“Fill Our Eyes With Light . . . Cause Our Hearts to Cling” (Part 1)

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Feb 5, 2013 / 5773 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

Phrases in the siddur are filled with echoes of earlier texts and give birth to newer metaphors and meanings. The blessing immediately before the Shema’ in every morning service contains the phrase “ha’er eyneinu beToratekha vedabek libeinu bemitzvotekha” (Fill our eyes with the light of Your Torah, and make our hearts cleave to Your mitzvot.) [Siddur Sim Shalom, 32.]

Light is a recurring metaphor in our sources; we recall Proverbs 6:23: “The mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light,” and an even more compelling image in Proverbs 20:27 that “the human soul is the candle of God.” The previous blessing ends with a plea for a new (and perhaps supernal) light to shine upon Zion, and this paragraph picks up the metaphor, asking that our eyes be filled with the light of the Torah. Some translations use the phrase “enlighten our eyes,” which has an echo of the quite different eastern religious concept of “samsara/nirvana” (often rendered with the English word enlightenment). It seems to me that this proverb is not asking for this profound, ultimate enlightenment, but that we see the world through the insights and wisdom of Torah. In Western society, we are the heirs of the “Enlightenment,” which gave rise not to profound spiritual revelation but to the “Light of Reason.”

This phrase asks that we grow in our capacity to see the world and its challenges through the perspectives of Torah: the clear imperatives of the Written Torah, coupled with the wisdom and subtle insights of our Sages in the unfolding Oral Torah. The colleagues of R’ Ami, as they departed from his home, offered him these words of blessing (Berakhot 17a) now included in many contemporary Jewish rituals: “Olamkha tir’eh bechayekha.” (May you see your world fulfilled in your lifetime); “Eynekha ya’iru be’or haTorah.” (May your eyes shine with the light of the Torah”).

We all aspire to receive this ancient blessing offered to R’ Ami—to see our world fulfilled in our own days. The daily recitation of the Shema’ is bedrock to Jewish liturgy. We say these words morning and evening, just before going to sleep each night, and traditionally as the last utterance before each person’s soul departs this life. The rabbinic composition that surrounds the Shema’ guides our thoughts and images, asking understanding, light, and ultimately love.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach composed a famous setting for “Veha’er Eyneiynu,” which is sung in many congregations during Shabbat morning services

The entire text of the blessing offered to R’ Ami can be read in Hebrew and English.

A beautiful English setting titled “May You Live to See Your World Fulfilled,” composed by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, professor of Cantorial Arts at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, is performed by Cantor Deborah Katchko Gray as part of the magnificent sound archives of Florida Atlantic University (click on the song’s title in the Judaica Sound Archives radio pictured top right).

I am, as always, interested in questions and reflections arising from this essay. I can be reached by email at sabarth@jtsa.edu