I have noticed during our tefilah or prayer service at religious school that a couple of the kids are expressing some challenge and a little playful rebellion around the Gevurot prayer, the second prayer of the Amidah, where the Reform Movement substituted the traditional term “M’chayei maytim” – who brings life to the dead, to “m’chayai ha’kol,” who brings life to everything. I entirely eliminated the “ha’kol” from the kids’ siddur, but the kids who know it by heart with “ha’kol” keep using it – and one of them teases me with it. Another of them finally asked me why it was so important to me that we use m’chayei maytim. I gave her a quick answer, and then spent the next three days thinking about it. Our bnai mitzvah class was snowed out yesterday, but this is my response. And it seems fitting that I think about this on the Shabbos in which we read Chayei Sarah, because of the shared word, chayei – means lives, and m’chayei means brings life.
The Reform Movement has a long history of challenge to this prayer – in 1844, Rabbi Geiger in Germany started to fiddle with it, because he believed that to make Judaism acceptable to the Modern German, it had to do away with the idea of resurrection of the body. R. David Einhorn, one of the first – and most radical – American Reform rabbis, enshrined that concern of reconciling science with religion, in his siddur, which was the forerunner to the Union Prayer Book. It apparently wasn’t until 1975 that the “m’chayei ha’kol” became the words of the Reform Movement.
This whole debate – do we believe in bodily resurrection, or can we come up with metaphor, as we do throughout our interpretation of liturgy (do we believe that God truly wrapped God’s self in a garb made of light, especially spiritual light? (Psalm 104)).
For me, the image of God giving life to everything is a blessing we already recite, in a slightly different form right before the Shema. We speak about creation in the first blessing of the Shema: at night in the Maariv Aravim, and during the day in the Yotzer Or. In the morning we sing – Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai – how great are your works. The psalms we traditionally recite often cover those works of creation.
But it is not often we have a prayer that lets us remember that we sometimes feel dead inside, or experience some form of death, and yet we stand up again and face the new day. At religious school, I offered them the Giants during the post season – in those first two series – that they won the World Series was truly m’chayei maytim – giving life to the dead.
But it is also those moments when we have to pick ourselves up after a defeat of the spirit. Everyone who invested so much in Mitt Romney’s campaign – the ability to pick yourselves up again – that is m’chayei maytim. ANYONE who fought hard for a campaign that lost – the ability to face the next day with courage and resolution – that is m’chayei maytim. Many of us over the years have imagined moving to Canada if this or that candidate won the election: the fact that we decided to stay and be the loyal opposition is m’chayei maytim.
Anyone whose world has been destroyed – through hurricanes, earthquakes, fire or violence (the image of Gabby Giffords at the sentencing hearing of her would-be assassin comes to mind) – and can face the rebuilding – in the same place or elsewhere, with a new reality – that’s m’chayei maytim.
Anyone who has lived or is living through depression or another life threatening illness, and can find a way to adjust to their new reality, their new normal – that is m’chayei maytim.
This prayer offers us a moment to reflect on those moments when we move forward from what was a death of some kind, a defeat, a sapping of the will, and recognize that we are still here.
Yes, I am glad that we have prayers that celebrate the One Who Brings Life to Everything, but as someone who HAS felt dead, who has not always thought I would make it to the next morning, whose dark nights of the soul have seemed very dark and very long, I am glad we have this prayer that reminds us that we are not alone, that our struggles are not in vain, and that it takes gevurah, real strength to come back from that darkness, that living death.
And I think it teaches us a way to do it. While the Holy One of Being is bringing life to the dead with rachamim rabim – great mercy, we also note that the Divine someich noflim, v’rofeh cholim, u’matir asurim, – lifts the fallen, heals the sick, frees the captive and keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust – a metaphor both for our ancestors, the people who have died, and the people in our communities who sleep in the dust – the homeless.
As we are coming out of our funks, our spiritual deaths, our disappointments, one way to pull ourselves out is to act Godly – to do those actions for which we praise God: lift the fallen, heal the sick, free the captive and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust.
Each time we pray, we have the opportunity to remember that, and each day, we have the opportunity to enact it. I pray that as we pray tonight, and every time, that we can keep these images in our hearts and then go out and do it.