Exploring Psalm 27 — (1 of 4)

For a little over 200 years, Psalm 27 has been associated with the season of repentance: Some have the custom of reciting this psalm during Days of Awe (10 days), some for the whole month of Elul as well (40 days), and some beginning on Rosh Hodesh Elul and continuing through Hoshana Rabba (51 days). There are several explanations for this association. Most focus on the psalm’s themes; also noted: the expression “were it not” — לוּלֵא — in verse 13 spells Elul — אלול — backward.

Many siddurim include the full psalm somewhere in Psukei D’zimrah (verses of song, in the morning service). Mishkan T’filah includes the single verse, 27:4, for which there are a number of popular tunes (p.662 in “songs and hymns”).
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“You set the patterns of the moon”

El Adon and Another Pinchas Addendum


(5) Glory and honor they give to You
glowing praises to Your rule
You call to the sun and it gives forth light
You set the patterns of the moon

(6) You are honored throughout the heavens with songs of glory and praise
[the Seraphim, Ophanim and holy beings ascribe glory and greatness]

Shevach notnim lo kol tz’va marom
[tiferet ugdulah serafim ve’ofanim vechayot hakodesh]

— from “El Adon,” a hymn of Creation
in the Shabbat and Festival morning services
translation from Mishkan T’filah,
[MT inexplicably omits the final (“tiferet“) line]

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Robe, River, and Bond in Morning Prayer

Wrapping

The early morning section of a Jewish prayer book focuses — with some variety in content and order (see below) — on wraps:

  • God is robed in majesty (Psalms 104:1-2).
  • Jews are wrapped in fringes (blessing for wearing a tallit [prayer shawl]).
  • Humans take refuge in the shadow of divine wings (Psalms 36:8-11).

The focus then shifts — with the verse, “For with You is the fountain of life. In Your light do we see light” (36:10) — away from God’s universal (and one-sided) kindness toward a more specific relationship with expectations on both parts: “Continue Your lovingkindness to those that know You and Your righteousness to the upright in heart” (36:11). This is followed by verses from Hosea (2:21-22) promising betrothal “in righteousness,” “in justice,” “in lovingkindness and in compassion,” and “in faithfulness.” (More below on these verses, tefillin, and the upcoming World Wide Wrap.)
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Further Awakenings in the Siddur

The Soul, Slow Waking, and a Little Grammar

Beyond the first two lines of the earliest morning prayers — it takes some of us a long time to make those first few steps — Jewish morning blessings continue to focus on awakening, with attention to body, soul, and Torah/mind. Here are some notes on “the soul” as well as a tune for slow wakers, as well as notes on Hebrew grammar related to this variant of the waking prayer.

Elsewhere on this blog, is a post, prepared for Tu B’svhat last year, and focusing on one of the daily blessings: Strength to the Weary. There are more posts relevant to the early morning prayers, which can be found, I hope, through the search function. Other resources and ideas are always welcome, although this blog cites as general references only egalitarian sources.

NOTE: Temple Micah‘s siddur study group will explore, over the next few months, Birkhot Hashachar [Morning Blessings] and Psukei D’zimrah [Verses of Song]. Discussions will begin in, and center around, the prayer texts themselves. All are welcome. (More details, schedule and a handout to frame group-led discussions is available on the siddur study group page.)

Please note that the Source Materials page offers citations and more details about many books and other resources cited here.


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More Gratitude: Waking Up in Real Life


It is an age-old Jewish practice to start a day with gratitude and thanks. The question was raised in a recent study session about why tunes for the earliest of morning prayers tend to be very peppy, while not all of us awaken like that. One associated teaching is that we should approach each day with as much vigor as we have. I no of no sleepier versions, so to speak, so perhaps someone needs to compose a “modah ani for slow wakers.”

Early blessings to accompany the acts of awakening — opening the eyes, putting feet on the ground, dressing, etc. — are found in the Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and included, in various orders and with different forms of address to God, in countless Jewish prayer books. Among the blessings recited earliest in the day are those focusing on the soul, body and intellect. This practice is meant to train the Jew to enjoy nothing — not even the functioning of own bodies or brains — without acknowledging and thanking God.

As discussed in Temple Micah’s first Shabbat session on the siddur, the “modah/modeh ani” prayer came into practice more recently — recent, as in the last few hundred years. It is an odd blessing, in Jewish tradition, because it does not mention God’s name. Leaving aside the reasons for this, the real power of the prayer is in practicing conscious direction of thought upon awakening (or as soon thereafter as possible).

In that spirit, here are some further resources and notes:
Gratitude without God
Gratitude with Coffee: in the Midst of Work, Attending to Others
Gratitude in Tough Times and in Mourning

Here are two musical approaches to modah/modeh ani. One was composed by Cantor Jeff Klepper and is frequently sung at Temple Micah; it’s performed in this video a capella by a mother and daughter. Another is Rabbi David Paskin performing his own composition. There are many other versions, but these are two I like.

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Food for All Creatures

“[God] prepares food for all creatures…” This line, which appears in the first section of the blessing after meals [Birkat Hamazon], has been giving me pause lately…Quite literally, if I’m paying the least attention to the words, I find myself stuck — “on pause” – as I consider whether what I just ate was the appropriate food for this particular creature at this particular time.

To understand how difficult this question is for me requires a bit of family history.

I do not come from a long line of women who enjoyed or excelled at cooking. On my maternal side, I descend from women who considered the successful boiling of noodles an accomplishment, although my mother did make a mean fudge. Stories of the elder women in my mother’s family – “Little Grandma” and “Big Grandma” – are devoid of fragrant bread or savory soup.

My father’s culinary repertoire offered two prominent recipes of no use to a household with peanut allergies (not to mention issues of kashrut): fried peanut butter and bacon sandwiches and crackers topped with peanut butter and horse-radish mustard. He failed to instill in me his love of anchovies, although I did take up his habit of adding something salty to ice cream. Semi-annual visits to his mother’s kitchen convinced me that canning and baking were foreign practices with no role in city life.

Fudge and salty ice cream. For a long time, I was happy enough with this legacy.

For years, I was unaware that families outside books or television might offer more varied lessons in food preparation. I eventually realized that some folks enjoyed preparing and serving meals, but I still found the concept hard to grasp. As a parent, I became increasingly aware of how much I had never learned about food. But it was only with the diagnosis of Type II Diabetes in mid-life that I started to accept how much I needed to know.

Only in recent days, as I begin the blessing after meals – “Blessed are You, God, Sovereign of the Universe, who in goodness feeds the world…who prepares food for all creatures…” – do I stop to ask: Was what I just ate for me? Did it really feed me?

“[God] prepares food for all creatures” is usually understood to reference worms for birds, grains for mice, bugs for frogs. But lately I’ve been hearing it as a nudge to ask: Was that meal the best choice for this particular creature at this point in her day? Would something else have served me better?

Lately, the blessing has been reminding me that fudge and salty ice cream – however suitable as treats for a child in motion – are simply not the best option for me right now. I am using the prayer as a prompt to open my eyes to the plethora of healthy, enjoyable options that won’t upset my diabetes control. Blessed are You, God, who prepares food that can contribute to my health.

You Didn’t Have to Be There: Prayer, Sinai and the Grateful Dead

There’s a great scene in a fairly silly movie, called Must Love Dogs: The struggling divorced man played by John Cusack is obsessed with the movie Doctor Zhivago. He watches it over and over at home and then drags the young woman he is dating to a revival house to see it. Leaving the theater, the dating couple runs into the romantic lead, played by Diane Lane, who declares that she too loves Doctor Zhivago. She watches it over and over again hoping, she says, “that once Lara and Yuri will get together again…in the springtime preferably. And wear shorts.” The young date responds, “OK, but they can’t because it’s just a movie.”

Of course, Diane Lane and John Cusack do get together, even though things still don’t look so good for Yuri and Lara. And I believe the Must Love Dogs view of Doctor Zhivago has a lot to say about this week’s Torah portion Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and about our prayers.
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Justice: God’s Promise or Ours? (Shoftim Prayer Links)

“We must learn how to study the inner life of the words that fill the world of our prayerbook,” Abraham Joshua Heschel told fellow rabbis in 1953. “A word has a soul, and we must learn how to attain insight into its life….We forgot how to find the way to the word, how to be on intimate terms with a few passages in the prayerbook. Familiar with all the words, we are intimate with none.”

In that spirit, I believe parashat Shoftim [judges] calls out for us to get a little more intimate with at least one word:

Tzedek — as in “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof… [Justice, justice you shall pursue…]” (Deut./Devarim 16:20).

The words tzedek [“justice” or “righteousness”] and tzadikim [“just” or “righteous” folk] feature frequently in the siddur and in the Book of Psalms, including a number of psalms recited regularly as part of the liturgy. Perhaps a few examples will provide insights into the soul of “tzedek.”
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Awaiting the Harvests: Re’eh Prayer Links

“You find three verses [two in this week’s portion] that command you to rejoice in the Feast of Tabernacles….For Passover, however, you will not find even one command to rejoice. Why not?” Several explanations are offered in the commentary for the variations of joy-related commandments (there is one command to rejoice for Shavuot). Each explanation suggests important ideas about the calendar, including the upcoming fall holidays, and reciting Hallel throughout the year.

(For more on the festival cycle, see, e.g., Michael Strassfield’s article at My Jewish Learning.)
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