How to Use This Section of the Portal

A portal, or a book, can be read in many ways. Some people read from the beginning to the end; others use tables of contents and indexes to search out material; still others jump around at will. That is true of this portal too: One can follow the table of contents that, itself, follows the order of the Siddur. Or, one can use the search function to seek materials that sound interesting or appealing. Or, one can browse through these Meditations about Jewish prayer. Any method works.

To facilitate movement among the Meditations presented and also between the various sections of the portal, I have embedded links to material that appears elsewhere. Only sustained study, however, can give one a sense of the interwoven character of the material. One must follow the links, reflect, and then go back to the various interlinked texts.

For further reference, I have embedded links to the WorldCat. This site, which has cataloged over two billion books, gives the reader a full bibliographical reference, and if one sets the WorldCat page properly, it will also identify the closest library with a copy of the book.

Finally, for those who read Hebrew, I have included a transliteration of the original texts. It is meant to be readable and does not pretend to be scientifically correct.

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Praying the Prayerbook

Introduction

Praying requires knowing the order of the prayers. It also requires studying the individual prayers, and even the individual phrases there of. Praying requires reflection, thinking, studying, and intellectually contemplating the liturgy. Everyone should spend time doing this, as was done in Insights.

Praying also requires a theology, an intellectual framework into which to set one’s prayers. One cannot just “pray” without thinking through issues such as: To whom am I praying? How does one pray? What is holiness, and what is its relation to organized ritual? These are basic questions. Everyone should spend time doing this too, as was done in Thoughts.

In the end, however, all the thinking is futile, if it does not lead to prayer. In the end, all the studying is useless, if it does not lead to prayer. Theology without prayer is chess.

Prayer is addressing ourselves to God, whatever that may mean and in whatever form seems appropriate. Prayer is turning to God, deciding what we want to say, and actually saying it. Sometimes, this happens spontaneously; sometimes, we use the texts of the tradition. But, if we are serious spiritual people, we must pray.

Kavvana is the art of Jewish prayer. Its techniques are the Way. Instruction in kavvana tells us how to pray. This section is devoted to kavvana – its methods, its techniques, and some advice. There are several introductory pages, several pages with specific suggestions on how to pray certain prayers, and a section with advice on how to perform certain ceremonies. There is much more to be said.

Jewish spirituality is rooted in the ability of every person to sense the holy and to relate to the personhood of God. Everyone has these capacities, though some have more natural sensitivity than others. Indeed, some are gifted in the ways of spirituality. The analogy to musicality is useful: Everyone has some sense of music, though there is a substantial range to this capacity from the barely musical to the truly gifted. God comes to us “naturally,” so to speak; we only have to be listening and then enhance our capacity for contact with the divine.

To develop one’s Jewish spiritual abilities, one must recognize that one has such abilities and one must want to refine them. To do so, one needs to accustom oneself to the language, to learn the intellectual background, and to follow the practices of the tradition. But, in the end, one has to pray – to God. In the end, one has to address God.

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Kavvana: The Art of Jewish Prayer

An Introductory Meditation

A suckling infant stares at its mother’s face; a senile person follows a face as it moves through the field of vision. The face is the first thing we see, and it is the last act of full recognition that we experience. Face is the basic template of personhood. Face is presence, and presence is face.

The Face of God is God’s Presence; God’s Presence is present in God’s Face—which is why Face is capitalized.

We seek the Face of God, we look for it, we search for it, we long for it: “As a deer yearns for a stream of water, so my inner being yearns for You, God. My innermost self thirsts for the living God; when shall I come and see/be seen by Your Face” (Psalm 42:2-3).

We study God’s Face, we look at it, we ponder it, we question it: “Study the Lord and the Lord’s mightiness; seek God’s Face in all times and places” (Psalm 105:4). What kind of Face does God have? What does it communicate? What do we read when we read God’s Face, God’s Facial expression?

We rejoice to see God’s Face; it is a light for us, it shines upon us and we are jubilant: “May the Lord cause the Lord’s Face to shine upon you, and may God be gracious unto you” (Numbers 6:25). God’s Face looks upon us and we have peace: “May the Lord lift up His Face to you and grant you peace” (Numbers 6:27).

We also fear God’s Face, we flee God: “Where can I go away from Your spirit and where can I flee from Your Face” (Psalm 139:7). We hide our face from God: “Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3:6). Jonah.

God hides God’s Face from us and we are left existentially alone, isolated, without Presence. This undermines our presence, our orientation; it constricts our face: “You hid Your Face; I was terrified” (Psalms 30:8; 104:29). And we yearn even more deeply to see God’s Face again, to be seen by God’s Face again, to return to God’s Presence: “My heart echoed You saying, ‘Seek My Face’; I do seek Your Face, Lord” (Psalm 27:8); “when shall I come and see/be seen by Your Face” (Psalm 42:3).

A face, God’s Face, has many facets: anger, joy, shame, pain, light, severity, humor, doubt, kindness, waiting, expectation. There are as many facets to F/face as there are modes of relatedness.

F/face has ten special expressions: inexpressibility, wisdom, understanding, unconditional love, power, compassion, timelessness, awesome beauty, productivity, and majesty (Zohar).

F/face is the meeting point of the inner self and the outer world. F/face is the welling-forth of inexpressibility and inner depths into the stream of manifest consciousness. F/face is the majestic portal of expression of, and access to, unconditional love, power, compassion, and beyond. F/face is the veil that renders the invisible visible. It is the gateway to the S/soul, the allusion to P/presence (Zohar).

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Multiple Consciousness as a Way of Prayer

Kavvana is the way. It is the method by which we pray. It is the technique(s) we use to bring ourselves into God’s presence and to address God. It is the art of prayer. There are many types and kinds of kavvana.

Can you hum a melody, and think a thought at the same time? Can you dislike a person, yet be polite? Can you knowingly do something wrong? If you can do any of these things (and all of us can do them), then you understand “multiple consciousness.” It means that we can sustain several levels of awareness at the same time.

What do you do when you get in your car and set it in motion? If you are like most of us, when you drive: you turn on the radio, you think, and if there is someone with you, you talk. Some people also manage to drink and/or eat while they drive, and listen, and talk, and think. But, what happens to all that accessory activity if a ball shoots out into your path? You immediately block out all the accessory activity and devote your full attention to driving. You watch the ball, take a quick read on the vehicular and pedestrian traffic around you, and you decide instantaneously whether to brake or swerve in order to avoid the child who may be following the ball. This is a very good demonstration both of multiple consciousness—we do many things at once—and of focusing of consciousness—we can exclude multiple tasks and concentrate on only one when necessary.

What, then, do you have in mind when you “recite” prayers? What do you think of when you “participate” in a religious service? What do you have in your consciousness when you “pray”? These questions reflect our ability to sustain multiple consciousness—in particular, the multiple consciousness that we call “religious” or “spiritual.” To pray is more than to “say one’s prayers.” It is to raise one’s religious consciousness. It is to focus one’s spiritual senses.

Kavvana is a set of consciousness-raising techniques; that is, it is a set of techniques for broadening one’s awareness of what one is doing. Kavvana is accomplished by directing one’s thoughts and one’s awareness to the various aspects of what one is doing. In Hebrew, there is a verb, le-khavven et ha-lev, which literally means “to direct the heart” but which can also be translated as “to do (something) with attentiveness.” The result of the use of kavvana, as is the case with all consciousness-raising techniques, is to change an act from a routine, or semiconscious, act into an experience in which one is more fully present and more fully aware of all the realities touched.

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Reciting Psalm 118:25: An Example

One way to elucidate the nature of kavvana is by example. I present here an example of the various modes of kavvana and the levels internal to each mode as they relate to the recitation of one text in order to indicate the range of living spiritual reality within traditional rabbinic Judaism.

On certain holidays, the liturgy prescribes the recitation of Psalms 113 through 118, which together are called Hallel. Toward the end of Psalm 118 (verse 25), the psalmist writes: ‘Ana ‘Adonay, hoshi`a na’; ‘Ana ‘Adonay, hatsliha na: “Please, Lord, save, please; Please, Lord, grant victory, please.” This verse can be recited with varying levels of awareness. At the lowest level, it is recited as a matter of routine, in a semiconscious manner, with the person reciting it being vaguely aware of doing what she or he is supposed to do. This is called keva` or she-lo lishmah, that is, mindless prayer. It is really prayer without kavvana.

On the cognitive level of kavvana, the rabbinic Jew or Jewess reciting this verse must become aware of the various meanings of the words. One must first become aware of their simple, direct meaning. Then one must become aware of their context within this very beautiful psalm, which itself speaks of “crying from the straits” and of God’s response. Then, one must become aware of the report in the Mishna (Sukka 4:5) concerning the circumambulation of the altar during which this verse was recited, and that, according to another sage, a strange metamorphosis of this verse was recited: “I and Ho, save, please,” and that this metamorphosed version occurs in the later liturgy and is reputed to have magical properties. Then, one would have to learn the melodies for this verse that vary from occasion to occasion and from community to community. Ultimately, the praying rabbinic Jewess or Jew would need to be aware of the kabbalistic “unifications” attendant upon recitation of this verse.

On the performative level of kavvana, the rabbinic Jewess or Jew reciting this verse must become aware of the rabbinic regulations regarding the recitation of this verse: that it is recited by the leader first and then by the congregation; that, on Sukkot, there are prescribed “movements” of the lulav and ‘etrog which accompany the recitation of this verse, and that all movements cease when the word ‘Adonay/“Lord” is said. (The principle of the movements is the same as those for “Give thanks” but, since the words are different, so are the movements.) And then, one would actually have to perform these movements, together with the words and the melody. Ultimately, the praying rabbinic Jew or Jewess, being already aware of the kabbalistic “unifications” attendant upon recitation of this verse, would actually “make” them.

On the intentional level of kavvana, the rabbinic Jew or Jewess reciting this verse must make herself or himself aware of what it is one is praying for—of that from which one wishes to be “saved,” of what kind of “victory” one wishes to have. One must begin with simple personal needs: health, sustenance, strength, love, and insight. Then, one must broaden one’s awareness to include the needs of one’s family, immediate and more remote. Then, one must make oneself aware of the needs of Jews elsewhere: their need for peace, for security, for freedom. Then, one must make oneself aware of the needs of humankind for peace, for sustenance, and for life.

On a deeper intentional level of kavvana, the rabbinic Jewess or Jew reciting this verse must become aware of himself or herself. One must first become aware of one’s own physical presence; then, of one’s presence in the greater congregation of worshiping Jews the world over; then, of one’s presence in the greater congregation of worshiping Jews through time; and so on.

On yet a deeper intentional level of kavvana, the rabbinic Jew or Jewess must also become aware of herself or himself and, indeed, of all people, as truly, existentially alone, separated from one another by the silence that separates all being, and one must realize that one’s prayer to be saved is a primal cry into eternity—for oneself, for one’s children, and for all people everywhere.

On an even deeper intentional level of kavvana, the rabbinic Jewess or Jew would have to become aware of those sisters and brothers of the flesh and spirit who cannot pray, whose lives were cut off in the crematoria; they, too, deserve to have their prayers recited. In this way, the praying rabbinic Jewess or Jew becomes more than herself or himself; one’s consciousness becomes the instantiation of theirs. Our presentness becomes their presentness, and we speak, or rather cry out, for them, too.

On the spiritual level of kavvana, the rabbinic Jew or Jewess reciting this verse must become aware of God. One must become aware of God’s absolute transcendence, of the utter power of God, which knows no limits but those which are Self-imposed. Then, one must become aware of God’s absolute love of humankind, of the inalienable bond to which God has committed Godself. Then, one must contemplate the types of fear and love of God. Further, one must meditate on the essential contingency of all reality upon God—that nothing exceeds God’s knowledge, power, and providence. And, one must ponder the acts and the Person of God as reflected in the traditional texts.

On a deeper spiritual level of kavvana, the rabbinic Jewess or Jew reciting this verse must confront her or his own real fear of God, and his or her own real love of God. One must confront the reality of one’s relatedness to God. One must then consciously broaden one’s awareness to let the Presence into one’s mind and heart. One must knowingly broaden one’s consciousness to permit oneself to stand in the presence of God—person to Person, presence to Presence.

On an even deeper spiritual level of kavvana, the praying rabbinic Jew or Jewess must, in his or her own awareness, be ready to die in that moment. She or he must be ready to immediately cast herself or himself into the abyss. He or she must be completely ready to give up his or her soul for God, for God’s Truth, for God’s Torah, for God’s people.

After one has prepared oneself cognitively, performatively, intentionally, and spiritually for prayer, then one must actually pray. After one is ready, one must really say what one has to say, for whom one has to say it, while reciting the words of the psalm, “Please, Lord, save, please; Please, Lord, grant victory, please” and performing the attendant actions. After one has arranged one’s intentions and spiritual awarenesses, one must actually put oneself in the presence of God and then say the words of the liturgy while thinking the thoughts, intending the intentions, and praying for specific acts of saving and victory. This very deep prayer is also a form of Hallel, of praise of God.

These are some of the modes and levels of kavvana. When one has achieved some mastery over them, one may, indeed one must, pray. Not everyone can achieve or sustain such a broad spectrum of consciousness—in all its modes and levels—but, in its full scope (and there is undoubtedly much that I, in my ignorance, have omitted), kavvana is the key to the range of traditional religious reality; it is the portal to Jewish piety and spirituality.

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Kavvana: Three Traditional Sources

Leading Prayer

Jewish worship provides that one person act as the leader of the service. The only real qualities required of the leader are piety and education; there are no formal institutional requirements such as being a rabbi or a cantor. There are, however, two terms used in the literature to describe this function: “to go down before the lectern” (Hebrew, yored lifnei ha-teiva) and “to pass in front of the lectern” (Hebrew, `over lifnei ha-teiva). Scholars do not know the exact historical nuance intended by this differentiation. The Hebrew teiva, however, means both “word” and “lectern” and this double meaning allows Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, a third generation hasidic master, to offer a typology of the prayer life drawn from the realities of hasidic spirituality. Commenting on the verse, “And Moses went and spoke . . .” (Deuteronomy 31:1), Levi Yitzhak teaches that there are those who, when they pray, are led by the words and there are those who lead the words when they pray:

Sometimes the sages, may their memory be a blessing say, “one goes down before the lectern” and sometimes they say, “one passes in front of the lectern.” There are some righteous persons, who when they pray before God, may God be blessed, attach themselves to the words of the prayers and, then, the holy words themselves lead the leaders. And there are very great righteous persons who are beyond this level and they lead the words. This is the level of Moses . . . This is the meaning of “one goes down before the lectern” [Hebrew, teiva], for the word [Hebrew, teiva] leads one, and one is “down below” it. As to the righteous person who leads the word and is therefore of greater rank, such a person is one who “passes in front of the lectern/word.” Now, when Moses was at the end of his days and when, according to the midrash, the fountain of wisdom was sealed for him, he was of the rank in which the words led him. This is the meaning of “and Moses went and spoke”—that he went to the word, which was above him.

Explanation: There are moments when, being very upset or joyful or confused, we approach God but we do not have the right words. Our own power of expression fails us. In that situation, we turn to words written by those who have preceded us—the psalms or the liturgy. Through those words, made holy by the spirit that inspired them and by the powerful use of the many who have prayed them, we find our own voice. In the words themselves, we find expression of our deepest feelings. In this instance, we “go down before [below] the lectern/word”; we are led by the words.

That said, there are other moments when, being deeply moved by fear or love or anger or joy, we approach God and know that we are already close to God, that God is there for us, with us. And we pray. In this situation, our words flow freely from us and are directed to God, without the effort of searching for the right word. In such moments, our words are an offering to God, a gift given prayerfully even when they are petitionary. Not that we make up the words, not that we extemporize; but that our closeness to God precedes our awareness of the words and their meaning. In this instance, our sense of God’s presence takes precedence over the liturgy, “we pass in front of the lectern/word”; we lead the words.

Both are methods of true prayer. Furthermore, both types of prayer are also modes of leadership in prayer. Sometimes, as leaders of prayer, we allow the liturgy to speak for us, through us. In such moments, we “go down before the lectern,” we are led by the words. And sometimes, as leaders of prayer, we know what we need to say to God, we feel close to God and confident in God, and we use the liturgy to say what needs to be said. In such moments, we “pass in front of the lectern,” we lead the words.

The moment of being so close to God that the words are an offering is the highest rank of spirituality: Moses. The moment of using the holy words to approach God, though a lesser spiritual achievement, is also a great prayer moment. Even Moses, Levi Yitzhak teaches, had such lower moments as his career drew to a close.

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A Flaming Heart

How do we know that we have truly prayed? How can we be sure that we have truly worshiped God? What criteria can one use to measure kavvana? Levi Yitzhak, like many hasidic rabbis, addresses this problem again and again.

Toward the end of the weekly reading of Mishpatim, Moses goes up on Mt. Sinai. The Presence of God rests upon the mountain and the text describes it as follows: “The appearance of the Glory of God was as a consuming fire” (Exodus 24:17). Levi Yitzhak, setting aside the descriptive meaning of the verse, interprets it spiritually:

A person, in his or her worship of God, may God be blessed, through Torah and mitsvot, brings great joy above. And so, when a person wants to know if God, may God be blessed, has joy from this worship, the criterion is this: If one sees that one’s heart burns like a fire and that one feels religious enthusiasm to worship God continuously, and that one has a passion and a will to worship the Creator, then it is certain that God, may God be blessed, has joy from that person’s worship. Such an individual is helped by heaven, and holy thoughts are sent to that person’s heart. This is why it is written “and the Glory of God was as a consuming fire”—for the sign, if one wants to know if one has seen the Glory of God and if the Holy One, blessed be God, is happy with one, is “a consuming fire,” that one’s heart burns like fire.

Levi Yitzhak proposes, then, that “a flaming heart” is the criterion of true prayer. If you have prayed and God has been “a consuming fire” for you, even if only for a moment, then you have truly worshiped God.

This is a very audacious statement on several grounds. First, the criterion for true worship is a subjective one—a feeling of religious enthusiasm, not an accumulation of objective proper deeds. Second, it unequivocally casts the criterion for proper spiritual behavior on the individual. Each person, not the community, is the judge of whether his or her worship is acceptable to God. Third Levi Yitzhak, following the Zohar, teaches that the true reason for studying the Torah and doing the commandments is to create a parallel subjective feeling in God; our joy creates joy in God. All of these motifs run strongly against the rationalistic, objectivistic understanding of Judaism prevalent in usual orthodox, as well as in modernist, circles. Yet it is exactly this emphasis on real, personal religious experience that is crucial in Jewish spirituality. One does what one is supposed to do in order to give God pleasure, and one does experience a sense of “burning heart” when one does these things. Then, one uses this experience as the criterion for the truth of what one has done.

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Law and Spirituality

Jewish spirituality is a matter of law, not personal preference or inclination. All deeds are commandments, and one must do all commandments with kavvana. But kavvana has many levels. How does one put this into law? The classic book of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim, section 98, “Laws of Prayer: That one must have kavvana in one’s prayer”), written about 1550 C.E. and citing earlier sources, subtly formulates the laws of kavvana as they apply to liturgical prayer. Note that the author proposes specific thought motifs, makes recommendations for the external setting, and describes shades of emphasis, from concentrating upon the words and their meanings to the more intense stripping away of materiality to intellectual meditation.

(1) One who prays must direct one’s heart to the meaning of the words that one brings out of one’s mouth.

One should think as if the divine Presence is opposite one.

One should remove all distracting thoughts until one’s thought and kavvana are pure when one prays.

One should think that, if one were talking to a king of flesh and blood, one would order one’s words and have them properly in mind so as to not stumble. How much more so would one do this before the King of the king of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, Who probes every thought.

Thus would the saints and people of deeds do: They would set themselves apart and have kavvana in their praying until they would reach the stage of stripping away all materiality and of strengthening the intellectual faculty such that they attained almost to the rank of the prophets.

If another thought comes to one in prayer, one should be quiet until that thought has been annihilated.

One must think of things which bring humility to the heart and which direct one to one’s Father in heaven; one should not think of things which bring one to lightheadedness.

(2) One should not pray in a place where there is something that destroys one’s kavvana. Nor should one pray at a time that destroys one’s kavvana. Now, however, we are not so careful in this matter because we do not pray with so much kavvana.

(3) One should pray in a pleading manner, as a poor person who begs at the door.

One should pray in calmness so that prayer does not seem like a burden one seeks to put down.

(4) Prayer takes the place of sacrifices. Therefore, one must take care that the model of the sacrificial service in kavvana be observed such that no other thought will mix in with the act, for a stray thought renders a sacrifice invalid.

Prayer must be said standing like the sacrifices. It must also be done regularly, as were they.

It is appropriate that one have special pleasing clothes for prayer, as the clothes of the priest were special. Though not every person can spend money lavishly on this, in any case, it is best that one have special pants for prayer because of the matter of cleanliness.

(5) One should not think that one is so worthy that “the Holy One, blessed be God, will fulfill my request for I have had kavvana in my prayers.” It is the opposite. Such a thought calls one’s sins to mind. Rather, one should think that God will act in God’s graciousness and one should say to oneself, “Who am I, poor and despised, to come and to petition the King of the king of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, were it not for the great kindnesses with which God directs God’s creatures?”

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Kavvana: How to Pray in a Jewish Way

Some Initial Practical Advice

When sitting in synagogue, do not be afraid to drop out of the service and drop in on God. The worst that can happen is that you will remain sitting while everyone else is standing, or vice versa. That is not so terrible. It is more important for you to seize control of your spiritual life. You can always close your eyes. That way you will be less aware of others. Others will respect your privacy.

The first thing to do is to sit straight and relax. Close your eyes and just breathe in and out a few times. Let your mind relax, too. As extraneous thoughts come into your head, push them gently away.

Then, imagine yourself into the presence of God. For some, God’s presence is very transcending. For others, it is very intimate. Whatever God means to you, put yourself in God’s presence. Then, follow one of the prayer techniques described in this portal.

You can always put yourself in the presence of God and quietly hum a melody. Just sing. To God. No one will hear you or, if they do, they will be respectful and not interrupt you, especially if your eyes are closed. Some melodies are sad. Others are joyful. Wherever you are, be there and sing. You will have the opportunity to sing to God again, from another place in your being.

While you are detached from the liturgy, determine what you most want to pray for. It may be to express gratitude. It may be to ask for healing for a sick relative or friend, or to ask for help with earning a living or finding a personal partner. It is perfectly proper to pray for yourself, as well as for others. What is the most important thing for which you want to pray?

If you are following the liturgy, pick the most meaningful sentence from the paragraph you are reading. Ask yourself why you chose it. Think about the sentence. Consider the key word and its effect. Read the same sentence, emphasizing different words each time. Pray the sentence for different people whom you know or with whom you identify.

Take your time. Don’t rush. You can catch up with the congregation and rejoin the communal prayer whenever you want.

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Some More Practical Advice

In order to use the liturgy prayerfully, you must first pay attention to what is going on in your mind when you recite any text. The next few times you say a prayer, whether in synagogue or on your own, pay attention to what is going through your mind. It may be that you are thinking of something unrelated to the text, e.g., someone or some task. Or, you may be thinking of something indirectly related to the prayer, e.g., of being Jewish, or of the Jewish people. It may also be that you are concentrating on ideas about God, in contrast to being in God’s presence. Whatever it is, take the time to get to know yourself in prayer, for you will change as a person in due time.

Second, take a moment before you recite any prayer to call up the Presence of God. It may be that, for you, God is a Force, a Power in the universe. If so, place yourself in that Presence. Open your consciousness to the underlying Energy of the universe, to the ultimate Power that moves everything, to the ultimate Being of all that exists. Take a deep breath, and go into that Presence. Hold that consciousness for a few moments. When you have done that, you have been able to call up the Presence of God. Then, recite the text you were planning to pray in the Presence of that Power.

It may be that for you, God is a deeply personal being, a Person. If you relate to God in this way, do not be misled by what you may have been taught about God being an abstract, disembodied force, for you will not be able to relate with any depth to that kind of God. Rather, image God’s presence as Person. Do not allowthe concreteness of the imagery , for imagery is one of God’s gifts to us and we must use it. If you understand God as person, place yourself in that Presence. Take a deep breath, and imagine God — whatever image comes to you. (For Jews, it is possible, but forbidden, to image God in the form and shape of the god of another religion. Hence, while it is possible to call up an image of Jesus or of the cross, or the Buddha, or a Hindu god or goddess, it is forbidden for Jews to do so. If this happens to you, do not be upset. Just push the image gently from your mind.) Hold the image steady for a few moments. When you have done that, you have been able to call up the Presence of God. Then, recite the text that you were planning to pray in the Presence of that Person.

In the beginning, there may be no connection between the consciousness/image of God and the text you recite. Keep at it. Just feel the presence of God, whatever that means to you, and then recite whatever prayer you want to say in that Presence. The connections will be made for you.

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A Last Bit of Practical Advice

Jewish spirituality is not a straight road. Nor is it a spiral, moving ever upward. It is, rather, a meandering path, filled with obstacles and blind alleys, that only slowly moves toward its end. To walk this path is to stumble. To be spiritual, in Jewish tradition, is to grope in the darkness between the flashes of light.

That said, Jewish spirituality is not just stumbling and groping; it is also determined movement. When one way fails to bring us close to God, we try another. When the obstacles on one path overwhelm us, we try another. I have called this impulse of seeking first one way and then another the seriatim dimension of Jewish spirituality.

Seriatim is a moving-in-series. The following analogy is helpful: A sailboat cannot sail into the wind; that is, in the direction from which the wind is blowing. Any attempt to turn a sailboat into the wind will result in the sails flapping uselessly. To sail in that direction, a sailboat must sail at an angle to the wind, first to one side and then to the other. Only by zigzagging in this fashion can a sailboat sail into the wind. This is called “tacking.” To move seriatim is to tack, to move in zigzag fashion towards one’s goal. The analogy is a very good one for many areas of life, including one’s spiritual life.

In a practical sense, seriatim means that, when we cannot experience God’s presence by meditating on God’s goodness, we observe God’s commandments. When we cannot experience God’s closeness through prayer, we study. When we cannot experience God’s grace, we activate ourselves in the community of God’s people. When we get too involved with the community, we withdraw to contemplate God’s being. When liturgy fails, we try personal prayer. When personal prayer fails, we try liturgy. And so on. One is supposed to alternate the patterns of one’s life so that, and because, all patterns lead to God’s presence.

To tell the truth, even the most serious person cannot always be in a prayerful mode. Sometimes, we are preoccupied with other matters. Sometimes, we are just not present, or don’t have the energy to try to pray seriously. Do not worry. Do not feel overly guilty. Just keep at it. Like everything else in life, perseverance counts.

Finally, “practice makes perfect” is true. In the beginning, you will feel awkward as you pay attention to what is going on in your head and heart, and you will feel self-conscious as you try to image God and recite the prayers with the various forms of kavanna. All this will feel artificial. Do not give up. Just persist. Almost everyone has the capacity for one form of kavvana or another. It just takes practice, and time. As you practice how to listen and speak to God, you will get better at it, the awkwardness will wear off, and you will pray.

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Using the Siddur

Ways To Recite the Bar’khu

The Bar’khu is short prayer, a call by the leader and a response by the community. It introduces the nusah ha-tefilla and is also used to introduce the blessings to the Torah.

The words are simple but their meaning is complex: “Bless God Who is blessed” and “Blessed is God Who is blesséd for ever and ever.” To meditate on this, one must first ask, what is “blessing” or “blessedness,” such that God Godself can be described as “blessed” and be said to be blessed by us.

For humans, blessedness is a state of being. It is being the object of God’s attention. It is being the recipient of God’s spiritual energy. Blessedness is knowing you are now, or have been, in the Presence. In this sense we, humans, are blessed, that is, we are aware that we are the object of God’s attention, energy, and Presence.

Further, because we humans are blessed, blessing, as a state of being, can also be conveyed by us to someone else. We can invoke God’s presence and, with kavvana, pass it on to a child or to another person. We can receive God’s energy and attention and convey it to another.

God is “blessed” in two senses. First, God is the source of all spiritual energy. God is the fountain out of which divine attention and care flow. Think, “God is the ultimate source of all being, energy, and blessing.” Then, put yourself in the Presence and say “Bless God Who is blesséd.”

Second, God is blessed because we receive His energy, and we then acknowledge that God is God and we are God’s creatures. We open ourselves to God’s presence and then we return, so to speak, our sense of that Presence to God. We, alone in all creation, know. We understand. Think, “God is present and I am aware of that. I return that Presence to God.” Feel this and then say “Bless God Who is blesséd.”

When we recite Bar’khu and “bless” God we put ourselves into the spiritual presence of God; acknowledge, as an act of faith and experience, that God is the source of all spiritual energy; and mirror the energy we receive back toward God.

Always, when you are leading the service or when you are called to the Torah, pause for a moment of silence before Bar’khu. This will enable you to pull yourself together spiritually and to evoke the Presence before you say the words. The intervening silence will seem awkward, especially in the beginning, but those who pray with you will eventually realize that this is a real call to worship, not just another line of liturgy that has to be recited.

If you are responding, take a moment and look around at each person in your immediate vicinity. In your mind, make them part of the community that responds. Then, say the response with them.

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Ways to Recite the Sh’ma

When you read the Sh’ma, you can try many techniques in order to recite it in the presence of God. However, you must practice each of them for a while—long enough to be able to do each one easily, long enough so that something comes to you when you do them. You will know when it is time to move on.

To begin, you must pay attention to what is going on in your mind when you recite the Sh’ma. The next few times you say it, pay attention to what is going through your mind. What were you thinking? What do you think you ought to be thinking? Take the time to get to know yourself in prayer.

Take a moment, before you recite the Sh’ma, to call up the Presence of God—whatever God means to you. Hold that consciousness/image steady. When you have done that, recite the Sh’ma.

Recite the Sh’ma five times out loud, focusing on who the “Israel” is. First, recite this prayer and say “Israel,” but think your own name and presence, and send the message to yourself. Then, recite this prayer and say “Israel,” but think of some particular person—a friend, family member, or even an enemy—to whom you would like to address the message of God’s oneness. Third, recite it, say “Israel,” and send the message to all Jews—religious, secular, American, Israeli, Russian, all Jews—as Moses did on Mt. Sinai. Fourth, know that the Sh’ma was recited by the martyrs of Jewish history. Recite it, say “Israel,” and say it for the martyrs and on behalf of all those who have died for their faith and their people. If you have relatives who were killed in the shoah, this is the place to say the Sh’ma for them since they cannot do it. Finally, know that the Sh’ma is recited as part of the confession on one’s deathbed. Think of yourself as ready to die. Then, recite the Sh’ma as if it were your very last act in this life. (Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)

There are six words in the Sh’ma a nd six directions to the physical world. Face east, close your eyes, and recite the Sh’ma as follows: When you say Sh’ma, think “God is King” unto infinity—in front of you, which is east. When you say Yisrael, think “God is King” unto infinity—to the right of you, which is south. When you say the first Adonay, think “God is King” unto infinity—in back of you, which is west. When you say Eloheinu, think “God is King” unto infinity—to the left of you, which is north. When you say the second Adonay, think “God is King” unto infinity—above you, which is up. When you say ’ehad (“one”), think “God is King” unto infinity—below you, which is down. Prolong each word until you have completed the meditation. By doing this you will “proclaim God as King” in all directions of space, that is, everywhere. Accept God’s Kingship, everywhere.

The real Name of God is YHVH. We do not know how to pronounce it but we do have the letters: yod, hey, vav, hey. When we need to pronounce God’s Name, we see the four letters but we say, Adonay. Visualize the letter yod and say the sound “ah.” Visualize the letter hey and say the sound “doh.” Visualize the letter vav and say the sound “nah.” Visualize the letter hey and say the sound “ai.” Hold each aural-visual form for a moment before going on to the next. In this way, we “pronounce” the Name of God, in the two forms it is known to us, simultaneously. Having twice unified the visual and auditory saying of God’s Name in reciting the Sh’ma, think that it is all one and say, ’ehad (“one”). When you are at ease with this meditation, invoke the presence of God and then do the whole meditation in God’s presence.

The Sh’ma is meant to be heard, not just recited and visualized. When you say Sh’ma, hear the sound “Ah-do-nay” from the six depths of space. When you say Adonay, hear it again. And so on, for each of the words of the Sh’ma.

* * *

When you say the word ’ehad, there are many types of kavvana:

One kavvana is to recite ‘ehad and to think, “The God Whom I have just named is one, and there is no other. There is only the one, true God.”

Another kavvana is to recite ‘ehad and to think, “The God Whom I have just named is the one true King, the only true authority on earth. There is no other authority of equal status. God’s Word is one and true, and God’s kingdom alone will prevail.”

A third kavvana is to recite ‘ehad and to think, “The God Whom I have just named is one and simple, the single underlying principle of all being and reality, the Simple out of which comes the complex.”

Yet another kavvana is to recite ‘ehad and to think, “The God Whom I have just named is inclusive of everything, multiple in every way, yet that God is unified into a single whole, just as the human personality is multiple and complex but constitutes one whole person.”

* * *

Jewish law provides the following advice (Shulhan Arukh, Hilkhot Keri’at Sh’ma, 61:1-2):

One should read the Sh’ma with kavvana, with fear and awe, with trembling and shaking. “Which I command you this day”—that is to say, each day the words should be new in your eyes; and [you should] not be as one who has already heard it many times such that it is not special for him or her.

To this, one of the commentators, citing earlier authorities, adds (Mishna Berura, ad loc):

Every time one recites the Sh’ma, one should see it as a new royal decree and think in one’s heart, “If a human king were to send a new royal decree, certainly every citizen would read it with fear and awe, with trembling and shaking. How much more should this be so for the Sh’ma which is the royal decree of the King of the king of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God—that each person is obligated to read it with fear and awe, with trembling and shaking” …. to teach you that you should not recite the Sh’ma rapidly, lickety-split, jumbling the words together; rather, [you should read it] with care, word for word, stopping after each point as one would read the command of the king which is read with great care, each command on its own, in order to understand its content…

The same commentator also teaches (Ibid.):

It seems that this fear and awe must be understood as follows: that, when reading the Sh’ma, one should have the kavvana to accept upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of God, to be killed for the sanctification of the unique Name of God, for this is the meaning of “with all your soul”—even if God takes your soul, concerning which Scripture has written, “For Your sake we are killed all day long” (Ps. 44:23). With this kavvana, one will recite the Sh’ma with fear and awe, with trembling and shaking.

Jewish law also teaches (Shulhan Arukh, Hilkhot Keri’at Sh’ma, 61:5-6):

It is the custom put put one’s (right) hand over one’s face when reading the first line of the Sh’ma so that one not look at anything else that might prevent one from proper kavvana.

One should draw out [the vowel “a” of] the letter het in the word ’ehad so that one proclaim the Holy One, blessed be God, King in heaven and on earth. This is what is hinted at in the crowns in the middle of the letter het. One should also draw out the dalet   [the letter “d”] of the word ’ehad long enough to think, “The Holy One, blessed be God, is unique in God’s world and rules in the four directions.” But one should not draw it out longer than this. There are those who have the custom of moving their heads according to their thoughts: up, down, and to the four directions.

Note: The commentators, ad loc, note that, in moving the head in the four directions, one must begin by bending the head eastward (i.e. forward) and then move clockwise, beginning with the right. One may not move forward-backward and then right-left because that would result in “the ways of the Amorites,” i.e. in appearing to make a cross, which is certainly forbidden. For much the same reason—that is, in order not to leave the implication that there might be more than one true divine force—one may not repeat the Sh’ma twice (Ibid., 61:9) and certainly not three times as I have heard it done in some synagogues in America.

These sources come from the standard work on Jewish law which students examine many times. Rather than the level of kavvana available through simple meditation techniques, these sources indicate that deep matters are at stake in praying the Sh’ma. It is not singing along with the congregation, or even saying the Sh’ma meaningfully in a personal way. Rather, the kingdom of God and martyrdom, are at issue. Call up in yourself the feelings of “fear of God” and “awe.” Image the kingship, and kingdom, of God and accept this into your own life. Then, recite the Sh’ma.

You cannot do all the meditations for the Sh’ma at once. Do one until you are comfortable with it; then, proceed to the next. Eventually, one will seem the “best” to you. Or, you may come upon one of your own. It is also good to change the kavvana that you use once in a while. When you feel comfortable, bring each of these meditations with you into the synagogue.

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Ways to Recite the Amida

The Amida is composed of a series of prayers recited silently and then repeated publicly, each of which concludes with, “Blessed are You, Lord, Who…” The first three and last three prayers are the same in all Amidot, while the inner set of prayers varies according to the occasion, with the daily Amida containing personal and national petitions and the Shabbat and holiday Amidot containing a middle section relevant to the occasion.

First, you must ready yourself for prayer. Clear your mind of other matters, and then do the following: Call up the presence of God. Take three steps forward, respectfully, to enter the Presence.

The first three prayers form a unit. In this section of the Amida, we sense and praise God. The first blessing praises God’s power in history. We begin with God’s presence among the people, particularly to our ancestors. We do not begin with God in nature. We also do not begin with the action of Jews in their own political and social history. Rather, we begin with God’s presence in the life of the Jewish people. Concentrate on sensing God’s active presence in the history of the Jews.

The second prayer praises God’s power in nature—in rain, in healing, in life, in interpersonal help, and in the resurrection which is really a renewal within creation. Concentrate on sensing God’s unlimited presence in all of creation.

The third prayer praises God in the realm of the sacred. Holiness has its origin in God. Our awareness of the sacred as a quality of persons, objects, moments, texts, and places comes from the element of the numinous in them. This holiness is not reducible to beauty, or mind, or goodness. It is a special quality of God present in all things. Concentrate on sensing the awesome holiness of God’s presence.

Another way of praying these three introductory paragraphs: The first prayer deals with God in Jewish history to establish an intimate familial relationship with God. The second prayer deals with God as creation to broaden our awareness outward to the universe. And the third prayer deals with God’s awesome holiness to move us yet further out to God’s transcendence .

Praise is a prelude to intimacy. It enables us to feel trust, to have faith, and to ask—directly, clearly, and sincerely. We move from the praise of the opening prayers to the petition of the intermediate prayers.

The intermediate section of the weekday Amida deals with petitionary prayer, which asks for something may seem strange to moderns. It may seem like magic. It may appear childish, and we may feel foolish saying these prayers. That, however, should not be so. The tradition teaches that the high priest, before he could cleanse the sanctuary and atone for the sins of the people, had to confess his own sins. In the personal prayer toward the middle, the grace after meals also provides that one pray first for oneself, for one’s family, and then for others. Similarly, during the closing prayer of Yom Kippur, one should pray for that which one really needs most for oneself. For some, that means finding a job or having success at work. For others, it is finding a spouse or companion. For yet others, it is having children, or the health of a parent or other loved one. Praise alone is not sufficient. It must be an introduction to petition. As the Zohar says (Lekh Lekha, 1:94b).

We have learned that, first, a person should pray for himself or herself and, then, one should pray for others, as it says [Lev. 16: 17], referring to the high priest on Yom Kippur, ‘He shall atone for himself’—first, and then ‘and for all the community of Israel’—afterwards. We have adopted this way, and it is good and is worthy for those who come after us.

The first six of these petitionary prayers are personal; the final seven are national. Really, all are both personal and national. Concentrate on having faith that God can answer the request you are about to make. Feel and say, “I believe that God can grant me/us ….” Then, recite the prayer, holding that feeling in mind, intending both the personal and the national meanings.

* * *

The first petitionary prayer is for knowledge. Feel and say, “I believe God grants me/us knowledge.” Then recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

You are the One Who graciously gives knowledge to human beings and teaches humanity understanding. Grant us think: “me/us” from Your essence, knowledge, understanding, and commonsense. Blessed are You, Lord, Who graciously grants knowledge.

The second petitionary prayer is for the power to repent one’s sins. Feel and say, “I believe God grants me/us the power to repent.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

Return us think: “me/us” our Father, to Your Torah and draw us think: “me/us” closer, our King, to worship of You. Bring us think: “me/us” back, in full repentance, to Your Presence. Blessed are You, Lord, Who desires repentance.

The third petitionary prayer is for forgiveness. There are many types of sin and forgiveness; two are used here. Think of a specific sin for which you ask forgiveness. Think, too, of a specific serious sin for which you ask forbearance. Feel and say, “I believe that God grants me/us the gift of forgiveness.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

Forgive us, our Father, for we think: “I/we” have sinned. Forgo our debts, our King, for we have transgressed. For You forgive and forgo. Blessed are You, Lord, Who is gracious and generous with forgiveness.

The fourth petitionary prayer is for redemption from political trouble. Think of specific persons who are in political trouble, especially Jews persecuted anywhere in the world. Feel and say, “I believe that God grants me/us redemption.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

See, now, our oppression and fight our battle. Redeem us think: “me/us” speedily for the sake of Your Name, for You are a mighty Redeemer. Blessed are You, Lord, Who redeems Israel.

The fifth petitionary prayer is for healing from illness. Feel and say, “I believe that God grants me/us healing.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

Heal us, our God, and we will be healed. Save us, and we will be saved, for You are the One we praise. Grant full healing to if you know someone who is ill, mention his or her name and that of his or her mother and add the words “and to” all those who are ill, for You are God, King, and faithful and merciful Healer. Blessed are You, Lord, Who heals the sick of His people Israel.

The sixth petitionary prayer is for sustenance, for food, for the means to support ourselves and our families. Feel and say, “I believe that God grants me/us sustenance.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

Make this year a blessed one for us, Lord our God, together with all its types of sustenance. Grant blessing upon think: of yourself, or of someone you know who is without a job the land. Make us think: “me/us” full with Your goodness and bless this year of ours like the good years. Blessed are You, Lord, Who blesses the years.

Note the sequence here: We ask for knowledge, which teaches us what is wrong, which leads to repentance, which leads to asking for forgiveness. This leads to redemption from political trouble, which leads to healing from illness, which leads to sustenance. Each of these prayers is both personal and national, but our understanding starts with the personal. The emphasis in the next group of petitionary prayers is on the national, though we are aware of the personal dimension because we, too, are members of the people of Israel.

The seventh petitionary prayer is for the ingathering of the Jewish people. Remember that you are in exile. Feel and say, “I believe that God will gather in our people.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

Sound the great shofar for our freedom and raise the banner of the ingathering of our exiled people. Gather us think: “us/me” together from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are You, Lord, Who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel.

The eighth petitionary prayer is for a just government under which we can live. Too many people live under unjust governments, or are exploited by the political system in which they live. Pray for the leaders of the United States of America and for the government of the State of Israel, especially in times of crisis. Feel and say, “I believe that God grants us/me just government.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

Return our judiciary as it was in the beginning, and our government as it first was. Remove from us sadness and sighing. Rule over us think: “us/me” You, Lord, alone, in graciousness and mercy. Give us our fair judgment. Blessed are You, Lord, the King Who loves righteousness and fairness.

The ninth prayer is for the destruction of evilDo not be bashful. Everyone has enemies. Think of specific personal and national enemies. Pray that their evil designs against us/you be thwarted. Feel and say, “I believe that God grants us/me triumph over evil.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

“Let there be no hope for the traitors. Let all evil be wiped out in a moment. Let all Your enemies speedily be cut off. Uproot, smash, grind down, and subdue the evil ones, quickly, in our days. Blessed are You, Lord, Who smashes enemies and subdues the evil ones.”

The tenth prayer is for reward for those who work hard for the good. Do not be bashful. Ask for reward for the good work we/you have done. Feel and say, “I believe that God grants us/me reward for doing good.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

May Your mercies, Lord our God, be aroused for the righteous, the pious, the elders of Your people Israel, the remnant of their scholars, the true converts, [insert the prayer for the Israel Defense Forcesand us think: “us/me”. Grant proper reward to all who truly trust in Your Name. Cast our lot with them so that we not ever be ashamed, for we have trusted in You. Blessed are You, Lord, Who is a support and security for the righteous.

The eleventh prayer is for the restoration of Jerusalem. It is a prayer for the ultimate redemption. Feel and say, “I believe that God grants us/me the messianic return to the holy city of Jerusalem.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

May You return in mercy to Jerusalem, Your city, and may You dwell in it as you have said You would. Build it, speedily in our days, permanently. Restore to it quickly the throne of David. Blessed are You, Lord, Who rebuilds Jerusalem.

The twelfth prayer is for the restoration of God’s reign over the Jewish people in the form of the Davidic king. It, too, is a prayer for the ultimate redemption. Somewhere, there is a descendant of King David; this is a prayer asking that that shoot, wherever it may be, be kept alive and safe. Feel and say, “I believe that God grants us [think “us /me” the return of the messianic kingdom.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

Cause the branch of David, your servant, to grow speedily. Establish his triumph with Your saving action, for we think: “we/I” have hoped for Your saving action each and every day. Blessed are You, Lord, Who causes the triumph of salvation to grow.

The thirteenth prayer sums up and closes the petitionary section of the Amida. This petition is for God to hear our prayers, for God to pay attention to any petition you have forgotten or which you feel does not fit into the other petitions. Some of our needs are subconscious. We barely know them and cannot really articulate them. Yet they, too, deserve to be put before God. Put yourself in the presence of God and insert your deepest conscious and subconscious petitions here. Feel and say, “I believe that God grants me/us even my/our unarticulated prayers.” Then, recite the prayer holding this feeling in your mind:

Hear our voices, Lord our God. Be gracious and merciful to us. Accept our think: “our/my” prayers in mercy and goodwill, for You are God Who listens to prayers and petitions. Do not send us think: “us/me” away empty from Your Presence, our King, for You hear the prayers of Your people Israel in mercy. Blessed are You, Lord, Who hears prayer.

Petitionary prayer is not the end of prayer. We return from personal and national petition to praise, passing into some of the most basic of religious feelings.

* * *

The last three prayers form a unit. They, too, are common to all Amidot. The first is for the return of God’s real presence in history, for the return of God to the temple in Jerusalem. Pray for God to come back, in a physical sense, to God’s people—as God’s presence was physically felt in days of old.

The second prayer has two parts, based on the two meanings of the Hebrew word, modim—to “acknowledge” and to “thank.” The beginning of this prayer is a real confession of faith. It is as close as Jewish liturgy gets to a formal “I believe” statement. The prayer says:

We acknowledge You—that You are Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors forever and ever. Rock of our lives. Shield of our salvation. You are He Who endures from generation to generation.

Think about this. Consider the two metaphors and what they mean. Then, feel and say, “I/We acknowledge ….” The rest of this prayer is thankfulness to God for the many miracles of daily and national life. Count your blessings.

The final prayer is a prayer for peace and for all the blessings that go with peace. Feel and say, “I believe that God is the source of peace and grants us the power to make peace among humans.” Then, holding this in mind, recite the prayer itself.

The Amida concludes with several biblical verses and personal prayers. Choose one verse of your own from Psalms to insert here.

* * *

The Amida ends here. Bow and walk back three steps, respectfully, to leave the presence of God. One does not leave the presence of the Creator with a rapid, unthinking movement. It is customary to bow first to the left, then the right, and then directly forward.

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Ways to Recite the Ashrei

Psalm 145 is an alphabetic acrostic (minus one letter). As such, it has no one theme but presents many voices and ideas. It is a very complex work. The rabbis added verses before and after the text of the psalm itself, forming a liturgical unit known as Ashrei. The name is taken from the opening word. Ashrei is recited three times daily, twice during the morning liturgy and once at the beginning of the afternoon liturgy. It is also recited at the beginning of the closing prayer on Yom Kippur. There are many ways to pray Ashrei. Several are given here, though they are best understood after studying the text and its commentaries.

One way to pray this psalm is to “perform” the words: Envisage God’s “greatness.” Image God’s “wondrous deeds.” Feel God’s “majestic glory.” Experience God’s “caring.” “Bless” God. “Proclaim God’s kingdom.” When you come to “You open Your hand,” open your hands, palms up, and receive God’s grace and love. Don’t rush in order to “keep up” with the congregation. Prayer is not about communal mumbling, but about Presence.

Another way to pray this psalm: Recite it slowly and make the links between the words. Be aware of the connections. Try to associate each root word as you say it with its other occurrences as you say them. Then, try to hold the complexity of the whole in your head. This is not easy, but it is a very powerful meditation.

Yet another way to pray this psalm: Weave the verses as you recite them, as one would weave a carpet with warp and woof. See the first verse in front of you. Draw it horizontally through your field of vision. See the second verse in front of you. Draw it vertically through your field of vision. See and draw the third verse horizontally, and the fourth vertically; and so on, to the end. You will have a woven carpet, a tapestry, as C.S. Lewis suggests is true of alphabetic psalms.

Another way to pray this psalm, more complex than the previous way: Sit straight and visualize the first verse as a circle in front of you. Move your body gently in a small but complete circle clockwise, reading/reciting the verse as you go. Repeat this with each verse.

Another more complex way to pray this psalm: Weave these verses into a sphere or ovoid shape around you. See the first verse and draw it horizontally around you. See the second verse and draw it vertically around you. Continue visualizing and drawing the verses until you are inside and enveloped by the woven shape which is the Ashrei. The feeling of being enveloped may be comfortable for you. If it is not, visualize the sphere or ovoid in front of you. The three-dimensional nature of this image can, with some effort, be extended toward infinity.

I have been working on Ashrei for a long time and, on my website, there is an article in hypertext with the history and several of the meditative techniques suggested above.

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Ways to Recite the Kaddish

At some point in life we all lose a family member. It is custom to recite the Kaddish daily for family members for eleven months and one day, that is, for just under a full year. That is a long time, but each of us has only one mother and one father. If they were reasonably good to us, it is the least we can do. The period of saying the Kaddish is also an opportunity to do something about your general prayer life, as well as to mourn the one you have lost.

The Kaddish is among the most well-known of Jewish prayers, familiar to Jews who are not observant and often also to non-Jews. Its history is complex, as are the variations on the text. For the text and history of the Kaddish and an analysis of the Kaddish for mourners, see here. See a full study here.

When you recite the Kaddish, try to image the presence of the one whom you have lost. It does not have to be a visual image. It can be a “sensed” image. We all have sensed images of those with whom we have, or have had, intense contact. When you recall your favorite aunt, you will notice that you smile and relax. That may be true of your parent, or it may not. But whatever is there, imagine it while you are saying the Kaddish.

If I am in synagogue and there are no mourners saying the mourner’s Kaddish, it is my custom to recite it. I do this for the six million Jews killed in the shoah even though I know that it is simply not possible to recite the mourner’s Kaddish six million times, much less three times a day for a year for each person murdered. When I recite this Kaddish for one of the six million, I imagine the death camps and the people in them, often just the children or just the women.

When you are finished with the traditional period of mourning, observe the Yahrzeit (the annual anniversary of the funeral date). Go to synagogue, recite the mourner’s Kaddish, lead the prayers (if you can), have the memorial prayer recited, and give charity.

Memorize some of the prayers. For those of us who are older, memorization does not come easily. Use small units, but do memorize. Put the words of the liturgy into your head, permanently.

Learn the music and lead services. Most synagogues will provide, or someone will prepare for you, a recording of the melodies. Use these recordings when you are in your car to master the chanting. Practice it. Ask, and someone will help you. Be a shliah tsibbur, a leader of prayers. Begin with Minha (afternoon service) or Ma`ariv (evening service), because they are short and basic.

Learn the liturgical rhythm of the year. Reciting the Kaddish for a long period of time gives you the chance to participate in the liturgical rhythms of the community. The feeling during Pesah is different from that between Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur. Shabbat is different from weekdays. Early evening is different from late evening. Also, there will be others who finish their mourning period and leave the minyan (quorum of ten), and yet others will join. You will also get to know those who come regularly even though they do not say the Kaddish.

If you miss a minyan and are at a Jewish community meeting, ask for a few moments to have a brief service and say the Kaddish. Everyone will be more than glad to help out, even those who are not “religious.” The skeptical will just drift out of the area while the rest pray.

If you are away or simply cannot get to a minyan, have a study plan. Pick a chapter from the Mishna or from the Bible, and read it in memory of the one you mourn. This can be done even when one travels transatlantic. A program of study is, in any case, a good idea. With a little luck, this study effort will turn into something more long range in your life.

Practice some of the ways of kavvana. Drop in on God when you pray. Make some order in your own mind and heart concerning those things for which you pray, and those for which you don’t. Find people who need your prayers. There is a great deal of suffering in the world, and sometimes the only thing we can do is pray. Do it. With some effort, saying the Kaddish will become not only an obligation you loyally fulfill but also a window into your own soul and a gateway into Jewish spirituality.

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How to

How to Bless Your Children

We are not blessed in and of ourselves. We are only blessed insofar as we are the recipients of God’s attention. God’s Presence is palpable. God’s spiritual energy can be sensed by humans. It creates a glow in us, a sense of power, an awareness of being part of something greater than we. Blessing is holy, sacred, spiritual.

When we are in the Presence, we know who we are and we can act with clarity of heart and mind. When we are in a state of blessedness, we know right from wrong, pure from impure, sacred from vulgar. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about this. So does Martin Buber, though in slightly different terms.

When we are the objects of God’s attention, we are clear in our inner selves and we can, if we are willing, act as a conduit for that spiritual energy. We can “serve,” which is the same word as “worship” in Hebrew, as a channel or passageway, for God’s presence. This is what it means “to bless someone else.” Blessing another person is not just reciting the words. It is feeling the divine energy in ourselves and then allowing it to flow to someone else. It is knowing that we are mere vessels, who receive the divine Presence and then allow it to pass through us to others.

It is traditional to bless one’s children on Friday night at the Shabbat table (and on holidays), but one can bless one’s children at any time—when we leave them after a visit or when there is a special celebratory moment.

Do not be misled into thinking that you can accomplish miracles with this blessing, or that it will always “work.” Such is not the way of God. Rather, blessedness can be received and, according to the tradition, it can be evoked and passed on to another, especially to a child. If you can choose only one mitsva to practice, then choose the mitsva of blessing your children.

First, learn the words. Practice saying them until you don’t have to think about them anymore. The mark (´) indicates the accented syllable; the mark (^) indicates a secondary accent. The “kh” is like the sound in the German word “Loch.”

Yevarékhekha  Adonái veyîshmerékha.

Ya-éir  Adonái panáv eilékha vîkhunéka.

Yisá Adonái panáv eilékha veyaséim lekhá shalóm.

Then, learn the meaning.

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

May the Lord cause the light of His / the Face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.

May the Lord lift up His / the Face unto you, and grant you peace.

May the Lord bless you with all material things

and may God protect you from the worry they bring.

May the Lord cause the light of the divine Torah to sparkle in your eyes

and may God graciously grant you wisdom.

May the Lord turn the Presence of His / the Face toward you, forgive your sins,

and grant you and your generation the most precious gift—peace.

Practice the text and its meaning until you are thoroughly familiar with it.

Then, close your eyes and center yourself. Image the one you wish to bless, touch that person’s head, and sense that person’s presence. Image the Presence of God. Then, recite the blessing, holding the Presence and the presence in mind.

Say it in English, if that is easiest for you. Better, say it in Hebrew and think the English. Best, say it in Hebrew and think in Hebrew. But, always keep the Presence and the presence, God and the person, in mind.

Remember that you are only a vessel, a channel for that which is not you, for that which comes from outside and beyond you.

Don’t be afraid or embarrassed. Don’t rush. Ignore all distractions. Practice. Do it.

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How to Light the Shabbat Candles and Make Kiddush

The Shabbat is among the greatest blessings of the Jewish people. All week long we are pursued by the details of everyday life. We work to make a living, to support ourselves and our loved ones as, indeed, we are supposed to do. We work to accomplish the tasks of everyday living as, indeed, is natural. Increasingly, we are connected to other people through email, snail mail, social media, cell phones, and landlines. Shabbat is the day to separate from all this work, to close down the communication links that connect us to the whole world. Choose a few basic “don’ts.” At least, observe the following: Don’t answer the phone, or check your email or regular mail. Don’t drive your car. Don’t buy anything. This will very effectively give you a feeling of Shabbat.

Refraining from work is a first step. Allowing Shabbat to help you invoke God is another. Shabbat begins when the sun sets, no matter what time of the workday that is. Try to be home and ready to receive Shabbat at sunset. Light Shabbat candles about 18 minutes before the sun sets, but make Kiddush with your meal. The meal can be later than sunset. In late spring, when the sun sets late, you can “receive Shabbat” before sunset by lighting candles, making Kiddush, and beginning to refrain from work.

Lighting Shabbat Candles

Barúkh atá Adonáy Eloheínu Mélekh ha-olám

Ashér kideshánu be-mîstsvotáv ve-tsivánu

Le-hadlík ner shel Shabbát.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe

Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us

To light the Shabbat candles.

It is customary for women to light Shabbat candles, but men are also permitted to do so. It is my custom to this only if my wife is away for Shabbat.

Set the candles in candlesticks and place them where it will not be necessary to move them. Light the candles first and close, or cover, your eyes. Breathe deeply several times. Release the tension of the work week. Put yourself in the presence of God. Keeping the sense of God’s immediate presence, ask for blessing upon yourself and then upon those whom you love, one at a time. Then, still with God in mind, recite the blessing in Hebrew, aloud or silently. Finally, open your eyes and let the light of the candles enter into you. Don’t rush or let anyone distract you. This is a spiritual moment for you; other persons and matters can wait.

Between Candle Lighting and Kiddush

Sing a melody, to God. Some sing “Shalom Aleikhem”; others also add “Eshet Hayil.” But one could also use a niggun, a wordless melody.

During the singing, close your eyes and let the meaningful moments of the week surface. They will come; just let them rise in your consciousness. You will find that some weeks are filled with such moments. Blessed are you if there have been many moments of spiritual awareness during the week that has just past — in nature, in interpersonal relations, in study, in social action, or in prayer. You will, however,find that there are other weeks that have been a spiritual desert. That’s the way life is. Dwell on the joy of these meaningful moments.

Then, bless your children, grandchildren, and/or others who need to be blessed.

Reciting Kiddush

The first paragraph of the Kiddush contains the verses that speak of the first Shabbat at the end of God’s week of creating the world (Gen. 2:1-4). Take the cup of wine, close your eyes, and recite the first paragraph. Visualize all of creation and acknowledge God Who created it. Feel God’s creative power.

Barúkh atá Adonáy Eloheínu Mélekh ha-olám

Boré perí ha-gáfen.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe

Who creates the fruit of the vine.

The blessing over the wine and the paragraph that follows, which announces the sanctity of the day of Shabbat, are prayers for all present. Open your eyes and recite the two blessings, bearing all in mind for this mitsva. When you have finished, drink the wine.

You should use only kosher wine for blessings. Some have the custom to recite the two blessings for Kiddush or, at least, a part thereof, in unison. Some sit and some stand for the blessings. Many sit when drinking the wine.

Washing Hands

Barúkh atá Adonáy Eloheínu Mélekh ha-olám

Ashér kideshánu be-mîstsvotáv ve-tsivánu

Al netílat yadáyim.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe

Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us

Concerning washing of the hands.

After Kiddush, one washes hands. When you wash, stop talking and concentrate. Pour the water three times over each hand and, while you are drying your hands, recite the blessing. Traditionally, one observes complete silence between washing one’s hands and the blessing over bread. Some, however, sing a niggun to keep one focused on the presence of God.

Ha-Motsi, the Prayer over Bread

Barúkh atá Adonáy Eloheínu Mélekh ha-olám

Ha-Motsí léhem min ha-árets.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe

Who brings forth bread from the earth.

When everyone is seated and quiet, close your eyes, invoke God’s presence, and say the blessing, bearing in mind that food is grown by God and only processed and then eaten by us.

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How to Sing a Song to God

There are dimensions of being human that can only be reached with music. The nonverbal-musical reaches into us and strikes chords of feeling and awareness that the intellectual-verbal cannot touch. Singing is, therefore, very important, even if one is not very musical.

First, learn the words. Many people think that the words don’t count. That is not quite true because, where music has words, they form part of the meaning of the music. The words are in dialogue with the melody. Since the words to Jewish music are often in Hebrew, it is important to learn them first and also to learn their meanings. The zemirot, the special songs for Shabbat that are sung at table, are among the most beautiful poems in any literature, anywhere. “Yah! Master of the universe and the other universes! You are the King, the king of the kings” is not just a song. It is a religious poem. So is: “This day is for Israel, of light and joy, a Shabbat of rest” (it rhymes in Hebrew but not in English). And so is: “Rock of Whose bounty we have eaten! Bless God, my faithful ones, for we have eaten and been satisfied, as God had said.” The songs we usually sing in synagogue are also really religious poems. Look at the words of Adon Olam (“Master of the universe Who ruled before any thing was created”), Ein Keloheinu (“There is none like our God”), Lekha Dodi (“Let us go, my beloved, to greet the bride”), and many others.

Second, learn the music. You’d be surprised how many of us can follow along but cannot actually sing the melody. We hear and we follow along, but that is not singing. Some of the melodies are very complex. Others are very strange because their mode is not contemporary American. There are melodies I am still trying to learn.

Part of the greatness of Jewish life and culture is the diversity of its music. There are melodies that are slow, medium, and fast. There are marching songs, plaintive chants, and drinking songs. There are even waltzes in minor. Often such variations are used with the same text. I think I know eight or ten melodies to some poems. Learn, and keep learning, new melodies.

And then there is the “niggun,” the song without words. Songs of the nonverbal soul. These, too, are sometimes joyous and sometimes sad; sometimes vigorous and sometimes poignant. There is such a range.

Learn the harmonies, if you are musical enough.

Learn to sing and to hear those around you, whether in unison or in harmony. A hasidic rabbi once noted that two or more people cannot communicate at the same time if they are talking, but two or more people can communicate at the same time if they are singing.

When you have learned the words and the melody well enough so that you don’t have to check yourself to be sure you know them, then you are ready to sing.

Close your eyes and invoke God’s Presence. Sing to God. Do not sing for the purpose of singing, or to make beautiful music. Spiritual singing is not primarily an aesthetic experience, though it is also that. Spiritual singing means opening your inner self to God through music. It means being present to God in a nonverbal, yet fully expressive, way. If you are sad, and that happens to all of us, sing your sadness in the Presence of God. If you are joyful, sing that joy, not to yourself or as an expression of yourself, but sing that joy “before the Face of God.”

Bring your self into God’s Presence, through song. Spiritual singing is a dialogue, not an expressive monologue. This is as true at table as it is in the synagogue.

There is one very beautiful melody that east-European Jews use on Friday evening called Yah Ribbon. The music is a waltz and it is in a minor key. When you have mastered the words and the music, ask yourself, “With whom am I dancing this waltz?” According to certain Jewish mystical streams of thought, God contains a feminine element called Shekhina. W/who is dancing with w/Whom as you sing this song to God?

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How to Confess One’s Sins (Viddui)

Sin is not a faux pas; it is not a mistake. We all make mistakes. Sometimes they are intentional, but most of the time they are unintentional. Mistakes are errors, failures to do the right thing. Sin, on the other hand, is a compulsive doing of something that we know is not right. Sin is a repetitive act that, for whatever reason, we cannot stop. It may be a socially insignificant act, or it may be a truly destructive or self-destructive act. Sin can also be a very serious wrongdoing committed once for which we feel deep guilt. In all cases, sin is a serious wrongdoing; it is not a mistake.

When we sin, and we all sin, we feel guilt guilty that we have failed our inner selves, those around us, and even God. Guilt is not bad. On the contrary, we should feel guilty for doing some things and for not doing others. A person without guilt is a person who has no moral sensitivity to good and evil, and no moral ambitions.

When we feel guilt, we also feel remorse. We are sorry, deeply sorry, that we have done what we have done, or not done what we should have done. When we feel guilt, we may even feel shame. We may feel as if we just want to withdraw and hide—from God, from our friends, even from our inner selves. Shame covers our faces, as the psalmist says. The combination of guilt, shame, and remorse lead to confession.

Viddui, confession of sin, is a very primal religious moment because it is our way of acknowledging that we have done things that we know are wrong, and that we regret having done them. Confession is the way we bring to the surface our guilt and our shame. Viddui is the way we express our remorse and ask forgiveness of the Power beyond us for what we have done. Viddui is the way we commit ourselves into the hands of a Judge more gracious than we Who, we hope, will understand the compulsive and deep nature of sin and Who will forgive us, clearing the slate so that we can start again. Confession gives us the hope that we will overcome sin.

Repentance comes before confession; teshuva precedes viddui. The first step in teshuva is examining one’s actions and identifying those that were sinful. One can quickly discard one’s mistakes. But sins—acts that we knew were wrong but we committed anyway, especially acts against other persons—are not so easily disposed of. To prepare for viddui, do teshuva: Examine your acts. Feel guilty. Feel ashamed.

The second step in repentance is asking forgiveness of the person(s) we have wronged. This is called bakashat seliha, asking for forgiveness. In Judaism, it is a prerequisite for confession. One cannot confess one’s sins to God until after one has specifically asked for and received forgiveness from the person(s) we have wronged. God is not prepared to listen to us until after we have talked to those whom we have offended, and made our peace with them. This is not the same as apologizing, which is used for mistakes not sins. To prepare for viddui, do teshuva: Be sure to ask forgiveness of your fellow human beings.

When we are ready to confess, we recite viddui, the ritual confession of sins. Viddui is said chiefly on Yom Kippur, once during each silent Amida and once aloud during each public repetition of the Amida. However, there are penitential prayers, called tahanun, recited almost every weekday. In the sefardi rite, tahanun includes confession of sin, while in the Ashkenazi rite, one thinks vidui during tahanun but does not recite the formula. There are also penitential prayers that invoke “The Thirteen Attributes of God” and special penitential poems called “Selihot.”

The text of viddui, the ritual confession of sin, has two versions. One is a simple alphabetic acrostic, known by its initial word, Ashamnu. The other is a double acrostic, known by its initial word, Al het’. The latter is recited only at Yom Kippur, while the former occurs in various penitential prayers as well as on Yom Kippur.

Rabbis of all generations have realized that reciting the liturgical confession is rather impersonal, and because the alphabetic form is used, it is also limited. To counter this, some orthodox rabbis have prepared pamphlets to be used during viddui which list more explicitly and in great detail all the sins that might come under each of the alphabetic sins listed in the viddui. Modern editors have countered the impersonal and limited character of the liturgical forms with interpretive translations, sometimes several versions of which are then inserted in the prayerbook at the proper place.

As you examine the list of sins in the viddui, you will recognize some of them as your own. Others will seem repetitive or not relevant to you. Examine your own deeds and identify those acts that are really compulsively wrong, either because they offend God and/or because they also offend others. Then, compare your sins with those on the lists.

On Yom Kippur, you will recite vidui twice for each Amida—once in the silent Amida and once during the public repetition. When you recite the silent viddui, think of your own specific sins as you recite the ones listed in the prayerbook. However, when you recite the public viddui, think of all the sins listed, for each of them has been committed by at least one of the Jewish people.

Reciting the confession, even with intellectual attention to what you are saying, is not enough. You must also ask forgiveness of God. Invoke God’s presence. Be present to God. Then, collect your thoughts about your own sins and about their relationship to the liturgical viddui. Then, recite the confession and ask God for forgiveness for each one. This takes time and the congregation will move on. Don’t worry. Prayer is between you and God.

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How to Be Angry with God

Anger is a powerful wave. It roars over us and carries us away, first forward and then backward. We lose our balance and flounder in its surge. Anger is a storm, whipping through the air, raising dust, and pounding us with rain, bending everything is in its path to its will. Anger is red; it is blood. Sometimes it is red and black mixed together, joining evil and darkness.

Anger distracts; it is a diversion from reality, an escape from what must be done. A fantasy that saps our energy, and shames us. Sometimes, anger brings clarity and sight; sometimes it blinds us. In anger we see the truth, and we lose sight of the truth.

Anger energizes us. It gets our blood going. It gives us the force to fight evil, to rebel against destiny. Anger gives us the intensity with which to create; it draws us out from the depths.

Anger slides easily into rage and fury. Rage and fury are magnified anger. They are more powerful waves, more intense energy. They are more effective action, more violent storm. Rage and fury are white, hot, searing.

Anger and rage are inseparably a part of us. One who has experienced no anger, no rage, is not human. Such a person has no deep investment in life, no love to protect, no vulnerability. Anger and rage are integral to human being.

There is so much anger in the world. There is the personal anger we feel for someone who has taken advantage of us, who has cheated us, or abused us. There is the national anger we feel for those who have attacked our nation and endangered our people. There is the political anger we feel against those private and public institutions that have exploited us, or ignored or neglected us. And there is the anger we feel toward God Who has mistreated us or, in His neglect, has allowed others to mistreat us.

We spend a lot of time trying to deal with our anger. We repress it. We channel it. We sublimate it. We let it roll over us. We dream and fantasize about it. We feel ashamed of it, and we talk to friends and psychotherapists about it. But we do not pray it. We do not bring our anger to God, at least not enough. Christians have a hard time bringing anger into their prayer life. Muslims have an even harder time bringing anger into their prayer life.

The proper prayer life, however, includes moments of deep anger, as well as times of tranquility and serenity. It includes moments of rage, as well as times of reflection and meditation; moments of sadness, as well as times of joy and praise; moments of depression, as well as times of gratitude and exultation; “To dwell in the house of the Lord forever” together with “For how long, oh Lord, for how long shall the wicked rejoice”; “Every breath shall praise God” together with “Oh God, make them as tumbleweed, as straw before the wind.” Psalms, precisely because they flow from the sheer variety of human life, contain the whole range of human emotions, feelings, and awareness—all of them brought before God, all of them incorporated into a full and vital prayer life. One simply alternates, one prays seriatim, bringing first this and then that feeling before God, transforming first this, and then that, emotion into prayer.

Praying and Covenant

Prayer is serious business; it is not just mumbling the liturgy, or group singing, or individual meditation on the source of all tranquility. Prayer is living in the Presence of the divine—in grace, and in rage. It is being present to God—for better, and for worse. Hurt, anger, and rage are normal parts of life and, hence, must be normal parts of our prayer life. We, therefore, always speak the truth of our hurt, pain, anger, and even our rage to God. We never hide or repress the truth of our anguish.

In bringing our anger to God, we also always confess our powerlessness, our inability to achieve justice and moral balance in the world; we submit the limitations of our power to God. And, at the same time, we call upon God to assume power where we cannot exercise it. We pray to God to rectify the wrong done to us, to impose justice, morality, and righteousness. In our powerlessness, we invoke God’s covenant with us and we call God to action. This includes the sound and thorough defeat of our personal and national enemies.

There is nothing wrong in this; covenant implies loyalty on both sides. Covenant means justice for both parties. When we are hurt and abused, God, too, has been hurt and abused. When we deny God’s kingship, we are the first victims. Righteous anger defends covenant. The sound and thorough defeat of the enemy are part of covenantal relatedness precisely because it is not pornographic violence that is the goal, but action that seeks justice for both parties to the covenant. Acknowledging the sovereignty of God in all of God’s creation, including personal and national history, is the goal. Vengeance is sometimes the only way to do that.

In English usage “vengeance,” perhaps under the influence of Christian tradition, has a negative connotation; it is seen an unbounded violence. I do not think this is correct. The term I use for that is “pornographic violence.” Rather, “vengeance” is violent action that is, nonetheless, retribution for a previous violent action. What makes “vengeance” ethically acceptable is that it is still proportionate to the previous violence perpetrated—‘the punishment still fits the crime’; this is not true of “pornographic violence.”

Serious speech is not serious prayer. To speak seriously is to express powerfully and to externalize fully a thought or feeling. Serious prayer, however, is performative speech; it is talking that enacts action. A curse or a prayer for vengeance is, therefore, not just an externalized emotion; it is speech moving toward power. As such, a curse or prayer for vengeance is ethically permissible; it is serious prayer, one we fervently hope God will fulfill.

Serious prayer, however, is not serious action. One may pray “take now my life” (Jonah 4:3), but one may not commit suicide. One may pray “Praiseworthy in He Who will seize and dash your infants on the rock” (Psalm 137:9), but one may not commit murder. Prayer, then, is more than speech and less than action.

The Book of Psalms as a Model

Anger is an integral part of the prayer life of the psalmist. Anger is a recurring theme—all kinds of anger: personal, national, political, and even anger toward God. In fact, the anger in the psalms is so strong that it often takes the form of rage. Rage expressed, not repressed. Rage prayed, not excluded from the divine-human relationship. Have a look at the following:

Psalm 83: “Make them as tumbleweed” – a psalm of national anger

Psalm 120 : “I am for peace but, when I speak, they are for war” – a psalm of political anger

Psalm 109: “Place a wicked person in command over him” – a psalm of personal curses

Psalm 44: “Wake up! Why do you sleep, Lord! Arise!” – a psalm of rage against God

Concluding Meditation

I do not want to be angry—not at my personal adversaries, not at my national enemies, and certainly not at my God. I would rather concentrate on the positive dimensions of life, or at least be left alone to do what I do best. But life and history will not let me alone. I do have adversaries and enemies, and the God Who is active in my personal and national life sometimes acts against me / us. When that happens, I know that submission is not really an option. When bad things happen to good people, I know that acceptance is only half the answer. The other half involves acknowledging anger and rage—learning to think them, to feel them, and even to pray them. That is what the angry psalms are for. That is what the liturgy of anger is for—to help us pray our anger and rage, even if it is God we are angry at.

If we succeed, we pray our anger and our protest, though we cannot stay on that path for too long because we will get lost spiritually. There comes a moment when we must bracket that rage, and consciously turn, difficult though it may be, to the psalms of love and praise and to the liturgy of peace and devotion. There also comes a moment when we must turn to confront wickedness and evil. In that moment, we must bracket love and praise and, difficult though it may be, we must consciously turn to the liturgy of anger and protest. Life weaves back and forth between anger and love, between war and peace; we all know that. Just so does the prayer life weave back and forth between anger and peace, between protest and devotion.

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A Jewish “Mandala”

Mizrah image
A mandala is Hindu and Buddhist spiritual symbol that represents the universe. It is used in meditation in those traditions. Because it is an active symbol used for worship in a non-Jewish religion, it is forbidden for Jews to use a mandala. However, the use of visual symbols for meditation was, and is, prevalent in Jewish tradition. The symbol above is found in many Orthodox synagogues, frequently on the eastern wall which is the direction of Jerusalem. Most worshippers cast a glance at it and think no more of it. However, it is really a visual symbol intended to be used for meditation. (To understand and to do this meditation, you must be able to read Hebrew.)

The symbol is composed as follows: At the top, in large letters, is the Tetragrammton (YHVH, pronounced “Adonay”), the Ineffable Name of God. Next to the Name on both sides is a verse from Psalm 16:8, “I set the Lord before my eyes always; indeed, at my right hand; I shall never stumble.” Below this and above the main design are two Names of God composed of the letters YHVH and ADNY, arranged alternately in two different sequences: YAHDVNHY and AYDHNVYH.

The center of this symbol is Psalm 67 written in Hebrew in the shape of a menorah (a seven-branched candelabrum) like the one used in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-40) and the two temples. A close examination of the menorah shows that the third branch from the left and the right are identical. That is because, in the Psalm itself, verses 4 and 6 are identical, giving the Psalm a symmetrical form. To put it another way: the symmetry of the verses invited a symmetrical writing of the Psalm; hence, the visual symbol before us.

Around the sides of the menorah are the three-lettered Names of God. They are part of the 72-Letter Name of God and are derived in a complicated way from Exodus 14:19-21. These Names are said to have special magical, protective powers. There is also one six-lettered acronym of the line from the prayerbook that is recited right after the Sh’ma, “Blessed is the Name of the glory of God’s kingdom, for ever and ever.” Toward the bottom are two five-lettered acronyms that are the concluding letters of the first five verses in Genesis, chapter one. All these Names (and acronyms) are said to have magical and protective powers.

At the base of the menorah, on either side, are the four combinations of letters that “seal” the menorah (see below) and alphanumeric equivalences of two of the “seals.” And finally, in the middle at the bottom is YaH, another Name of God.

To use this visual symbol, one begins at the top, meditating carefully on each of the four letters of the Tetragrammaton (YHVH). This is God’s proper Name, not a noun describing Him. It is the Name that God reveals to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 6:2) and, again, the Name that begins the prayer that God Himself taught Moses to recite during the crisis of the golden calf (Exodus 34:6-7). Some rabbis teach that the Name YHVH can be seen as black fire on white fire; others teach that it can be seen as white fire on black fire.

Visualize the letters of God’s ineffable Name as black fire on white fire, and then as white fire on black fire.

Then, read the two Names of God composed of the letters YHVH and ADNY, concentrating on the alternating sequences of the letters and their reversal in the second formulation (as above).

Then, recite Psalm 67. Follow it visually on the menorah. Let your eyes follow the visual flow of the letters. Feel the energy radiate from the image.

Then, “seal” the menorah as follows: Take note of the initial letters of the first three verses that are on your left across the top of the menorah (alef, lamed, yod); do the same with the verses that are on your right across the top of the menorah (yod, alef, yod). Then, take note of the final letters of each of the verses on your left (hey, kaf, mem), and the final letters of the verses on your right (tsade, vav, mem). Finally, take note of the letter at the top of the central verse on the menorah (yod) and the final letter of that verse (hey). Hold all these in your consciousness and “seal” the open ends of the menorah.

Then, hold the menorah in your mind, let your eyes flow over the Names and acronyms that surround and protect the menorah. The more you study these Names, the more there is to meditate upon.

Practice this.

When you are good at this meditation and no longer have to search for the letters, do this: Feel the energy in the menorah and “seal” it with the initial and final letters of each verse as you recite the Psalm itself – all in one smooth motion. This creates a visual image, full of divine power. It takes practice to do this. Do not rush.

When you are very, very familiar with this meditation, learn the Psalm by heart and construct and “seal” the menorah in your mind.

After meditating on Psalm 67, you can proceed with your prayers and even your daily tasks.

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