Torah | All the meaning wrapped up in one little word

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Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

Isaiah 60:1-22

Can I get an amen? I’ve always thought it interesting that one word conveys so much. Saying “amen” goes beyond the perfunctory “ditto.” It can convey unequivocal affirmation and also be the ultimate statement of faith.

In Jewish tradition, the word “amen,” derived from the word “emunah” (faith/belief), is used not only at the end of a prayer or blessing but in other, more subtle ways.

The Talmud, for example, suggests that amen is an acronym for the Hebrew words “El Melech Ne’eman” — God faithful King, a phrase used to introduce the Shema when a minyan is not present (Tractate Berachot 119a). It’s a way of saying we have the faith and power that comes when in community.

Or if you prefer a more poetic read, in the prayer “Ein Keloheinu,” the beginning letters of the first three lines spell amen (Ain, Mi and Nodeh), with the final lines concluding with “Baruch Atah” — blessed are you. “Ein Keloheinu” is about saying amen to God.

Parashat Ki Tavo offers yet another paradigm for the use of amen, one that may seem counterintuitive because of its placement. The Torah reading outlines a series of blessings and curses linked to our behavior. We risk being cursed for secret idolatry, insulting our parents, misleading a blind person, subverting the rights of a stranger, widow or orphan, accepting a bribe in the spilling of innocent blood and engaging in numerous forbidden sexual acts, to name a few. What’s striking, however, is not just the idea that we are cursed for these acts, but that after we chant them in the Torah, we must say amen to each and every curse.

The Talmud teaches that there are in fact three different types of amen (Tractate Berachot 47a): The hurried amen, saying it quickly without really understanding why; the curtailed amen, when a person leaves off a letter of the word, leaving doubt as to whether amen was actually said; and finally, the orphaned amen, when amen is said without being linked to a blessing, or as in this week’s Torah portion, to a curse. These different categorizations make me aware that saying amen requires intention and concentration; it requires kavanah. So how, then, should we say amen?

When reciting a blessing, we engage in what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls an “essential link between the leader and the congregation.” While the prayer is offered by the individual, it is affirmed and even strengthened through the communal “amen” at the end.

Our Torah portion teaches that we have the opportunity to fall back on one another for support — a communal amen, a sense of trusting in and caring for one another in life’s most challenging moments. Reciting a long and united amen to the curses enables us as a community to take responsibility for our actions, not only for the blessings in our lives but the curses as well.

In his book “You Are My Witness,” the internationally recognized human rights activist Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, of blessed memory, wrote his own blessings to counter the curses that we face in our lives. Among them:

“Grant us the wisdom to create new paradigms that will carry our tradition forward into the new world. Amen!”

“Grant us the compassion to empathize with the forgotten, the mourners, the disenfranchised, the sick, the homeless, the anxiety-ridden, the disabled, the unloved and uncared for individuals about us, the masses of humanity that grapple with desperation and hopelessness. Amen!”

“Enlighten our minds so that we may compose new prayers to stir our tired hearts, to awaken new tears in dry eyes, to move our all too comfortable consciences, and thus may we be moved to inscribe our own letters, perhaps even a word or two, in the eternal Book of Life. Amen!”

As we prepare for the new year, we should all take time to reflect on the blessings we have in our lives while recognizing the obstacles we have faced, those we’ve overcome, and those we continue to experience. While we are each on our own unique journey, we must not forget the role we play as individuals who are part of a community full of caring, trust and faithfulness, and that we can offer each during times of both curse and blessing. Amen, amen, may it be so!

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].