David Walk

The Essence of Prayer

We call King David’s book of Divine poetry Tehillim, which comes from the root HALLEL, ‘praise’. The rest of the world says Psalms. This Greek word means a poem accompanied by a stringed instrument. That seems to be the translation of the Hebrew MIZMOR, which is a poem (SHIR) with music. There are 58 Tehillim which have that term in the introduction, but only one begins with the word TEHILA, and that’s the poem we’re looking at. Our Sages always called chapter 145 by its opening or superscript, TEHILA L’DAVID. So, this sacred poem must be the paradigm for Tehillim, and our assignment is to discover how.  

Before we get going, we should explain why every observant Jew calls this poem ASHREI. The Talmud (Berachot 4a) reports that good things happen to those who recite this chapter three times every day. As the importance of this chapter grew, sometime in the Geonic Period (550-1000 CE) two verses with the term ASHREI were appended to this poem. Usually, ASHREI gets translated ‘happy’ but I would prefer ‘contented’ or ‘fulfilled’. It describes being in a good place psychologically and spiritually. It’s a great intro to this poem which, I believe, is the recipe to achieve ASHREI, and I believe you’ll soon agree with me that repeating the word ASHREI three times in the intro makes perfect sense. 

That same Talmudic source informs us that the importance of this chapter comes from two sources. First, the fact that it has the entire alphabet (more on that to come). But so do others. So, the Gemara continues that it also contains the verse: You open Your hand, and satisfy the desire of all living things (verse 16). Eventually, many authorities required this verse to be recited with great devotion, and we still see (and hear) that today. 

I think that the devotion to this verse came from the general lack of food until the 20th Century. In 1900, the United States Health Department claimed that the greatest public health problem in the USA was malnutrition, by the late 1990’s WHO reported that more people were overweight than malnourished. Rav Avraham Yizchak HaKohen Kook, on the other hand, claims that there are two requirements for effective prayer: 1. Knowledge of how the universe functions, the complete Aleph-Bet provides the entirety of knowledge for that purpose, and 2. A sense of security and well-being, That God’s hand is open and giving, helps for that requirement. 

This brings us to the structure of the Psalm. Since the letter NUN is either missing or, in the word NOFLIM, contained in the verse for SAMECH, the poem is perfectly symmetrical, with 21 verses easily divided into 3 equal sections of 7 verses each. And the most critical verse in each section is the middle one, or verses 4 (Generation to generation), 11 (Concerning the Glory of Your Kingship they will discuss), and 18 (God is near to all who call). So, there are three sections and three themes, the obligation to praise God, a discussion of the greatness of God and the nature of prayer together with the nature of our relationship with God. 

Section one begins: I will exalt You, I bless you every day, I praise Your Name infinitely. Isn’t that wonderful that our Singer (King David) is extolling the amazing glory of God? This effort works until the end of verse 3: His greatness cannot be fathomed. Whoops! I have this ineffable drive to say amazing things about God, BUT I don’t have a clue how to do it, because God is totally beyond human ken. What a dilemma! 

The critical verse in this section (4) provides the solution, and a challenge: One generation shall laud Your works to another, and declare Your mighty acts. I know how to daven because I saw the previous generation daven. They showed me the way, and I have followed it. Rav Soloveitchik expressed this transition in the following way:

His greatness is beyond human investigation. He is infinite. What right do I have with my limited vocabulary to undertake to praise Him? Isn’t this impudent and arrogant? Yet, each generation, including those who that have come before me will praise and have praised Your deeds to the next… 

This revelation that I can emulate my forebears in their outpouring of praise, permits me to do the same. So that now in verse 5 I find the confidence to discuss and elaborate on the ‘splendorous glory of Your power’. In other words, now I can daven and even add my own thoughts, observations and emotions to the TEFILA mix. Having observed my forebears’ efforts, I have the confidence and ability to innovate and expand on their efforts. It’s not only a feeling of freedom and license, it becomes an obligation because I must be the paradigm for my children. The next generation needs to model after me!   

This explains why the verbs in verses 5-7 are about relating to others; SICHA, converse; OMER, speak; and, most important, SAPIR, tell over. In these verses, I sense and react to the obligation set upon my shoulders by the multitudes of previous Jewish generations. But it must, and will, succeed! Verse 7 guarantees it: The mention (or remembrance, ZECHER or ZEICHER) of Your abundant goodness THEY will utter; and of Your righteousness THEY will sing exultantly! 

It works! Our emulation of the past giants allows us to get a glimpse of our progeny emulating us. It’s cosmic NACHAS! 

Next, we explore Parts 2 and 3, the greatness of God and the power of prayer.      

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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