Thursday, January 20, 2011

Women in Prayer: Part 17, 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.

Look with favor, Lord our G d, on Your people Israel and pay heed to their prayer; restore the service to Your Sanctuary and accept with love and favor Israel’s fire-offerings and prayer; and may the service of Your people Israel always find favor.


May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy. Blessed are You Lord, who restores the Divine Presence to Zion.

רְצֵה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ בְּעַמְּךָ יִשרָאֵל וּבִתְפִלָּתָם וְהָשֵׁב אֶת הָעֲבודָה לִדְבִיר בֵּיתֶךָ. וְאִשֵּׁי יִשרָאֵל וּתְפִלָּתָם. בְּאַהֲבָה תְקַבֵּל בְּרָצון וּתְהִי לְרָצון תָּמִיד עֲבודַת יִשרָאֵל עַמֶּךָ

וְתֶחֱזֶינָה עֵינֵינוּ בְּשׁוּבְךָ לְצִיּון בְּרַחֲמִים. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', הַמַּחֲזִיר שְׁכִינָתו לְצִיּון

These two brakhot (blessings), Ritzei and V’Tehzenah (collectively called Avodah), are considered one brakha (blessing), as they both discuss the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. In the previous brakhot we prayed for the return to Jerusalem and the reestablishment of the Davidic dynasty, and so it follows that in this brakha we ask God for the final step of redemption: the Beit HaMikdash.

Soon after the Jews heard the Ten Commandments, God told them to build a dwelling for the Shekhinah, translated as the presence of God. (While we know that God does not have a gender, the word Shekhinah is feminine in Hebrew, and is considered the feminine presence of God.) Since they were in the desert, they were to build the temporary Mishkan (Tabernacle) rather than the permanent, Israel-based Beit HaMikdash. (The only difference between the two is that the Beit HaMikdash is exactly two times the size of the Mishkan.)

Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel explains in The Women’s Torah Commentary that when God gave the commandments pertaining to building the Mishkan, they were aimed at both the men and the women. Exodus 35:1 says “Moses assembled the entire assembly of the Children of Israel,” the entire assembly meaning every Jewish person, regardless of gender. After Moses gave them specific instructions as to what the Mishkan would need, “the men came along with the women; everyone who is generous of heart brought” (Exo 35:22). As the text continues to detail the Jews’ participation in the building of the Mishkan, it specifies the gender of who brought what: “any man with whom there was found turquoise wool or purple wool or scarlet wool, or linen…brought them…every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands; and they brought the spun yarn of the turquoise wool, and the purple wool, and the scarlet wool, and the linen. All the women whose hearts inspired them with wisdom spun the goats” (Exo 35:23, 25-26). The men and women had an equal share in giving to the Mishkan, with the men bringing the wool and the women spinning it into material. As Rabbi Sobel points out, this just comes to prove that in order for the Shekhinah to be felt, the entire community needs to be involved.

Also in The Women’s Torah Commentary (which is a hugely awesome book that every self-respecting Jewish feminist should read) is Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow’s explanation of how women have continued the legacy of the Mishkan. In the Mishkan, Aaron would light the Menorah daily. Once the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, in order to perpetuate the light, women took on the responsibility of lighting Shabbat (Sabbath) candles.

Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener discusses Exodus 38:8, “the laver of copper and its pedestal of copper, with the mirrors of the women who congregated at the entrance of the Mishkan.” Rashi links the mirrors to the enslavement of Egypt, saying that the women used them in order to entice their husbands and therefore perpetuate the Jewish nation, despite the difficult labor they endured. Moses originally did not want to accept the mirrors because of their sexual purpose, but God instructed him to take them because of the noble intent.

These are just three examples of women’s participation in the building of the Mishkan; there are many, many more. As we say the brakhot beseeching God for the reestablishment of the Beit HaMikdash, it is imperative that we keep the strong women who built the original one in mind. We must pray that at the creation of the next and final Beit HaMikdash, women are given an equal hand in its building - just like with the Mishkan.

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