Davening—It’s a Trip!
To daven in the morning is to take a trip with a variety of sites along the way. Why experience it this way? I’ve found, after decades of wanting to focus on what I was saying, that this is a way to see the collection of pesukim in each paragraph as a coherent group with a distinct theme. We don’t want to be ingrates (consider how you feel when you present a gift and the recipient doesn’t thank you – Hashem has given us life and sustenance); we want to be aware and express our appreciation. We want the past to always be present, to never forget going out of Egypt and our survival through the centuries. We want Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim to be at the forefront of our minds.
How do we dare to speak to Hashem? A verse from Tehillim (78:38) which we say at least three times in the morning and again at night as the prelude to Ma’ariv is the visa for this trip. We feel unworthy but “Ve-Hu rachum yekhaper avon” grants us entry. If we would be relying on our merits, we couldn’t get started. Hashem allows us to get past our mistakes; His lovingkindness, chessed, is the fuel for our trip; we refer to it many times in davening and in Birkhat Ha-Mazon.
We begin at Modeh Ani, then state who we are, articulate our place in the generations – our hope that our offspring will learn Torah, and note our responsibilities in Birkhot Ha–Torah. Men “dress for the trip” with tefillin and say moving pesukim, the statement of betrothal from Hoshea, to get underway. We appreciate our abilities and the gifts we’ve received in Birkhot Ha-Shachar. Even if we’ve been through dispiriting times, we realize that we can continue on this journey as we say Mizmor Shir Chanukat Ha-Bayit le-David.
We state the purpose of our trip at Barukh she-amar: we will try to describe the Creator and Maintainer of the world.
We present our visa when we say Ve-Hu rachum ye-khaper avon ve-lo yashchit ve-hirbah le-hashiv apo ve-lo ya’ir kol chamato in the middle of Hodu la-Hashem and at the end of Yehi khevod. Thanks to God’s forgiveness, we can proceed.
A panorama of our relationship with Hashem unfolds in Ashrei. We see our place in the generations that came before and that will follow ours. Now we are ready for a tour of creation from the heavens to the deep sea – always with a place within it for Israel, the Jewish people, and Jerusalem – in the five Hallelu-kah psalms. Prepare for a survey of Jewish history from the choosing of Avram, who was renamed Avraham, to our sudden descent into slavery, and up to the Exodus. We join our ancestors in saying Az yashir.
Compare the ending in Shemot 15:18–19 with what is added in the siddur in order to make a point: repeating Hashem yimlokh le-olam va-ed in Hebrew and Aramaic and adding phrases from Tehillim, Ovadiah, and Zechariah reinforces the ultimate recognition of God’s kingship over the world.
Join the angels’ recitation of Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh…
Now we’re ready for the ascent to Kri’at Shema and the Amidah.
In Shema we affirm our acceptance of ol malchut shamayim, mitzvot, and the constant remembering of our exodus from Egypt.
The final words we say are again from the Shirah al ha-yam, the foundational event of our people, and from Yeshayahu on God as our redeemer, before entering into the Amidah.
Each of these 19 blessings has its place in a progression: beginning with our Avot, through the gift of life in this world and the world to come, through our requests, to our hope that we may serve Hashem in the Beit HaMikdash, and our recognition that life with all its blessings is God’s gift. We end with the hope that our interaction with others will be positive in the closing paragraph, Elokai netzor.
I’m looking at highlights, not at every part of the tefillah, but seeing the central theme in each collection of verses works throughout. Instead of rushing, we look for the coherence in the gathered pesukim. To glance at four more sites:
Ashrei, once again.
Uva le-Tzion, where we present our visa of Ve-Hu rachum yekhaper avon a third time (a fourth time if we have said Tachanun) before heading back into daily life while hoping we can merit the World to Come. These verses are all about hope for the future as we’re approaching the end of our part in the conversation.
Aleinu and Al kein nekaveh carry the hope further: we recognize the kingship of God; may all people come to that recognition.
One more stop before we close this part of our journey: the Song of the Day, Shir shel Yom, recalling the Beit HaMikdash and anticipating when these Psalms will be sung there again. Each tehillah ends with hope for the future. On Wednesday, when a major part of Psalm 94 is about contending with evildoers, we add the first three verses of Psalm 95, Lekhu neranena, to end on a high note. Now we can start our day.
Does this seem simplistic? It’s not. If you look for the theme in each paragraph of davening, you won’t race through the verses. You will find your place within Jewish history and destiny and affirm your part in the covenant with Hashem. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l wrote that “the foundation of prayer is … the belief that through it we approach God intimately and the miraculous community embracing finite man and his Creator is born.”
We need to think about the closeness of God and the Jewish people and His closeness to each of us. We have three opportunities every day to express our appreciation.
Dr. Rivkah T. Blau has taught Jewish Studies and humanities in high school and college, and has served as principal of two yeshiva high schools. She is the author of Learn Torah, Love Torah, Live Torah, a biography of Rav Mordechai Pinchas Teitz, trans. into Hebrew, ושמחת בחייך.
 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer, ed. by Shalom Carmy (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav Publishing House, 2003), p. 35.
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