In traditional Jewish prayer, you say the same phrases with exacting precision over and over again each day. As someone who prays daily, it is rare for me to experience the fixed words of prayer in a new light.
But then I saw these ancient prayers through the eyes of the rescued Chilean miners. Their jubilant exclamations after emerging above ground gave new meaning to the concept of "resurrecting the dead" and "crossing the Red Sea," both cornerstones of Jewish prayer.
Traditional Jews call God "the One who gives life to the dead" every day in the central Jewish prayer, the amidah. In fact, in one part of the amidah, God is referred to as giving life to the dead no less than 3 times in one short blessing.
In the 20th century, some rabbis re-wrote or re-translated the blessing because they felt uncomfortable with a blessing that seemed to imply literal resurrection of the dead. They called God "the one who gives life to all" to sidestep the issue of whether God was going to take dry bones and put real flesh on them again.
The beauty of prayer, though, is that you don't have to rewrite the prayers to keep them relevant. Prayer is poetry, and poetry can be interpreted. No one interpreted these words better than the miners themselves, who saw themselves as resurrected -- figuratively, but almost literally -- from an underground grave.
"I have come back to life," said Mario Gomez, 63, the ninth miner rescued, without a hint of 20th-century agnosticism.
This non-literal interpretation of "giving life to the dead" is found in ancient Jewish tradition as well. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, living in 3rd century Palestine, said that one should call God "the One who gives life to the dead" if he sees a friend for the first time in 12 months (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 58b). This isn't about putting flesh on bones; this is about calling a revived relationship an act of resurrection.
Even more relevant to the case of the miners is the following interpretation. Medieval commentators point to the literary source for the blessing: "the One who gives life to the dead" as a quote from Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Hannah desperately wants to have a child, and yet she cannot. After years of disappointment and frustration, she pours out her heart to God in a prayer the rabbis saw as a model for the amidah. God hears her pleas and opens her womb. Then Hannah, jubilant, recites a poetic prayer to God:
"While the barren woman bears seven,
The mother of many is forlorn.
God causes death and life
Sends down to Sheol and raises up."
(I Samuel 2:5-6 - JPS translation, adapted)
How fitting that the first person to call God "the one who causes death and life" -- which, inverted, reads: "who gives life to the dead" -- is an exultant mother, once barren.
This recalls those incredible scenes of reunion between miner and family. Upon seeing her son, 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez, walk out from the rescue capsule, Norma Lagues said it was like watching him "being born again."
While these stories made me rethink the literal nature of resurrection in prayer, they also helped me revisualize more concretely an otherwise metaphoric image in prayer: the crossing of the Red Sea. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, mentioned above, also said that one has to recite the story of the crossing of the Red Sea every day in prayer (Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 1:5; 3d). In my imagination, it always seemed a trudging affair, the Israelites making their way through the muddy bottom and slowly emerging out the other end.
In traditional Jewish prayer, though, there is a more spontaneous and raucous picture of the scene:
"The redeemed ones praised Your name with a new song, on the banks of the sea. Together they praised and pronounced You king, saying: 'God will rule forever and ever.'"
I couldn't picture the excitement of crossing the sea until I saw those miners emerge from the capsule and shout their praises to God. They were truly "redeemed ones" filled with gratitude to God. While the resurrection imagery became more metaphorical, here the imagery of crossing the sea became more literal. What does it look like to cross from one end to another in a narrow strait, against all odds through a miraculous event? Those 33 men in Chile just showed us.
One of the many gifts these miners presented us is a reminder that prayer, when viewed as poetry to be interpreted, can be as relevant and powerful as the day it was written.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar. He is the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights, 2010).