Rabbi Charlie’s Mahashavoth – September 2023
Do you occasionally find yourself looking for the “right word?” Not necessarily the times we seem to go blank and can’t think of a word “that is on the tip of our tongue,” but when we are seriously looking for the best way to express ourselves. It may be a simple memo at work that we want to be clear and concise, a letter (or, for those under 40, an email) to a friend that conveys some deep feelings (encouragement, gratitude, sympathy, congratulations), or a personalized note added to a greeting card. We do recognize people who always seem to know exactly what to say and how to say it, but for many of us, we may struggle to give expression to our thoughts and feelings. And, given the many books that collect anecdotes, quotes – many of which are prepared specifically for those who regularly write or speak – even the articulate and gifted among us may still need some help.
The Book of Proverbs acknowledges our difficulties of expression:
לְאָדָ֥ם מַעַרְכֵי־לֵ֑ב וּ֝מֵיְהֹוָ֗ה מַעֲנֵ֥ה לָשֽׁוֹן׃
A man may arrange his thoughts,
But it is from the LORD expressive ability. (Prov. 16:1)
And it seems that our tradition understood this verse, not just as one of many wise statements from the Bible, but as expression of the constant human challenge to express what is in our heart and mind.
I bring this up, because we are about to see this verse a number of times in our High Holy Day liturgy. In the Shaliah Tsibbur’s (Prayer Leader) prayer, Ohilah l’El, that introduces the three sections of the Rosh Hashanah Musaph, we read:
I will hope in God, I pray for Divine compassion, I ask of God expressive ability, that here in the congregation of the people I might sing of God’s power, chant songs of joy in God’s works. “A man may arrange his thought, but from God is expressive ability.” Adonai, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise. May it be acceptable to You the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, My Rock and my Redeemer.
Technically speaking, this piece is a reshut, a “permission” the Hazzan asks before adding a piyyut (liturgical poem) that may not have been part of the standard liturgy (even though many such piyyutim have long been accepted as integral parts of our prayers). We may also recognize the line we recite before chanting the ‘Amidah (apparently, Ohilah l’El precedes the ‘Amidah in some Sephardic rites). Essentially, whether it is this entire passage of Ohilah l’El, or just the short verse we recite before the ‘Amidah, we are praying for the ability to pray!
Just as we may struggle to find words to express ourselves in regular communication, all the more so we may struggle to find words to express the prayers of our heart and mind. We have, through the ages, been blessed with poets who have created beautiful and meaningful expressions that capture the full range of our emotions. As we sit in schul, we should carefully examine and explore the Mahzor/Siddur to find those prayers that particularly speak to us, that seem to give eloquent expression of what is in our soul. Not that we can’t write our own prayers, not that we should hesitate to add our own prayers – our personal expressions are unquestionably precious and beautiful! But, we should take advantage of the beauty and eloquence of our liturgy and use the time in schul to uncover the yearnings of our soul.
Alison, Noa, and Aliza join me in wishing you a l’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu!
Rabbi Charlie Popky