Speaking to God, Speaking to People

By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Nov 17, 2017 / 5778 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf | Prayer

By Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, JTS Alumnus (RS ’90) and Rabbi, Am Yisrael Conservative Congregation, Northfield, IL

Adonai, open my lips that my mouth may speak your praise. (Psalms 51:17)

My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit. (BT Berakhot 17a, based on Psalms 34:14)

At different stages of my life prayer has been a challenge, but I have found it meaningful to think not just about each individual prayer but how the structure of the service helps us experience different facets of prayer. 

One example that I love is in the lines immediately before and after the Amidah. Before we begin the Amidah we say, “Adonai, open my lips that my mouth may speak your praise.” I understand this to mean that before we begin the most important prayer in our service we are asking God for the ability to simply pray. It is as if our ancestors who wrote this prayer left us a clue that it wasn’t always so easy for them to pray either. Sometimes it is hard to focus. Sometimes our emotional state makes prayer difficult. Prior to prayer we ask for the ability to express ourselves before God. We assume (or at least I do) that it must have been much easier for our ancestors, but these few words make me reconsider that conjecture, since they have been part of our siddur for many centuries.

At the end of the Amidah we say, “My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit.” Note that both the opening sentence and the concluding paragraph focus on our lips: we have just spent a few minutes speaking to God, and now, as we imagine ourselves leaving God’s presence, we think about how we speak to others. This is what I love best about Judaism—the constant reminder that a life of piety devoid of commitment to treating human beings in a menschlichkeit manner is meaningless. Our prayers are only sanctified if the experience leaves us thinking not only about how we speak to God, but also about how we speak to other human beings.