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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
August 29, 2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

The "b" serves as a prefix that indicates a direct object, and the "kha" is the possessive suffix "your." So the word we are really concerned about is "am."

It would be simple to say that "am" means "people," but even the English translation leaves questions unanswered. "People" can be a plural noun (many persons), a singular noun (e.g., the American people) or a collective noun (the human race). That ambivalence of meaning exists in Hebrew as well, and we are left in both languages to depend on context to understand what is intended.

In the case of this particular brakha, the immediate context is of little help. As you'll see in the next few columns, syntax and grammar offer us different answers as to whether we are pleading with God to open to each and every Jew or to the collective spirit of the Jewish people – or even just to the idea of Jewish peoplehood!

That inexactitude is, I think, the essence of what this little word in this little phrase is meant to convey. At any given moment, each of us is all three kinds of people. We are individuals with our unique quirks and foibles. When we present ourselves as distinct persons before God, we would like to know that the particular set of qualities we bring makes us matter in God's eyes. We are also members of the religious/national designation "Jewish people." When we present ourselves collectively before God, it conveys a different kind of meaning to God and to ourselves – a sort of solidarity that overlooks differences and emphasizes community in its largest sense. We are also part of Jewish peoplehood. When the idea of Jewish peoplehood is lifted up to God, it makes the point that with or without the participation of any person – or for that matter, of every person – there is a notion of peoplehood that exists as important in God's plan for the world's wholeness.

That's a lot of meaning for two little letters to bear. At these moments of prayer when we might wonder about the worth or the efficacy of our words and practices, it is nice to be reminded that even the smallest word can provoke deep reflection, insight and inspiration. That process is a gift from God, and the exercise of that gift is our show of gratitude.

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