Thursday, February 22, 2007

Machzor Vitry, 150

At the writer’s Beit Midrash we were presented with a 12th Century prayer that was recited at Havdalah before tasting the wine. The prayer began by earnestly entreating the angel of oblivion to “take away my foolish heart and cast it upon a high mountain.” The prayer itself was snatched by another angel of oblivion and dropped from the standard liturgy. Why would an angel of oblivion snatch a prayer and clutch it tightly to his chest? Perhaps he abhorred the prospect of being entangled in human confusion. A man might pray for relief from his foolish heart, not realizing that it is all he has to lose.

Or perhaps the need to excise this lost prayer for peace and freedom from sin is rooted in its prooftext. This prayer, which seeks a heart immune from hatred, cites Exodus 33 as justification for those who would dare to ask so much from God, quoted in 33:19 as saying, “I have favored who I will favor and shown mercy to whom I will show mercy.” The promise implicit in these words is that mercy is possible for at least some of those who seek it.

I look for these words in all my translations. The nearly literal Everett Fox renders it “that I show-favor to whom I show-favor . . . mercy to whom I show-mercy,” creating English compounds to communicate the chasm between the ancient and modern tongues; no more or less vague than the anonymous translator of the medieval prayer. The looser, modern JPS gives us “I will proclaim the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show,” a kinder, gentler Almighty. The older JPS translation comes closest to the text presented to us: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Understanding of the ancient Hebrew is perhaps tied more to the theology of the translator than it can be to any affinity for its original sense.

What hope is there in a prayer for a peace that transcends the temptations we constantly face to be angry and judge others? Rashi understands God’s promise as no longer limited to showing compassion when God desires to show it, but a new commitment to send no Israelite away from prayer empty-handed. Rashbam sees it as God’s promise to make Divine attributes clear. On the other hand, Ibn Ezra sees what appears to be the plainest meaning—that God “will grant grace only to those to whom [God] wish[es] to grant it.”

God’s “promise” is itself only a few verses away from Moses’s desperate gambit to save his people from God’s wrath following their construction of a Golden Calf: “if you would only bear their sin--! But if not, pray blot me out of the record you have written!” (Fox). (Note that JPS and even the staid Hertz use the em-dash to express the unfinished thought, though only Fox adds the melodramatic exclamation point!) Only Moses could dare risk being erased from the Book of Life to save his sinning tribe. Perhaps this is why the prayer was ultimately removed from the standard liturgy. Are we not far better off without prayers that depend on a Moses to protect us from our natural inclinations?

Our workbook juxtaposes this prayer with a text from Zedekiah the Physician regarding a “rabbinical legend” that anyone who drinks water at twilight on the Sabbath is stealing water from his dead. Twilight before havdalah is the time when the dead are permitted water. Drink then and it as if you are stealing from their cup. Why is this text presented here if not to remind us that none of us can drink from Moses’s cup or take the risks that Moses took for his people? Why is this text here, juxtaposed to a no-longer standard prayer for peace-- a prayer that one would recite before tasting the wine at Havdalah-- if not to remind us that we cannot, in the absence of the prayer, ever taste this wine again? We must not, as Moses did, dare ask God to erase us from the Book in exchange for peace for our people; we must never again pray for a peace that we do not deserve.


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