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Parshas Nitzavim-Vayeilech (5773)

Little Orphan AMEN

There is a little orphan I know who might very well show up at your synagogue this Rosh Hashanah – a little orphan named Amen.

The Talmud in Berachos 47a teaches us about this orphan named Amen. Since Amen is an affirmation of the blessing that was just recited – i.e. by saying Amen, one essentially declares: “I believe in the blessing and I affirm its truth” - one who is unaware of which blessing was recited, certainly cannot answer Amen. One simply cannot “affirm” if he does not know what it is that he is affirming

Accordingly, one who, upon entering the synagogue, hears the congregants answering Amen, may not answer with them if he is unaware of which blessing was just completed. The Sages of the Talmud called such an Amen an Amen Yesomah, an “orphaned Amen”. Just as an orphan has no parent, so, too, this Amen has no blessing to relate to.

Since a large number of Jews who attend High Holiday Services either don’t pay attention to - or simply don’t understand - many of the prayers and blessings that are being recited by the cantor (mostly due to the fact that they are written in Hebrew), yet they still answer Amen, I think it’s safe to say that there will be whole lot of “orphans” this year at synagogues all around the world.

I believe that there is a great lesson for all of us to learn from the little orphan named Amen (aside from the obvious one – that we should take some time before Rosh Hashanah to read through the High Holiday prayers with a good English translation, so that by the time we are sitting in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, we will know and understand the prayers and blessings that are being recited and will be able to answer Amen).

In that same Talmudic passage mentioned above, the Talmud adds the following seemingly harsh teaching. It states that whoever answers an orphaned Amen, his own children will become orphans.

Now I am not exactly sure what this statement means, or why a person who answers an improper Amen should be punished so severely. But I believe that it can be understood metaphorically with a powerful and relevant message for our generation. .

We mentioned earlier that the Talmud compares an Amen answered without knowing which blessing was recited to an orphan. This analogy is more exact than we think.

You see, like the rest of us, an orphan wants to stand for something in life. Yet since the orphan has no parents, he was never taught and is unaware of those values and principles for which he might stand. So, too, does one who answers Amen wish to declare that he believes in and stands for certain values and truths. Yet he can’t attest to those values and truths since he has not heard them and is unaware of them and therefore doesn’t know what he is attesting to.

A great many Jews alive today will affirm and declare that they are proud of being Jewish. Yet so few know what exactly are the values and beliefs of Judaism for which they should be so proud, because they were never give a proper Jewish education. And one simply can’t affirm and attest to something of which one is unaware and has never been taught.

[Around ten years ago, I was running a Jewish Leadership course for students at the University of Toronto. At the introductory session, I informed the students that most of what they would be learning during the 10-week course would be all about Jewish beliefs, traditions and values. When they questioned me on what learning about Passover and Kosher and Lashon Hara (slander) has to do with being a good Jewish leader, I told them that in order to be a Jewish leader and to represent Judaism, you first need to know what Judaism represents!]

Now if the parents answer “orphaned Amens”, i.e. they say Amen loudly and declare their pride in being Jewish, yet are not completely aware of the blessings being recited and of so many other Jewish traditions and values, it is very likely that their children will do the same, and also become “orphans” who wish to declare their pride in being Jewish, yet who are not educated in what it means to be Jewish – and the cycle continues.

The only way to stop this perpetual cycle of Jewish orphans is to ensure that everyone who calls himself a proud Jew is also an educated Jew. This way, when the cantor recites the blessings and prayers during the High Holidays, all present will be able to answer Amen and know exactly what it is that they are affirming.

We should all merit to see that day. AMEN!!

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