The Amidah: Possessor of All
What is God?
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At some point in the distant past, Jewish prayer was not formalized. It was spontaneous and personal. It came directly from the heart and expressed the deepest feelings and desires of the person praying. But at some later point prayer became formalized. People no longer expressed their personal thoughts and desires but recited a generalized formula that was like checklist for what those personal thoughts and desires should be. This was both a step down and a step up. It was a step down because in standardizing through recitation what should have been spontaneously expressed, it would inevitably lead to the rote recital of somebody else’s words, with little or no inner conviction. It was a step up since it enabled everybody, not just the Abrahams, the Moshes, and the Hannas, to experience the spiritual path of prayer. Was the path to more universal access worth the price of rote recital? That question can only be answered by looking at the last 2,000 years of Judaism
The standardized formula is known as the Amidah, or standing prayer. Obviously, it is to be recited while standing, but there are other guidelines. It is to be recited silently, with only the person praying hearing the words. It clearly was meant to inspire a good deal of inner thought and not simply be a rote recital. It was one of the major innovations introduced by the Great Assembly during early second temple times. We don’t know exactly when it was introduced or when it attained a form resembling what it is today, but we can be pretty sure that the process started sometime between the years 450 BCE and 300 BCE.
The basic format consists of 19 blessings (hence it is called the Shemoneh Esreh, meaning '18' – a 19th blessing was added about 2000 years ago) each containing what has become the prototype for every blessing in Judaism. This is the words ‘Baruch atah Adonai’. The three word phrase is translated ‘Blessed are You, Lord’. Jews commonly use the word Hashem instead of Lord in the translation. Each blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh concludes with this statement, followed by the words of blessing that are apropos for that blessing.
The first blessing is slightly different from the others in that it not only ends with this format, but begins with it also. ‘Blessed are You, Lord, God and God of our forefathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, the deity, the great, the mighty, and the awesome, the highest deity, who bestows good kindness, and is the Possessor of all, and who remembers the kindness of the forefathers, and brings a redeemer to their descendants for the sake of His great name in love. King, Helper, Savior, and Shield, Blessed are You, Lord, the shield of Abraham.’
First off, this standard phrase used in all blessings, what is it really all about? Do we really believe that when we say ‘You’, we are talking to God face to face? We have another image problem here - what is the meaning of ‘Possessor of all’? Is this a new image that we haven’t seen before, or is it just a variation on the old Creator/Guide image?
We’ll begin with the last question. The phrase in the Hebrew text is koneh hakol. It means literally ‘the buyer of everything’, but, understandably, it is never translated that way. The word ‘koneh’ can also mean ‘owner’ or ‘possessor’. While this phrase is sometimes understood as Creator of all, that is really an inexact translation. Possessor is a much better fit. God is the ‘Possessor of all’. How does God possess everything? How does God possess anything? Possession means ownership – a form of control of something because it belongs to the owner. How does this apply to God?
Perhaps we can approach this question through looking at what we possess. What do we own/control? How about our thoughts? That seems like the one thing that is entirely under our own control. Thoughts may go haywire at times, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t potentially under our control. We certainly sense that we have the ability to think what we want to. Perhaps this is the true domain of our ownership. Thoughts are our very own creations, so we can really say that we own those thoughts. Nobody else thinks those thoughts up. Nobody else sustains them or negates them or lives every minute with them as a part of one’s very being. We possess our thoughts.
God is the Possessor of all. Taking the analogy all the way, God would possess everything since God has thought it up. In other words, everything is a thought in the mind of God. God owns it all, possesses it all, and controls it all, since it is all going on in God’s mind. Now that’s a whopper of an idea. We are all thoughts in God’s mind. Imagine, this amazing idea contained in those two small Hebrew words. In blessing God in this first paragraph of the Amidah, one of the praises is that God thinks us all into being.
Maybe we can use that idea to gain a little insight into what this blessing formula is really all about. The first word ‘Baruch’, does mean ‘blessed’, but blessed itself needs explanation. It isn’t meant to lavish needless praise on God. Nor is it saying that God is ‘blessed’ in the sense that God has been particularly fortunate, like we might use the word to describe a person who is blessed. Rather it is meant to focus us on the fact that God is the source of all blessing in life. All of the categories of the Amidah from knowledge to health to peace are blessings. They all, even those that seem to come from our own input, ultimately stem from God. This might appear to be counterintuitive. How does God supply me with knowledge? Isn’t my knowledge my own doing? This is where the ‘Possessor of all’ phrase shows its true colors. That knowledge, those ideas and those thoughts, are all thoughts in the mind of God. They would not exist if God did not think them into being. We may have to proactively acquire them in some way, but they are only available to be acquired because God thinks them up.
The second word ‘atah’ does mean ‘you’, but that simple word also needs explanation. To speak to God directly assumes a great deal. It assumes that one can speak directly to God. It assumes that God is listening. It assumes that God cares about what the person praying has to say. None of this should really be true by the normal standards of deities in the ancient world. They were high up on the mountain or riding chariots across the sky. Even Hashem was kept busy guiding the world and being greater than the heaven of heavens. How could Hashem be the least bit interested in our prayers? How could we have the chutzpah to address Hashem almost as an equal? The answer, perhaps, is contained in that same idea. Hashem is the ‘Possessor of all’ - the Mind that thinks us all into existence. We are all thoughts in the mind of God. We are vital thoughts, right at the forefront of God’s vast mind. Any thought that we come up with is also God’s thought. We are thinking God’s thoughts. How could God not be listening?
In addressing God directly, we both acknowledge God’s providence over everything and tacitly demand that God acknowledge our existence, in spite of the vastness of the universe. We say to God: ‘I am here. I am speaking to You. I want You to listen to what I have to say because I am a part of You.’ This is a truly incredible concept, to be a part of God, to be a thought in God’s mind. It gives us importance almost on the divine scale. When we say ‘You’ to God, we are letting our presence be known.
The Amidah is not just a collection of words to be recited x number of times a day over a period of a few rushed minutes in the middle of doing something more important. It is supposed to be a contemplation of the highest order, enabling the mind to penetrate into regions that are inaccessible under normal conditions but somehow accessible during concentrated silence and still meditation. The Amidah is serious business. It is communing with the Mind whose thoughts we are. It is voicing our deepest sense of what that Mind is and how it affects us in our daily, our yearly, our communal, and our ultimate, lives. In addressing Hashem, the Possessor of all, as ‘You’, we are hitting on a profound truth - that we exist within the Mind of God.
Perceiving the Image
Calling it davening really doesn’t do the Amidah justice. Those in the know understand what davening is. More often than not it is the haphazard affair of half-hearted mumbling of a collection of words that are frequently not even attempted to be understood. It is usually rushed at a pace that is faster than ordering a meal at a fast-food restaurant. The communal aspect of it rarely facilitates genuine feeling. But Jews have to be given credit for sticking with this thing all these centuries. They could have dumped it 1,000 years ago in favor of some shorter and less demanding practice. But they didn’t, and that alone is highly commendable. Davening, and the Amidah, have survived through those rough-and-tumble centuries of pogroms and exile, of intense scholarship and devout faith. But they are still around, possibly getting stronger by the day. What is their secret of longevity, their elixir of immortality that enables them to weather any storm, even that of indifference?
Perhaps it is because any Jew who davens, no matter how little that Jew really concentrates and gets into a genuine meditative state, touches on the lofty concepts contained in the Amidah in some unconscious manner. Counter-intuitive as it may be, mindlessly saying the words may have some subconscious effect on the spirit. Saying that God is the Possessor of all, the God of our forefathers, the Granter of Knowledge, the Giver of life, may actually make an indelible impression deep in the mind that survives the most callous apathy and wildest day-dreaming. Davening does work to some degree. It’s simply a matter of consistency and letting it happen.
But nobody would disagree that this is not the ideal. If it can be done on a deeper level, it is nothing less than a crime against the soul to not make it happen even only once in a while. It is much less daunting than it appears. The words are right there waiting to fill the mind with thoughts. The ideas behind the words are limitless. The human needs and desires are never far from the horizon – we just need to connect those needs with the Source of their fulfillment. Davening is the Jewish way of perceiving this image, the image of the Possessor of all. When we think of God, we think God’s thoughts. Our lives are our own little corner of God’s mind, our own private space in the Mind of all. Imagine that – we are a thought in the mind of God. It is too profound an idea to just daven through.
This image is remarkably accessible, perhaps more so now than ever. But why is this image only rarely perceived if it is so accessible? What keeps us from conceiving of ourselves as thoughts in the mind of God?
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