‘A World Where Justice and Righteousness Prevail’ in the Rosh Hashanah Amidah
One of my favorite High Holidays prayers is the U-v’khein, several paragraphs added to the Amidah, especially for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The Amidah, said while standing (Amidah means standing in Hebrew), is the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy, and is recited throughout the year.
The U-v’khein particularizes the prayer for the “Days of Awe” — the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known. It consists of three petitions to God that explore the constant tension in Judaism between universalism and particularism, and between thinking about how we can make the upcoming year a better one for ourselves and our community and also for all of humanity.
The first paragraph stresses the universal. We ask God to care about all his children — all of humanity:
God, instill Your awe in all You have made, and fear of You in all You have created, so that all You have fashioned revere You, and all You have created bow in recognition, and all be bound together, carrying out Your will wholeheartedly. [Translation taken from Mahzor Lev Shalem, published by the Rabbinical Assembly, 2010].
The overarching message: We Jews are connected to all humanity. We all are in this together. We are mindful that we are part of the human family.
Yet, Jews are also a specific people, something we have been since Biblical times, when we left Egypt and received the Torah at Mount Sinai in the wilderness. We have a particular destiny and a special land, Israel, which is central to our Jewish identity. And therefore, this set of unique prayers asks the Divine Presence to be mindful of us as a people:
Bestow honor to your people, God, praise to those who revere You, hope to those who seek You, recognition to those who await You, joy to Your land, gladness to Your city.
“Your city” refers to Israel, specifically Jerusalem, which has always had a special place in our prayers and hearts.
Thus, the universal and the particular go together. It is not either-or, but both. We are a people, and we are part and parcel of humanity.
Once we realize this, the prayer goes on to say, then we can be happy and fulfilled:
Then the righteous, beholding this will rejoice, the upright will be glad, the pious will celebrate with song, evil will be silenced, and all wickedness will disappear like smoke when You remove the tyranny of arrogance from the earth.
This is truly aspirational. It helps us seek to do better in the year ahead.
When we all partner with the Divine Presence, we can all work together to combat evil. We can create a world of harmony and respect, rather than one of constant confrontation and incitement. We can and must cooperate with God to get rid of tyranny and arrogance, especially the tyranny of arrogance.
When we do all this, in the words of the prophet Isaiah which are quoted in this prayer: “The Lord of hosts will be exalted through justice, and the holy God sanctified through righteousness.”
These special prayers, like many others on these holidays, should motivate us to act for a better world, a world where justice and righteousness prevail. During this High Holiday season, may we be mindful of our responsibilities to the human family — to combating poverty and injustice wherever we find it — and to the Jewish people, in Israel and in the Diaspora.
Rabbi Ron Kronish is an independent lecturer, writer, blogger, and interreligious peace activist. He holds a B.A. in psychology from Brandeis and a doctorate in education from Harvard.