Psalm 56

You keep count of my wanderings; put my tears into Your flask, into Your record. (56:9)

This verse is reminiscent of the central metaphor of Rosh Hashanah – that God keeps a record of our “wanderings.” The Jewish path of behavior is called halakha. I imagine that wandering might represent our straying off the path of halakha.

The High Holiday amidah, in a section called “unetaneh tokef,” suggests that through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and giving, we might lesson the severity of the decree against us. The first two items on the list, repentance and prayer, go hand in hand with tears.

In order to repent properly, one has to virtually break one’s heart. If we have committed some kind of harm against another person, in order to make amends we need to absolutely feel the pain that we caused. An apology should be felt in the kishkas … we have to feel as if we caused a rip in the fabric of another person’s universe, which is precisely what we did when he committed the harm. The tears are the tearing of the fabric of our own universe experiencing the pain of the other.

Prayer is only effective for the purpose of lesson a Divine decree against us when it pours forth from a broken heart. Prayer is meant to be a transformative experience. We ought not to ask for a gift on a silver platter, but rather ask the Divine Blessed One to help us realign ourselves and become the person created in God’s image that we were meant to be. These are the tears that I shed in the process of changing my fate, that I’d like to be entered into the record.

Psalm 37

“Be silent for Adonai …” (37:7)

There are many times in our lives when we are called to speak up and let our voices be heard. This verse, however, focuses our attention on the time that we are called to be silent. I am thinking of my favorite part of dovening, the silence of the amidah, the part of the service where we create the opportunity for intense, directed, focused prayer.

The amidah is intended to be a period of time in which we address God directly. This is true prayer, during which we might pour out praise, thankfulness, sadness, hopes, requests, focusing on the quality of the day, focusing on our own needs, and focusing beyond ourself to the needs of the Jewish community and the world as a whole, using both our own words and the words of the Siddur. Externally, the most notable quality of the amidah is that it is prayed in complete silence.

There are different qualities of silence. There is silence of reprobation, there is the silence of shame, there is awkward silence, there is the silence of confusion, there is the silence of anger, and then there is the silence of acceptance. When a community agrees to hold each other in their prayers together in silence, it is a silence that embraces and supports.

The amidah is a time during a service where a roomful of people fall into a warm silence together. Not a word is heard. God, who has no ears, does not listen by means of air pushing through vibrating vocal cords, sound rippling through the room. Ideal Jewish prayer uses the merest whisper, audible only to the speaker. Prayer could be expressed through pure thought, being being human, we pray best if we activate our thoughts. But the mildest whisper of air while our lips enunciate the words, so quiet as not to disturb a neighbor standing only a foot away, is enough to focus our prayers and send them on to the Blessed Holy One.

There is a time to act for God, there is a time to raise one’s voice up to God, there is a time to sing for God, there is a time to shout for God, and there is a time to “Be silent for God.”

Psalm 29

The voice of Adonai breaks cedars; Adonai shatters the cedars of Lebanon … The voice of Adonai kindles flames of fire; the voice of the LORD convulses the wilderness … the voice of Adonai causes hinds to calve, and strips forests bare ….” (Psalm 29:5, 7, 9)

I am fascinated by the description of God’s voice – the power of a tremendous thunderstorm, causing the mightiest of trees to lose branches and even topple over. Not only thunder but lightening as well, so loud that the sound can be felt in one’s core even more than by one’s ears. I’m not sure if the hind (deer) gives birth prematurely out of fright, or whether this is a reference to some other biological phenomenon – but the image is of God’s voice stripping both animal and vegetable bare.

Psalm 29 is sung liturgically twice – during the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service to welcome to Sabbath, and on Shabbat mornings when processing around the congregation and putting the Torah away.

The pairing of this Psalm with the Torah service makes a kind of sense, but is a bit backwards. God’s thunderous voice is associated with revelation of Torah. It would make more sense if we chanted these words when removing the Torah from the ark rather than after. The verses we chant when carrying the Torah in procession at the beginning of the Torah service focus on God’s majesty and beauty, which could just well be chanted when putting the Torah away as a response to revelation.

The Kabbalat Shabbat service is a serious of seven Psalms, once for each day of the week, followed by Lekha Dodi, a song welcoming the Sabbath queen. I wonder if the series of Psalms leading up to Shabbat is intended to build up to the revelation of the Divine Presence, which would explain why Psalm 29 immediately precedes Lekha Dodi. However, I have never really understood the progression of Kabbalat Shabbat Psalms (except for Psalm 92, the Psalm for Shabbat, right after Lekha Dodi), so my conjecture might be completely off base. If you have other ideas, I’d love to read about them in the comments on my blog at EmbodiedTorah.Wordpress.com.