I have heard it said, frequently from the bima of Temple Micah (Washington, DC), that a proliferation of words doesn’t always aid prayer. Rabbi Danny Zemel has often said that his own preference would be to choose just a few words on which to focus at any prayer service. I understand this perspective and do sometimes find a day’s worth of prayer in just a few words…
…Ribon kol hamaasim [Source of all Creation]
Adon kol han’shamot [Sovereign of all souls]…
— Mishkan T’filah (Shabbat Morning I), p.196
…to take just one example.
But I confess that I love words. Lots and lots of them. I am particularly fond of the psalms and of the “Nishmat” prayers which immediately precede the official call to worship on Shabbat and Festival mornings. I miss them when they’re not around.
“Nishmat” does appear in Mishkan T’filah, but Temple Micah often skips this. Psalms are generally pretty scarce in the “new” (2007) prayerbook’s morning service, and we usually sing only Psalm 150. So, I carry an extra siddur and quietly add my favorite psalms, as well as the opening and closing prayers for Psukei d’Zimrah [songs of praise, i.e., “Baruch She’amar” through “Nishmat“].
For the most part, I just hope this is not too distracting to others, and I try to keep my finger on the “right” page in case a visitor needs orientation. However, there are times when this practice creates some interesting juxtapositions, one of which I share here.
Body/Soul and Beyond
Temple Micah often employs Debbie Friedman’s (z”l) joint setting of “Asher Yatzar” (“…who formed the human body with skill…”) and “Elohai N’shamah” (“My God, the soul You gave me is pure…”). During this musical interweaving of prayers for body and soul, I am usually, at some point, mumbling my way through Psalm 93, say, or 136. Or, depending on the morning’s page flipping, I might be adding the words of “Ilu Finu” to the congregation’s early morning prayers.
In another journey through the morning prayers, there might be more time to focus on each psalm independently and to recite “Nishmat” after the psalms — which definitely has merit. But necessity is the mother of much: Just a moment’s attention to “additional” words, weaves a third strand into Friedman’s two-part crescendo of voices.
The resulting three-part juxtapositions are powerful. They help me expand into the worship service: Awakening body and soul is also connected with the wider world — and our tiny, if amazingly complex, parts in it — and with the Source of All.
1) “…n’kavim n’kavim, chalulim, chalulim…
[many pathways and openings — from Asher Yatzar]
2) “v’atah m’shamrah b’kirbi”
[You protect (my soul) within me — from Elohai].
3A) “…The world…appears unmovable….
the ocean surges…But You are truly powerful…”
3B) “…To the One who made the heavens wisely,…
who established the earth above the waters,…
who made the great lights,…
…ki l’olam chasdo. Your lovingkindness is forever.”
3C) “…if our mouths were full of song as the sea…
if our hands were spread out like heaven’s eagles…
we could never thank You adequately…
to bless Your Name for a ten-thousandth
of the many myriads of times
You granted favor to our ancestors and to us.”
–Psalms 93 and 136, Siddur Eit Ratzon
—Ilu Finu, Mishkan T’filah, pages 220-221
In the spirit of fewer words: enough said?
PS — There is no method to this page-flipping thing. And, of course, not everyone wants yet more words. It can be just as valuable to juxtapose other thoughts with the words of the siddur. If it’s not your usual practice, though, I recommend taking a step off “the right page,” whether toward more words or away from them. And if it is your practice, please share some of your thoughts — Leave a Reply — below.
Debbie Friedman’s two-part setting for Asher Yatzar/Elohai Neshama is found on the albums “Songs of the Spirit,” 2005, and “As You Go On Your Way: Shacharit-the Morning Prayers,” 2010.
One thought on “Beyond Body and Soul: Expanding Morning Prayers”
Thanks Virginia. I believe we met a bunch of years ago, when I was I think visiting the Tifereth Israel Tikkun, and you lead a session on the psalms, maybe. Sorry to be so tentative. And, I’ve been glad to see you recently join i-Worship, which I’ve followed maybe the past decade.
This morning, I was thinking about prayer, and what may be the more typical minhag that is associated with it in our Jewish communities. Since I’m not well educated/trained, I think my naivete provides a benefit.
This minhag does have to do with looking at the detail of the presentation of the Words…sometimes at the level of one or several words either. For me, this is advanced.
Growing up, I was somehow impressed by the movie The Strawberry Statement. There was a small throw away line with beg pegagogy. It was a medical student who succeeded by reading the headlines in a study guide. These headlines lead the way to this student’s success…in the movie.
I have found relative success in the same approach.
Not knowing the service so well as many like I think you and my Rabbi Gerry who are quite well studied, I also see, on the other end of the spectrum people missing whole swaths of what the service is intended to be about even in its most broad sweeps. So, I take value in the headlines, and know I can follow the flow of the service as I believe it’s intended.
You mention above Nishmat. Though I take most of what I learned about the service from the text I found also a decade ago, Rosenberg’s Jewish Liturgy as a Spiritual System, Rabbi Gerry’s introduction of Rosenstein’s Eit Raztzon siddur certainly has enhanced it, given his own predisposition and orientation. From Rosenstein I learned that at Nishmat, the pray-er might re-engage differently, and…as Joe Rosenstein states it….move from positioning his own perspective of how they relate to G-d, to how they see G-d as such. This has caused me to imagine the Jewish/meditation community in the Northeast, Nishmay Hayiim, may have been influenced in this thinking, in naming itself.
Thanks again for this chance to comment and view your blog. I hope to be back.