November 15, 2019

The Yom Kippur Amidah Prayer Guide

For many Jews, the Days of Awe are the one time of year to experience prayer services. An essential part of those services is the weekday Amidah, a prayer said standing, punctuated by silence and meditation — key elements of Yom Kippur. To help guide your spiritual reflections and to enhance this holiest of days, I offer you kavanot (meditations) for the respective paragraphs of the Amidah. Use them as you see fit. My blessing is that we will each dance with Jewish prayer long after this round of holy days is over.

The Kavanot


United in Relationship

Adonai Sfatai — Prayer happens in relationship. We ask God to create the possibility of connection, then pledge that we will respond to the opening God facilitates. Meeting God in relationship, then reciprocity, then words. There is no speech without two participants. There is no relationship without another. And there is no prayer unless we stand in our own readiness before the One.

Our Parents’ Dreams, Dreaming Our Children

Avot — We are who we are because of those who came before us. We are who we are for the sake of those who will follow. Every human being is someone’s child and grandchild. As Jews, it is our privilege to know who those founding forebears are. And it is our destiny to advance their project into the future. So, we begin our prayers as the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel and Leah. And we pledge to them that our children, in turn, will connect their journeys to the ancient ones through us.

Life the Greatest Miracle

Gevurot — There are miracles only God can achieve — causing the rains to fall, reviving the dead. And then there are miracles that God can achieve only through us — lifting the fallen, healing those who suffer, liberating the bound. It is with God’s greatness, and ours, that we can channel God’s power and goodness and birth it into the world. We pray to expand to this Godly potential.

Joining the Cosmic Chorus

Kedushah — Human arrogance once perceived our species as separate from the living web of creation, but no longer. We are the upwelling of a life process billions of years in the making and the expression of consciousness within creation, turning to sing praises on behalf of creation. The kedushah makes this explicit: The angels sing when we do, and we join their chorus in praising the creator of all. Holy, holy, holy is an affirmation of belonging and a celebration of the unity and diversity of this astonishing cosmos.

Aiming for Wisdom

Da’at — Knowledge is mere cataloging if not enlisted in the service of wisdom. Discerning what is significant from what is trivial, what is lasting from what is ephemeral and what is worthy from what is distracting is at the core of humanity’s greatest potential. We thank God who has gifted us with this possibility, the attainment of true wisdom.

Returning Anew

Teshuvah — Repentance is always a circling back — to our original beginnings, to our truest core, to our bedrock values. We whirl a dance of return, and amid the spinning, smooth away our sharp edges and unpolished exterior. The ancients saw the sphere as a symbol of perfection; we see it — like the blur of the atom — as the dynamic birth of all becoming. From our turning, we emerge better and more alive.

Forget What We Remember, Remember What We Forge

Slichah — A God who forgets nothing might be logically supreme, but such a God would be an impossible companion. The greatness of the God of Israel lies in God’s forgetting what we recall and recalling what we forget. We regret our misbehavior and bad choices in the past, and God responds by erasing them. When we minimize and ignore the harm we have done, it continues to do us damage. The greatness of our God lies in the power of selective forgetting, which we would do well to extend to each other’s perceived slights.

Healing Embrace

Refuah — What are we requesting when we ask God for healing? Clearly not for the end of all sickness, for a stagnant immortality in which there is no death, but also no birth and renewal. God’s healing comes in the inner peace of knowing we are never alone, always loved, always embraced. On that journey from birth to death and beyond, we continue as part of the people of Israel, we continue as God’s partners in covenant. Love is stronger than death, and in knowing that, we are healed.

We Have What We Need

Mvareckh Ha-Shanim — Satisfy us with your goodness. When we are content with what we have, we harvest a richness that blossoms from within. It is our attitude of sufficiency, the awareness of having what we need (but not necessarily all we want), that engenders fullness of soul, a flow of gratitude and generosity. Bless us, Holy One, to know that we have enough — enough to thrive, enough to relax, enough to share. 

All Are Called

Teka Be-Shofar — We are not whole if everyone is not included in our ingathering. When our community includes us all — with no exceptions — then we fulfill the answer to our ancient prayer, kabtzeinu yachad, gathered together as one.

On That Day, Love and Mercy

Ohev Tzedakah u’Mishpat — At present, humans dispense a justice of rules, limits and consequences. Only God merges lovingkindness and mercy with justice. We pray that one day soon we will join with God in that divine fusion, so that the justice we apportion will simultaneously fuse the mercy that makes reconciliation possible with the lovingkindness that makes wholeness real. Only then can we have hope to remove sorrow and anguish from our communities and our lives.

Fight the Enemy Within

Ve-le-malshinim — Who are we addressing in this prayer? Is this directed toward our enemies, implacable in their blind hatred of Jews, Judaism and Jewish sovereignty? Or are we speaking of ourselves, arrogant in our blindness to how our sense of victimhood can blind us to those we might victimize, to the ways our sense of being hated might rationalize the marginalization and denigration of others? Help us, God, to resist the arrogance in others even as we strive to rise above it in ourselves.

Blessed by the Wise, the Old, the Wounded

Al Ha-Tzadikim — It is easy to be faithful before experiencing pain or loss. But to have traversed history through millennia of sovereignty and dispersion and still affirm hope; to have lived through illness, disappointment and loss and still rise in the morning to praise the God of possibilities; such a faithfulness is cause for praise and remains a source of marvel. Thank you, God, for still blessing us with such people, wizened with travail yet capable of a nurturing smile and a sustaining caress.

Jerusalem, Our Mother

Ve-lirushalayim — It is impossible to claim to love the Earth without loving actual earth. We turn to Jerusalem as our Metropolis, our Mother City, in whose winding alleys and golden stones we first learned to discern God’s presence. On all of our journeys, we are always on the way home, always seeking the presence. Because we cultivate deep roots in Jerusalem, we retain the capacity to find home and presence wherever we dwell.

Redemption, Just Beyond Our Grasp

Et-Tzemach — Redemption is a vision always advancing and never realized. It remains, in the words of the prayer, a hope, an aspiration, a glimmering possibility of what might yet be ours. God holds open the possibility of a future that outstrips the past, of a self-surpassing in which we may truly nestle. We are made in God’s image, and our choices help determine the path we claim from the future.

May We Hear as God Hears

Shma Koleinu — In a world where everyone is speaking yet none listen, God’s unique gift is to truly hear. God hears the outcry of Israel and descends to save. God hears the cry of the orphan and widow and takes on their cause. And God hears our prayer. We invite God’s compassionate listening when we cry out; we extend God’s glory when we make the effort to listen to the other.

Accept our Prayers

Retzei — What does it mean for God to accept our prayers? The prayer itself contains the answer: Your merciful return … the Divine Presence. Intimacy with God, a sense of God’s closeness and embrace, an existential realization that we are never alone, these are the answers to our prayers, not the specific fulfillment of a verbal request. When we feel valued and welcome, then indeed our prayers have been accepted.

Gratitude Blossoms

Modim — Our gratitude is expressed in grand, universal human language, without reference to particular Jewish observances. God’s wonders are found in the cycles of the planets, the rhythm of the seasons, the resurgence of life and love and experience. Gratitude is a self-creating blessing; the more we cultivate gratitude, the more we are aware of all that we get to be grateful for, the more we blossom as human becomings.

God’s Dream of Shalom

Sim Shalom — The capstone prayer of the Amidah reflects God’s great dream — all humanity uniting in service; the inauguration of an age of justice and peace; using our minds to heal the sick and comfort the bereaved, feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. God’s great dream of a humanity that reflects God’s image not merely in potential but in actuality is within our grasp, if we but dare to dream.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles.