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01/31/2021 11:39:41 AM


Cantor Hinda Eisen Labovitz has proudly served Ohr Kodesh as cantor and director of its educational programs since 2014. She has enjoyed opportunities to teach periodically from the pulpit and in classroom settings throughout her tenure at Ohr Kodesh. This blog is a record of some of Cantor Labovitz's sermons and lectures.

Please feel free to reach out to Cantor Labovitz by email or set a meeting by clicking here.

Chatzi Kaddish... Why It Matters

02/05/2023 10:04:01 PM


Cantor Hinda Labovitz

Advanced cantorial students have a habit of telling rookies that their comprehensive exams – when they prove that they know everything they need to serve as a cantor – will be someone sitting across a desk, insisting that you recite “25 versions of Chatzi Kaddish… go.”

It’s not actually true.

But for someone who needs to lead services for the entire Jewish year, knowing how to chant a minimum of 18 melodies for chatzi kaddish is necessary – and seventeen of them are all recited in Tishrei alone, in the run from Rosh Ha-Shanah through Simchat Torah. (Extra credit for anyone who can find me at Kiddush and tell me which one is the outlier.)

The question is… why? What is the significance of Chatzi Kaddish? Why does it appear where it does, why does it get used musically the way it does? And why should getting it right matter to you, whether you are the one leading, or participating from the pews?

Rabbinic sources agree that the Chatzi Kaddish is a dividing mark. It separates two pieces of the service like a bookmark, and most sources regard it as a closing statement for a piece of the service. Rabbi Daniel Landes says “Kaddish is like a postscript to love letters: […] not a mere afterthought.”

In his 1909 treatise about Kaddish, British scholar David De Sola Poole teaches that “the Kaddish was a closing doxology to an Aggadic address, the final expression in prayer of the Messianic hope pictured by the preacher’s words.” (DSP 9) It’s the first paragraph of the Kaddish that he’s calling a doxology – that is, a formula that is recited by a leader in order to elicit a verbal response from the congregation. In this case that response is “Amen; yehei shemeih, etc.”

This idea that the Kaddish started as a response to a teaching of Aggadah – that is, the interpretation of biblical text, and rabbinic legend – can be sourced from the Talmud in tractate Sota (39a):

עָלְמָא אַמַּאי קָא מִקַּיַּים? 

The Gemara poses a question: But if everything is deteriorating, why does the world continue to exist?

אַקְּדוּשָּׁה דְסִידְרָא וְאַיְּהֵא שְׁמֵיהּ רַבָּא דְּאַגַּדְתָּא .

The Gemara answers its own question: By the sanctification that is said in the order of prayers, with the section called kedushah desidra, and by the response: Let God’s great name be blessed (yehei shemeih), etc., which is recited [according to this section of the Talmud] after the study of Aggadah, of an academic recitation and discourse.

This central line of Kaddish, amen, yehei shemeih rabbah mevarakh le’alam ul’alemei almaya, the Sages imagine is one that makes God happy, and makes all things possible.

We learn in Tractate Shabbat (119b):

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי: כׇּל הָעוֹנֶה ״אָמֵן יְהֵא שְׁמֵיהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ״ בְּכׇל כֹּחוֹ, קוֹרְעִין לוֹ גְּזַר דִּינוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״בִּפְרוֹעַ פְּרָעוֹת בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהִתְנַדֵּב עָם בָּרְכוּ ה׳״.

Apropos the reward for honoring Shabbat, the Gemara cites statements about the reward for answering amen. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said that anyone who answers: Amen, may His great name be blessed, wholeheartedly, with all his might, his sentence is ripped up.

More pointedly, if one was sentenced to divine punishment, the mere recitation of the central line of Kaddish, meaningfully and effusively, has the power to change God’s mind.

Elsewhere, in Tractate Berakhot (57a), we learn that not only does the recitation of this central line of Kaddish divert any possible punishment, it actually secures a person a place in Olam Ha-Ba.

הָעוֹנֶה ״יְהֵא שְׁמֵיהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ״ מוּבְטָח לוֹ שֶׁהוּא בֶּן הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא.

One who answers in a dream: May His great name be blessed from kaddish is assured that he is one who has a place in the World-to-Come.

Further, in the Midrashic imagination, this central line makes God almost giddy:

In Midrash on Mishlei 14:28 we read,

אָמַר רַבִּי סִימוֹן: אֵימָתַי הקב"ה מִתְעַלֶּה בְּעוֹלָמוֹ? בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל נֶאֱסָפִים בְּבָתֵּי כְּנֵסִיּוֹת וּבְבָתֵּי מִדְרָשׁוֹת, וְנוֹתְנִין שֶׁבַח וְקִלּוּס לִפְנֵי בּוֹרְאָן.

Rabbi Simon asked: When is the Holy One of Blessing exalted in the world? [He answers,] When Israel gather in synagogues and study houses, and give praise and glory to their Creator.

רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל אוֹמֵר: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל נֶאֱסָפִין בְּבָתֵּי מִדְרָשׁוֹת וְשׁוֹמְעִין אַגָּדָה מִפִּי חָכָם, וְאַחַר-כָּךְ עוֹנִין (קַדִּישׁ): "אָמֵן יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבֹרָךְ", בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה הקב"ה שָׂמֵחַ וּמִתְעַלֶּה בְּעוֹלָמוֹ, וְאוֹמֵר לְמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת "בּוֹאוּ וּרְאוּ עַם זוֹ שֶׁיָּצַרְתִּי בְּעוֹלָמִי, כַּמָּה הֵן מְשַׁבְּחִין אוֹתִי", בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה מַלְבִּישִׁין אוֹתוֹ הוֹד וְהָדָר

Rabbi Ishmael [answers Rabbi Simon’s question differently]: When Israel sits in study houses and listen to midrash aggadah from the mouth of a sage, and after that they answer: "Amen. Yehei Sheme Rabah Mevorach", in that moment the Holy One of Blessing is happy and is exalted in God’s world, and God says to the angels of service: 'Come and see this people that I created in My world, how much they praise Me.' At that moment they [the angels] adorn God with glory and splendor, presumably in response.

At this juncture, it feels important to emphasize that whatever the impact of a recitation of Kaddish on God, or on us, and in particular of that central line of Kaddish, it is only permissible for us to do so in the presence of a minyan. There is potence in being together and honoring God’s holy Name while praying in physical proximity to each other. Our community doesn’t recite chatzi Kaddish when we’re praying on Zoom together – we only allow mourners to recite one Kaddish at the end of the service for the purpose of fulfilling Jewish obligations of mourning and observance of yahrzeit.

There were several months after COVID started that we were not meeting for Shabbat services at all. In those months I worked alone in this room, sitting on a stool in this spot, feeling that the sanctuary must not be left completely empty. I made recordings, taught classes and b’nei mitzvah lessons, right here. But nothing was more powerful than the day we came back to Ohr Kodesh in June 2020 for Shabbat services for the first time. Ari Blumenthal led Shacharit from inside the acrylic barrier, masked, with only ten of us spread out over this whole room. We started only from Shochein Ad. I remember Ari arriving at that first chatzi kaddish after Yishtabach, having omitted this text in any of our services for three months, and that sweet but heavy moment in which we felt each other’s presence in the davening space for the first time as those of us in the room responded to Ari’s kaddish. I do not take these responses for granted when we can say them together. Not anymore. As special and otherwise accessible as davening together on Zoom is, being on Zoom means that we don’t benefit from being able to hear one another as we sing in unison. Perhaps this is what Rabbi Yishma’el thinks is buoying God’s spirits.

This past month I was teaching several b’nei mitzvah students to daven Shabbat Minchah and Ma’ariv. In those two services, we have four unique recitations of chatzi kaddish, recited in three different tunes. (One is a duplicate.) I’m always tickled when a student arrives at chatzi kaddish and says, “Oh! I know this!” and I have the opportunity to wax poetic about the fact that while the text remains the same, the tune is different and… it matters. Usually my students know the Friday night tune for Chatzi Kaddish, and to lead on Shabbat afternoon they’re asked to learn another three different chants for this very same text.

It's not just hazing. There’s an important method to the madness that is eighteen minimum different melodies for chatzi kaddish throughout the year.

Jewish musicologist Boaz Tarsi calls this “Text-Time-Occasion Sensitivity.” By this he means that “musical considerations are tightly attached to the specific text, occasion, and time in which they come into play. Thus,” he continues, “different preassigned musical elements (e.g. scales, motifs, melodies, intervals, central tones, modes, and many others) are allocated specifically to their respective texts.”

In fact, tunes for chatzi kaddish vary widely, but under very specific conditions. The astute, educated listener can discern exactly where we are in the prayer cycle, whether by day, by month, or over the course of the year, simply by listening for the melody being used for chatzi kaddish. Tarsi says that Chatzi Kaddish is “Among the most notable instances of extreme time-occasion-calendar sensitivity.”

Boaz Tarsi goes on to explain that there are really three kinds of Chatzi Kaddish settings. The first is what he calls the “immersive” melody, which is related to the nusach, i.e. the liturgical chant, that both precedes and follows the recitation of that Kaddish. It’s nusach in situ, if you will. Generally, the melodies we use for chatzi kaddish during the weekdays fall into this category: the overall nusach for weekday Shema and its blessings is the Jewish-sounding Ahavah Rabbah mode, sometimes called “freygish” in Klezmer music – what my cantor used to call “Tevye Mode” – and the chatzi kaddish is in this mode. Tachanun, the confessional section later on in the weekday morning and afternoon services, is in Weekday Minor mode, which is the same way we all chanted our Torah blessings today. The Chatzi Kaddish that follows tachanun is also in that mode.

Sometimes though, the Chatzi Kaddish melody foreshadows what is to come. Some would say that the nusach used for the liturgy that follows is an extension of the Kaddish, which developed first, and not the other way around. Prime examples of this are Tal and Geshem – prayers for dew and rain on Pesach/Passover and Sh’mini Atzeret, respectively. Ne’ilah, the last service of Yom Kippur, is also in this category. Shabbat Musaf, which we’ll do together in a few minutes, also begins as in the Major in order to foreshadow the repetition that comes just afterward. If what follows is an Amidah for either Shalosh Regalim/Three Festivals or Rosh Chodesh, we still do this Kaddish in major, but it concludes with foreshadowing the nusach chant for the middle section of the Amidah special for that day.

In yet other cases, the Chatzi Kaddish has a melody that stands alone as an island between other texts whose musical renditions have no bearing on or influence from the chatzi kaddish tune. Examples in this category include the chatzi kaddish in the Ma’ariv service for Shalosh Regalim, the three festivals, Minchah for Yom Kippur, perhaps most famously the Kaddish used to introduce High Holy Day Musaf and Selichot (which are the same). Tarsi writes in a footnote that the Kaddishes specific to Torah Service on Shalosh Regalim and High Holy Days are “nearly extinct” in the American tradition, and I am pleased that our Torah gabba’im at OKC have learned these, so we continue to be among few communities preserving those traditions.

One other “Island Kaddish” is the one we do preceding Musaf on Simchat Torah, called a yahres kaddish, in which we use the chatzi kaddish text to take a tour of a year’s worth of melodies and songs.

When it comes to the Friday night Kaddish, Tarsi raises an interesting challenge. This chant, whcih also is used in the Shabbat morning Torah Service, as we just heard, includes a tune we all sing together. He’s perplexed by this tune, which he says is the same musical figure as we sing in the second line of “Eliyahu, Eliyahu, Eliyahu ha-giladi,” at Havdalah though the tune occurs here in Lewandowski’s rendition composed over 200 years ago. (you’ll never unhear it!) All I know is that the latter tune for Eliyahu Ha-Navi is Eastern European in origin. I do not know which was composed first. It might be a coincidence, or maybe an intentional choice. They might both be based on an Ur-Folktune that everyone knew and could sing along with. The world will never know.

In the case of the High Holy Day Musaf Kaddish and others, like those for Ne’ilah and the kaddishes preceding Tal/Geshem, these contain musical material that belongs to a special category in the Ashkenazi repertoire. Musicologist Avraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882–1938), this material has been called nigunim mi-Sinai or manginot mi-Sinai (mi-Sinai tunes or mi-Sinai melodies). No, we are not meant to believe that Moses received these melodies on Sinai when he received the Torah (which is next week’s parashah). Nor do we all even sing them identically. Moses could barely carry tablets, we have no insight as to whether he could carry a tune. And, what we call “Niggunim Mi-Sinai” only refers to the musical traditions of the Ashkenazi world – traditions are entirely different in the non-Ashkenazi Jewish subcultures. We have no reason to believe that Sinai was in the Pale of Settlement in the early years of the Common Era. But even among Ashkenazi descendants, there is some disagreement as to which tunes belong in this category. So maybe what actually comes from Sinai is that we don’t always agree.

In a previous Shabbat Shirah sermon, I explored the ways in which sitting in the pews in shul is, or can be, like watching a football game. My son Judah asked me the other day who I’m rooting for in the Super Bowl next week, and I told him, “The Commercials.” Because the truth is, a football game seems interminable to me. I don’t understand the game, it was only a few years ago that I discovered the yellow and blue lines aren’t really on the field because they’re computer-generated, and I don’t have a personal investment in the success of anyone who is playing. When I married Bob I agreed to root for the New England Patriots. But (I say because Bob told me so) – the Patriots season has been over for some time already. Just for the record, Judah told me we should root for Kansas City because Rabbi Helfand is rooting for Kansas City. I confess, I’m probably still rooting for the commercials.

Why does it matter who I’m rooting for in the Super Bowl? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But it matters to Judah because when he’s watching the game, he’s going to want to do a running-narration about the game, and he wants to know that I have an investment in the same parts of the game he does, in the success of the same players, and he makes me study – because I’m not going to understand a word he says unless I know what he’s talking about. And my own enjoyment in watching football would certainly increase if I understood anything about the rules of the game and could watch and understand the strategy of the game play out in the way the teams are coached and the players work together.

Some of you just perked up when I started talking sports. If when I started talking about Football you just thought to yourself, “Now you’re speaking my language!” after I would speaking for several minutes in music theory and Jewish nusach philosophy, let me invite you in. 18 versions of Chatzi Kaddish... go! is, yes, my idea of “interesting,” “fascinating,” and “fun to discuss.”

But let me tell you why it should matter to you.

We are creatures of habit. Many of the things we enjoy are things that, based on sensory input, recall to mind things that have made us happy in the past. Even my own daughter Devorah said to me last week “I don’t to sit through shul! It’s boring! It’s always the same!”

But here’s the rub – it’s not always the same. Yes, the Siddur text stays static, for the most part. But, as Tarsi concludes, “the existence of music immediately produces these additional dimensions and extra layers of experience.” Even with a text like Chatzi Kaddish, which we recite multiple times per service, the melody can remind us where we are. The melody we hear for Chatzi Kaddish, appropriate to its service, can be the smell of challah in our home that reminds us it’s time for Shabbat, or the apple pie smell that tells us it’s Thanksgiving. It can be the sound of fireworks on July 4, or the smell of subway that tells us we’re in New York City.

And in those moments that the text isn’t speaking to us, that we feel challenged by the words on the page, the music brings us to another layer of consideration, give us another plane in which to connect with ourselves, with God, and with our community. Perhaps this is why Chatzi Kaddish is only recited when we are together – because when we sit together, make music together, our community transcends any one individual.

As translated by the Siddur Ohr Kodesh Committee, “May the name of the Holy One, blessed is God, be blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, upraised and lauded, above any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are voiced in the world, and say Amen.”

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Updates coming soon.

Shabbat Shirah 5781/2021 - Many Words for Music

01/31/2021 09:34:02 AM


Cantor Labovitz

YishtabachIn what has since become a cultural cliché, 19th century anthropologist Franz Boaz once observed that the languages of the native peoples who live in the area of Alaska and the Northwest Territories contain an unusually large number of words for “Snow.” I have been fascinated by this fact for some time.

When a language has so many words to describe one concept, you know that this thing is sacred in that culture, that that thing is so well-loved that it has been studied over and over, that it has been observed so thoroughly that the culture requires nuance to describe subtle details and differences about that thing.

Biblical and liturgical Hebrew, particularly once we arrive at Psalms, has a robust vocabulary that exists in a scatterplot on the three intersecting planes of music, praise, and joy.       

This week, by happenstance, I encountered Psalm 66 in the course of weekly study as I’ve been investigating the book of Psalms in order with my chavruta, my regular study partner. I’ve paid little attention to Psalm 66 until this point, and I’ll say that it felt serendipitous to find it this week. Sometimes, I confess, I read a text and feel like it’s waiting for me to find it or notice it at the right moment.

If you have a book of Psalms at the ready, you’re welcome to read along, but you won’t find this one in the siddur, unless you’re looking at Seligmann Baer’s Siddur Avodas Yisroel published in Rödelheim, Germany in 1868, where Psalm 66 is designated as the Psalm for the second day of Pesach / Passover and second day of Sukkot in the places outside of the land of Israel where those days are observed as holy days. That tradition does not seem to have been preserved in any modern siddurim.

Psalm 66’s text is relevant to this week for two reasons: First, it makes reference to the monumental event of this week’s parasha, the moment God split the Reed Sea, and it is littered with the vocabulary I described earlier, which exists on that three-dimensional axis of music, praise, and joy.

Psalm 66 is introduced with the three words,

לַ֭מְנַצֵּחַ שִׁ֣יר מִזְמ֑וֹר

To the lead player/the conductor, a song (shir), a psalm (mizmor).

We open here with a musical instruction. In Psalms, superscriptions referring to music are often dismissed by scholars as later additions, perhaps stage directions to the director and the players of the Temple’s Levitical orchestra.

Today we call Shabbat Shirah which we conventionally translate as “the Shabbat of Song,” and in its honor we dedicate ourselves to discussing music. I should note here that, unlike in modern Hebrew wherein a Shir is most commonly translated as song, in biblical Hebrew Shir typically simply means “poem, though the verb form means to sing. Thus, the so-called “Song of the Sea” should perhaps be titled the “Poem of the Sea.However, the first words of that poem are as follows, As Yashir Moshe uV’nei Yisrael, thus Moses and the People of Israel sang – or more accurately, would ultimately sing, or chant, this poem, upon their exodus from Egypt through the dry land amidst the Reed Sea.

Back to

שִׁ֣יר מִזְמ֑וֹר

a song (shir), a psalm (mizmor).

Most psalms, if they have such an instruction, contain only one of these words, shir or mizmor, or another musical indicator. Here, we have a compound. Shir and Mizmor. The 12th-century European commentator Ibn Ezra notes that many Psalms are also ascribed to individuals, like Mizmor LeDavid, a Psalm of David, and in noticing that this psalm is not ascribed to any author or leader in particular, Ibn Ezra posits that this Psalm may have been composed by or for a meshorer, a singer, in the Levitical choir, or for universalistic use.

Mizmor, you might hear in the similar root, zemer, like a Shabbat table song, or zimrah, as in P’sukei D’Zimrah, the first service of each day which we also sometimes translate as “Verses of Song.”           

But beyond it’s musical connotation, the root Zayin-Mem-Reysh has additional connotations of strength and cutting down. Our poem in this week’s parasha contains the famous words ozi veZimrat YaH, conventionally understood, the Lord is my Strength and Deliverance – we don’t understand this to mean that the God is my Strength and Song, as fitting as that may be (and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov interpreted that way). And the same root indicates cutting down, as in Parashat Behar, at the end of Leviticus with the instructions about Shmitta, the sabbatical year, sheish shanim tizmor karmekha – you may prune your vineyards six out of each seven years. Perhaps we can understand the strength and the cutting in the context of our word, mizmor, as an emotional breaking down of barriers through music and through singing, one of the key goals of our beginning the service that way in P’sukei D’Zimrah.

The first verse of the Psalm continues,

הָרִ֥יעוּ לֵ֝אלֹהִים כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Hariu, related to the word Teru’ah, the rapid series of blasts heard from the Shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah, signals a loud sound. Shout out to the Lord, all the earth, we translate. Robert Alter on this phrase comments, “This initial imperative to acclaim God signals the beginning of a Thanksgiving psalm.”

Verse 2,

זַמְּר֥וּ כְבֽוֹד־שְׁמ֑וֹ שִׂ֥ימוּ כָ֝ב֗וֹד תְּהִלָּתֽוֹ׃

sing the glory of God’s name, make glorious God’s praise.

Tehilato, related to the word tehillim, the Hebrew title of the Book of Psalms, also related to Hallel, the series of Psalms we add to praise God on particularly joyous holidays.

Verse 4,

כָּל־הָאָ֤רֶץ ׀ יִשְׁתַּחֲו֣וּ לְ֭ךָ וִֽיזַמְּרוּ־לָ֑ךְ יְזַמְּר֖וּ שִׁמְךָ֣ סֶֽלָה׃

all the earth bows to You, and sings hymns (viyzam’ru) to You; all sing hymns (yezam’ru) to Your name.” Selah.

Verse 5,

לְכ֣וּ וּ֭רְאוּ מִפְעֲל֣וֹת אֱלֹהִ֑ים נוֹרָ֥א עֲ֝לִילָ֗ה עַל־בְּנֵ֥י אָדָֽם׃

Come and see the works of God, who is held in awe by human people.

I want you in this verse to hear the reference to God as nora alilah, in this translation offered as “held in awe,” later picked up by the 12th century Sephardic liturgical poet Moses Ibn Ezra in his piyyut entitled El Nora Alilah, which we use to introduce our Ne’ilah service.

But as we’re singing to God, praising God, what is it that we’re singing about? Verse 6,

הָ֤פַךְ יָ֨ם ׀ לְֽיַבָּשָׁ֗ה בַּ֭נָּהָר יַֽעַבְר֣וּ בְרָ֑גֶל שָׁ֝֗ם נִשְׂמְחָה־בּֽוֹ׃

God turned the sea into dry land; they were able to cross the river on foot; we therefore rejoice (nismechah, be happy, as in chag sameach) in God.

בָּרְכ֖וּ עַמִּ֥ים ׀ אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְ֝הַשְׁמִ֗יעוּ ק֣וֹל תְּהִלָּתֽוֹ׃

O peoples (we’re invited), bless our God, celebrate God’s praises;

Barekhu – here’s another way to praise/bless/direct attention toward God. The Hebrew “Barekhu,” or “Barukh,” blessed, as we begin each blessing we say, is often associated with a bending of the knee as in the Amidah, related to the word birkayim meaning knees, though it is used as another praiseworthy way to extol God’s virtues. Here it appears in parallel with “Hishmi’u,” coming from the same root as “Shema,” to make heard one’s voice in praise of God – that is, tehilato. There’s that word again.

The Psalmist’s work is bookended with directives to gather round:

Verse 5 we read already,

לְכ֣וּ וּ֭רְאוּ מִפְעֲל֣וֹת אֱלֹהִ֑ים נוֹרָ֥א עֲ֝לִילָ֗ה עַל־בְּנֵ֥י אָדָֽם׃

Come and see the works of God, who held in awe by humans,

Now the text becomes personal after all those moments of praise, in verse 16:

לְכֽוּ־שִׁמְע֣וּ וַ֭אֲסַפְּרָה כָּל־יִרְאֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עָשָׂ֣ה לְנַפְשִֽׁי׃

Come and hear, and let me tell you, all God-fearing individuals, what God has done for me. Me, personally.

Psalm 66 gives us a window into one part of the vocabulary of praise, but the additional words on our scatterplot are littered throughout our siddur, particularly at the conclusion of P’sukei D’Zimrah and the first set of blessings preceding the Shema each morning. Shir, Zemer, Hallel, Barukh. In the context of our siddur we also hear verbs stemming from the words ne’imah, a melody; leranen, somewhere between music and joy; lehodot, to thank, leshabeiach, to praise, lehadeir, to beautify, leromeim, to lift up one’s voice, likro, to call out – some of these are in other verses of Psalm 66 I didn’t read to you. Hopefully you recognize many of these Hebrew roots as they appear in sequence also in recitations of the Kaddish.

But Psalm 66 ends in a startling theological statement, a statement I found resonant in thinking about prayer. Verses 17-20:

אֵלָ֥יו פִּֽי־קָרָ֑אתִי וְ֝רוֹמַ֗ם תַּ֣חַת לְשׁוֹנִֽי׃

I called aloud to God, glorification (romam) on my tongue.

אָ֭וֶן אִם־רָאִ֣יתִי בְלִבִּ֑י לֹ֖א יִשְׁמַ֣ע ׀ אֲדֹנָֽי׃

Had I an evil thought in my mind, the Lord would not have listened.

אָ֭כֵן שָׁמַ֣ע אֱלֹהִ֑ים הִ֝קְשִׁ֗יב בְּק֣וֹל תְּפִלָּתִֽי׃

But God did listen; heeded my prayer.

בָּר֥וּךְ אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־הֵסִ֘יר תְּפִלָּתִ֥י וְ֝חַסְדּ֗וֹ מֵאִתִּֽי׃

Blessed is God who has not turned away my prayer, or God’s faithful care from me.

What does it say that the Psalmist is ready to dismiss God, or initially thinks that God would be dismissive to the Psalmist, had the words of prayer been backed with negative or evil intentions? What power is there in calling out to God and suddenly understanding that, despite one’s sometimes-unfocused, sometimes impure intentions in prayer, God still listens? Blessed is God who has not turned away my prayer – my prayer, tefilah, not praise, but a supplication. This one, not about the object of that prayer, but about the intentions of its actor.

Each day in the middle of Modim, the gratitude section of the Amidah, we extol God for nisekha shebekhol yom imanu, Your miracles that are with us every day. In a week where we recall the grandiose acts that God has done to take us from bondage to freedom, splitting the sea and liberating the People of Israel, proving to them that God is masterful and grandiose. Let us remember that there are many ways to praise, to uplift, to supplicate, and let us meet our own needs, in relationship to God, in whatever way resonates today. Let us remember that as in music there are times for adagio, allegro, maestoso, and lento, there is blessing waiting for us in listening, in blessing, and in small miracles.

Mon, May 29 2023 9 Sivan 5783