Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Avot Prayer and Barack Obama's Speech

Barack Obama invoked a powerful image in his victory speech in Chicago. He mentioned 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper, who "was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons -- because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin." He then summarized the great progress that had occurred in her lifetime, and mentioned several historical events, culminating with the following: "And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change."

After tracing progress through the last century, Obama looked forward to the next. "So tonight, let us ask ourselves -- if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made? [¶] This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment."

Obama presented a powerful way of thinking about history and the importance of the present moment. He remembered the great achievements of the past, and looked forward --- with his own children specifically in mind --- to even better improvements in the future.

This is exactly how I think about the first prayer of the Amidah, the Avot.

After praising the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob for loving kindness, the last sentence (from the Conservative Siddur Sim Shalom) is "You remember the pious deeds of our ancestors and will send a redeemer to their children's children because of Your loving nature."

In other words, we start the prayer by recalling the Patriarchs of the distant past and their pious deeds. We then think forward from their time, noting how God will redeem "their children's children" (livnei v'neihem) because of his loving nature. The referent of "their" is of course the Patriarchs, and so their children's children include all of our ancestors, us, and our children.

During prayer, I do not find it helpful to think about God as an active supernatural force that magically changes the world while I sit passively on the sidelines. Instead, I primarily think of prayers like the Amidah as a reminder to me of specific aspects of godliness that I should be helping to bring into the world. With all this in mind, I tend to conflate the different parts of the Avot: acts of loving kindness, our ancestor's pious deeds, redemption, and a loving nature. After all, my children and future descendants will hopefully think of my acts as part of their ancestors' pious deeds. And so one key question that I think about when I say the Avot (or at least try to think about - it's too easy to get distracted) is what can I do to help "their children's children": my immediate family, my extended family, and others in my community.

And so --- like Barack Obama --- I look backward to the past, think of great deeds of loving kindness and pious ancestors, and then focus on what I can do along the same lines for the next generations. This places the present solidly between the past and the future, not only in time, but along a continuum of progress and good deeds. Not a bad way to start the day.

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