Book Serialization Part 13: Six People You Meet in Synagogue

Book Serialization Part 13:  Six People You Meet in Synagogue
For 2013. We present our book in serial format on our blog - God's Favorite Prayers...

Mythical Discourse

annah left me with this thought, reminding me that only one letter changes the “mystical” into the “mythical.” I ought to spend some time investigating the role of the mythical in the synagogue, she suggested. Maybe I will find another identifiable archetype, like Moshe the Mythic.
Hannah is quite right that I need to explore myTHical synagogue discourse, that mode of thinking, which is indeed related to—but not identical with—the mySTical.
I don’t, however, endorse Hannah’s suggestion that the mythical element in the synagogue is archetypal. I see that the mythical is a pervasive underlying mode of thought that religious Jews who attend the synagogue accept as a given. You may rightly ask, if it is such a given, then please explain already what you mean by the mythical.
I employ the term “myth” in a manner that is common in the academic study of religions, not in the way it is used in popular culture. In the latter, a myth is a fantasy, a far-fetched untruth that other people wish you to believe, often so they can deceive you or, perhaps, entertain you. By contrast, in the disciplines of the study of religions, a myth denotes a narrative that is truer than true, a story whose details are not just interesting, dramatic or entertaining. The elements of a mythic narrative bear special deep and timeless meanings for those who retell them.

In the prayers that I’ve considered, I’ve provided examples of mythic thinking and speaking. My descriptions of the mystical in the section just above in this chapter is based on a cosmic mythical understanding of the universe. The shared narrative, to which we made reference, presumes that heaven exists, that angels dwell there and that God also does. Those are essential components of a Judaic cosmic myth based on biblical and rabbinic teachings.
More familiar to most of us are the historical myths, the familiar biblical narratives revered in Judaism, such as the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation of the Torah by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, the conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua, the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the exile from the land. 
Again, by calling them myths, I mean that these are accounts of events that I deem to be more than historical, true or factual. They contain spiritual meanings of great consequence.
As we saw in the previous section, these myths can be referenced and they can be relived. For instance, the mystic refers to the cosmic myths of heaven and angels so she can learn how to pray. The mystic relives the myths of heaven and of the angels and (in one way that we interpreted the Kaddish) she sees herself rise to stand in heaven and, there, to beseech God for entry for the soul of the deceased.
In Judaism, historical myths are referenced and relived frequently in the synagogue and in the rituals of the Jewish home. In the synagogue at the end of the morning Shema service, the berakhot that are recited right before the Amidah make reference to the song that the Israelites sang after they were brought forth from slavery and saved from the Egyptians by the miracle of the splitting of the sea.
That is a perfect example of how, by making reference to the mythical narratives of Judaism, the people in the synagogue find the right words to praise God. It is as if in the prayer that I cite now, the archetypes of the synagogue turn to and ask an Israelite who has been freed from bondage and who has crossed the Red Sea on dry land, “What should I say to thank God for his saving graces?”
You have always been the help of our ancestors, Shield and Savior of their children after them in every generation. Your dwelling is in the heights of the universe, and your judgments and righteousness reach to the ends of the earth. Happy is the one who obeys your commandments and takes to heart your teaching and your Word. You are the Master of your people and a mighty King who pleads their cause. You are the first and you are the last. Beside you, we have no king, redeemer or savior. From Egypt you redeemed us, Lord our God, and from the slave-house you delivered us. All their firstborn you killed, but your firstborn you redeemed. You split the Sea of Reeds and drowned the arrogant. You brought your beloved ones across. The water covered their foes; not one of them was left.
For this, the beloved ones praised and exalted God, the cherished ones sang psalms, songs and praises, blessings and thanksgivings to the King, the living and enduring God. High and exalted, great and awesome, he humbles the haughty and raises the lowly, freeing captives and redeeming those in need, helping the poor and answering his people when they cry out to him.
(Stand in preparation for the Amidah. Take three steps back before beginning the Amidah.)
Praises to God Most High, the Blessed One who is blessed. Moses and the children of Israel recited to you a song with great joy, and they all exclaimed: “Who is like you, Lord, among the mighty? (Exodus 15) Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, doing wonders?” With a new song, the redeemed people praised your name at the seashore. Together they all gave thanks, proclaimed your kingship, and declared: “The Lord shall reign forever and ever (Exodus 15).”
Rock of Israel! Arise to the help of Israel. Deliver, as you promised, Judah and Israel. Our Redeemer, the Lord of hosts is his name, the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 47). Blessed are you, Lord, who redeemed Israel. (Koren Siddur, pp. 104-106)
These prayers convey to me some important insights, which they derive via a mythical mode of expression. As I suggested, if you want to know how to pray properly, sure, you can ask the angels. But, also, you can recall the mythic redemptions of the history of Israel. The Israelites who crossed the sea on dry land understood firsthand the greatness of God. Therefore, we also may learn from them the best way to pray, and we may follow their lead.
The two conceptual modes of religious thinking that I treat here are related. The mythical is most often a horizontal means of imagining backwards and forwards in history. The mystical, by contrast, is usually a form of vertical visualization upwards to another dimension, towards the heavens.
Both modes have their entry level and their advanced forms of application. As is the case for the mystical, for the mythical there is yet a more advanced form of imagining and reenacting. For example, the Exodus from Egypt is relived in the Seder ritual in the Jewish home ceremonies at the Passover meal. The Haggadah could not make it clearer that a goal of the evening is for the participants to relive the redemption from slavery: “In every generation, a person is obligated to regard herself as if she personally left Egypt.” The text spells out the religious obligation for every Jew to relive the miracle of redemption:
We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, blessed be he, had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, our children, and our children’s children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt; and everyone who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.
The mythical mode of expression is commonly used by all the archetypes we meet in the synagogue. Each of them shows us how to reference and relive their narratives in the different ways that make the most meaningful sense to them. 

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