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‘Please Open Up My Lips’

By Rabbi Eryn London


אדוני שפתי תפתח, ופי יגיד תהלתך

“God, please open my lips that they may declare your praise.”


This line is said right before the Amidah[1] prayer and comes from Psalms 51. There are many days that I mumble through that line and the rest of davening[2], but there are also many days that I make this request with full intention.


God, please let me have the right words for this situation.


As I sit at my desk trying to think about what to share for Rosh Hashana[3], I am wondering if I have the right words to discuss this past year? How can I offer comfort to so many who have experienced multitudes of loss? What are the words I should offer, that will be helpful, meaningful, or spiritually uplifting when the world feels topsy turvy? How am I to offer guidance for Rosh Hashana, when I am not even fully sure how to prepare myself?


There are two passages in the Rosh Hashana prayers that always stand out to me. They are not very long prayers, but I find them both words of great importance and beauty.


The first is, Heneni (Here I am), the chazan’s (cantor’s) plea before Musaf[4]. The chazan stands before the congregation and God saying:

Heneni, here I am, empty of deeds, in turmoil, fearing the one who sits enthroned on the praises of Israel…please give me success along the road that I tread, to stand and ask for compassion for me and for those who have sent me, and please, do not condemn them for my sins, do not hold them liable for my crimes, for I am a sinner, I do wrong, do not let them be disgraced by my sins, let them not be ashamed of me, or me of them. Accept my prayer as if it were the prayer of an old man, experienced and fluent, one whose past is becoming whose beard is long and his voice pleasant, and whose mind is involved with the concerns of others…

The chazan is asking themselves the “who am I” to be doing this holy task of beseeching God, while knowing that the community has put their trust in them.  They call out before God and the congregation, praying that they are worthy enough to represent the community and to be listened to.


The second prayer that stands out to me is, Ochila La’el, in the repetition of the Musaf:

I shall await the Lord, I shall entreat His favour, I shall ask Him to grant my tongue eloquence. In the midst of the congregated nation, I shall sing of His strength; I shall burst out in joyous melodies for His works. The thoughts in man’s heart are his to arrange, but the tongue’s eloquence comes from the Lord. O Lord, open my lips, so that my mouth may declare Your praise.

It is easy to know in one’s heart what one wants to say, or what intentions one has with one’s chosen words, but it is not always so easy to have that come across when speaking aloud. Here the chazan, and in some congregations, the community as well, sing out asking to have the ability to say all that one wants and means in an eloquent and significant way.


I look at the world and many times I find myself with a loss for words. This year has been a year where we have seen countries on fire. We hear of people dying of starvation and disease. We hear of people being killed because of their race, religion, ethnicity, or for other forms of hate. We are all living through a pandemic – the sitting in fear of a disease that scientists are only now starting to begin to understand; having our whole world ‘shut down’ hoping to stop the spread but also shielding away for the safety of ourselves and others; the thousands of people isolated; the thousands of people who are still going out to make sure that the world around us still functions, those venturing out in fear because there is no one to support them; dealing with the loss of life, how to mourn when we are not able to be with others, how to deal with the pain of such an extraordinary number of deaths. And so much more.


I often ask myself what are the right words of strength and comfort?  How can we create a better world? Where is there a glimmer of hope? What can I do? How can I find meaning in what I am experiencing?


It is in moments like this, that I pray for the right words. I want to find the right words to comfort those who have lost. I want to help those who are in pain. I want to create a place where people feel safe, where people are not worried on a regular basis that they have the potential to lose their life or the life of their loved ones. I want to find the right words to call out to God to help change what is happening.


According to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashana, the world is judged. Humans are looked at both as individuals and as a community. God sits looking at the record book of our actions, and it is on this day that the notes are written of what the upcoming year will look like. Who will die and who will live, who will fail and who will succeed, who will feel pain and who will feel comfort.


It is also believed that the book is not sealed until Yom Kippur[5]. That through prayer, repentance and tzedaka (charity) these decrees can be changed.


As we say the Musaf of Rosh Hashana, I pray that my lips should be opened so that I may find the right words to pray for a world that is safe, a world that is filled with love rather than hate, a world of creation, rather than one of destruction.


Shana Tova[6]


[1] A central prayer of the traditional Jewish liturgy

[2] Eastern Yiddish verb meaning ‘praying’

[3] The Jewish New Year

[4] In traditional Jewish liturgy, Musaf is the “additional service” recited on the sabbath and on festivals in commemoration of the additional sacrifices that were formerly offered in the Temple of Jerusalem

[5] The Day of Atonement

[6] Hebrew for ‘happy new year’