I still remember the moment when I opened up my pocket Koren siddur (prayerbook) for the first time. It had been assigned to us by Rabbi Sami Barth, who was teaching my ALEPH rabbinic program class on the liturgy of weekday and Shabbat. He wanted all of us to own that siddur, it turned out, both because it's a good solid standard one to own and daven with -- and also because in that siddur, many of the prayers which are actually poetry are laid out on the page as poetry. Given that my background (before I came to the rabbinate) is in poetry, that was exactly the right thing to say to me to get me (even more) excited about studying liturgy!
That conversation was on my mind when I planned the monthly class I'm teaching in my community this fall and winter: a class on the poetry of Jewish liturgical prayer. Prayer as poetry; prayers as poetry; the poetry of our standard prayers as they've come down to us, both in Hebrew and in various English renderings and translations; and also poetry which doubles as prayer, especially if and when it works with the same ideas and themes as the classical material. It is probably no secret to anyone in my community that I floated this idea for a class because this is totally my idea of a good time. Last Friday that ad hoc group met for the first time, and it was such a joy for me, I can't even tell you.
The prayer I'd chosen for our focus was the ma'ariv aravim prayer, the prayer which speaks to / about God Who brings on (or, one might say, evens out) the evenings. I'd brought a handful of texts with me: the traditional prayer in Hebrew (along with translation and transliteration), an excerpt from an article about the ways in which this prayer works with language, a contemporary singable variation on the prayer by Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, a prose reinterpretation of the prayer from a Reconstructionist prayerbook, and then two poems: one by Jane Kenyon (not explicitly liturgical) and a recent one by me (intended as a variation on this prayer's language and themes.) I'll share those same materials, along with a few observations, below.
Here's the classical prayer:
Ma'ariv Aravim: God of Day and Night
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ , אֶלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
אֲשֶׁר בִּדְבָרוֹ מַעֲרִיב עֲרָבִים,
בְּחָכְמָה פּוֹתֵֽחַ שְׁעָרִים,
וּבִתְבוּנָה מְשַׁנֶּה עִתִּים,
וּמַחֲלִיף אֶת הַזְּמַנִּים,
וּמְסַדֵּר אֶת הַכּוֹכָבִים,
בְּמִשְׁמְרוֹתֵיהֶם בָּרָקִֽיעַ כְּרְצוֹנוֹ.
בּוֹרֵא יוֹם וָלָֽיְלָה,
גוֹלֵל אוֹר מִפְּנֵי חֽשֶׁךְ,
וחֽשֶׁךְ מִפְּנֵי אוֹר.
וּמַעֲבִיר יוֹם וּמֵֽבִיא לָֽיְלָה,
וּמַבְדִּיל בֵּין יוֹם וּבֵין לָֽיְלָה,
יְיָ צְבָאוֹת שְׁמוֹ.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being,
by Whose word the evening falls.
In wisdom You open heaven’s gates.
With understanding You make seasons change,
causing the times to come and go,
and ordering the stars on their appointed paths
through heaven’s dome, all according to Your will.
Creator of day and night, who rolls back light before dark,
and dark before light, who makes day pass away
and brings on the night, dividing between day and night;
the Leader of Heaven's Multitudes is Your name!
אֵל חַי וְקַיָּם, תָּמִיד יִמְלוֹךְ עָלֵֽינוּ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד
. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַעֲרִיב עֲרָבִים
Living and enduring God, be our guide now and always.
Blessed are You, Source of All being, Who makes evening fall.
We began by looking at a few small details of the prayer very closely. First, the two-word phrase which usually serves as the name of the prayer, מַעֲרִיב עֲרָבִים / ma'ariv aravim, often translated as "Who Brings the Evening." The Hebrew word erev means evening, and it comes from the same root as ma'ariv, so there's a doubled root in the prayer/poem's title. That three-letter word root can also mean to mix a mixture of one thing and another. The doubled root in that one phrase acts as an intensifier, and it also hints at all of the root's other meanings -- the meaning of mixing, for instance, evokes how the twilight is created by mixing up a bit of afternoon with a bit of nightfall. Isn't that a gorgeous metaphor for what evening is?
We looked at the prayer's visual prosody on the page (which is to say, its shape -- how is the poem-shape different from seeing the same words in a block of prose text?) and at some of the prayer's repeated rhythm and syntax. We talked about different ways of translating a few of its phrases and how those different translations change our experience of the prayer (and how each of thos renderings is contained and implied within the Hebrew of the prayer -- that gets back to some of what Rabbi Marcia Prager discusses so thoroughly and lovingly in her book The Path of Blessing.) That led us into a conversation about translation and a conversation about what makes poetry poetry -- including (though not limited to) tight and careful use of language, and words which operate on multiple levels at once.
I gave them an excerpt from the article The God Who ‘Evenings Evenings’: Doubled Nouns and Verbs Give Hebrew a Unique Poetry, by Philologos, in The Forward -- which I had intended to read together, but our conversation was flowing so well that I didn't want to stop and shift modes into the purely discursive. So we moved right on to Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael's variation:
Evening the Evenings
Sacred words even the evenings
Wisdom opens gates locked around our hearts
Asher bid-varo ma'ariv aravim
B'chochmah potay'ach sh'arim.
Evening, the evenings
evening the frayed edges of our lives;
Ma'ariv aravim, amen.
Understanding alters with the times
Changing seasons, cycles divine;
U- vitvunah m'shaneh e-tim
u-machlif et ha-z'manim.
Paint diamonds on the canvas called sky
Sooth our souls with a lilting lullaby;
U-misader et ha-kochavim
B'mishm'rotayhem ba-rakiah kirtzono.
Rollin', rollin' into the night
Rollin' rollin' away the light;
Golayl or mip'nay choshech,
golayl hoshech mipnay or.
Spirit of the Night we bless Your Name
Eternal light, Eternal flame;
Ayl chai v'kayam tamid yimloch ah-laynu
-- Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael
Part of what interested my group about this rendering is how Rabbi Raphael pairs each Hebrew couplet (from the classical prayer) with two English lines which riff off of the same meanings. For instance, the first lines, "Sacred words even the evenings / Wisdom opens gates locked around our hearts" -- it's not a direct translation of the first line of the prayer (that would be something like, "Who with His word evens/mixes the evenings, and with wisdom opens [heaven's] gates"), but it works with the same ideas and themes. Or "Paint diamonds on the canvas called sky" -- it's not a direct translation of the prayer's lines about God ordering the stars in their appointed paths through heaven's dome, but it's clearly a metaphorical rendering of the same idea.
This also sparked an interesting conversation about how each of us tends to use the siddur in shul: do we read the Hebrew words fluidly and fluently? do we read the transliteration? do we read the English translation (and if so, do we read it with awareness of what the Hebrew actually means, or are we reading it on its own merits as an English prayer)? do our eyes leap back and forth between Hebrew (or transliterated Hebrew) and English? What's the impact -- visually, poetically, prayerfully -- of Rabbi Raphael's choice to pair English couplets with transliterated couplets?
Next up was a prose version from the 1945 Reconstructionist Prayer Book, adapted to appear in Kol Haneshanah Reconstructionist Daily Siddur. Reading this one after paying attention to the poetry of the previous versions was a little bit comical -- it does have its own appeal, but it's so very prosaic, in both senses of the word! Here it is:
Praised are you, God, ruler of the universe, who has ordained the rhythm of life. The day with its light calls to activity and exertion. But when the day wanes, when, with the setting of the sun, colors fade, we cease from our labors and welcome the tranquility of the night. The subdued light of the moon and stars, the darkness and the stillness about us invite rest and repose. Trustfully we yield to the quiet of sleep, for we know that, while we are unaware of what goes on within and around us, our powers of body and mind are renewed. Therefore, at this evening hour, we seek composure of spirit. We give thanks for the day and its tasks and for the night and its rest. Praised are you, God, who brings on the evening.
One of the women around the table raised the question of: who's excluded by this prayer? Her answer: those who don't yield to sleep; those who have trouble sleeping; those who are woken frequently by personal or medical need. (Personally, I kept getting caught on how difficult it is to pray this paragraph aloud: "when, with the setting of the sun, colors fade, we cease from our labors and welcome the tranquility of the night" -- that's just too many apposotive phrases for my taste.)
Then we moved to two contemporary poems which we read in conjunction with the Hebrew prayer we'd just studied. The first is by Jane Kenyon, may her memory be a blessing. This is one of my favorite poems, by one of my favorite contemporary poets:
Let Evening Come
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
I've used that poem before during evening services, and I think of it as liturgical, although I don't think it was written for specific liturgical purpose. My group on Friday talked about how Kenyon draws on all kinds of everyday imagery -- not just the cricket rubbing its legs together, or the woman knitting (both of which have a certain pastoral quality) but even the bottle in the ditch, a piece of trash by the side of the road. We talked about the impact of the repeated word "let" -- submission, surrender -- and we talked about what it feels like to reach the mention of God at the end of the poem. (Intriguingly, Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael doesn't mention God until the end of her poem/prayer/song, either.) I mentioned that "God does not leave us / comfortless" strikes me as a reference to Everett Titcomb's setting of "I will not leave you comfortless" [YouTube link].
And we closed with a new poem of mine, which I posted here last week, and which I wrote specifically for the purposes of this class -- I wanted to be able to offer another contemporary poem which was written explicitly as a variation on the ma'ariv aravim prayer, and since I hadn't written one before, I took this as an opportunity to do so. Here it is again:
You mix the watercolors of the evening
like my son, swishing his brush
until the waters are black with paint.
The sky is streaked and dimming.
The sun wheels over the horizon
like a glowing penny falling into its slot.
Day is spent, and in its place: the changing moon,
the spatterdash of stars across the sky's expanse.
Every evening we tell ourselves the old story:
You cover over our sins, forgiveness
like a fleece blanket tucked around our ears.
When we cry out, You will hear.
Soothe my fear of life without enough light.
Rock me to sleep in the deepening dark.
--Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
The group noticed the watercolor imagery (my attempt to evoke the Hebrew mixture-implications of ma'ariv aravim), and I explained how the third stanza works with imagery from the verses v'hu rachum y'chaper avon which we read at the very beginning of a weekday evening service, right before the bar'chu and this prayer.
All in all: it was a really sweet hour. I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to dip into some of the poetry of our liturgy with willing and enthusiastic fellow-conversationalists. And I'm already pondering what we might do next month...
Photo source: from my flickr stream.