Prayer offers us a daily opportunity to embrace God with words while seeking — through the language of petition and supplication — a way to articulate our most profound needs. It is not in the asking, but in the searching and wrestling that we gain clarity.
This kind of penetrating lucidity is not a regular and anticipated outcome of prayer. It comes in that rare moment – and almost always when we do not set out to achieve it – that we are gifted with an intellectual or emotional breakthrough.
The Amidah is the spinal cord of the Jewish prayer experience; all prayer that precedes it is preparation to ask God to meet our needs with a combination of humility and spiritual audacity. In the very first of our requests, we ask for the wisdom to be God-like in the day ahead.
In the blessing known as Ata Chonen we recite: “You grace humans with wisdom and teach humanity perception. Bestow upon us Your knowledge, insight and understanding. Blessed are you the grantor of wisdom.”
If we lack wisdom, then no other request really matters. In this prayer, we ask that God offer us a sliver of divine insight that we may gain the clarity we need to make a day’s worth of decisions and good judgments. We firm up our minds to be able to problem-solve and manage life’s complexities. We know that intelligence involves the exquisite and often contradictory balance of curiosity, instinct, patience, caution and risk.
We can never assume wisdom. What may be sensible in one situation is foolish in another. Thus, we pray for knowledge and introduce every other blessing that follows in the Amidah with this request. In fact, on Saturday night we acknowledge the onset of the new week following Shabbat with a special prayer tucked into Ata Chonen, precisely because we need this insight not only for the day ahead but for the week ahead. Havdalah, or separation (also the name for the ritual performed at the close of Shabbat), requires the perception to categorize and compartmentalize, to know the difference between the holy and the profane.
Should the idea of apportioning wisdom seem strange, we remind ourselves that this notion appears in the Hebrew Bible on numerous occasions. In the construction of the Tabernacle, God tells Moses to appoint Bezalel: “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge…” (Exodus 31:3). This is also extended to the craftsmen Bezalel employs: “…and I have also granted wisdom to all who are wise that they may make everything that I have commanded…” (Exodus 31: 6). This gift is far above skill and talent. The Hebrew uses the expression hakham lev, literally “heart-knowledge,” to describe the spirit imbued in each artisan.
Apportioning wisdom is not only from God to humans. In Numbers 11, when Moses struggled mightily with a difficult flock, God apportioned 70 elders with the spirit of Moses’ wisdom: “…I will draw upon the spirit that is in you and put it on them” (Numbers 11:17). Moses needed many others who were like him to be allies in the work of community. Nothing requires more wisdom than managing people well.
We open our litany of requests with the desire to know, to perceive, to understand, and to think because these capacities make us distinctly human. Yet our rational minds are in a constant tug-of-war with our irrational desires. We pray that wisdom wins the day.
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Erica is the author of 12 books. Her forthcoming book is “The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile” (Maggid/OU).