Or: Don’t think of a Green Hippo!
Recently, the leader of Fabrangen West‘s Birkot Ha-Shachar/Psukei D’Zimra [Morning Blessings and Verses of Song] introduced the service by asking that we consider the pshat [literal meaning] of the prayers. She mentioned a common tendency to hear (or speak) a negative edge to even the most positive sounding statements.
Everyone present seemed to recognize the tendency we were being asked to avoid. I think most of us have witnessed — if not played both roles, at various points in our lives — exchanges that goes something like this:
“That’s a nice shirt [lovely street, informative graphic].”
“What’s wrong with these pants [this neighborhood, the rest of the report]?”
Moreover, one participant explained a parallel version to her young son: “You know how ‘thanks for cleaning your room,’ might also mean, ‘How come you don’t do that more often?’ even if the mom doesn’t say that?”
And after more than a week of struggling with record- and back-breaking snowfalls, I know some of us were following “How wonderful are your works!” with a muttered, “Wonderful, sure! But don’t ‘Your works’ come in smaller packages?” Conversely, one is reminded of Tevye’s plaintive, “I know you look after all our needs… but would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?”
So, I thought the assignment to focus on the various expressions of thanks and praise in the service, trying to avoid hearing or speaking any hidden negatives, seemed appropriate. A reasonable, even simple, request.
And, with that kavanah [intention], I’m pretty sure that I managed relatively unadulterated gratitude for the first blessing: “Blessed are You, Adonai, Our God, Ruler of the Universe, You have given me understanding to see differences clearly, as between day and night.”
But, then I must have entered some sort of don’t-think-of-a-green-hippo state, as we continued reciting blessings:
“…she-asani b’tzalmo” [made in Your image] — “in Your image, with unlimited potential”* — “Well, really, I’m doing as much as I can right now!”
“…bat chorin” [free] — “free, with the ability to choose”* — “You got a problem with my choices?”
“…pokeiach ivrim” [open the eyes of the blind] — “…providing sight and insight”* — “I do SO recognize other people’s perspectives.”
…and on it went. I was failing seriously at this “pshat prayer.” It was an interesting, if somewhat disturbing, experimental result for me — but it wasn’t exactly the (simple) thanks our service leader had urged.
* We use Siddur Eit Ratzon, so these English formulations are Joseph Rosenstein’s.
Obliged to Thank
Then we came to the verse that begins “L’fichach anachnu chayyvim, l’hodot l’cha…” It’s usually translated as something like, “Therefore we are obliged to (acknowledge and) thank You…” (e.g., Sim Shalom, Metsuda, My People’s Prayerbook**).
Therefore we are obliged.…”That explains it,” I thought: Feeling obligated just isn’t consistent with simple anything — including thanks — for me, anyway. So, regardless of prayerbook contents — BTW, Kol Haneshamah and Mishkan T’filah,** e.g., don’t include this verse or the related paragraphs — maybe the awareness of obligation was making (simple) thanks impossible for me.
With this newly confused kavanah — aiming for simple thanks, which is maybe not possible in a relationship which involves obligation…and what relationship doesn’t? — I continued in the prayerbook:
L’fichach anachnu chayyavim [Because of all the blessings we receive, we are]
l’hodot l’cha, [obliged to acknowlege Your presence in our lives,]
ul’shabbeichacha ul’faercha, [to extol and to honor You,]
ul’vareich u’lkaddeish [to bless and to sanctify You,]
v’lateit shevach v’hodayah lishmecha
[and to give praise and gratitude to You.]
Ashreinu [How richly we are blessed]
mah tov chelkeinu [how good are our circumstances]
umah naim goraleinu [how pleasant our portion]
umah yafa y’rushateinu [how beautiful our heritage]
she-anachnu mashkimim uma-arivim, [How fortunate are we]
erev va-voker [to acknowledge your presence***]
v’omrim pa-amayim b’chol yom
[every morning and evening with these words***]
(These paragraphs introduce the first recitation of the shema in many prayerbooks)
Rosenstein’s accompanying comment on the third paragraph above speaks about “express[ing] gratitude for being able to experience and express gratitude.” But this particular morning, I found that I was experiencing gratitude for being obligated.
Thanks for Obligation
When we’re together celebrating Shabbat, I can say “ashreinu” — how fortunate we are — without complication or ambiguity. Perhaps a sense of obligation — to Shabbat, to tradition, to community — plays a part in getting each of us to prepare hospitality, service leading, Torah reading and discussion on any given week. But this week’s crippling snowstorms, and the resulting enforced togetherness, had added obstacles for each of us that we didn’t usually face. And yet here we were, together, to consider thanks and obligation and our relationships with God and each other, to pray and sing…
** For full citations and more information on prayerbooks, please see Source Materials.
*** The translations of these two lines are swapped from their literal placement (presumably for flow and poetic reasons).