By Anne Kinderlerer
Prayer is a funny thing. If, as I sometimes think, it’s about meaning and connection, it comes to me only in momentary flashes of inspiration. This year, I was struck almost dumb at our Seder by Shehecheyanu, as I looked round the table at my family and at the virtual presence of my parents, brother and nephew. A blessing I must have said a thousand times, but never really prayed before.
ברוך אתה יי אלוקנו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה
Blessed are you Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who has kept us alive, supported us and brought us to this time of year.
It’s a prayer that Jews have been saying for at least 2,000 years. It’s mentioned in the Mishna (Berachot 9a) and Talmud (Berachot 54a), and we say it to mark occasions of joy, a new home, eating fruit for the first time in a season, and on the first night of festivals.
It is our minhag (tradition) in this community to say it together to mark the new things in our lives, from new knees to new bathroom doors .
But I’ve never really thought about what it means, until now.
The root of Shehecheyanu is חיה, to be alive, but this is in hiphil, a binyan (verbal pattern) that is often causative. So it could be translated as 'restored us to life', but in context here must mean 'kept us alive'.
There are two possible related roots here: קום, to stand up and thus hold us up, or קים, which has the sense of keeping a promise or maintaining us. Both meanings speak to me here - hence 'sustained us' or 'supported us'.
Also a hiphil verbal form, which usually means to arrive but here, 'brought us to this time'.
Judaism is good at acknowledging the sadness that accompanies all our simchas. In fact, in that passage of Talmud we learn that we greet bad tidings as well as good with the blessing Dayan Ha'emet – Blessed is the True Judge.
As I looked around the room at our Seder, I knew that my family was all safe and that we were all here celebrating the Seder together. Only three days before, it had seemed impossible to me that I would celebrate Pesach, impossible to think about it among the fear, sadness and sheer overwhelmingness of working in the NHS at this time.
I thought about my colleagues from work who are really sick on ITU, and my registrar’s father who died two weeks ago, and all the people and families who are not here, who didn’t arrive with us.
I thought about what it means to keep us alive in the NHS: all the images of hospital life in this extraordinary time. We have taken every rota and turned it upside down. We have built, equipped and staffed three new intensive care wards. Our most junior doctors have learnt how to feed and wash patients to help the nurses. Our senior managers are delivering food to staff. I’ve watched cleaners, only newly public sector employees once more, don PPE and go into our infected wards to clean, and I’ve looked into the faces of our nurses, still caring for patients with COVID-19, even as they grieve for their colleague who died of this terrible disease.
And I thought about all the messages of support and love I have had from the community in recent weeks, and how I would never have got here to lead my family Seder without it.
So I hope that you all are sustained by the presence of the Shechinah and held up by the love in our communities, so that we will arrive again at z’man cherutenu – the time of our freedom.