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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Words of Comfort

Jewish religious life in general, and Jewish prayer in particular, puts a premium on literacy. There are three prayer services per day and many words recited during them. The longest service is shacharit, the morning service. Doing some rough calculations, I estimate that, all totaled, the daily word count of all the prayers combined is about 8,700. But, in how many of them do I find meaning?

The nature of Jewish prayer, at least as practiced in Orthodox synagogues, does not make it any easier to find meaning in particular words or phrases. The service goes fast. You are trying to fit in all the prayers into a short time span: 30-40 minutes during the morning prayer service, and about a half hour for a combined afternoon and evening services. You are saying so many words, words that you repeat every day, that it is easy to feel that they are drifting by unnoticed, like the scenery on a drive you've done hundreds of times before.

I wrote about this problem in my previous blog  when I was saying for my mother, z'l. That kaddish year, I latched on to a verse that I felt spoke to my condition. It is said during the morning service, during P'sukei D'zimra (פסוקי דזמרא, literally verses of song), which serves as a prelude to the recitation of the Shma and then the Amidah (silent standing prayer). It comes from Psalm 147, verse 3: "He (God) is the healer of the broken-hearted, and the One who binds up their sorrows (הרופא לשבורי לב, ומחבש לעצבותם)" I liked that these words have, at least in modern Hebrew, a medical imagery (the word "bind up" in contemporary Hebrew refers to a medic.) They spoke to my feeling of  being broken, to a need for comfort and healing.

During this kaddish year, a different verse captured my attention. It also comes from the series of five psalms (psalms 146-150, the last five psalms in the Book of Psalms) recited during P'sukei D'zimra, The verse is the penultimate verse of Psalm 146, and reads: "The Lord watches over strangers (or "sojourners" in other translation); he upholds (or "sustains") the widow and the orphan, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin (ה' שמר את גרים, יתום ואלמנה יעודד, ודרך רשעים יעות)."

I like that the psalmist focuses on God's special care for the vulnerable, specifically the widow and the orphan. For, after my father died, I truly felt orphaned. The second half of my connection to the ones who created me was severed. There is an idea that every person has three creators: mother, father and God. When one's parents are gone, only God remains. I also like the word "sustains (יעודד)," which in modern Hebrew means to encourage. When I davened from the Amud (acted as prayer leader), I made sure to say this verse out loud, and with kavannah (intention), even though most siddurim (prayer books) mark the spot where the prayer leader recites out loud at only the last verse of this psalm.

This verse offered me a feeling that God was encouraging me to stay strong, providing support to continue in the path, despite the sorrows, toward fulfilling my dreams.

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