Atah Chonen: A Prayer for Wisdom

From My Jewish Learning

Prayer offers us a daily opportunity to embrace God with words while seeking — through the language of petition and supplication — a way to articulate our most profound needs. It is in the searching and wrestling that we gain clarity. This kind of penetrating lucidity comes in that rare moment – and almost always when we do not set out to achieve it – that we are gifted with an intellectual or emotional breakthrough. The Amidah is the spinal cord of the Jewish prayer experience; all prayer that precedes it is preparation to ask God to meet our needs with a combination of humility and spiritual audacity. In the very first of our requests, we ask for the wisdom to be God-like in the day ahead. In the blessing Atah Chonen we recite: “You grace humans with wisdom and teach humanity perception. Bestow upon us Your knowledge, insight and understanding. Blessed are you the grantor of wisdom.” In this prayer, we ask that God offer us a sliver of divine insight. We firm up our minds to problem-solve and manage life’s complexities. Intelligence involves the exquisite and often contradictory balance of curiosity, instinct, patience, caution and risk. What may be sensible in one situation is foolish in another. Thus, we pray for knowledge and introduce every other blessing that follows in the Amidah with this request. On Saturday night we acknowledge the onset of the new week with a special prayer tucked into Ata Chonen, because we need this insight for the whole week ahead.

The practice of havdalah, or separation (also the name for the ritual at the close of Shabbat), requires the perception to categorize and compartmentalize, to know the difference between the holy and the profane. The idea of apportioning wisdom appears in the Hebrew Bible on numerous occasions. In the building of the Tabernacle, God tells Moses to appoint Bezalel: “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge…” (Exodus 31:3). This is also extended to the craftsmen Bezalel employs: “…and I have also granted wisdom to all who are wise that they may make everything that I have commanded…” (Exodus 31: 6). This gift is far above skill and talent. The Hebrew uses the expression hakham lev, literally “heart-knowledge,” to describe the spirit imbued in each artisan. Apportioning wisdom is not only from God to humans. In Numbers 11, when Moses struggled mightily with a difficult flock, God apportioned 70 elders with the spirit of Moses’ wisdom: “…I will draw upon the spirit that is in you and put it on them” (Numbers 11:17). Moses needed many others who were like him to be allies in the work of community. Nothing requires more wisdom than managing people well. We open our litany of requests with the desire to know, to perceive, to understand, and to think because these capacities make us distinctly human. Yet our rational minds are in a constant tug-of-war with our irrational desires. We pray that wisdom wins the day.

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