Yearning: Poetry and Prayer

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Jun 27, 2014 / 5774 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer

Psalm 42 offers an extraordinary journey through the life of the soul, and perhaps it is not by chance that traces of this psalm are found in various places in the liturgy. In a previous essay, we looked a little at poetry within the liturgy, and the way in which poetry can open channels and modes of expression not so easily found in plain narrative text. Poetry offers the chance to juxtapose images and invoke diverse metaphors that can point toward a deeper, even implicit or secret, meaning.

The psalm opens with the image of a thirsty deer seeking water, and sets that in parallel to the yearning for God experienced by the poet. The soul thirsts for the divine as the deer thirsts for water. This image is compelling because the water is not merely something that will add a little to the deer’s quality of life, but something that is necessary for life itself. The psalmist needs to find God no less than the deer must find water.

Many synagogues conclude the Shabbat morning service with the “Song of Glory” (Shir Hakavod),which invokes our verse in the opening stanza. Rabbi Yehuda Hehasid writes, “Anim zemirot veshirim e’erog—ki ‘elekha nafshi ta‘arog” (I weave sweet songs and compose melodies—because my soul yearns for You).

The poet responds to this yearning for God by writing poems and composing songs, and we encounter an echo of that experience as we chant the ancient words.

The second verse of Psalm 42 is picked up by Abraham Ibn Ezra in his beautiful poem Tzam’ah Nafshi, which has become a part of the zemirot (songs) sung around the Friday night Shabbat table. The end of his poem suggests that it be inserted in the synagogue service just beforeNishmat on Shabbat morning, but it was perhaps the simultaneously earthy and soulful approach of Psalm 42 that drew the poem into the Friday night experience: it begins, “Tzam’ah nafshi le’elohim le’el hai” (My soul thirsts for the Living God).

The diverse musical settings of each of these two medieval poems based upon Psalm 42 add greatly to the metaphors and images of the text. The experience of weaving poems in our synagogues and singing to the Living God is made real by music, and extended even when the text is completed, as the melody often continues as a wordless niggun.

The great Israeli singer Shuly Natan recorded Anim Zemirot in the 1970s, spreading a love for this abbreviated version around the Jewish world.

Listen to this melody of the Bratslav Hasidim. 

Enjoy an instrumental setting of a famous melody for Tzam’ah Nafshi