God is near. God is distant. The angels argue.
Strange, fantastic, holy beings inhabit the Tanakh. Seraphim. Ophanim. Hayot Ha-kodesh. Beings with four wings. Other beings with six wings. Beings with four faces.
In Ezekiel and Daniel, the Ophanim are described as giant eye-covered wheels of fire. They are the wheels of God’s chariot. Ezekiel also describes the Hayot Ha-kodesh, holy beings with four wings and four faces: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Isaiah describes the Seraphim as having six wings: two to cover their faces, two to cover their feet, and two for flying.
Our siddur creates an amazing and impossible dialogue between these angels. The dialogue occurs in the Kedusha, one of the Fantastic Prayers of the Siddur; one of the many reasons for “Falling in Love with Prayer.”
First, from Isaiah 6, from the 8th century B.C.E., we hear the Seraphim, flying around the throne of God, calling to each other:
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה' צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ
Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz'vaot M'lo Hol Ha'aretz K'vodo
Holy, Holy, Holy, is Adonai of Hosts, the entire world is filled with God’s glory.
בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד ה' מִמְּקוֹמוֹ
Barukh K'vod Adonai Mim'komo
Blessed is the Glory of Adonai in its Place.
Every time we say the Kedusha, we enact a stunning debate between fantastic holy beings envisioned in dream-states by prophets of different centuries, beings described in extraordinary terms in strange prophecies.
As Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis explains in Dancing with God (Menorah Books Ltd, 2016), the Seraphim are declaring that God’s glory is present everywhere, but the Ophanim and Hayot Ha-kodesh are protesting that God’s glory can only be found in a remote and distant place.
Isn’t this exactly the tension we experience in our own prayer lives? Sometimes God’s glory feels as close as our own breathing. Sometimes holiness and divinity feel so remarkably distant, as if they’re hidden in some secret place beyond the gates of heaven.
In the midst of our prayers, we reenact a debate that never occurs in Tanakh, but is at the core of our hopes and doubts about tefillah.
Kunis explains that it takes a human perspective to bridge these experiences. As such, the Kedusha d’Amidah continues with the words of King David, from Psalms 146:
יִמְלֹךְ ה' לְעוֹלָם. אֱלֹהַיִךְ צִיּוֹן לְדֹר וָדֹר. הַלְלוּיָהּ
Yimlokh Adonai L'Olam, Elohayikh Tziyon L'dor Vador Hall'luyah
Adonai shall reign forever, Your God, O Zion, from generation to generation, Hallelujah
In other words, near or distant, Adonai is our God. God’s Torah is our Torah. We live it. We pass it from generation to generation.
The dialogue between the angels is so profound that it’s the core of all three forms of the Kedusha that appear in daily tefillah: the Kedusha d’Admidah, the Kedusha d’Sidra, and the Kedusha d’Yotzer. The Kedusha d’Amidah, however, is the only form of the prayer that requires a minyan because it’s the only one considered a reenactment of angelic praises.
This is even more fantastic. We stand. We pretend to be angels. We bow to each other as we imagine the angels might. We’re reenacting a dialogue that never happened in Tanakh by pretending to be bizarre holy beings giving permission to one another to sing God’s praises while arguing about where God’s glory can be found. In the Kedusha d’Admidah, we’re asked participate in the angelic dialogue about prayer.
God is near. God is distant. The angels argue. As humans, we respond pragmatically: God is God, in the heavens and in our hearts. The Kedusha d’Admidah is the only version that ends with a human voice, King David’s voice.
Harry Potter fans will immediately get the reference in the title of this piece to a book in the Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In that book and movie we’re introduced to strange and wonderful, magical creatures.
For those who struggle with the images of Seraphim, Ophanim, and Hayot Ha-kodesh, this is where a rich imagination and a willingness to surrender to the visions of the prophets comes in handy. Surrender to the images in the siddur’s Fantastic Prayers to enter a world where angels argue about where to find holiness and humans dismiss the question as irrelevant to faith.
Fantastic Prayers have been passed down to us through our siddur. They’re rich with Torah. Rich with layers of meaning. Prayers that challenge how we think about holiness and how we imagine ourselves.
Yes, there are Fantastic Prayers here on Ritualwell. There are Fantastic Prayers on my blog and on the blogs of rabbis, writers, and poets. The siddur itself is still the ultimate guide to Fantastic Prayers. It’s one of the most profound sources of inspiration for my own writing. It keeps me “Falling in Love with Prayer,” again and again.
Alden Solovy is a Jewish poet, liturgist and teacher whose prayers have been used by people of all faiths around the world. The author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, his more than 650 new prayers appear in multiple anthologies, prayer books and websites. His work can be found at tobendlight.com.