Service of the Heart (עבודת הלב): Exploring Prayer

This week's column was written by Rabbi Samuel Barth, Senior Lecturer in Liturgy and Worship, JTS.

Of Words and Hearts

"Take with you words and return to Adonai." (K'chu imachem devarim.) —Hosea 14:3

There are few accidents, and more than a few ironies, in the selection of haftarah (prophetic) selections through the course of the year. These famous words of Hosea are always read on the Shabbat morning preceding Yom Kippur. The liturgy and rituals of Yom Kippur are deeply rooted in recalling, even reenacting, the sacrifices carried out in the Temple. Hosea's words compel us to engage with the inevitable tension between fixed ritual and spontaneity, between tangible sacrifice and the intangible experience of the human heart and soul.

Anticipating this engagement with sacrificial rites, we recall that Hosea invites us to approach God with words, an idea radical in its time. Hosea did not bequeath to us any fixed texts that we might use in approaching the Divine, but Jewish liturgical history has more than made up for this. Our prayer books are full of words, but many among the Jewish people are challenged to find their own voice, their own pathway to God among these ancient and often beautiful prayers and poems. Ironically the spiritually innovative step of Hosea in suggesting words as a supplement (or possibly even replacement) for sacrifice has presented a different but no less profound challenge.

Last week, I began to explore the concept of ha'avodah shebalev, the service of the heart/mind. The Talmud introduced this concept in order to carry forward, even after the destruction of the Temple, the mitzvah of avodah—service of God. Following the destruction of the Temple, this avodah was existentially relocated from the Temple to the human heart—as ha'avodah shebalev. Lev is often translated as heart; however, we think of the heart as the seat of the emotions, as the center of romantic love and inner emotional longings.

When, in the Shema', we encounter the phrase "love Adonai your God with all your heart," we wonder if these words are calling us to an emotional love affair with God. In fact, it would be better to translate the phrase as "love Adonai your God with all your mind." The word lev really represents the core of individual identity and consciousness—a fusing of mind, soul, heart, spirit, and psyche. It is with this sense of lev that we must understand ha'avodah shebalev: we are invited, commanded, to serve God with our whole selves, our entire being—nothing less. Jewish liturgy has cherished and adorned this ancient pathway of words; words of praise, supplication, yearning, despair, and celebration. Until recently, the study of Jewish liturgy was essentially identical to the study of the texts of the siddur. Now, however, it embraces careful study of the experience of prayer/worship, and of all the arts and disciplines that are engaged by liturgical events.

The challenge of prayer using fixed texts is, of course, that we do not always find in these words—whether written last year or 1,000 years ago—precisely our own prayer to God, our own inner yearning. The Sages of the Talmud knew very well of the challenge to be found in a service of the heart that would be based upon recitation and frequent repetition of fixed and standard prayers. They introduced the concept of kavanah (to be explored here at another time) as a challenge and inspiration, for the sincerity and "attitude" of the recitation of fixed prayers.

It is important to be aware of aspects of or approaches to service of God that we might explore in addition to the fixed words of our liturgy. There is the way of silence, of meditation/contemplation; the pathway of music, both the melodies to which many of our sacred texts have been set and the wordless melodies or niggunim of the Hasidic tradition. The work of artists, artisans, calligraphers, and weavers has also been embraced in the fabric of service/avodah since Bezalel constructed the small sanctuary in the desert. If we are challenged or troubled by the words printed in the siddur, we can find our own words—which will, perhaps, express more faithfully our unique needs.

The struggle for each person to find their way in service of God is not a small one. I would suggest that it is in our interwoven communities—this JTS virtual community of learning and reflection, and those in our synagogues, schools, camps, and minyanim—that we can bring our own journey together with that of others, supporting and learning from and with each other.

In closing, let us turn once again to a biblical source exquisitely selected and placed. The key prayer text of Jewish liturgy is, of course, the 'Amidah, with its many different versions. At the end of its formal blessings, we find inserted the final verse of Psalm 19: "May the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart/mind be acceptable to You Adonai, my Rock and Redeemer." This verse recognizes so clearly the enormous gulf that might lie between the words we have just said and the inner expression of our heart/mind. The psalmist asks that both be acceptable—and, perhaps, that words and "inner meditations" be brought closer to each other, even reconciled. When we truly enter the realm of ha'avodah shebalev, the service of the heart, our words, dreams, and thoughts are one before God.

In sharing several renderings of these challenging/inspiring words of Psalm 19, we celebrate the diversity and vitality of the pathway of music. Music offers for so many among us points of entry into the conversation and communion with God. The musical metaphor may be contemporary or classical; the words and our prayers are eternal.

The text from Psalm 19:15 ("May the words of my heart . . . ") has become beloved to many individuals and communities, and it is frequently set to music.

A formal classical setting by Ernst Bloch, performed by the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir, can be heard in this clip:

 

A more contemplative "folk" setting by cantorial soloist Susan Colin can be listened to here:

 

And a contemporary (rock) version by the popular Jewish singer Josh Nelson can be heard here: