Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 6, Shemoneh Esrei

Traditional prayer has been criticized by feminists as being male-centric. They’re right; prayer is dominated by mentions of the Patriarchs and mitzvot (commandments) that only apply to men. However, it can be easily be reclaimed by women and turned into a feminist connection to God.

Forgive us, our Parent, for we have erred; pardon us, our Ruler, for we have willfully sinned; for You pardon and forgive. Blessed are You, God, the gracious One Who pardons abundantly.

סְלַח לָֽנוּ, אָבִֽינוּ, כִּי חָטָֽאנוּ, מְחַל לָֽנוּ, מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, כִּי פָשָֽׁעְנוּ, כִּי אֵל טוֹב וְסַלָּח אָֽתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, חַנּוּן הַמַּרְבֶּה לִסְלֹֽחַ

In the seventh brakha (blessing) of Shemoneh Esrei, named Selicha, we ask God for forgiveness for all of the wrongs we committed. When saying this brakha, a person should try to have as much kavana (strong meaning) as possible, because it’s the ultimate act of chutzpah to ask for forgiveness and not even mean it.

All of us do bad things by accident and on purpose. I know that at least I don't pride myself on this, and I try my best to avoid doing things I know is wrong. However, it’s a fact of life that really cannot be avoided: everyone messes up, even with the best of intentions.

In Judaism, there is a concept of midah k’neged midah, a deed for a deed, sort of like karma: what goes around comes around. If a person does something right, he or she will be rewarded in an according way, either in this world or the next. When Joseph was second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt, he took good care of his family and made sure they had enough food and other provisions, so his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, received land portions in Israel as a reward. People are also punished by midah k’neged midah. Sarah mistreated Hagar (the Egyptian slave that she gave as a concubine to Abraham) because she was jealous that she was able to conceive and give birth when she was not; as a result, Hagar fled. Commentators say that she was punished when the Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians generations later.

For those of us involved in the feminist movement, we definitely don’t want the sins we’ve committed to hold back the progress that could be made in the feminist and Jewish feminist worlds! As we say this brakha, we should pray that all of our sins are forgiven, and that we learn how to avoid doing them in the future. That way, the feminist movement will not be negatively affected. As Rabba Sara Hurwitz said at the JOFA conference session A Rabbi by Any Other Name, “The sky’s the limit. This is just the beginning of the women of the Jewish community impacting Judaism.”

Today is Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, still a day of Chol HaMoed, or the Intermediate Days of the holiday. Tomorrow is Shemini Atzeret, the unofficial eighth day of Sukkot, and the day following that is Simhat Torah, when we finish the weekly reading of Torah portions and start at the beginning again. Hag sam'eah!

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