David Walk

The greatness of God & the power of prayer

Phew! The last article in this series on Psalms was the heavy lifting. It’s harder to get into an amazing Psalm, like 145, which we call ASHREI, but our Sages called, more correctly TEHILLA L’DAVID, than it is to continue the analysis. So, in the last article we explained that our poem is divided equally into three sections of seven verses each. The first section is about the obligation to praise God and pass that tradition from generation to generation. The second section (verses 8-14) is a short, but powerful description of the greatness of God. Afterwards section three describes, mostly, the ineluctable glory of actually communicating with God, or praying. 

King David’s attempt to describe the amazing glory of God, begins in verses 8-9 with a short summary of the Thirteen Divine Attributes. It’s a good place to start. This 13-part description of God’s wonderful characteristics was declared to Moshe Rabbeinu on that first Yom Kippur, when the Jews were forgiven for the Sin of the Golden Calf and the second Tablets were presented (Shmot 34:6-7). Our short synopsis of this list includes the most outstanding attributes of God: CHANUN, full of grace; RACHUM, compassionate; ERECH APAYIM, long suffering. Then it concludes with the confident statement: God is good to all; and Divine compassion is over all Creation (verse 9). 

This three-verse section concludes by announcing that all God’s creatures will acknowledge God, and those who truly understand this reality will bless God for that gesture. King David has divided Creation into two sections; the normally behaved humans and those who are spiritually sensitive to God’s presence. The first group is expected to recognize God’s bounty and show gratitude. Group two, who really get it, should endeavor to spread this bounty and actively ‘bless God’. We believe that this last effort results in more Godliness in our realm and that is the true meaning of BRACHA, increase. 

At this point in the center of the entire Psalm and of section two about God’s power, we declare that the infinite power of God requires serious statements acknowledging this omnipotence. Now we accept that this Divine dominance means that God is the eternal sovereign of the cosmos. This kingdom is everlasting and is manifest in every generation and society throughout history (verse 13, MALCHUTICHA). 

Before leaving the middle section, we have the verse which contains the ‘missing’ letter NUN. We acknowledge that this immense might of God can also be applied with a very gentle touch. It can tenderly raise up (SOMECH) those who have stumbled or fallen (NOFLIM). Unlimited power can also be calibrated very finely. 

Now, we arrive at the final seven verses of the Psalm. This last third of our poem primarily describes the act of prayer. Before the actual description of the prayer performance. There is a short discussion of the reason to pray and the power of prayer, namely God is available to our pleas and provides provisions for all. These two ideas are contained in verses 15-17 (letters AYIN, PEY, and ZADIK).  

First, we state that the attention (literal ‘eyes’) of all supplicants is fastened on God with tangible expectation of response. Then, we state the most famous verse in our Psalm, if not all Jewish prayer, God opens the metaphoric, Divine hand to provide for all Creation. This simply stated, but profound conviction underlies the Divine-Human connection. In my previous article, I stated the position of Rav Kook that the significance of this statement is based on the fact that the relationship within prayer requires a certain comfort level, which the confidence in Divine largesse provides. 

Just before we give the basics of the actual prayer process, we make one last statement of belief. It’s really very simple: God is fair. We use the term TZEDEK for fairness. We couldn’t engage in proper Jewish prayer (soon to be defined) without that confidence. We might be able to perform some pagan style prayer, begging for mercy in the face of an unfair, cruel existence. I’m not saying no Jew ever felt or prayed that way, but it’s not the essence of what Jewish prayer is supposed to be about. 

Finally, verse 18, the middle verse of the last section declares the reality of Jewish prayer: God is close (KAROV) to all who call; all who call in sincerity. That’s it! Although there are Jews who pray for stuff or out of a sense of danger or obligation, Jewish prayer in its pure and simple essence is just contact with the Infinite. If there is EMET, truth or sincerity, in our attempt at contact, God will be there. Often, we’re not present or invested in our prayer. So, how can we expect the highly anticipated rendezvous with God? And that’s just sad, but the potential for true contact with the Divine is always available when we can muster the spiritual energy. 

We’ve reached my favorite verse: God fulfills the will (RATZON) of those in awe of the Divine; God reacts (YISHMA) to their outreach (SHAV’ATAM), and reaches back (YOSHI’EM). The critical word in verse 19 is the twice used root SHA’A. This root first appears in the story of Kayin and Hevel, when God ‘turned to (JPS and Kaplan ‘paid heed’, Alter ‘regarded’)’ the offering of Hevel (Breishit 4:4). This word which gives us the word for spiritual victory (YESHUA), seems to really be about paying attention. It’s the same word for our attempt to contact God and for God’s much desired reciprocation. Good davening is being on the same wave length with God, if even for only an instant.  

Our Psalm has made the most profound of statements about our relationship with God and our attempts at meaningful prayer or contact. Now it’s sort of time to wrap up. The ultimate fairness of God is stated most clearly in verse 20: God watches over those who love Him, the wicked will cease to exist. Reality and existence are all bound up in the connectivity to God. God is the juice which powers everything; disconnect at your eternal peril. 

The final verse recaps, but, perhaps, more importantly echoes the superscript which uniquely introduces our Psalm, the term TEHILLAH or poetic praise. If I love and stay connected to God, then I can continue to praise my beloved God forever. Btw this eternal praise is also predicated upon the fact (stated in Part 1) that I have learned how to praise God from previous generations and then model that behavior for future generations. 

A most powerful declaration of my relationship with my Maker; it’s so wonderful that we recite it thrice daily. Let’s try to inject the proper love and awe, and put in the effort to fulfill its promise of contact with the Infinite. 

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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