Psalms and Their Superpowers

In recent months, the need for deeper prayer – just to cope with events – has become more urgent for me and, I suspect, for others as well. It seems to me that the world around us is also in urgent need of all the help it can get, in the form of prayer and otherwise.

Mishkan T’filah reminds us that “We join together in prayer because together, we are stronger and more apt to commit to the values of our heritage….”

The older Gates of Prayer tells us that “Some will pray together who cannot pray alone, as many will sing in chorus who would not sing solos.” It also cautions that public worship is different from private worship in a public place.

Here are some thoughts to help us explore what it means to engage in public worship, maybe to better understand what we’re trying to accomplish, individually and collectively, with our prayers.

Toward Communal Prayer

We never pray as individuals, set apart from the rest of the world….Every act of worship is an act of participating in an eternal service, in the service of all souls of all ages.

At times all we do is to utter a word with all our heart, yet it is as if we lifted up a whole world. It is as if someone unsuspectingly pressed a button and a gigantic wheel-work were stormily and surprisingly set in motion.

It’s like being a faucet or a crack in the rocks from which the water emerges. The spring doesn’t make the water. At best, it knows how to get out of the way and open itself wide to the flow. If it’s really blessed and happens to be connected to some sweet, clear water, then it will taste like a revelation to those who encounter it.

The words above are from the 20th Century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (Man’s Quest for God. Santa Fe, NM: Aurora, 1998) and from the poet and essayist John Barlow (Afterward, Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics . NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005). I thought both authors captured essential aspects of prayer, particularly public worship –

  • connecting with something larger than ourselves
  • realizing that offering a heartfelt word might be in our power, but anything beyond that is outside our control
  • and recognizing that something that is not us is moving whenever we actually encounter moments of insight or solace or inspiration

As we settle into a house of worship, our city, nation, and globe face intense challenges that we don’t always acknowledge inside these walls. There are undoubtedly many other personal concerns weighing on the hearts of those here this morning.

And yet Shabbat asks us to rejoice and delight in its goodness.

Trying to figure out how to get from the work-a-day world to Shabbat is hard enough. But moving from grief and anger and worry, maybe even despair, to Shabbat is yet another level of challenge. This is where I call on the psalms, with their range of emotions, to exercise their superpower. I find that psalms let us move through difficult states of being to get to praise and joy.

Psalms Work

In particular, psalms attributed to the offspring of Korach offer us an amazing offer us an amazing variety of images to explore as we find our way in prayer.

[Remarks originally prepared for Shabbat Korach]. So, I thought it would be interesting to consider a few of these psalms. They touch on the usual Shabbat morning themes –

  • waking up our bodies, minds, and souls;
  • acknowledging our blessings; and
  • becoming aware of community, before we reach the formal call to worship.

Psalm 84

(text here)
First, like Mah Tovu, which often opens our prayers, this psalm is filled with place language:

  • mishkenotekha, translated as “your places” or “tabernacles” or “sanctuaries,”
  • beitecha, “Your house,” in verse 5
  • beit elohei, “house of my God” in verse 11
  • ken, “nest” in verse 4
  • mizb’chotekha – “your altars”
  • Zion, which is understood in many ways, as both a physical and a metaphorical place, and
  • chatzrot – “courtyards” in verses 3 & 11, which we also find in Psalm 92 the psalm for Shabbat

But Psalm 84 also includes nearly as many expressions for travel:

  • a soul that is longing to be elsewhere – in those courtyards – in verse 3
  • crossing the Valley and transforming it in verse 7
  • walking from strength to strength in verse 8
  • walking the holy road in verse 12 – and, my favorite
  • “highways in the heart” or the “heart as an easy road”

On the Way/Here
We also find several phrases that suggest states of mind than physical locations
ohalei-rasha: tents of wickedness, or “tents of those estranged from your will”
and histoteif, which my commentary calls an infinitive form of the noun, saf – threshold – used as a gerund, so “standing on the threshold”

This expression sort of encapsulates the psalm’s twin themes of being in a place and simultaneous on the way.

This dual status – being here and on the way – is, I think, part of how prayer works. So let’s make sure that we’re here – body, mind, and soul – as we consider

How beloved are the places we perceive the Holy One
How strongly our souls long for the Courtyards
How even the bird finds a home and the swallow a nest
How happy are they who dwell in God’s house
and how happy are we still on the threshold dreaming of a sweet day in God’s Courtyard

…on this pilgrimage Jews have been taking in one way or another for millenia.

See also “heart highways” for more on Psalm 84.

Psalm 42

(text here)

Psalm 42 is one that takes us through a range of emotions – celebrating kindness by day and song at night, on the one hand, and yet feeling “bent low” and “in tumult.” The throngs were crying in joy and thanksgiving, but that memory brings sadness because the moment of gathering, and perhaps of insight, is passed.

It’s also worth considering, as we explore the idea of prayer, that depths are calling to depths and breakers and waves crashing, but the soul’s desire is compared to longing for a simple drink from a stream. And that seems sufficient. In fact, the psalmist wisely doesn’t desire ocean depths, even while thirsting for the presence of the Living God.

See also “Why Doesn’t She Drink?

Using and Leaving the Psalms

If we don’t manage to transform anything, if only our own perspectives on our own cares, maybe our prayer is not all it could be. And, knowing that everyone here brought at least some burdens that need lifting up, and that our city and country and world need lifting up as well, shouldn’t we use the tools at hand to see if we can do as Heschel described, uttering a heartfelt word in hope of setting off that gigantic wheel-work that lifts the world?

Some related ideas as we prepare to leave the psalms — please see “Melody of Understanding“…

First: Pope Gregory (on PDF) says that God already had us in mind when the psalms were inspired and that they speak to us today “as if they were at this instant pronounced for the first time.” John Barlow notes that the material he helped create continues to grow and reveal itself over time, “resonating with frequencies unheard at the time of their writing.” And Eknath Easwaran suggests that we can respond to sacred text through “attentiveness, persistence, and the desire to move from inspiration to insight to action.”

I add: perhaps together we can help each other dare to be vulnerable enough to drink from that stream, and, if we all walk together through the Valley of Weeping, maybe we can transform it together into that wellspring of life.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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