“Guardian of this holy nation, guard the remnant of the holy people, and let not the holy nation perish…”
Excerpt from Tachanun
Life-threatening danger to our people surfaces multiple, often conflicting issues - from the practical to the existential. As sirens blast across Israel and the news is dominated by pictures of rubble and rockets piercing Israeli skies, we cannot help but ask ourselves: How long will this last? How can we resolve this conflict on a more permanent basis? Is there hope?
At such times, I find myself thinking often of one of my favorite daily prayers: Tachanun. The word literally refers to a type of prayer: supplication, which demands self-contraction, humility and beseeching God. The Talmud reads a verse in Daniel as the basis for such prayers: “I turned my face to the Lord, God, devoting myself to prayer and supplication [tachanunim] in fasting, sackcloth and ashes” [9:3]. Many different sages had personal supplications, usually a pastiche of different biblical verses designed to petition God for mercy. This prayer - because of its solemn nature - is often the first to be abandoned in synagogue at times of joy, like the afternoon before a holiday or for the entire Hebrew month of Nissan. But when we don’t say it, we miss out on a moment to think about grace and its role in our lives.
The prayer Ashkenazic Jews recite today was probably an amalgamation of such personal prayers and verses constructed in the 14th century. There is a short version of the prayer that is read daily at the morning and afternoon services and a substantially longer one on Mondays and Thursdays, market days when the Torah was traditionally read in public, days that the Talmud marks are an “et ratzon” - a time of God’s openness to hearing our innermost prayers.
One of the foundations of the prayer is a string of words and sentences that appear in the sixth chapter of Psalms, a time when David was ill and suffering and reflected on his pain. “My whole being,” David wrote, “is struck with terror - and You, God, how long?” The odd construct of this sentence clues us into David’s anguish. When terror takes over, we cannot imagine our own resilience. We need the situation to end. We ask God how long this will endure because we can endure it no longer. In this chapter, we confront David’s deepest vulnerabilities: “I am worn out with my sighing, every night I cause my bed to float with my tears. I melt my couch. My eye is dimmed with anger; it has aged because of my tormentors.”
Tachanun also has a fascinating choreography, and is often called “nefilat apayim” - or the bowing of the face because when a Torah scroll is present in the room, we say a passage of the prayer with our foreheads leaning down on our less dominant arm. “Be gracious to us, God, be gracious to us for we are saturated with humiliation. In anger, remember to have compassion.” When we feel one emotion, we ask for another. Help us forgive.
We move from standing, to a bowing of the head, to sitting erect to standing again. Our body adopts a dance of sadness that moves to a place of strength so that our bodies are telling us not to sign on the couch forever. Take charge. “Strangers say: there is no hope or expectation for us.” We say this line as we are already sitting up straight. Someone else may say this of us but we cannot say this of ourselves. Perhaps one way we respond to a situation that is out of our control is to say this prayer with greater intention and meaning.
Many years ago, I called the reception desk of a busy company, asking for a woman whose first name was Hope. The receptionist replied, “There is no Hope here.” Hearing it startled me, and I responded quietly, “There is always hope.”
Hope is the name of our Israeli national anthem and the abiding song of Jewish history. It’s time to bring hope back.