Contemporary theology
Renewal article at JTA

A new way of relating to the Ashrei

During mincha (afternoon services) last Sunday at Ohalah, we davened the ashrei in a way I'd never done before.

You need to know that the prayer is a kind of abecedarium, an acrostic in which each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, though it skips the letter נ, "nun." (Here's a thorough and fascinating exploration of what the absence of the נ might signify, both theologically and poetically.) Anyway, though we all davened the whole prayer, each of us was encouraged to give special focus (and volume!) to the line which began with the same letter as her/his Hebrew name.

In my case, that line is r'tzon y'reav ya'aseh, v'et shavatam yishma v'yoshiem, which can be rendered in a variety of ways. Here are a few I happen to have on-hand:

  • God fulfills the needs of the fearful; God hears their cries and saves them. (-- B'Kol Rinah)

  • He fulfils the desire of those who revere Him; He hears their cry and delivers them. (-- Sim Shalom)

  • The will of whose who fear Him He will do; And their cry He will hear, and save them. (-- Artscroll)

  • God will fulfil the hope of all the reverent; God will hear their cry and help them. (-- Mishkan Tefilah)

  • Answering those whose awe is the Infinite, Hearing their cry, setting them free. ( -- Siddur Kol Koreh)

  • Responding to the yearning of all those who fear, God hears their cry and comes to rescue them. (-- Kol Haneshamah)

If you've ever doubted that translation is interpretation, the range displayed in this half-dozen renderings of a single Hebrew line should set the record straight! What interests me today, though, is not the variation in translation, but the underlying meaning that runs through all of these wordings. How do I relate to this line of the acrostic which begins with the same letter as my own name?

When we davened it this way last Sunday, I experienced a kind of aural tapestry in which different threads flashed brightly at different moments. People who shared each initial letter were scattered around the room, so as we moved through the prayer, voices rang out here and there, moving and modulating as the wheel of the prayer carried us forward. It was like being inside a popcorn machine in which each pop! was praise.

It's been more than a week, but I find myself still drawn to "my" line of the ashrei. This morning I held it in my consciousness for a while, thinking about what it says to me today.

This line teaches me that awe, fear, and reverence are appropriate responses to the Holy Blessed One. That the connection between us is two-way; God receives our prayers, and is aware of our yearning and our longing. That in some deep and perhaps indescribable way, God arises to free us from constriction, to save us from what seeks to weigh us down. That God's hearing (or maybe our awareness of being-heard) makes liberation possible.

If there's something you're seeking today, something you fear or something you long for, I wish you this same awareness: that God hears us, and that on some level we are answered, always.

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