Re’eh Be-Onyenu: A Traditional Jewish Prayer for Emotional Hygiene and Mental Health?

 

Three times a day in the Shemoneh Esreh we recite the Blessing for Redemption (Geulah)—the Onyenu prayer, asking God to “see our affliction, wage our battles, and redeem us speedily for the sake of His name, for He is a mighty redeemer”—

ראה בענינו וריבה ריבנו וגאלנו מהרה למען שמך כי גואל חזק אתה

At first glance this prayer seems to be a prayer for the collective beseeching God to see the affliction the children of Israel are undergoing in the Diaspora and swiftly redeem them, but at second glance its placement in the midst of the individual petitions, following the requests for knowledge, repentance, and forgiveness, makes this unlikely. In fact it precedes one of the most personal prayers—the prayer for health. So if we are not asking for national redemption, what are we asking for?

Rashi, in addressing this question, comments that we are asking for redemption from “those troubles that constantly visit us” (min ha-tzarot ha-ba’ot alenu tamid).  The ArtScroll  prayer book, paraphrasing Rashi, explains that this redemption is “from the trials and agonies of everyday life.”[1]  In keeping with this explanation, ArtScroll translates the prayer as “Behold our affliction, take up our grievance, and redeem us.”

Rabbi Steven Weil points out that in writing this petitionary prayer the Rabbis chose to echo the language the Torah uses to describe the Israelite’s outcry to God in Egypt.[2]  If we can discover how the Rabbis understood this outcry then perhaps we can go further than Rashi’s somewhat vague “troubles that constantly visit us” and discover what the Rabbis profound intent for this prayer was.

The Israelites’ cries are briefly recorded in Exodus 2:23-25 and then at greater length in the historical review uttered by the farmer bringing his first fruits to the Temple in Deuteronomy 26:6-7. The latter passage is familiar to us from the Haggadah, where the author of the Haggadah cites a halakhic midrash, the Mekhilta, to explicate the meaning of the passage. I have highlighted the crucial words found in the Onyenu prayer that, I will demonstrate, echo those found in these two biblical passages:[3]

Exodus 2:23:25

כג  וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה. 23 And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.
כד  וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
כה  וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיֵּדַע, אֱלֹהִים.  {ס} 25 And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them. {S}

Deuteronomy 26:6-7:

ו  וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. 6 And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.
ז  וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ. 7 And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression.

Rabbi Weil explains that the Israelites cried out just after a new Pharaoh was crowned. They had hoped that their enslavement was an aberration. The next Pharaoh would “remember” Joseph’s service to Egypt and free them. This did not happen. Perhaps he too forgot or perhaps he couldn’t ruin his slave-based economy just to make the Hebrews happy.

Be that as it may, the people cried out to God—not just because of their physical bondage (min ha-avodah)[4] ,mentioned in Shemot 2:23-25, they were used to that—but, as the Torah in Devarim expands upon and the Mekhilta explains, also because of the mental anguish: God saw the children of Israel—“their affliction, their burden, and their oppression” (ענינו עמלינו ולחצינו). They cried out to be released from the psychological prison brought on by the servitude:[5]

We cried out to God, the Lord of our fathers–as it is stated:  “After those many days, the king of Egypt died. The children of Israel groaned because of the work. When they cried out over their slavery, their pleas rose up before God.”

ונצעק אל ה’ אלוהי אבותינו—כמו שנאמר “ויהי בימים הרבים ההם, וימת מלך מצריים, וייאנחו בני ישראל מן העבודה, ויזעקו; ותעל שוועתם אל האלוהים, מן העבודה” (שמות ב,כג).

God heard our voice— as it is stated: “God heard our cries and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

וישמע ה’ את קולנו—כמו שנאמר “וישמע אלוהים, את נאקתם; ויזכור אלוהים את בריתו, את אברהם את יצחק ואת יעקוב” (שמות ב,כד).

He saw our suffering—This refers to the disruption of family life, as it is stated: “God saw the children of Israel and God took note.”

וירא את עוניינו—זו פרישות דרך ארץ, כמו שנאמר “וירא אלוהים, את בני ישראל; ויידע, אלוהים” (שמות ב,כה).

our difficult labor—This refers to the children, as it is stated: “Every boy who is born must be cast into the river, but every girl shall be allowed to live.”

ואת עמלנו—אלו הבנים, כמו שנאמר “כל הבן היילוד, היאורה תשליכוהו, וכל הבת, תחייון” (שמות א,כב).

and our distress—this refers to the pressure [applied by the Egyptians], as it is stated: “I have also seen the oppression which the Egyptians are applying to them.”

ואת לחצנו—זה הדוחק, כמו שנאמר “וגם ראיתי, את הלחץ, אשר מצריים, לוחצים אותם” (שמות ג,ט).

 

As R. J.B. Soloveitchik explains, the expansion in Devarim reflects the fact that God truly saw the children of Israel. He comprehended what the children of Israel, who were overwhelmed by the labor could not even see: the mental anguish they were experiencing. He “knew” even though they did not.[6]  R. Soloveitchik’s disciple, R. Shlomo Riskin explicates this further when he writes:  “And God saw” apparently refers to a kind of suffering that only God can see and know: an invisible form of suffering. Thus, it is followed by “and God knew.”[7]

In attempting to explain precisely what this mental affliction of ענינו was the Rabbis in the Mekhilta suggest what caused it. They explain that ענינו refers to the disruption of marital relations. Either the task masters prevented the men from going home at night or the Israelites abstained of their own accord, either intentionally—to avoid the birth of boys whom Pharaoh would kill—or even unintentionally—due to fatigue and emotional distress (“they were not in the mood”).[8]

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, cited above, eloquently distinguishes between physical and mental affliction, and in so doing elucidates how this marital disruption leads to mental anguish.

“There are two kinds of oppression: active oppression where the persecutor’s evil deeds are nakedly visible and the suffering is physical ; and silent oppression, where the suffering is mental and psychological[9]… The active physical persecution they [the Israelites] endured is explicitly mentioned in the Torah. Not so the mental anguish. Here the Midrash [the Mekhilta] refers to it by focusing upon the intrusion of the oppressor into the bedroom of the Jewish slave. Sexuality is a basic human drive. It binds together husband and wife and is the positive affirmation of the future…but when a person is enslaved, when his time is not his own, when he has worked at backbreaking labor for impossibly long hours—comes evening he falls on his bed exhausted. He has not the physical strength nor the mental concentration to engage in sexual relations, and he lacks the normal desire to produce offspring…. [this engenders] the silent mental and emotional anguish that is associated with sexual deprivation.”[10]

In attempting to explain the mental anguish at the heart of עמלנו (“our burden”), the Mekhilta continues by explaining what caused it: עמלנו refers to the children, as it says “and every male child that is born, cast in the Nile, but the girls shall live” (Exodus 1:22).  What mental anguish did the murder of the boys cause? What was the psychological “burden”? As the Ritba notes “our burdens” are synonymous with “our sons” since fathers put all of their efforts into raising their sons and if these children are then routinely murdered the fortitude it takes to raise them is truly daunting.[11] Note that the murder of these boys was not a onetime event. The prooftext concerning casting the boys into the Nile is merely one example of this horrific campaign. The process was ongoing. Pharaoh originally ordered them murdered at birth by the midwives (Exodus 1:16). Later, according to Exodus Rabbah 1:34, they were slaughtered so that Pharaoh could bathe in their blood to treat his leprosy. The Talmud even suggests that if the Jews failed to meet their brick production quota, Jewish babies were immured alive in the buildings the Jews were constructing.[12] In the latter case, the Egyptians made the exhausted fathers feel responsible for the murder of their own children! Powerlessly watching your future, the apple of your eye, being murdered in one horrific way or another and feeling that it is your fault creates a psychological burden that is difficult to even begin to quantify.

In addressing the meaning of the word לחצינו, the Mekhilta does not have much to say, merely noting that it refers to the Egyptians’ oppression of the Jews: the “pressure” of oppression, the דחק. Perhaps the catch-all nature of this term can be elucidated by another time the root of the word ענינו appears in the Exodus narrative. There it clearly connotes a degree of servitude that is above and beyond the physical burden: למען ענתו בסבלותם  (Exodus 1:11)—to “oppress” them in the course of their physical labor.

יא  וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים, לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת, לְפַרְעֹה–אֶת-פִּתֹם, וְאֶת-רַעַמְסֵס. 11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses.

Echoing this understanding of ענתו בסבלותם, the parallel verse in Deuteronomy (26:6) recalls that the Egyptians “afflicted us, and imposed upon us hard bondage” (ויענונו, ויתנו עלינו עבודה קשה). There were two components: the oppression and the physical labor.  In fact the Mekhilta relates to this verse as well:

They made us suffer—as it is stated: “They placed task masters over them to oppress them with hard labor. And they built Pitom and Ra’amses as supply centers for Pharaoh.”

ויענונו—כמו שנאמר “וישימו עליו שרי מיסים, למען ענותו בסבלותם; וייבן ערי מסכנות, לפרעה—את פיתום, ואת רעמסס” (שמות א,יא).

and imposed harsh slavery upon us– as it is stated: “And the Egyptians made the children of Israel do backbreaking labor.”

וייתנו עלינו עבודה קשה—כמו שנאמר “ויעבידו מצריים את בני ישראל, בפרך” (שמות א,יג).

What was this additional affliction, these additional atrocities and cruelties? Midrash Tanchuma Vayetze 8 explains that it was having men do what was traditionally women’s work, such as kneading and baking, and having women do what was traditionally men’s work, such as drawing water and chopping wood (thus creating psychological discomfort and ensuring that both sexes felt unsure of the quality of the work they were accomplishing). Alternatively, the Talmud explains that the store cities the Israelites were building were situated on marshy land, so no sooner did they complete a wall than it collapsed and sank. Understandably, some Jews died as the walls collapsed and those who remained had the grim task of rebuilding the wall.[13] In short, Pharaoh put both physical and psychological pressure on the Jews to grind them into the earth. [14]

These three stressors—the marital disruption, the murder of the children, and the oppression—led to an enormous psychological burden that, as Rav Soloveitchik explained above, was not even fully understood by the Jews themselves. The resulting malaise, anxiety, depression, sense of burden, post-trauma, and so forth must have been emotionally crippling. Thus, when the Onyenu petition echoes the Israelites’ cries with “see our affliction,” we are clearly not asking for physical redemption from our physiological maladies—for that we have the following prayer, Refa’einu; instead, we are pleading with God to see our mental affliction (ראה בענינו) and our paralyzing emotional distress which we cannot cope with on our own.[15]  Indeed, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks summarizing the commentators notes that “the reference is to release [us] from personal crises: captivity, persecution, misfortune, or affliction” all of which bring with them sever emotional burdens.[16]

As Rabbi Weil puts it, we need God’s help because He is אל גואל חזק—stronger than us. We cannot extricate ourselves from our psychological prisons because we are not objective about our own flaws or problems. We are oftentimes not even aware of them. We need Him to wage our battle for us. Only he can help us turn the corner—rescue us from our psychological and mental turmoil. So, in the Shemoneh Esreh, we ask for mental health (emotional redemption), physical health, and then a livelihood, in that order.[17]  These are all personal petitions. May He grant them speedily in our day!

Addendum: Could this prayer be specifically applicable to the Family Members of the Mentally Ill?

The specific examples used to define the psychological pressure in the Mekhilta—the disruption of marital relations, loss of offspring, and pressure/oppression—in some ways seems to parallel the lot of the mentally ills’ family members more than the lot of the mentally ill themselves. Spouses are forced into sexual abstinence (if their loved ones are chronically depressed and when their loved ones’ libidos are reduced or muted by antipsychotics), parents enter a depressed state that precludes a healthy sex life and they grieve over the children and the dreams for them that they seem to have lost, the pressure is intense, and sometimes the roles are reversed, as children or siblings need to play the roles of their parents (like Miriam who, according to the midrash, told her father to reunite with her mother). The taskmasters, to push the analogy a bit further, are members of the public, extended family, and even medical professionals who make the burden even greater by blaming family members and even treating them as hostiles. It is as if the taskmasters have been instructed to make the family “suffer with their burden.”

Further bolstering this claim, note R. Yosef Zvi Rimon’s remarks in his Passover Haggadah where he explains that the three forms of affliction mentioned in the Mekhilta all target human freedom. The enslaved Jew was no longer the master of his own relationship with his wife, of how his children would be raised, or of his own time (in dividing up his workload).[18] He had lost his agency.  In discussing what the term “affliction” itself actually means, R. Rimon takes this argument one step further. Citing Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, he explains what the real tragedy for the Israelites was that the Israelite slaves did not realize the true extent or nature of their own problems.  They could rattle off most of the indignities visible to everyone, but they were oblivious to the profound impact of the slavery on their will to live, to propagate, and to engage in a healthy, marital relationship. They had lost their very sense of themselves as “free” human beings and they did not even realize it. When God redeemed them from Egypt, it was not enough for Him to redeem them from the servitude, He also had to turn them into “free men.” [19]

Curiously, these two essential components of the mental affliction—loss of agency and the inability to even realize the deeper loss—are central to many family members’ experiences. Many caregivers lose themselves—their very sense of self—in their loved ones, in their constant devotion to dealing with the situation. They become enslaved to the needs and drives of their loved ones without even noticing that they have lost their own fecundity, their own right or need to live their own lives. How fitting it is for such family members to pray to the Mighty Redeemer that He wage their battles for them and help them out of the mire (out of the quicksand that they do not even know they have sunk into).

Authored by Meshulam Gotlieb, NEABPD, Israel

[1] Rashi, bMegillah 17b, s.v. atchalta de-geula he. Siddur Ahavat Shalom – The Complete ArtScroll Sidddur A new translation and anthological commentary by Nosson Sherman, Mesorah Publications, first ed. 1984, 1992, p.103.

[2] For R. Weil’s complete exposition of the personal requests in the Amidah, see https://www.ou.org/torah/tefillah/rabbi-weil-on-tefillah/the_personal_requests_bakashos_articulated_in_the_amidah/

For his comments on this petitionary prayer, including a discussion of the Rabbis in the Mekhilta, see 8:13-12:40 of that presentation.

[3]The translation of these passages is taken from The Hebrew Bible in English

according to the JPS 1917 edition found online at the Mechon Mamre website (www.mechon-mamre.org). Occasionally, my translation of these verses differs elsewhere in the piece due to exegetical considerations.

[4] Curiously, Rashi (ad locum, citing the midrash) suggests that this reference to avodah indicates a form of psychological pressure. Seeing that the hard work had not deterred the Israelites from continuing to grow and flourish, Pharaoh decided to pressure them spiritually, demanding they become idol worshippers, enticing them to assimilate. The dual meaning of the Hebrew word ovodah as physical labor and worship allows the midrash to reread the verse as referring to “idol worship.” Ritva even explains that this was the דחק that we will discuss below (R. Yom Tov ibn Asevilli [Ritba], The Haggadah Torat Chaim im Perushei Ha-Rishonim, Mosad Harav Kook, 1998, p.104-105, s.v. ve-et lahatzenu zeh ha-dehak).


[5]
The translation of the Mekhilta is taken from the Haggadah at the Chabad.org website:  https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/944176/jewish/Chametz-UMatzah-Text-of-the-Haggadah.htm

In some cases, this translation differs slightly from my readings of the verses elsewhere in this piece.

[6] Y. Z. Rimon Pesach Haggadah – Shirat Miriam, KTAV Publishing House, 2014. Originally published in Hebrew where this citation of The Passover Haggadah With a Commentary Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Rabbi Menachem D. Genack, KTAV Publishing House in Association with OU Press, Urim Publications, 2009, appears on page 193.

[7] S. Riskin. Passover Haggadah with a Traditional and Contemporary Commentary (English and Hebrew Edition), Ktav, 1984, p. 83.

[8] The midrashic, hermeneutic logic for connecting the term ענינו to the disruption of marital relations has two sources:  (1)עונתה  is the term for marital duty in Exodus 21:10 and ענינו refers to “refraining from sex” in other cases (Joseph Tabory, The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah: Historical Introduction, Translation, and Commentary, The Jewish Publication Society, 2008, p. 92, n. 22). (2) The verse’s use of the phrase “and God knew” may also hint at this connection  since in other contexts ידע denotes conjugal knowledge (for instance, “and Adam knew Eve his wife”). Cf. Abudraham and Perush Kadmon, both found in the Haggadat Torat Chaim, ad locum.

[9] Ibn Ezra in commenting on Exodus 2:25 makes a slightly different distinction between those acts of oppression committed in public—which God “saw”—and those acts of oppression committed in private, which God “knew” about. Thus, He saw the harsh physical labor and He knew about the disruption of marital life.

[10] Riskin, 82-83.

[11] Ritba, The Haggadah Torat Chaim im Perushei Ha-Rishonim, p.103,  s.v. ve-et amalenu.

[12] bSanhedrin 101b. Rashi, ad locum, explains ואתה הרעות to mean that God made it worse for the Jews after Moses spoke to Pharaoh. Now, when they did not fulfill their quotas, the Egyptians replaced the bricks with babies. For the ancient and widely prevalent superstition that immuring a human being in an edifice under construction ensures its permanence, see Paul G. Brewster, “The Foundation Sacrifice Motif in Legend, Folksong, Game, and Dance” in Alan Dundes, ed., The Walled-Up Wife: A Casebook (Wisconsin UP, 1996), 36ff.

[13] bSotah 11a.

[14] While the exact nature of this oppression remains unclear on a literal level, as Nechama Leibowitz pointed out, the next two times this term is used in the Bible are in Exodus 22:20 and 23:9 where the Jew is enjoined not to “oppress” the stranger because he was a stranger in Egypt. This keyword reminds us to “strengthen our sensitivity to the stranger in our midst” (STUDIES ON THE HAGGADAH: From the Teachings of Nechama Leibowitz, eds.  Yitshak Reiner and Shmuel Peerless, Urim Publications, 2002, p. 69).  Alternatively, Rabbenu Behaye (1255-1340) explains that this pressure was quite literal as even though the Jews multiplied, they were not allowed to settle outside the confines of Goshen, so they were literally squeezed (as the Jews were in the medieval ghettoes. (E. Kitov, The Heritage Haggadah: With Laws Customs, Traditions, and Commentary for the Seder Night, translated by Gershon Robinson, Feldheim Publishers, 1999. Citation from the original Hebrew edition, p. 144). As mentioned above in note four, Ritba suggests that this דחק was the psychological pressure to assimilate and adopt Egyptian mores and beliefs.

[15] This heartfelt request for God’s intercession is also reflected in the Anenu prayer inserted between the Onyenu and Refa’einu petitions or in Shema Kolenu on fast days, though the reference to the Egyptian enslavement (and, hence, specifically emotional turmoil) is absent:

 ענֵנוּ י”י עֲנֵנוּ כִּי בְצָרָה גְּדולָה אֲנָחְנוּ. אַל תֵּפֶן אֶל רִשְׁעֵנוּ וְאַל תָּסְתֶר פָּנֵיךָ מִמֶנּוּ וְאַל תִּתְעַלָּם מִתְחִינָתֵנוּ . הֱיֵה נָא קָרוב לְשַׁוְעָתֵנוּ , יְהִי חֲסְדְךָ לְנַחֲמֶנוּ . טֶרֶם נִקְרָא אֵלֶיךָ עֲנֵנוּ , כַּדָּבָר שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: “וְהָיָה טֶרֶם יִקְרָאוּ וַאֲנִי אֶעֱנֶה. עוד הֵם מְדַבְּרִים וַאֲנִי אֶשְׁמָע”. כִּי אַתָּה ה’ הַעוֹנֶה בְּעֵת צָרָה, פּודֶה וּמַצִּיל בְּכָל עֵת צָרָה וְצוּקָה:

[16] The Koren Siddur with Introduction, Translation and Cpmmentary by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers Jersulam/OU, 2009, pp. 116-117. Note that R. Sacks, presumably well aware of the echo to the Egyptian servitude, includes “captivity” in his litany of woes.

[17] This parallelism of physical and mental health reflects the Tannaitic source cited in Arakhin 17b-18a where the mentally ill person (the shoteh) is compared to the physically ill one (the blind or the deaf) as being separate but equally ill. It also reflects the prayer we recite for sick people during the public Torah reading asking God for רפואת הנפש ורפואת הגוף–renewed health of mind and body. This phrase is also found in the personal petitions inserted into Refa’einu even though the standard formula still seems to focus solely on physical well-being.

 

If someone knew testimony about another before he, the one who knew the testimony, became the other’s son-in-law, and then he became his son-in-law; or when he was able to hear, and then he became a deaf-mute; or when he could see, and he subsequently became blind; or while he was halakhically competent [Steinsaltz Hebrew, “in his right mind”], and he then became an imbecile/entered what we now call a psychotic state [Prof. Dr. Rael Strous]; in all these cases, he is disqualified from testifying. But if someone knew testimony about another before he became his son-in-law, and he then became his son-in-law, and afterward his wife, who was the daughter of the father-in-law, died, which means that the witness is no longer related to the party involved; or when he was able to hear, and then became a deaf-mute, and again became able to hear; or when he could see, and subsequently became blind, and afterward could see again; or when he was halakhically competent [Steinsaltz Hebrew, “in his right mind”], and then became an imbecile/ entered what we now call a psychotic state [Prof. Dr. Rael Strous], and again became halakhically competent; in all these cases he is fit to testify. This is the principle: Any individual whose beginning and end is in a state of qualification to serve as a witness is qualified to testify, even if he was unfit in the interim.

 

היה יודע לו בעדות עד שלא נעשה חתנו ונעשה חתנו פקח ונתחרש פתוח ונסתמא שפוי ונשתטה הרי זה פסול אבל היה יודע לו עדות עד שלא נעשה חתנו ונעשה חתנו ואח”כ מתה בתו פקח ונתחרש וחזר ונתפקח פתוח ונסתמא ואח”כ נתפתח שפוי ונשתטה וחזר ונשתפה כשר זה הכלל כל שתחילתו וסופו בכשרות כשר

[18] Rimon,191.

[19] Ibid.,193.