The prayers during the High Holidays are long, but understanding the themes of the prayers can change the experience from slogging through page after page of obscure Hebrew prayers to reflecting on powerful themes and applying them to our own lives. The third prayer of the Amidah during the High Holidays includes three additional paragraphs that all begin with the Hebrew word וּבְכֵן (uv’khein) which means “and then.” This passage gives a narrative of communal change which can help us connect our personal growth to our hopes for wider social change. You can see the paragraphs as they appear in our machzor here.
Rabbi David Abudarham was a 14th century rabbi living in Spain. He believed that the prayers of our tradition ultimately found their source in the language of the Bible. For these paragraphs, he connected these paragraphs to the story of Esther when she tells Mordechai that the community should fast for three days. She says, “and then I will go the King even without an invitation,” which could lead to her execution following the chaotic laws of the court. For Abudarham, the experience of the High Holidays is approaching God as the ruler of the world. Though he may encourage us to hear this echo and to feel her fear and trembling, I also hear the joyous end to Esther’s story. Even though we are making ourselves vulnerable by seeking help with our process of self-improvement, we are also able to celebrate how we live in a community that can support our process of repentance and self-improvement.
When we view the trajectory of the three paragraphs, it reminds us that the process will probably look different than we initially think. The first paragraph focuses on the whole world. Rosh Hashanah is a holiday that views many of the core ideas of Judaism as universal imperatives, so this paragraph imagines how the whole world will be able to stand in awe of creation which will motivate them to live according to God’s will. Almost every modern interpretation imagines that this refers to core values that Judaism will share with most traditions like the importance of human dignity.
The second paragraph views the next step of the process through the eyes of the Jewish people. For much of the history of rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish community lived without full control over their own political destiny. The promise of Zionism, as well as open democracy, is that the individual respect for cultural expression allows marginalized groups to live in safety and then flourish. This hope for national renewal is the hope that the Jewish community will continue to live in safety allowing for the flourish of our own self-understanding.
The third paragraph is less a prayer of what should happen, but rather a description of celebrating success. Once the world lives according to shared values, and groups can exist in a sense of security, then those who worked for so long to bring about that change are able to celebrate their success. The prayer describes the hope for a future redeemed world, and it reminds us of the long process that it will take to get there. This image of joy orients us to the hope for a better future, but the process comes at the end of a long process of small changes.
As we gather for prayer over the holiday season, it is my hope that each of us can use our prayers to reflect on those many small changes we may need to make in our own lives that can foster some of the bigger changes we hope to make in our own life. I also hope that each of us can have the imagination and creativity to see how the small changes within ourselves can bubble up to help build more caring and connected world.