You may not be aware, but there is a traditional prohibition against saying "amen" to your own prayer. "Amen" is something that, in theory anyway, we're supposed to say upon hearing somebody else's blessing, but not our own. It certainly isn't a widely observed prohibition, in part because of how many songs include the word "amen" in the lyrics, which all but forces us to say the word! But, it's worth learning about why were not supposed to say amen to our own blessing, because it will make us think about what our blessings, and the word amen, really mean.
"Amen" comes from the Hebrew root which means something like "trustworthy." It's putting our stamp on someone else's words, implying that we put our faith in those words, to use the term loosely. It's a bit like a verbal "ditto," or agreeing to sign on to a letter which someone else has already written. So, saying amen to our own prayer would be a little bit like saying "and I agree" after making a statement. Of course I agree with what I just said — I just said it. It's completely superfluous, and pretty awkward, if you think about it.
But it's the superfluousness which matters to the Rabbis. Because, when it comes to blessings, superfluousness is a big deal. You see, in the rabbinic mind, blessings are an important thing — sacred, actually (and, I guess, obviously). When we say a blessing, we're bringing God into that moment. Eating a piece of bread is just eating a piece of bread. But, saying HaMotzi (the blessing before eating bread) and then eating bread actually turns it into a holy moment. A moment in which, in some way, God is involved. It elevates the ordinary into the sacred, and brings the sacred down into our ordinary world. Blessings are pretty darn important, actually.
And that's why the rabbis are pretty concerned about a wasted blessing—a bracha l’vatla, in the Hebrew. Because, we shouldn't waste something which is so precious. If, just to make up an example, my grandfather had left me a beautiful cup, I hopefully wouldn’t use that cup for drinking water every day, or maybe planting some seeds that I picked up at the store. I might put it somewhere special, and only take it down for special occasions, like Shabbat, perhaps. By treating it that way, I not only respect its special status, but I enhance that status. Treating it as something special actually makes it feel more special to me. Treating it as ordinary and unimportant would inevitably make it so. Well, God is (I hope) pretty important. And by treating God, and God's presence, as important, we honor that reality, but we also enhance it. A wasted blessing makes the rest of our blessings, little by little, less important. Less sacred. And, saying amen when we don't really need to is just a shorthand form of a wasted blessing.
But, there's a tiny bit more to it than that. Because, I just tried to explain to you how important, how sacred a blessing is. But, if blessings are so sacred, why would we ever let anyone say our blessing for us? Why wouldn't we strike the word amen from our vocabulary and insist that each person say each and every blessing for themselves?
Saying amen to someone else's blessing is actually an incredibly powerful statement about your relationship to that person. What you're essentially saying to them is that you're willing to let them stand in for you in this sacred moment. You're willing to let them, for at least this moment, be your surrogate before God. To have the briefest flash of ownership over your spiritual life. Saying amen to someone else's blessing is not only a statement about our relationship with God (which it is because it refers back to their blessing, which is connected to God), it's also a statement about our relationship to that other person. A powerful statement. A beautiful statement, I'd say.
A blessing, said with the proper kavannah (spiritual intention), connects us with God. "Amen," said with the proper kavannah, connects us with God, and with each other. Maybe this is why the rabbis of old say that all it will take to bring the Messiah is one person to ever say a full, proper amen. If I can truly connect myself to you, maybe that will have the power to change the world.
May we all learn to take our words seriously, and may we all learn to treat each and every blessing which crosses our lips as sacred. But, even better, may we learn to truly say amen with a full and open heart.
And, let us all say together…
This is a version of the sermon given by Rabbi Rosenberg on Friday, Aug 29, 2014