How lovely are these tents!
not far from housing that has seen better days
and housing that has seen too many awful ones.
I love the place of Your house, reached through streets
collecting cigarette butts, the odd chicken wing, echoes of homicide.
Through Your abundant love, I enter Your house,
where these peaceful walls remind us: “If I am for myself alone, what am I?”
while a few miles away homes reel from gunshots and mourning,
makeshift memorials of teddy bears and candles pooled with tears and rain.
Meetings and vigils and “let this be the last.”
My prayer seeks a favorable time –
Does joy come in the morning, where weeping has not tarried for the night?
Can we dance together, if we have not yet joined in lament?
You answer with your saving truth:
Your glory’s dwelling-place spans mountain top and pit.
We are shaken and we stand firm.
Remove our sackcloth and dress us to praise You, Source of Healing and Help.
— Virginia Spatz, August 21, 2015
See Mah Tovu [How lovely are your tents] and Psalm 30 in the early morning prayers
…weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.
…When I was carefree, I thought, “I shall never be shaken.”…
LORD, when I enjoyed your favor, You made me stand firm as a mighty mountain; when You hid Your face, I was terrified….
You turned my lament into dancing;
You removed my sackcloth and girded me with joy
See also, “Prayer Warm Up” and handout on Psalm 30
Part of the early morning warm-up for prayers — along with awareness of our blessings and awakening body, soul, and mind — is moving from what Mishkan T’filah [Reform prayerbook] calls “self-fulfillment” to “social imperatives of community.” And that means beginning to move through the individual joys and concerns that we brought with us to a communal awareness — of each other and the world beyond these walls.
…To me it’s a little ironic that Mishkan T’filah editors discuss this in the introduction but don’t include my favorite way to accomplish this — the psalms — in the prayerbook proper….
Psalm 30 in particular, on the handout (Psalms Handout; see below), is a great vehicle for moving through our personal laments and dancing, shaken-ness and solidity, as we become aware of participating in thousands of years and millions upon millions of voices crying out and healing, praising without ceasing.
In this season of Elul, Psalm 27 is also recited, asking God to help us feel the divine presence as we seek to return to ourselves, as individuals and as a People in the new year.
And, finally, I repeat a teaching I learned earlier this summer about the nearness of all we need — like the water right in front of the deer in Psalm 42 — and how it is, even still, for us to experience what sustains us. We do, after all, have to become vulnerable, if only for moment.
Note: Please note that Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb’s first name contains a typo on this handout, PsalmsAugust22. My apologies.
See also, “Morning: Blessing, with Echo of Gunshots.”
A (very) previous post discussed the idea of being too grumpy for gratitude, with a focus on one humility-prompting passage from the morning blessings:
…Master of all worlds, we do not offer our supplications before You based on our righteousness, but rather based on Your great mercy. What are we? What are our lives?….Man barely rises above beast, for everything is worthless [hakol havel]….
Because of this, we are obliged to acknowledge and thank you…
— See “Is thanks ever simple? – part 2”
In that post, Ellen Frankel and Estelle Frankel (no relation as far as I know) are quoted on the concepts of “bittul/self-surrender” and a “healthy sense of entitlement.”
Admitting such truth is not simple. It requires that we abandon our grandiose childish sense of entitlement to God’s favor. We…are puny in God’s sight. Ultimately, we can only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.
But is this abject humility an honest expression of how we feel? Must we really live our lives as though we are so worthless, as though hakol havel, “everything is worthless,” as Ecclesiastes lamented?
— Ellen Frankel, My Peoples Prayerbook
For years, I’ve been looking at the expression “iyun tefilah,” as in the famous passage from Shabbat 127a, where it is translated as “contemplation [or “meditation,” maybe “devotion”] in prayer.” Mishkan T’filah includes this phrase in the morning study passage, a kind of mash-up of Peah 1:1. and Shabbat 127a. (See pp.206-207 in Mishkan T’filah and below.) We often sing, “…v’iyun tefila-a-ah, v’iyun t’fila-a-ah…,” using Jeff Klepper‘s setting for “Eilu Devarim“.
Until a recent Talmud class, however, I didn’t realize that “עיון [iyun]” was the same word translated elsewhere as “study,” “learning,” or “investigation.” In some contexts — a class on the prayerbook, e.g., or the 19th Century siddur commentary known as Iyun Tefillah — “iyun” is understood in terms of “study (of prayers).” But translators seem to agree that the phrase in Shabbat 127a means something more like “contemplation” or “meditation.” My People’s Prayer Book translates it as “paying attention to prayer.”
In both study/investigation and contemplation/meditation, the idea seems to be to delve, go deeper: In the former case, it’s into an idea or text, perhaps the idea or text of a prayer; in the latter, it’s into prayer itself.
Elsewhere in the Talmud, Torah study [la’asok; “to immerse in”] is described as a “remedy” for “vexation of heart” in prayer.
I’m not sure what, if any, conclusion to draw from the delving and immersing. But I think it’s worth pondering relationships among prayer, prayer text, and Torah. And I know from my own experience that the more (non-prayer) time and exploration I spend with a particular prayer, the deeper my encounter with that prayer when I’m actually praying.
L’shana tova/a good year
some resources for exploring Psalm 30
So far the most thorough and useful commentary I’ve found on-line is still Schechter’s “A New Psalm”. [UPDATE 2017: Sadly, this on-line resource appears to be gone; Segal’s A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature is now published by Geffen Books.] If anyone has a resource to suggest, please share.
A number of commentaries focus on the word “dilitani” — you have drawn me up — in the second verse: it reflects the Bible’s frequent use of wells/water imagery. But the language here connotes a pail pulled up from a well, which has to go down in order to rise in a useful way. And, as R. Benjamin Segal in the Schechter commentary notes, deep contrasts run throughout the psalm.
Joel Hoffman, in My People’s Prayer Book, notes that English has no direct way to translate the famous phrase:
בָּעֶרֶב יָלִין בֶּכִי וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה
b’erev yalin bekhi v’laboker rinah
He suggests “tears abide” or “weeping spends the night” for “yalin bekhi.”
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.)
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.
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.
Some Early Morning Blessing Resources
offered with thoughts of Temple Micah’s upcoming siddur study group
Why open a prayer book?
The Art of Blessing the Day
Why open a prayer book:
“Sometimes you’re just too strung out to come up with your own personal prayers. Having the text in front of you kind of takes you by the hand and walks you over to something that matters more than whatever is getting you down.
— Jay Michaelson in Making Prayer Real by R. Mike Comins, Jewish Lights 2010 (see also Making Prayer Real website
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“The Art of Blessing the Day”
An excerpt from the eponymous 1999 book by Marge Piercy:
The blessing for the return of a favorite cat,
the blessing for love returned, for friends’
return, for money received unexpected,
the blessing for the rising of the bread,
the sun, the oppressed. I am not sentimental
about old men mumbling the Hebrew by rote
with no more feeling than one says gesundheit.
But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.
— Marge Piercy. Entire poem on publisher’s page
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Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer teaches, regarding the early morning prayer, “Modah/eh ani…rabah emunatekha [Thank You, God for returning my soul to me…great is Your faith]”: What is this about God having “great faith”? Upon awakening, we note that God has just entrusted us with a new day…a whole day to help heal the world, wreak havoc in it, whatever we might choose to do with these precious hours. God is trusting us.
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