Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Some Thoughts on Tachanun, Tehillim, and Tefillah
I have to admit that until recently, I was one of those people who was happy when I got to skip Tachanun. Whether it was a newly married man in shul, an Erev Rosh Chodesh, or even, in a shtiebel, when it was the Yahrtzeit of some chassidic rebbe, I was far from disappointed when I got to avoid saying Tachanun. Recently that has changed (well at least partially, as the “Long Tachanun” is still a work in progress).
As I have been dealing with some challenges in my life, the beginning of Tachanun which is basically the 6th perek of Tehillim, has been one of the most important parts of davening for me. As I read the words of the Psalmist, as he cries out to God to answer his prayers, I feel a sense of relief as I find words that express so strongly what I am feeling, and struggling to express. During the past two weeks, my connection to these words has become even stronger.
Several weeks ago, I began studying Rav Elchanan Samet’s Iyunim B’Mizmorei Tehillim (which is based on his shiurim on the VBM, which have been translated into English). Rav Samet, who teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion, explores a number of perakim from Sefer Tehillim, and analyzes them, not only with the eye of a rabbi reading a holy text, but also as a scholar with a deep and profound understanding of literature and poetry. His chapter explaining the 6th perek of Tehillim gave me a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the psalm, as, for the first time, I understood the structure of the perek, and the message that each section contained. Now, as I say these words twice each day, I feel an even greater connection with the message.
All of this has me thinking not only about tefillah in general, but specifically about Tehillim. I have never understood why Tehillim is recited, almost like a magical incantation, when someone is sick. Additionally, never having formally studied Sefer Tehillim, I never connected with its ideas and messages. As I think about this, I feel frustrated how the study of what is not only a sefer from Tanach, but also a work whose words make up so many parts of the siddur, is not taught in most schools. How can we hope to have any kavanah as we pray, if we don’t understand what we are saying? When I say understand, I don’t only mean the meaning of the words. Tehillim is poetry rather than prose. What meaning can it have for us without, at least, a basic understanding of poetry?
I know that I have a lot of work ahead of me. So far, I have not worked on any other section of Tehillim that is part of tefillah. Still, I am excited for what lays ahead. If I have come to identify so strongly with a part of davening which I always hoped to avoid, I am hopeful that more effort will lead to an appreciation of other sections as well. If what I have written speaks to you, I would encourage you to join me in studying Sefer Tehillim, Rabbi Samet’s sefer, and other parts of tefillah.