Sunday, May 05, 2013

The worst prayer in Judaism

Eloqai Netsor was put into the Jewish liturgical canon to fulfill our need for noncanonical nontextual spontaneous personal prayer from the heart.

(I'll let that stand as a paragraph by itself so you can let it sink in and go "Wha?" [I mean so you, not the paragraph, can go "Wha?"!]!)

The prayer begins, "My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. May my soul be silent before those who curse me, and may my soul [nefesh] be like dust [ʿafar] before all."

The Hebrew for "keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile," except for the possessives, comes directly from Psalm 34:14: "Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile." The difference is important. In Judaism, we have free will--we are responsible for our own ethical behavior. We may ask God for strength, but we do not ask God to prevent us from doing wrong things; we need to prevent ourselves from doing them. "My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile" is a complete distortion of Jewish ethics.

"May my soul be silent before those who curse me, and may my soul [nefesh] be like dust [ʿafar] before all." This may sound like a prayer to be a forgiving person, but it isn't. Dust can't forgive. Even if it could forgive, it has no reason to, since it can't be offended. Dust isn't human. We are. Forgiveness is an activity, and this is a prayer for passivity.

The language of Eloqai Netsor reminds us of Genesis 2:7: God formed man from dust [ʿafar] and breathed life into him, and man became a living soul [nefesh]. In the verse, God forms us from ʿafar and we become a living nefesh; in the prayer, we ask that our nefesh be like ʿafar. For those who take the verse seriously--and note that I didn't say "literally"--this prayer should seem both ungrateful and dehumanizing.

Just to clear up any ambiguity, I'll point out that I dislike Eloqai Netsor.

I no longer say Eloqai Netsor; if you know anybody whose first name is "Rabbi," please don't tell them about it. Note that I'm not saying others shouldn't say it. If I were compiling a siddur, it would include Eloqai Netsor in its proper places, since it would be an Orthodox siddur. But there would also be a note saying that some have the practice of replacing it with Hareini Moḥel. The note would be true, since I make that replacement.

Hareini Moḥel is an "I forgive" statement that precedes the bedtime Shema (also known as the hypnagogic "Hark!"!)! It appears in many siddurim at the beginning of the bedtime Shema song and dance. The various Korens and ArtScrolls include it, but Birnbaum does not. Some versions are longer than others, some are more annoying than others. I use a brief rendition, which includes nonannoying material found in all the versions:

I forgive all who have angered or annoyed me, and all who have sinned against me, whether against my body, my possessions, my honor, or anything that is mine; whether under compulsion or willingly; whether mistakenly or maliciously; whether by passing thought, by planning, by word, or by deed. Let no human being be punished on my account.
Hareini Moḥel divides those whom you're forgiving into two categories--those who have angered or annoyed you, and those who have sinned against you. Note that people in the first category didn't necessarily do anything to you--it's about your reaction to them, not about what they've done to you. This shows a realistic understanding of anger. Maybe they annoy you just by existing; maybe they just grate on your nerves. You're forgiving them not necessarily because of anything they've done, but because you need to let go and mensh out. Can someone belong to both categories of people you're forgiving? Of course. (Silly and annoying question; I forgive you for asking, for existing, and for frowning [don't deny it! I saw it!] at my spelling of mensh.)

In Eloqai Netsor one whines: someone cursed me!, I'm going to suffer in silence, and I want my soul to be like dust (maybe it's unfair to call it whining--writing this post is putting me on an anti-Eloqai-Netsor roll). In Hareini Moḥel, we act like adults. We acknowledge that some of our anger may not be rational, we forgive everyone, and we take responsibility.


Anonymous said...

We may ask God for strength, but we do not ask God to prevent us from doing wrong things; we need to prevent ourselves from doing them. "My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile" is a complete distortion of Jewish ethics.

Hmmm. I don't think there's a clear distinction between the two. I think this is an example of asking God to help us govern our own behaviour. It's similar, for me, to the כַּוָנוֹת you see printed in the High Holyday prayers asking God to help you pray. This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but for someone like me who has difficulty engaging in the High Holyday liturgy, it's perhaps the prayer I daven most fervently during this period.

One other thing I like about אלהי נצור which you haven't mentioned* is how it's a complement to אדני שפתי תפתח at the start of the Amida: At the start of the Amida, we ask God to open our mouths for prayer; at the end we ask God to close them to speaking for nefarious ends.

* I mean this verse alone; I'm divided between thinking you have a point about the following verse, and thinking it's so obscure a קֶשֶׁר that it's in your mind alone.

Michael Koplow (ver. 2.0) said...

Michael, I hadn't thought about the symmetry of Eloqai Netsor and H' Sefatai Tiftah. It's a very good point. Thank you.

"So obscure a qesher that it's in your mind alone." Very tactfully put. But isn't it possible for me both to have a point and to be delusional?

N.Seidman said...

The paragraph was composed by a fourth-century scholar Mar son of Ravina. As was stated, "Elokai Netzor" mirrors the “Ado-nai Sefetai Teiftah” prayer at the beginning of the amida. Interesting, after having asked God to teach us what to say in His presence, we now ask Him to teach us what NOT to say in the presence of other human beings.

We ask for help not to respond in kind to those who seek our harm. “The way of the righteous is to suffer humiliation but not to inflict it; to hear themselves insulted, but not reply.” (Masehhet Yoma 23a)

In terms of asking for personal success and growth in this world, couldn’t one argue that a major aspect of personal development relies on others and the way they perceive us? Hence maybe it's positive to ask for such things. However, we must remind ourselves that we must not open our hearts to curses, rather "open our souls to God's Torah and allow our souls to pursue it's commandments."

N.Seidman said...

Additionally, the majority of the amida has to stem from a personal level. The amida is just a framework of prayer. As in it is ONLY a requirement to have full kavanah in the first paragraph, kedusha and modiim. Other places, we are encouraged to bounce off from the words written by the rabbis and adapt it to our own personal prayer.
We take certain ideas and themes from what is written to a personal level. Between “sim shalom” and “Elokai Netzor” one should add in additional (personally formulated) prayers.

There is now right or wrong way to develop Kavvanah (obviously within a framework) as it has to be formulated by the heart of the individual to truly have meaning.

Michael Koplow said...

Thank you, N. Seidman. Food for thought.

Michael Koplow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.