Robe, River, and Bond in Morning Prayer


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.)
Continue reading Robe, River, and Bond in Morning Prayer

Meditations on Morning Blessings: Failure, Memory and Change

on the occasion of a bat mitzvah and a young military death, a prayer for mindfulness and action **

    In the midst of the Viet Nam War, the great folk-singer/writer Steve Goodman wrote: “Tonight there’s 50,000 gone in that unhappy land, and 50,000 Heart ‘n Souls being played with just one hand.” Today, here and around the world, there are still too many empty spaces in the lives of young people… too many un-drunk welcome-home beers, too many lives reduced to a photo on a t-shirt, too many unshared stories, and too many unmaterialized adulthoods.

    In memory of the lost and for the ones we might yet save, let us pray:

As we celebrate the flourishing of some young people in our community, let us be ever aware of our many youth with no such opportunities for learning, support, and affirmation… or even the chance to grow up.

Keep us mindful: when young people suffer injustice or die in violence — whether in wars, declared or otherwise, or in seemingly endless street violence — it is the elders who have failed.

In honor of the many who do not thrive or survive, let us redouble our prayers for justice and peace.
Continue reading Meditations on Morning Blessings: Failure, Memory and Change

Strength to the Weary

Hard winter earth. Gray February days. Thank God for hidden sap!

Celebrating trees when we are surrounded by cherry blossoms — or other local tree-life — might seem more sensible than doing so on a day like today. But Judaism’s “tree holiday,” is more about the tiny bit of sap, running unseen under winter earth, than it is about visible signs of new growth. Tu B’shvat, the 15th of the month of Shevat in the Jewish calendar (Feb. 8 this year) is the “New Year for Trees.” According to Talmudic discussion, it takes place after “the greater part of the year’s rain has fallen and the greater part of the cycle is still to come” (Rosh HaShanah 14a).

Two notes in Siddur Koren Mesorat HaRav, although both offered as commentary on the morning blessings, seem particularly pertinent for this holiday.
Continue reading Strength to the Weary

Is Thanks Ever Simple? – part 2

In light of the challenges I faced when asked to offer simple thanks during one morning’s prayers, I decided to explore the passage, included in many versions of the morning blessings, that begins: “Therefore, we are obliged to acknowledge and thank you…”

Obliged to Thank– Or Not?

This paragraph, which leads to recitation of the Shema, is preceded by the following passage:

You should always fear God inwardly and outwardly, and gratefully acknowledge the truth, and speak truth in your hearts, and rise up early to say:

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].

But we are Your people, the children of Your covenant, the children of Abraham, Your love, to whom You took an oath on Mount Moriah; the descendants of Isaac, his only son, who was bound on the altar; the community of Jacob, Your first-born, whom You called Israel and Jeshurun, on account of Your love for him and joy with him. Therefore…
My People’s Prayerbook: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,
volume 5:
Birkhot Hashachar (morning blessings)**

Continue reading Is Thanks Ever Simple? – part 2

Is Thanks Ever Simple?-part 1

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?”

Pshat Prayer

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.]
Continue reading Is Thanks Ever Simple?-part 1