Thursday, February 18, 2010

Poetry in Prayer

For a book on prayer to be successful, it has to be smart but not too smart. A book that is too intellectual may engage your mind but as it delves into the details of history and philology it travels generally beyond an ability to inspire. It becomes a book that takes the mind too far from the heart. On the other hand, a book that inspires superficially may add to the power of the readers' prayer in general but it fails to educate the readers about what the prayer means.

R. Avi Baumol's The Poetry of Prayer: Tehillim in Tefillah carefully treads that fine line. R. Baumol analyzes the elements of Tehillim that can be found in the prayer services in five sections: morning prayers, songs of the day, Kabbalas Shabbos, special times and Shirei Ha-Ma'alos. His style is informed of scholarship, including the history of prayer and the literary structure of Tehillim. He speaks of themes, key words, chiasmi and more. His bibliography includes modern scholars on the margin of Orthodoxy, such as Nahum Sarna and James Kugel, as well as many who are well within Orthodoxy, such as Amos Chacham and R. Yissachar Jacobson.

Click here to read moreBut the analysis isn't too deep. He does not delve into philology or non-Jewish scholars, and generally sticks to traditional commentaries. He doesn't get bogged down on any word or verse but rather keeps the book flowing. It is not only a pleasant read -- the book's tone is fairly casual, serious but not academic. It is an inspiring read. R. Baumol does an excellent job at making his analysis uplifting and relevant to someone who prays. This is not just a study of Tehillim but of Tehillim in prayer. After reading this book, you come away not just knowing prayer better but praying better. The themes that emerge make the verses you recite in prayer more understandable and meaningful.

I'd like to look at one chapter as an example -- Psalm 148 (Hallelu es Hashem). In chapter 4 of the book, R. Baumol explains the structure of the morning prayer service and chapter 6 describes the goal of Pesukei De-Zimra. In chapter 13, he addresses Psalm 148 (link). R. Baumol notes that the chapter can be divided into two sections: verses 1-6 and verses 7-14. The first describess God's praise by the heavenly bodies and the second God's praise by the earthly bodies. The two sections have clear parallels:

  • Both begin with praising God (hallelu es Hashem)
  • Both offer reasons for that praise
  • Both list the sujects that praise God
  • Both end with the phrase "yehallelu es shem Hashem" in the penultimate verse
However, there is one clear difference: the first section lists the heavenly bodies in decreasing order of importance while the second section begins with inanimate objects and ends with people. The general symmetry of the two sections emphasizes this asymmetry. What does it mean?

R. Baumol suggests that the answer can be found in the reason given at the end of each section for praising God. At the end of the first section, the heavenly section, the reason is that God established it. They have to. They have no choice. At the end of the second, earthly section, the reason is that God is great. People have free will and each one will choose differently, in his own way. The old and the young, the boys and the girls, each has their own experience and will come to praise God in their own way. They will each see God's greatness in their own way and come to praise Him in their own voice.

This is in contrast to the celestial sphere, where each body does what it must and praises God because it has been commanded to. While the praise above is constant and perfect, the praise below is unique and willful, surprising and unpredictable. That is what our praise of God needs to be. Doing that within a fixed prayer text is a challenge, one made easier by books like this that teach us the profound meaning of these familiar words.

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