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.

"My Soul Thirsts for You"

"My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You" (Ps. 63:2).

With these words the Psalmist expresses the deepest yearning for God. In earlier essays we looked at the organized "service" of God, but the Psalmist reminds us what Divine service is truly about. Many among us recognize and recall our own moments of yearning for God, the profound desire to encounter God directly—not through the metaphors of our teachers but rather knowing and experiencing the reality of the Divine.

It is not so often that a full response is found to this yearning, this passion; yet the yearning, or even the memory of the yearning, abides, inspiring and guiding us to seek out and renew the ancient quest. Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us: "The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God" (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, p 107). For Heschel, God is the bedrock, the foundation upon which all else rests.

Rabbi Martin Cohen, in his learned and wise translation and commentary Our Haven and Our Strength: The Book of Psalms, reads the next verse as providing a clear and reassuring memory: "Surely I have seen You in the sanctuary; I have merited to see Your power and glory" (Ps. 63:3). The expressed yearning for God is anchored in a memory of an earlier experience. However, the Psalm can also be read to express doubt and a challenge: "So, I looked for You in the Holy Place to see Your power and Your glory." Perhaps we discern that the visit to the Holy Place was a failure—and there was no revelation, no encounter. Only the yearning remains, unrequited in the Holy Place but unforgettable.

There are many who must share this experience—visiting the Holy Place (any place of organized worship) in search of a connection with God, and seeming to leave empty handed. Following such a "failure," it becomes easier to judge the "Holy Place" as devoid of "Holiness." The Psalmist moves on (Ps. 63:5–6) to find fulfillment in regular worship, and Heschel teaches us about the relationship between individual spirituality and communal prayer:

There is a permanent union between individual worship and communal worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other . . . Prayer will not come about by default. It requires education, training, reflection, contemplation. It is not enough to join others; it is necessary to build a sanctuary within, brick by brick, instants of meditation, moments of devotion. (Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays. p. 262)

Holiness is to be found among our holy communities, for God has promised us: "When you seek Me you will find Me; if you search for Me . . . I shall let you find Me, says God" (Jer. 29:13–14).

Some may find an echo of the quest for holiness in this setting of the verses from Psalm 63 chanted by Eyal Lerner in the synagogue in Genoa, Italy:

A blend of a traditional Chabad melody (niggun) and a contemporary approach to the theme is found in this piece by Matisyahu:


Our Haven and Our Strength: The Book of Psalms, Rabbi Martin Cohen's commentary and translation that was mentioned above, is an ideal companion for every modern person seeking to encounter the meaning and wisdom of the Psalms. It was published by the Aviv Press of the Rabbinical Assembly in 2004.