July 25, 2024
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July 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In honor of the second yahrtzeit of my beloved father-in-law, Julian Smith, Yehudah ben Yisrael, whose commitment to davening continues to inspire us today.

Recently, a leader of a prominent Jewish think tank tweeted his amazement that we had wasted the “huge window of opportunity” granted by the lack of communal prayer during COVID to eliminate Tachanun from our davening. While I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt that this was said in the spirit of a long tradition of mocking this tefillah (though I expect better from those that represent a “leading center of Jewish thought and education”), when seen in the context of R. Nati Helfgot’s plea for more meaningful prayer in the 9 Adar I issue of The Jewish Link, the need for re-engagement with this tefillah is more urgent than ever.

Tachanun dates back at least 2000 years to the time of the Tana’aim, placing it at the core of the Jewish prayer experience. A dramatic demonstration of the power of this tefillah is found at the end of the well-known “Oven of Achnai” story in Bava Metzia 59b. Rabbi Eliezer was ostracized after unsuccessfully enlisting heavenly forces to show that his halachic ruling was correct against the majority decision. Afterwards, we find him at home attempting to say Tachanun, only to be constantly stymied by his wife, Imma Shalom, the sister of his antagonist, Rabban Gamliel. Eventually, through calendrical miscalculation, she leaves him alone to say Tachanun, resulting in the immediate death of her brother.

While many readers focus on the first half of this episode, which establishes the centrality of human initiative over miracles in the halachic process, the conclusion of murder-by-prayer places this lesson in the proper context. Imma Shalom engages in her dance of distraction because she has a tradition from her grandfather that even today—when voices of angels are ignored in the beit midrash—that the gates of “ona’ah”—those who were wronged—are never closed to God.

This finale re-centers the episode in its Talmudic background – the prohibition against “ona’at devarim,” or verbal wronging. The Mishna on Bava Metzia 58b explains that, just like one can wrong people in commerce, we can wrong people in words. The Mishna gives three examples:

1) Asking a store owner what the price of an object is with no intention of buying it.

2) Reminding people of their past sins.

3) Reminding people that their family background is less impressive than others.

These oppressions continue to impact many of us today. Perhaps one has been treated as means to an end, and not someone created in the image of God. Perhaps one has had his or her less-than-finest moments dredged up online, or lives in fear of this happening. Perhaps one feels inferior to others in the community with more impressive backgrounds, or just more impressive Facebook posts of family vacations.

But then we should ask ourselves: Have we fallen short in these areas as well? Maybe we have objectified people, or treated our own lives as a quest to acquire stuff. Maybe we have mocked others or treated them with disdain due to stereotypes or because they are strangers to us. Maybe we remain mired in our own past failings, or feel that we are predestined for mediocrity.

For all of these worries, we have Tachanun to turn to on a daily basis. Psalm 6, the core of the tefillah, expresses our essential loneliness in the face of the world, repeatedly using the singular voice in contrast to the plural language generally found in our prayers. The Psalm puts these fears in the context of our relationship with God; while opening in utter dread, pleading “in Your anger don’t punish me,” by the end the speaker confidently asserts that God will accept his prayer and “utterly destroy his enemies.” Joining in this tefillah, we recognize we are not alone in facing the wrongs of life; God is there for us every step of the way as we confront them.

Physically expressing our distress, we say Tachanun falling on our faces—nefilat apayim. This unique positioning engages our entire body in demonstrating our dependence on God, going beyond the words that can fail us to plead with our muscles and bones.

After our personal pleas, we add requests for the Jewish people, which has, unfortunately, been mocked and scorned from the days of Amalek to the latest Amnesty International report. Taking this larger view comforts us that, as difficult as our personal circumstances are, we stand before God not alone but rather as a member of our holy nation1; Despite all of our hardships, God will never fully abandon us. Echoing Rabbi Elazar’s drasha in Chagigah 3a, just as we declare God’s Oneness through the Shema, God has designated us as his prized possession in this universe.

Tachanun concludes by addressing the most difficult question we have for our children today: Why stay loyal to the Torah? What are we really asking God for in our tefillot?

Tachanun answers by bequeathing us the plea from Psalm 79: “Help us, God of our salvation, in the matter of the honor of your Name; save us, forgive our sins, for your Name.”

God has given us a mission: to show our love for Him by making His Name beloved in the world (Yoma 86a); to give honor to his Name through our words and deeds. We cannot fulfill this goal mired in our past sins and entrapped by others’ preconceptions. Through Tachanun, we can release ourselves from these constraints and engage in our holy responsibilities to this world.

Hesh Luber lives in Teaneck with his wife and children.

1 The communal aspect of prayer is the focus of the reader’s repetition and the “long Tachanun” we say on Mondays and Thursdays, which are both subject to benign neglect at best today.  Amid pleas for unity with our community, we should especially try to find deeper meaning in these tefillot.

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