D’var Tefilah: A Close Look at Birkot Hashachar

Now in my second decade as director of Camp Ramah in New England, I’ve decided to spend this summer giving d’vrei tefilah about the prayers that we say at camp. My hope is to share some ideas on how to make tefilah more meaningful, to explain and to explore the balance of keva (set prayers) and kavanah (prayers from the heart).

At the beginning of morning tefilot we say a series of blessings called “Birkot Hashachar” that describe God’s power and actions in the world. These blessings present two major challenges. First, saying the same series of prayers each day can easily lead to just saying the words and not thinking about them. Second, some of the statements just don’t ring true.

Let’s look at four of the blessings. Each begins, “Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe” and then continues to describe a specific divine attribute or power:

Who gives sight to the blind.

Who clothes the naked.

Who releases the bound.

Who raises the downtrodden.

None of these pronouncements is categorically true. There are blind, naked, bound and downtrodden people in the world. So how to better understand these blessings?

All of these prayers have literal and larger meanings. In this series of four, the first one sets up the rest. It is true that blindness may be “God given” or at least one could be blind from birth. However, blind people rarely are cured. Although there are many potential deeper meanings to this statement, the one that is most important to me is the idea that God gives sight to the blind in the metaphorical sense that God gives us the discernment and conscience to see even things that are uncomfortable, unjust and difficult. My grandfather loved to say, “that which you see every day, you see not at all.” We can too easily become too accustomed to looking past other people’s afflictions. By granting us the compassion to truly see, God is giving us the ability to make a difference.

The next three prayers just seem wrong. God doesn’t clothe, release or raise the downtrodden. People do. The daily recitation of these prayers reminds us that we need to partner with God and take action to make our world a better place. This, to me, is the mission of Judaism. We are supposed to work to perfect the world, building on God’s creation and working with God to make things better.

Clothing the naked is something we can do both tangibly and locally. Just go clean out your closet and give to an organization that distributes clothes. Clothing the naked can also be understood as treating people with dignity. How we treat people makes a big difference in how they see themselves.

Releasing the bound speaks to fighting injustice. There are those who are jailed unjustly both in the US and around the world. Our efforts might include simple acts like raising the issue to people in power, or more skilled acts if you happen to be a lawyer. Growing up, my parents’ involvement in the Soviet Refusenik movement taught me a lot; I still recall writing letters to both children and elected officials.

Raising the downtrodden (literally “straightening the bent”) is about helping people in need. There are so many people in this world who are being crushed by poverty, oppression, depression, and many other factors. As humans, using empathy and love, we can help raise people up. This can be done through how we speak to one another or by volunteering at a food bank or shelter or donating to causes that provide care.

Often, when saying tefilot, I say the words on autopilot but try to focus on a few specific prayers or phrases. One morning I might ponder how I need to be better at noticing things. A different day I might think about how I can make a difference in clothing the naked. I find more meaning and find prayer to be more effective when I zoom in on certain ideas or issues and really thinking about them.

Here, at camp, we want to teach our chanichim (campers) the literal meanings of our prayers, but we also want to help them learn to engage with the prayers and think about their different meanings and applications.

Shabbat Shalom