Each week during Shabbat services, worshipers recite many familiar words, such as “blessing” and “Adonai;” they sing familiar songs, such as “Mah Tovu” and “Adon Olam,” and chant a variety of prayers, such as “Mi Kamocha.” For regular participants, these words and songs roll off the tongue almost automatically. Unless you are the rabbi, cantor or lay leader, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that each utterance is designed to define and strengthen your connection with your inner self, with the past and future of the Jewish people, and with God. Those adept at making such connections could still find certain words or phrases perplexing and have difficulty framing questions that might enrich their understanding of how and why Jews pray.
In Filling Words with Light, Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen provide some answers through new interpretations, insights, stories and reflections on the words that comprise the Jewish liturgy. Organized in order of their appearance in the daily and weekly prayer books, each prayer or set of blessings is subdivided and explained in its spiritual context.
One example is the Amidah (standing prayer), which is broken down into 13 elements. The first explores the prayer’s prelude, “Open My Lips.” If you absorb this section, the next time you say, “Adonai, open my lips so my words can declare your glory,” you’re apt to imagine yourself as a wave and God as the ocean.
Kushner, of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, is a widely read author of books on Jewish mysticism. Polen, professor of Jewish thought and director of the Hasidic Text Institute at Hebrew College in Boston, has written a book and numerous academic and popular articles on Hasidism and Jewish spirituality.
Filling Words with Light is not a primer; it seems more directed toward seekers looking to broaden their spiritual awareness. Thus, a basic familiarity with Jewish liturgy is helpful to getting the most out of this volume.