A prayer for prayer

24 11 2008

I found this in צלותא דאברהם, a siddur that I’ve been looking through. I thought it was beautiful.

It is a compilation of verses from Psalms that is meant to be said when one arrives at one’s prayer space in shul, but I can think of many other times for which it would also be appropriate. (I believe that there is a more formal prayer for prayer in Masechet Brachot, but I have not tracked it down yet.)

רַגְלִי, עָמְדָה בְמִישׁוֹר; בְּמַקְהֵלִים, אֲבָרֵךְ יְהוָהוַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי-לְךָ יְהוָה, עֵת רָצוֹן– אֱלֹהִים בְּרָב-חַסְדֶּךָ; עֲנֵנִי, בֶּאֱמֶת יִשְׁעֶךָ. הַקְשִׁיבָה, לְקוֹל שַׁוְעִי–מַלְכִּי וֵאלֹהָי: כִּי-אֵלֶיךָ, אֶתְפַּלָּל. יְהוָה–בֹּקֶר, תִּשְׁמַע קוֹלִי; בֹּקֶר אֶעֱרָךְ-לְךָ, וַאֲצַפֶּה. אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה אֶקְרָא; וְאֶל-אֲדֹנָי, אֶתְחַנָּן. שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי יְהוָה, וְשַׁוְעָתִי הַאֲזִינָה–אֶל-דִּמְעָתִי, אַל-תֶּחֱרַשׁ: שְׁמַע קוֹל תַּחֲנוּנַי, בְּשַׁוְּעִי אֵלֶיךָ; בְּנָשְׂאִי יָדַי, אֶל-דְּבִיר קָדְשֶׁךָ. אֲנִי-קְרָאתִיךָ כִי-תַעֲנֵנִי אֵל; הַט-אָזְנְךָ לִי, שְׁמַע אִמְרָתִי. אֲדֹנָי, שִׁמְעָה בְקוֹלִי: תִּהְיֶינָה אָזְנֶיךָ, קַשֻּׁבוֹת– לְקוֹל, תַּחֲנוּנָי.

My feet are on level ground. In assemblies I will bless the Lord. As for me, may my prayer come to You, O Lord, at a favorable moment; O God, in Your abundant faithfulness, answer me with Your sure deliverance. Heed the sound of my cry, my king and God, for I pray to You. Hear my voice, O Lord, at daybreak; at daybreak I plead before You, and wait. I called to You, O Lord; to my Lord I made appeal. Hear my prater, O Lord; give ear to my cry; do not disregard my tears. Listen to my plea for mercy when I cry out to You, when I lift my hands toward Your inner sanctuary. I call on You; You will answer me, God; turn Your ear to me, hear what I say. O Lord, listen to my cry; let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.

This is a prayer for both the prayer–the words being uttered, to “reach God in a favorable moment,” and for the prayer–the person praying, to be heard, answered, turned to, and not disregarded. I have a particular fondness for prayers or verses that make reference to ours tears, since I have shed a lot of them. God may disregard hastily muttered rote prayers, but surely he would not disregard tears! I also love the idea of praying for our prayers to be answered. The very idea tickles something in me.

One of the verses cited here, Psalms 39:13, which starts with the beautifully evocative “שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי יְהוָה, וְשַׁוְעָתִי הַאֲזִינָה–אֶל-דִּמְעָתִי, אַל-תֶּחֱרַשׁ:,” ends with a curious phrase: “כִּי גֵר אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ,” which I would translate as “Because I am a stranger with You.” What does it mean to be a stranger with God? To me, it means feeling alienated from God, distant from God, distrusting and wary of God–something I feel not infrequently.

The new JPS translation, however, translates these four words together with the rest of the verse: “כִּי גֵר אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ; תּוֹשָׁב, כְּכָל-אֲבוֹתָי,” “for like all my forebears, I am an alien, resident with You.” What does it mean to be a “resident alien” with God? The same words are used by Abraham at the beginning of last week’s parsha, Chayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:4), when he buys a place to bury his wife, Sarah, realizing that despite his long sojourn in the land of Canaan, he doesn’t have rights to a burial plot there because he doesn’t have ancestors there.

I am feeling the tension between being a resident and being an alien right now. On the one hand, this prayer or compilation of Psalms really pulls me–I want to be there, every morning, in my place, calling out to God, asking him to hear me, certain that He will listen to me, hoping he will answer me. I want to be a resident with God, and through my strong familiarity with prayer, I feel somewhat like I am. But, at the moment, God and I are strangers. I am not there every morning, walking in to shul, with these beautiful words on my lips, ready to call out to God and be sure that he will not disregard my tears.

So, instead of praying, I write about prayer.


Adon Olam: God is with me, I will not fear.

12 11 2008

הוּא אֱלִי וְחַי גּוֹאֲלִי
He is my God and my redeemer.

Every day that is not the absolute pits, God merits the moniker of “my redeemer.” On my better days, I think that God has actually permanently redeemed me from the depression that grips my soul. On worse days, I hope for the day that God will have redeemed me. In any case, redeemer or not, he is אֱלִי, my God, the only God I could ever believe in.

מְנַת כּוֹסִי בְּיּוֹם אֶקְרָא.
He is the portion of my cup on the day that I call out.

I don’t know about the first part here, but I love prayer imagery about calling out to God.

Another favorite piece from the prayer service on this theme is Psalms 145:18, where it says “God is close to all who call out to Him, to all who call him in truth.” I like the emphasis on the calling out rather than the answers from God, since we all know that we call out more than God answers. And I am okay with that, usually. I sometimes think that the calling out is what’s really important, not the answers that we do or don’t receive. That’s why I am particularly sad that I have been unable to pray on any regular basis for the past five years or so. I miss calling out to God and feeling closer to God through that regular contact.

I also like the emphasis on “calling out to God in truth” in this verse from Psalms. It doesn’t say, “Calling out to God with a minyan at the godforsaken hour of 7 am” or “Calling out to God through the formal structure of canonized prayer” or “Calling out to God through ritualized penitential prayers that are in lovely, fancy literary Hebrew from medieval Spain that I don’t understand.” It says “to all who call out to him in truth.” My truth is just as good as your truth. I believe that, and am glad to see it reflected in Psalms. This does not negate the importance of quorum-based prayer or of canonized prayer. I actually think that both of those are very important and have their roles. But not for me, not all the time. And I think we lose out when we only use those methods of calling out to God. I think we may lose out on the truth, actually, when we limit ourselves to that formalized kind of calling out to God.

בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי
Into his hand I leave my soul…

So often! We think that we have full control of our bodies, of our destinies, but anyone who has been depressed knows otherwise. Especially at the beginning, the depression seemed meaningless and random, and if I did not feel that I could entrust that God was holding my רוח, my soul, in his hand, I don’t know how I would have made it.

This image is so comforting. I am beating the crap out of my soul, my soul is being crushed, I want to disappear from this world. But, instead, I hand my soul over to God and say, “Here, you created this, you hold onto this for safekeeping until I can get my shit together.” I say, “You know what to do with this more than I do at this point.”

I also love the verb chosen here for the idea of “leaving” or “handing over”: “אַפְקִיד.”  “אַפְקִיד” has the same root as “פיקדון,” which in Jewish civil law refers to collateral, or something of value that you give to someone to hold onto when you owe them money. It can also refer to any object entrusted to someone for safekeeping—like my soul, when I am depressed. And the verb “פקד,” from the same root, means “remembered.” God remembered Sarah in her time of hardship using this very word. God will remember me, too. Eventually.

בְּעֵת אִישַׁן וְאָעִירָהּ.
At the time when I am asleep and when I am awake.

It’s easy enough to understand entrusting your soul to God while you sleep. What else are you going to do with it? Other religions share that belief with us (viz. “Now I lay me down to sleep”).

But what does it mean to entrust your soul to God “אָעִירָהּ,” when I am awake? It means that your soul is in God’s hands at all times.

You don’t need to be depressed to understand this. You just need to have lost someone in a senseless tragedy to get over the notion that you hold your soul, your well-being, in your own hands. Actually, I like to think of it as a partnership when things are going well. Letting God hold your soul “בְּיָדוֹ,” “in his hand,” without your hands being involved at all only works in a sub-optimal situation, as a last resort, when you know that you can’t trust yourself with your own soul, so you hand it off to God. That possibility always exists, and I explained above what it feels like to believe in that possibility.

But all things being equal, caring for our souls is a joint human-Divine endeavor. We entrust our souls to God and he entrusts them to us. We are responsible for our own moral well-being, but God ultimately pulls the strings and decides who will live and who will die, or, in my current mindset, who will recover from depression and who will commit suicide. Our part of the bargain is to do our best to safeguard and nurture our souls so that they can reach the full potential that God gives to each and every one of us.

This sounds a little sappy, but these kinds of beliefs provide great comfort and strength to me. And that’s why I believe in God and religion—for just those moments when it makes all the difference.

And, finally,
וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי, אֲדוֹנַי לִי וְלֹא אִירָא.
When my soul is with my body, God is with me; I will not fear.

I try to embody this every waking second of my life. I struggle with fear a lot. Feeling, or trying to feel, that God is with me every second that I am alive, brings me a bit closer to overcoming that fear. I often don’t feel God’s presence. At other times, I feel it but sense that it can’t protect me against my fears. Nonetheless, sometimes it is important to say things that we don’t believe, but want to believe. Sometimes, saying something enough times can really can make it so.

* * * * *

Postscript: I wrote this nearly three years ago, but it means as much to me today as it did then.

Modeh Ani: “Renewed Every Morning”

12 11 2008

The words “שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה” “for you have restored my soul with mercy,” are not easy for one who has difficulty believing that her soul is taken away at night and is returned in the morning.

Fortunately, the end of the Vilna Gaon‘s commentary on Modeh Ani (in סידור מאורי הגר”א) points out another possibility. First, he explains the traditional belief that every morning, we get a new נְשָׁמָה, or soul. However, when he quotes, as his proof, a verse from Lamentations (3:23), he goes in a different direction. That verse is not about our souls being new every morning, but, rather, about God’s mercies being renewed every morning.

I’ve included both that verse and some surrounding verses, since I find them to be particularly beautiful.

כא זֹאת אָשִׁיב אֶל-לִבִּי, עַל-כֵּן אוֹחִיל. 21 But this do I call to mind, therefore have I hope. {S}
כב חַסְדֵי יְהוָה כִּי לֹא-תָמְנוּ, כִּי לֹא-כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו 22 The kindness of the Lord has not ended, His mercies are not spent.
כג חֲדָשִׁים, לַבְּקָרִים, רַבָּה, אֱמוּנָתֶךָ 23 They are renewed every morning–ample is Your faithfulness!
כד חֶלְקִי יְהוָה אָמְרָה נַפְשִׁי, עַל-כֵּן אוֹחִיל לוֹ. 24 ‘The Lord is my portion,’ I say with full heart; ‘Therefore will I hope in Him.’ {S}

(Lamentations 3:23 also seems to be the source for the phrase “רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ,” the last two words of the Modeh Ani that I wrote about here.)

According to the Vilna Gaon, just as God’s mercies and compassions are new every morning, so are our souls. I wonder if I can try to think about that when I wake up every morning, and burn that as fuel, as it were, to propel myself out of bed in the morning.

The phrase “כִּי לֹא-כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו,” “His mercies are not spent” reminds me of a line from MaimonidesMishneh Torah:

וּמְצֻוִּין אָנוּ לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכִים אֵלּוּ הַבֵּינוֹנִיִּים, וְהֶם הַדְּרָכִים הַטּוֹבִים וְהַיְּשָׁרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וְהָלַכְתָּ, בִּדְרָכָיו” (דברים כח,ט).  [ו] כָּךְ לִמְּדוּ בְּפֵרוּשׁ מִצְוָה זוֹ:  מַה הוּא נִקְרָא חַנּוּן, אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה חַנּוּן; מַה הוּא נִקְרָא רַחוּם, אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה רַחוּם…
רמב”ם, משנה תורה, הלכות דעות, פרק א, הלכה ו

We are commanded to walk in these middle ways, and these are the good and straight ways, as it says, “And you shall go in his ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9). Thus we learned to interpret this commandment: Just as [God] is called compassionate, so should you be compassionate. Just as God is called merciful; so should you be merciful…
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 1:6

I feel that just as it is  important to emulate not only God’s kindness to others in our interactions with others, it is also important to emulate God’s mercy and compassion on us when we relate to ourselves. When I wake up in the morning, and finish Modeh Ani with the words “שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ” I will try to remember both that we get a new chance each morning, just as God’s mercies are renewed each morning, and that we are allowed to be compassionate and kind to ourselves, just as we praise God’s ever enduring mercy.

Modeh Ani: Overnight collection of feelings

12 11 2008

I have been thinking a bit about mornings, and how difficult I find it to get up and out of bed almost every morning. Someone suggested to me that it is because all of my psychological defenses are down when I wake up in the morning. I have not yet put on all of the armor that I wear during the day, against feelings of impotence or hopelessness or other negative emotions that might threaten my being. It’s not that I am so happy-go-lucky at night, but in the morning, I really feel like a sloggy mess.

I have been reading the “סידור מאורי הגר”א,” the prayer book commentary written by Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, a.k.a. “the Gra,” a.k.a. the Vilna Gaon (17201797). He describes what happens at night in his commentary on the words “שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִי נִשְׁמָתִי,” or “for You have restored my soul”:

Because all of the feelings come from the brain…and the heart sends them out to the [rest of] the body….At night…the brain collects all of the feelings to it, and similarly, the whole spirit is gathered to the heart, and then, when he sleeps, the power of imagination is active…and then morning comes and the person awakes.
[Translation mine. This bit includes some medieval metaphysical notions that I don’t understand, see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilḵot yesodei ha-torah 3:1; available in English here and thus all the ellipses. I would rather leave out what I don’t understand.]

It’s true, isn’t it? At night, the brain getting clogged with subconscious feelings that are repressed during the waking hours and the imaginative powers take control and run wild. In the morning, upon first awaking, I am forced to deal with the consequences of that. Thought about in those terms, it’s not surprising that I would rather go back to sleep than wake up!

The Vilna Gaon explains that a person’s soul does not return to her body until the morning, and brings textual proof for that, which will be the topic of a separate post. But it seems to me that this explanation of the brain collecting all of the feelings and then getting stuck there at night is reason enough to be grateful for daily the return of the soul, which helps disperse feelings throughout the body and thus moderates them.

This commentary helps to explain to me why mornings are difficult: It’s because transitions are hard and, upon awaking in the morning, we undergo a major transition of our emotional states: from being trapped, alone, and cocooned to being open and having to deal with the world around us. We need this difficult transition, though, for the night to stop. Otherwise, it would go on forever, and that’s no good, either.

I am not quite sure what to make of this commentary by the Vilna Gaon. This bit does resonate with me, however.

Modeh Ani: God’s Faithfulness

5 11 2008

I give thanks to You living and everlasting King…

Thank you, God, for waking me up again today. Even though I don’t want to get up this morning, and see no point to my continued existence, I thank you, Lord, for having enough faith in me to think this day might be a worthwhile one for me. Great is your faithfulness, even towards your depressed creations who regularly malign your work and doubt your intentions in this world.

For you have restored my soul with mercy…

If you did not think that today had the potential to be worthwhile, if you did not think there was even a smidgen of hope for today, you would have guided me, instead, into eternal sleep. So even though I am in the pit of a deep, dark depression, and certainly will not or cannot daven this morning, I will say these brief few words, as I struggle out of my pajamas and into work clothes and down a handful of M & M’s in an effort to propel myself out the door.

I believe in a personal God who had some hand in creating each human being with intention.
I believe in a God who created us, both collectively and individually, in His image.
I believe in a God who expresses hope for humanity, despite us disappointing Him again and again and again (and again).

Great, indeed, is your faithfulness!

Modah ani.

Thank you, God, for waking me up, even on the mornings in which I didn’t want to be woken. I trust that you have your reasons.

* * * * *

Postscript: I wrote this nearly three years ago. Today, when I wake up, I am usually profoundly grateful that I am awake and alive to face another day.

I am sharing it in this form, rather than how I would have written it today, because I think there is tremendous value in retaining the view I had when I was much more depressed—how can I be grateful, how can I give thanks, when I feel hardly worthy of living at all? The answer, as presented in this piece, is that I give thanks to God for believing in me even when I do not believe in me. I still find this idea meaningful every day, in ways both great and small.

Why prayer?

5 11 2008

There was a long period in my life when I used Torah study as a way to escape from the life of emotion. It was a place where I went to get away from myself and my problems; a place where I went to be tough and strong and smart. (Torah study is now one key place where my emotional life and my intellectual life meet, but that’s a story for another time.)

Prayer was never able to serve as a refuge for me in that way, but, instead, since I was very young, it served as a safe space—for a time, the only safe space—in which to feel a full range of emotions, from the most terrifying to the most deeply comforting. Prayer was where I could let down my guard; let down my walls; let down my iron-clad boundaries; open my Pandora’s box of sadness, yearning, and tears. Prayer is where I was able to be alone with God and free from the insistent voices of family, society, school, and work. Prayer was where I could stop and listen to myself–to my wants and needs, but also to my feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving. Prayer was where I could focus. Prayer was a place where I could go when I couldn’t focus.

Through this blog, I hope to learn more about what the use of tefillah [prayer] as a staging ground for experiencing emotions and for working out the primal relationship with God has meant and means to me and to classical Jewish commentaries on the siddur [prayer book].

I also expect to learn a tremendous amount from the experiences and reflections of future commenters and collaborators about how they experience the intersection between their religious and inner emotional lives. I expect to hear similarities to my experience, but also hope to hear of very different experiences.

Since I first experienced depression over ten years ago, I have been struggling to reconcile my love of Jewish learning, my experiences of alternately desperately clinging to and rejecting daily Jewish prayer, and the work that I have done in therapy in order to recover from depression. These parts of myself, which often seemed so separate and distant from each other, have increasingly overlapped. That place where they overlap is the subject of this blog.