The evening Ma’ariv prayer that precedes the Sh’ma speaks of God’s love of the House of Israel, and of the Torah, law, and precept, which God has taught His people. The prayer continues with an easily overlooked word, but one which captures human moral responsibility. That word is “therefore” — in Hebrew, al ken. The same word appears in the Aleinu prayer, at the close of the service, preceding the recitation of the Mourners Kaddish.
The “therefore” in prayer calls my attention to the “therefore” in the Bible’s human-divine relationship. “Therefore” calls upon the co-signers of the covenant to turn belief into behavior, to verify the oaths and to act out the resolution of the dialogue. “Therefore” is the hinge upon which the door between God and Israel swings open.
Implicitly and explicitly, the “therefore” of consequences is the subterranean stream beneath the biblical narrative. We come upon it in the Bible, early. “Therefore – al ken – a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become as of one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The incestuous ties must be broken before the marital union can be realized.
“Therefore” lies at the edge of conscience: To believe or not to believe, what does it matter? To petition or not to petition, who is it that is called upon to intervene, and what have I to do with the need to intervene, to put my body between the sword of the predator and the hunted victim? To petition or not to petition; what difference does it make whether I rely upon the inscrutable will of God or I take action myself?
God is known in the Bible as the liberator of the slaves of Egypt. Is that a claim of divine power, or does it call me to free the tortured pariahs from the dark dungeons of enslavement?
“Therefore” usually comes toward the end of the meeting, toward the conclusion of the conference, toward the last psalm of the prayer book. “Therefore” follows me from the synagogue into my home, and from my home into the marketplace. It is the haunting question beneath the rhetoric of law and lore. Without “therefore,” prayer and scripture are changeless words. Without “therefore,” the words remains the same, the world remains the same, I remain the same.
(Essay solicited for inclusion in an upcoming book about the favorite Torah quotes of respected clergy.)
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