Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation, just ended. Last week’s Torah portion began with the word “v’etchanan,” I pleaded.
Our sages say that Moses was praying for the ability to pray. The original fore-prayer. The term fore-prayer was coined by Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi to describe the need to prepare oneself for prayer.
The ultimate version of this is the prayer that is not a prayer, a line from Psalm 51: “Adonai, s’faitay tiftach, ufi yagid t’hilatecha;” traditionally translated as “O Lord, open my lips, so that my mouth may declare Your praise” which is the opening meditation before the formal beginning of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer, known simply as Prayer / Tefillah in Judaism’s oldest surviving discussions of liturgy.
Still, it feels like getting ahead of myself to speak about that beautiful line of poetry. The first fore prayer I say in the morning is a command to my soul from Psalm 104:
Bless, my soul, HaShem. HaShem, my God, You are very great; clothed in majesty and splendor, wrapped in a robe of light; spreading out the heavens like a tent. [Based on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks‘ translation in the Koren siddur.] Barchi nafshi, et HaShem, HaShem Elokai, Gadalta Me’od, Hod V’Hadar Lavashta; Oteh Ohr Kashalmah, Noteh Shamayim Kariyah.
Or as Rabbi Mordecai Finley translates it:
My soul, Bless HaShem! HaShem, my God — very great; clothed in majesty and splendor; wrapped in light like a robe; spreading out reality like a map.
I cherish beginning my davvenen with this line of poetry. It is the most beautiful description of The Cause of Being that I have: the Essence of the Universe that is wrapped in light. Try to sink into the idea that reality is unfolding like a map and you may never read another word of prayer.
These are the words I utter before I prayer; specifically, before I say the blessing for my tallit and wrap myself in it, imagining that I am wrapping myself in light — as I wrap myself in the light of the tradition, the light of holiness, the light of goodness. I also try to remember that I cannot see all of reality. That whatever I am upset about or anxious about or enjoying is just a fraction of the reality that exists in the world.
And yet, I continually fail at these meditations because I fail at the most basic aspect of the life I yearn for: consistent, daily prayer.
I looked into a lot of aspects of last week’s Torah portion in preparing to speak about it at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park. Ironically, I failed to mention anything about fore prayer during my d’var Torah.
There is so much to say as we embark on that seven week journey toward the High Holy Days. What is sovereign in your life? What do you revere? How do you show your reverence on a daily basis?
They say that the Haftorah portions for this period reflect the ascent to the holiest days of our calendar, rather than being related to our Torah portions. And yet, I find them to be intimately related. I cried out to HaShem and She answered: “Comfort, oh Comfort.” Nachamu, nachamu – the words from Isaiah that begin the prophetic portion are a clear response to the anguish we feel. Anxiety for failing to meet our own expectations of ourselves. Shame that, as Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, we put our ego between HaShem and ourselves. Embarrassment that we still worship idols; we covet physical things and focus our energies on material reality, ignoring the palaces in time calling to our souls.
It is all okay. Ain od. There is nothing else. The Divine is everywhere, experiencing everything alongside us. And She will suckle us through the narrow places and we will arrive into ourselves when we are ready to take our place and heed the call to our own depths.