion to do Your will wholeheartedly, so may Your compassion suppress Your anger from us and may Your compassion prevail over Your other attributes.” The prayer continues by asking God to fulfill His promise in the Torah to remember the covenant He made with the patriarchs. It is interesting that when the Rabbis imagine God wrapped in tallit and tefillin on high and offering His own prayers, the prayer they put in His mouth is, “May it be My will that My quality of mercy overcome My quality of judgment.”
The next section of the Birchot HaShachar appears at first glance to be a series of individual reflections and meditations, but it turns out that this entire passage which already appears in the 9th century Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon, is a single unit to be found also, with some minor modifications, in the late midrash known as Tanna D'vei Eliyahu. Since that midrash is placed by scholars in the 10th century, the prayer may have a history going back some time before. Some suggest that it might be from a period of oppression under the Persians in the 5th century, though there is no proof of that. However, certain passages seem to refer to aspects of martyrdom.
Issachar Yakovson in his Netiv Binah on the siddur, after noting that the whole passage appears in the Midrash, breaks it into smaller paragraphs for commentary. The passage begins with a statement: “A person should always be God fearing, privately and publicly, acknowledging the truth and speaking it in his heart.” The Midrash leaves out the word “uv'galui” “and publicly”, leading commentators to understand the verse as calling for one to be God-fearing even in private. For example, if one privately decides to do a mitzvah, one should follow through and perform it even though one has never committed to it publicly. The passage continues, “One should rise early and say, Master of all worlds, not because of our righteousness do we lay our pleas before You, but because of Your great compassion.” This verse is part of a longer prayer from the ninth chapter of Daniel.
The following passage one might recognize from the Neilah prayers at the end of Yom Kippur where we speak of our relative insignificance before God. “What are we? What are our lives?....What shall we say before You?...Are not all the mighty like nothing before You. ”The final line quotes Kohelet, “the pre-eminence of man over the animals is nothing for all is but a fleeting breath, hakol havel.”
After these words which might lead one to despair, the author reminds us that in spite of our lowly origins, we are fortunate to have entered into a special relationship with God. “We are Your people, the children of Your covenant, the children of Abraham, Your beloved, to whom You made a promise on Mount Moriah; the offspring of Isaac his only one who was bound on the altar; the congregation of Jacob Your firstborn son...” Here we find that reference once more to the Akedah, the ultimate act of love and dedication to God which culminated in the establishment of the eternal covenant with the Jewish people. It was also referenced frequently in the days of the Crusaders when some Jewish communities offered their lives before God, like Isaac, when faced by the marauding mobs of that era.
“Therefore,” the prayer continues, “it is our duty to thank You, and to praise, glorify, bless, sanctify and give praise and thanks to Your name. Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu, Happy are we, how good is our portion, how lovely our fate, how beautiful our heritage. Happy are we who early and late, evening and morning say twice each day, “Sh'ma Yisrael” Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” And we add, “Baruch shem” in an undertone. Some congregations recite the entire paragraph of V'ahavta at this point, though it is omitted in other prayerbooks. For some, this recital of the Sh'ma early in the service might recall a period of oppression when the Sh'ma might have been recited surreptitiously out of its normal place. Others use this opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of reciting Sh'ma at its proper time, when they realize that by the time one gets to the actual section of the Sh'ma later in the service, it will be too late to fulfill that aspect of the mitzvah.
This is still not the end of this passage. The Sh'ma is followed by a blessing praising God who sanctifies His name in public (or “among the multitudes”). Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God's name, has too often in the past been performed through martyrdom, where people have given up their lives for the sake of God's Holy Name. Before those closing words, we praise God, “it was You who existed before the world was created, it is You now that the world has been created. It is You in this world and You in the world to come. Sanctify Your name through those who sanctify Your name and sanctify Your name throughout the world. By Your salvation may our pride be exalted; raise high our pride. Blessed are You, Lord, who sanctifies His name among the multitudes.”
The praise of God continues at some length, declaring that the Lord is God in heaven and on earth and in the highest heavens. He was first and will be the last and besides Him there is no God. This declaration is followed by a plea to gather our exiles from the four corners of the earth, when all shall recognize that God alone is the ruler over the entire earth. The prayer continues recognizing that God has made all that exists throughout the world and no one can tell Him what to do. We offer a final plea, “Heavenly Father, deal kindly with us for the sake of Your great name by which we are called.” We ask Him to fulfill the verse from the rather obscure prophet Zephaniah who wrote, “At that time I will bring you home, and at that time I will gather you, for I will give you renown and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I bring back your exiles before your eyes, says the Lord.”
Rabbi Sacks adds in his notes, “This entire sequence of prayers is elegant testimony to how Jews sustained faith and hope, dignity and pride, during the most prolonged periods of persecution in history.” Perhaps in our times as once again, there has been a rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout this country and elsewhere in the world, we can turn to these morning prayers and renew our faith that one day the world will recognize the ultimate power in the world and learn to treat one another with loving kindness and live together in peace and harmony.