Hashkiveinu Adonai Eloheinu L’shalom V’ha’amideinu Malkeinu L’chayim. Cause us to lie down, Eternal our God, in peace, and raise us up, O Sovereign, to life.
Many of us have heard this prayer dozens, if not hundreds, of times. And, I imagine, like many other things that we see and hear frequently, it’s possible that we never really stopped to think about it. Hashkiveinu Adonai Eloheinu L’shalom V’ha’amideinu Malkeinu L’chayim. Cause us to lie down, Eternal our God, in peace, and raise us up, O Sovereign, to life. It is such a simple prayer, such a modest request – let us sleep in peace and wake up alive. U’fros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha and spread over us Your shelter of peace. It is a basic human plea for protection, for predictable routine, for normalcy, for the world to be the way it ought to be.
It turns out that this prayer, Hashkiveinu Adonai Eloheinu L’shalom, isn’t only found in our High Holiday prayerbook. In fact, originally it was found as part of what’s known in the tradition as Kriat Shema al hamitah Jewish bedtime prayers. Our ancestors expressed their plea for protection in elegant Talmudic Hebrew prayer vocabulary – and there, in the bedtime prayers, it was often in the first person singular. I imagine that if they had written in modern English meter they might have said: “Now I lay me down to sleep, pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
Hashkiveini Adonai Elohai L’shalom. Eternal my God, let me lie down in peace.
For some of us, there are days when that would be sufficient (maybe even more than enough). There are days when the demands of our everyday lives seem so overwhelming that a good night’s sleep would bring welcome relief. And even when we are not feeling so overwhelmed, we might be content to go about our daily tasks, to live our daily lives in relative quiet – to lie down in peace and to wake up grateful just to be alive… to live our daily lives in relative quiet – to lie down in peace and to wake up grateful just to be alive.
But Judaism expects more of us. Our tradition challenges us to be engaged with the world. Judaism calls us to a life of purpose, a life of meaning, a life of focused direction and ethical value, in short, A Life that Matters. We are called to live life in a way that gives us a deeper sense of meaning and significance. We are called to live life in a way that matters to our families. We are called to live life in a way that matters to our communities. We are called to live life in a way that matters to the world. That is our challenge: to live a life that matters. That is our task: to live a life that matters. That is our calling: to live a life that matters.
Allow me to suggest that, as we begin these ten days of introspection, living a life that matters begins with looking inward; it begins with living a life that matters to ourselves. The inner life of the conscience guides us as ethical actors in the world. The inner life of the spirit infuses our lives with meaning. Like the bedtime prayer: “Hashkiveini Adonai Elohai L’shalom. Eternal my God, let me lie down in peace,” we need to begin in the first person singular.
In that endeavor, I believe that we can gain some insight from another of the traditional bedtime prayers. It is a somewhat surprising petition: a prayer asking for protection from the archangels. It says: B’sheim Adonai Elohei Yisra-eil, In the Name of the Eternal the God of Israel, Mi-mi-ni Mi-cha-eil, u-mi-s’mo-li Gav-ri-eil, u-mil’fa-nai U-ri-eil, u-mei-a-cho-rai R’fa-eil, may Mi-cha-eil be at my right, and may Gav-ri-eil be at my left, and may U-ri-eil be before me, and may R’fa-eil be behind me, v’al ro-shi Sh’chi-nat Eil, and may the Presence of the Eternal One rest above my head.
I imagine that a petition to be sheltered by the archangels is surprising because many of us are accustomed to thinking of archangels as being associated either with the fantasies of young children or with the theology of a different religion. We might be surprised to learn that the Rabbis of old – whose writings we find in the Talmud and in the Midrash – often wrote about angels. In fact, the English word ‘angel’ comes from the Greek angelos which is a translation of the Hebrew mal-ach which means “messenger.” Some of us might be inclined to think about angels like Jimmy Stewart did in It’s A Wonderful Life – that angels look just like people and get their wings when a bell rings. But there is a more metaphoric way of thinking about angels – as messengers of the Holy One.
The names of the four angels invoked in the Jewish bedtime prayer are not chosen randomly: Mi-cha-eil means ‘Who is like God,’ Gav-ri-eil means ‘God is my strength,’ U-ri-eil means ‘God is my light’ and R’fa-eil means ‘God heals.’ Each one of them represents the opportunity of drawing closer to God, the Ultimate Holy One of Blessing. Each one of them represents a specific element of our human capacity for reaching beyond our grasp. Each one of them holds out the possibility of living life in a way that matters. When we recite bedtime prayers asking to be guarded and guided by these angels we are speaking symbolically, seeking help in summoning and marshaling our own capacity for growth. Mi-cha-eil symbolizes the godliness in our being. Gav-ri-eil symbolizes our potential for strength. U-ri-eil symbolizes our aptitude for vision. And R’fa-eil symbolizes our facility for healing.
When we ask that the angel Mi-cha-eil be on our right, we are seeking to access that which is God-like in our souls. We know that there is godliness in us because Torah teaches that we are created b’tzelem Elohim with the imprint of God. We access that godliness when we exercise our uniquely human capacity for ethical reasoning and moral decision-making. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they were told that they were permitted to eat of any tree in the garden except for one – because if they ate of that tree they would “become like God, knowing good and evil.” When they ate from that tree, they became distinctly human – mortal with the capacity for procreation like all the other creatures but also with the uniquely human obligation to be moral beings. When we seek ethical grounding, we are seeking that which is symbolized by the angel Mi-cha-eil: the godliness in our souls – the God given capability to know the difference between right and wrong and the divinely inspired guidance to choose goodness, to choose to do what is morally right.
Even when we know what is right, it is often hard to do it. Sometimes it is hard to do the right thing because of temptation or because of greed. Sometimes it is hard to do what is right because of desire, or because of selfishness. Sometimes it is hard to the right thing because of inertia, or laziness or because our feelings or our egos or our insecurities get in the way – paralyzing us from acting or steering us to take the path of least resistance. And so, even as we ask that the angel Mi-cha-eil be on our right we also ask that the angel Gav-ri-eil be on our left. Gav-ri-eil is symbolic of strength – but not just ordinary strength. Ordinary strength could suggest the use of force – could suggest that “might makes right.” Gav-ri-eil is symbolic of divine strength, God-like strength. That’s the kind of inner strength that we need in order to be forgiving and compassionate. Moses learned this when he took his second trek up Mt. Sinai. Imagine the depth of fear and trembling he must have been experiencing. In the fierce heat of anger, he had shattered the tablets that God had inscribed. What could he expect as he ascended again? Would God be angry with him? Would this mean the end of the intimate relationship between God and Moses? Would this mean the end of the story for the Israelite nation? Torah says: “And God passed before him and called out: Adonai, Adonai, Eil Rachum V’chanun, Erech Apayim V’rav Chesed V’emet. The Eternal God is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth.” So, Moses learned about “gevura” Divine strength. The Almighty, all-powerful God taught us to be strong enough to be compassionate, to be slow to anger, to be abundant in kindness and truth. The strength symbolized by the angel Gav-ri-eil on our left gives us the wherewithal to make the correct moral choices symbolized for us by Mi-cha-eil on our right.
“And may U-ri-eil be before me” continues the bedtime prayer. U-ri-eil symbolizes Divine light. Even with the strength and resolve to make moral choices, living a life that matters requires enlightenment and vision. That’s what we seek when we ask that U-ri-eil go before us to light our way. It is the vision of the prophet Isaiah who spoke truth to power. His eyes beheld the same leaders as his contemporaries – he just understood them differently. While they curried favors, he railed against their corrupt ways. Isaiah was witness to the same events as his fellow Israelites, yet they chose not to see the injustices that riveted Isaiah’s attention. They turned a blind eye to the inequities that Isaiah could not ignore. Their sight was blinded by greed while Isaiah’s path must have been illuminated by the angel U-ri-eil.
The Psalmist wrote: “Na’ar Hayiti Gam Zakanti, V’lo ra’iti tzadik ne’ezav V’zar’o M’vakesh Lachem I was young and now I’ve grown old, V’lo ra’iti and I never saw when the righteous were abandoned; V’lo ra’iti I never saw when their children were begging for bread.” The enlightenment and vision symbolized by U-ri-eil opens our eyes to what really matters in life. U-ri-eil lights our path so that we can focus our moral strength and deploy it in a way that matters.
Sometimes, we have a clear vision of what needs to be done; we marshal our strength and guide it in an appropriately principled fashion and then, in our zeal to do the right and righteous thing, we fail to anticipate the unintended consequences and inadvertently do some collateral damage. Sometimes, we devote ourselves so thoroughly to some worthy cause that we neglect to give appropriate time and attention those closest to us. Sometimes, our well-intentioned assistance isn’t sufficiently alert to another’s need for self-reliance. Sometimes, our sincere generosity fosters co-dependence instead of independence. So along with Mi-cha-eil on our right, and Gav-ri-eil on our left, and U-ri-eil before us, we pray that R’fa-eil may be behind us. R’fa-eil symbolizes healing. I have a notion that we need R’fa-eil to come behind us to heal when we are so focused on the vision before us that we fail to anticipate the unintended negative consequences and inadvertently do some collateral damage. I’m told, for example, that those who do serious hiking and camping in the wilderness now speak of zero-impact hiking or zero-impact camping. Their goal is, of course, to enjoy the rugged beauty and inspiring tranquility of the great outdoors. The zero-impact part is the healing of the angel R’fa-eil ensuring that their enjoyment should not result in any damage to the environment or any deteriorating intrusion on the pristine wilderness. Living a life that matters means that when we employ our vision and determination to act morally, we make sure as we forge ahead that, at the least, we do no damage and, at best, we are leaving healing in our wake.
So, we return to our bedtime prayer, a prayer that concludes with a final petition that brings all the angels into line:
B’sheim Adonai Elohei Yisra-eil, (it says) In the Name of the Eternal the God of Israel, may Mi-cha-eil be at my right, and may Gav-ri-eil be at my left, and may U-ri-eil be before me, and may R’fa-eil be behind me, (and then it concludes) v’al ro-shi Sh’chi-nat Eil, and may the Shechinah, the intimate Presence of the Eternal One, rest above my head.
We know: living a life that matters takes focus and strength and vision. We know: holding on to our ethical grounding is hard work. It’s common to feel discouraged when others seem to be taking the easier path. It can be lonely and scary to stick your neck out for truth and justice, to stand up for kindness and caring. So, in the face of that discouragement, that loneliness, that fear, we pray to be guided and accompanied by the Shechinah the intimate Presence of the Eternal One. It is at those moments when we sense God’s constant closeness, those times when we feel the intimacy and inspiration of the Divine Presence – it is at those moments that we achieve that inner peace and tranquility that allows us to reach up and to reach out; it is then that we are able to summon the vigor to reach beyond our grasp; it is then that we can marshal from deep within us: the godliness of Mi-cha-eil, the strength of Gav-ri-eil, the light of U-ri-eil, and the healing of R’fa-eil to make ethical choices, to work for the welfare of others, to promote love and caring and sharing, to pursue the blessings of justice and freedom – to live a life that matters. May each of us and all of us, in this coming New Year, find the godliness, the strength, the light and the healing to live a life that matters.
B’sheim Adonai Elohei Yisra-eil, Mi-mi-ni Mi-cha-eil, u-mi-s’mo-li Gav-ri-eil, u-mil’fa-nai U-ri-eil, u-mei-a-cho-rai R’fa-eil, v’al ro-shi Sh’chi-nah
Ken Y’hi Ratzon. AMEN