Abraham Joshua Heschel observed that for classical Jewish mystics, the spiritual challenge was “how to pray,” while for liberal Jews, the ideological problem was “what to say.” Teachers in the Reform and Conservative streams tended to interrogate the prayer book’s peshat, or semantic level, to discover what the liturgy said about God, Torah and the world, and whether modern Jews could recite those words with a straight face. They treated liturgy as what my late teacher Neil Gillman (approvingly) called “public theology,” and wanted to shape the prayer book to express a modern “ortho-doxy” or “proper belief.”
Typically, I devote these Tefillah Tuesday posts to something different: what Heschel called a “sympathetic prayer book exegesis,” to discover the poetry, the love and the longing within the siddur to help our hearts soar in worship.
But even the deepest interpretations can resonate only in the chambers of a deep and perceptive heart. Davvening well requires building our capacity for prayerful feelings like gratitude, awe, wonder and joy, and let them carry us away. Good davveners surrender to love and longing, they reveal their hopes and fears. Worshipful people sense the presence of God in the world beyond themselves and within themselves.
One of my favorite verses (from the usually dull book of Proverbs) brings this alive to me through the metaphor of a well: מים עמוקים עצה בלב איש ואיש תבונות ידלנה, “Deep water is the counsel of the human heart, but it takes a wise person to draw it out [Prov 20.5].” You have the fathomless well inside, but it takes skill and practice to learn how to lower the bucket and raise it back up full.
How do you get good at that? Conceivably it’s like math or music, which some people just have a natural aptitude for, which other people lack. But I don’t think so. I consider it a theological premise that every human being – created be’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of God” – possesses the spiritual capacity to experience God within. For many the music of worship transports them there. Others find it in silence, or by imagining themselves surrounded by light. The Talmud counsels giving yourself over to existential urgency: “Said R. Ami: Prayer is heard only when people take their souls in their very hands [Ta’anit 8a].”
Today I want to look briefly at a passage from one of the greatest Medieval Hebrew poems which articulates for me the experience of being a human at worship. In prayer, my heart is keenly aware of the paradox that my mortal life, destined to end, also participates in what is immortal. I am so small, so finite. I am so vast, so infinite.
In this poem, the divine R. Yehudah HaLevi [1075-1141, Spain] asks his middle-aged self, “Are you still chasing youthful foolishness after 50?” View your life from the perspective of eternity! Stop partying and boozing and seeking sensual delight and align yourself with permanent values and virtues. (For 12th century writers, the eternal was necessarily good, and the transitory was worthless.) HaLevi develops this theme through the metaphor of his body as a ship in a sea storm. The sails flap, the masts sway, the boards crack, the deck is swamped. And there is nothing you can do to stop the inevitable sinking of your own poor ship.
But then …
The storm ends. The waves settle. The moon and stars emerge into the night sky. Their reflection dances in the water, drops of light and fire, wandering exiled from heaven into the deep. HaLevi concludes with the most beautiful lines I know in Hebrew.
The surface of the sea, the shine of heaven, jeweled pairs polished bright
The sea resembles heaven’s hue, a matched set of oceans two
Between them lies the third ocean, my heart, surging and resurging with waves of praise.
בינותם לבבי ים שלישי. Beintoam levavi, yam shlishi.
Between radiant heaven and shining sea lies the infinite ocean of the mortal human heart. Boundlessly spiritual, bottomless, endless in love and awe.