Breaking Open: A Paradigm for Jewish Prayer

They’re the words we whisper each time we get ready to chant the Amidah, known in the Talmud as simply hatefilah, the prayer. So, in effect, they’re the words we whisper — the intention we set — each time we get ready to pour out our hearts in prayer: Adonai sefatai tiftakh ufi yagid tehilatekha: “O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.”

At first glance, they comprise a natural precursor to the beginnings of a prayer, in effect saying, “I’m about to pray; help me to make my words worthy.”

But as is often the case in Judaism, these words can be interpreted as holding deeper meaning; a context that suggests a possible paradigm for what prayer can be.

The context is that these words come from Psalm 51, which begins simply, Lamnatze’akh mizmor le’David, “A Psalm of David.” בְּֽבוֹא־אֵ֭לָיו נָתָ֣ן הַנָּבִ֑יא כַּאֲשֶׁר־בָּ֝֗א אֶל־בַּת־שָֽׁבַע׃ “When Nathan the prophet came to him [David] after he had come to Bathsheba.”

This passage invokes the shameful incident in which King David lets his basest instincts hold sway — the King David who at times stands in as the paragon of Jewish leadership, the forbear of the Messiah, whose name comes from the word for beloved. Seeing the beautiful Bathsheba bathing on a roof, he has her brought to him, sleeps with her, and she conceives. Aiming to cover up the crime — she is a married woman, to Uriah the Hittite — he brings Uriah, an officer in David’s army back from war, presumably to sleep with Bathsheba so that it will be assumed the child is Uriah’s. When Uriah declines, judging it inappropriate to sleep at home while his soldiers remain in the field, David sends Uriah back to the front, for what is for all intents and purposes a suicide mission, knowing Uriah will die, which, inevitably, he does.

The invocation of “Nathan the prophet” refers to the aftermath of the episode with Uriah, when Nathan the prophet comes to King David to share a parable with him about a poor man with one lamb whom he tends to and cares for deeply, and a rich man with large flocks and herds. When a visitor comes to the rich man, rather than welcoming him with a meal from his own flock, he has the poor man’s lamb slaughtered.

Upon hearing this, King David rages at the cruelty of the rich man in the story. Nathan then reveals what we the readers/listeners know to be true: That man is David; David’s reprobation, his castigation, needs to be directed towards himself.

David appears to immediately drop whatever pretenses about himself he had held and cries out simply, khatati ladonai. “I have sinned before God.”

As Rabbi David Wolpe points out, context is important here. He writes:

In the history of the monarchy, the voice of rebuke is generally not tolerated. … Prophets were not exempt from persecution from the monarchs they criticized. Israelite and ancient history is riddled with examples of kings eliminating their critics. David’s reaction of immediate penitence — חָטָ֖אתִילַיהֹוָ, “I have sinned before God” — reminds us that piety can coexist in a soul with myriad other qualities, enviable and base.”

Wolpe concludes, “Nathan has punctured David’s dormant conscience.”[1]

Awakened by this parable, David has, in a sense, hit rock bottom: The spell of self-rationalization, narcissism and delusion has been snapped. He has been laid bare for all to see — most importantly, himself.

Where does David turn? Well, in one traditional understanding, he turns to prayer. Tradition teaches that King David composed the book of Psalms, and in particular, it teaches that David composed Psalm 51 in the immediate aftermath of these events.

David begins the Psalm: “Have mercy upon me, O God, as befits Your faithfulness; חׇנֵּ֣נִי אֱלֹהִ֣ים כְּחַסְדֶּ֑ך”ָ David makes no claim here of his own goodness or his worthiness; rather, he rests his pleas solely on God’s khesed, on God’s faithfulness and love. Grant me grace, mercy, khaneni, David says, as befits your khesed, your lovingkindness.” כְּרֹ֥ב רַ֝חֲמֶ֗יךָ מְחֵ֣ה פְשָׁעָֽי׃ In keeping with Your abundant compassion, blot out my transgressions.”

“I know you don’t have to do this,” David seems to be saying. “You don’t have to blot out my transgressions. But you can. You are compassionate. You are able. Please, God, according to your abundant compassion, which is truly a part of you — I believe that,” he suggests, “let it flow. Let your compassion flow over me like a wave, and blot out my transgressions from your sight and from my own experience of myself. Because I know you can. Please, God.”

This is the Jewish expression of what in contemporary terms we might call surrender. It is not unlike what you see articulated in Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12 steps: Admitting our powerlessness over our dependence; coming to believe a power greater than ourselves can restore us to a good path; making a decision to turn our will to the care of that power — to God as some might call it, however we understand that; making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Admitting to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Being entirely ready to have God, as we understand God, remove all these defects of character. Allowing ourselves to believe in the capacity for rejuvenation, for a new page. Humbly asking that Source of Being to remove our shortcomings.[2]

The DNA of these 12 steps are in David’s 51st Psalm. Surrender, honesty, transparency with ourselves and with the Divine.

“Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin,” David continues,

“for I recognize my transgressions, and I am ever conscious of my missteps.”

“Fashion a pure heart for me, O God,” he continues. “Create in me a steadfast spirit.”

David goes on like this for a number of verses, until he comes to our opening verse: Adonai Sefatai tiftakh, he says, ufi yagid tehilatekha. “O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.”

In our own experience, these words flow into the Amidah. The Amidah stands for the entire experience of this thing we call prayer. Those moments when we’re invited or called to imagine ourselves in the presence of the Divine, which, tradition teaches, we always are, but which tradition calls upon us to remind ourselves now and then. The Amidah is that moment when we’re called upon to open ourselves up and pour out whatever is on our hearts, our minds and our spirits.

Over time, the specific liturgy for the Amidah became codified into a specific set of blessings that we encounter in our siddurim and our makhzorim, our prayers books, today. Before Gutenberg, however, Jewish prayer had to be more spontaneous, more emotional. Perhaps there were some agreed-upon basic topics but no prescribed liturgy. A section of the Amidah was designated bakashot, petitions: We petitioned God for that for which our hearts yearned — mercy, compassion, healing, nourishment, love. Different individuals or different leaders poured out different spontaneous expressions of their yearnings to feel connected to the Divine and the healing or blessings that would flow from that connection.

The Amidah is that moment when we’re called upon to open ourselves up and pour out whatever is on our hearts, our minds and our spirits.

So what is the significance of the words chosen by the ancient rabbis — Adonai sefatai tiftakh u’fi yagid tehilatekha — to enter into the heart space of prayer?

The context suggests it. Immediately following that verse, David continues: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; You will not despise a broken and crushed heart.”

God, we bring forth our brokenness to you.

These are the words the ancient rabbis selected to center us in prayer, the words spoken by David at his most heartbroken, when he has begun his climb towards redemption. That’s the spirit we’re invited to tap into as we enter the space of prayer, as we enter the religious experience.

The Hasidic rebbe Menachem Mendl of Kotsk taught that ‘there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.’

Oft cited is the teaching from the Kotsker Rebbe, the Hasidic rebbe Menachem Mendl of Kotsk that ayn davar yoter shalem me’lev shavur, “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”[3]

To put a different slant on it: A broken heart is one of the most meaningful stances from which to open ourselves to the unknown, to the mystery, to the Divine, to the grandeur that suffuses the universe, intimately available to us.

This is easier said than done. Through the course of life, our hearts don’t so much break open as harden. Another trope of biblical tradition is Pharaoh’s hardened heart. The Hebrew says, וַיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה “Pharaoh’s heart hardened,” literally strengthened.[4]

We often confuse hardness with strength, toughness with hardness. Jewish tradition suggests something different. We shouldn’t harden; we should break open.

It relates to another teaching in leHasidism, the modern mystical reflective movement, about the notion of yeridah letzorekh aliyah — that sometimes ascent can proceed from descent. Look no further than our foundational story. Torah, revelation, the moment of profound clarity about the pathway forward comes not in Genesis, before the Israelites experience the descent into Egypt, but afterwards, after the constriction of the narrow places (meitzarim), the narrow straits associated with the Nile. (That’s what the Hebrew word for Egypt means: constriction, pressure, having blinders on, before we finally break free, bursting forth from the waters of the sea.)[5]

Or, to put it more colloquially as nobody can do better than Mark Twain, “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.”[6]

The notion of yeridah letzorekh aliyah in Hasidism comes from the midrash of shevirat hakelim, the shattering of the vessels: When God created the universe and said “let there be light,” that light was initially encased in vessels sent forth from God, but the light was too strong for the vessels to contain, and the vessels “shattered.” And it is our task as human beings laredet — to descend, to immerse ourselves in the world, to be present to the moments in which we find ourselves, including, and perhaps even especially, the broken parts. And then, through our intentionality and our consciousness and our acts of justice and repair, to free the trapped sparks of light found throughout the universe, so that they can la’alot, make aliyah; so they can ascend, reuniting with their source in the Divine.[7]

On a more personal level, we’re invited to be present to the broken parts ourselves. Not to shy away from, as the Talmud teaches, לוּחוֹת וְשִׁבְרֵי לוּחוֹת מוּנָּחוֹת בָּאָרוֹן. Both sets of tablets — the unbroken set containing the Ten Commandments and the set Moses shattered, the broken set — were placed in the Holy Ark alongside one another. They were both carried with us throughout our wilderness journey. The people held the broken tablets, the broken parts of their covenant, of themselves, to be a bridge to God.

We are invited by tradition and by the wisdom of the ages to tap in, every time we step into the prayer experience or the experience of seeking wisdom and guidance, to crack open our hearts, beating ever so softly on our chests. To tap into those experiences of regret and heartbreak and feeling lost, and to allow that level of surrender to lead to the insight only those experiences can yield.

As Rabbi Alan Lew writes:

Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal. These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient of human yearnings.[8]

This is the rabbinic paradigm of the prayer experience. That as we enter those solitary moments — whether we are by ourselves or surrounded by our community — yearning for connection, for guidance, for light, the posture we inhabit is adonai sefatai tiftakh, the words David whispered when he hit rock bottom, when he’d been cracked open, when all of his actions, his soul, had been laid bare for him. That cracked open experience is the one we seek.

The next question, of course, is how? How do we do this, having brokenness serve as a pathway to light?

Here’s where I lift up the story about the man who goes to the Zen master and asks, “How long will it take me to be enlightened?” The Zen master pauses and says, “10 years.” The man is disappointed by this and so responds, “And what if I try really hard?” to which the Zen master replies, “20.”[9]

We can’t force this. As my teacher Bobbi Breitman offers, this is not a space for the ego, for the will to take. Rather it’s a space for surrender, for vulnerability, in the hands of the Divine, however we understand that.

For Jews, this notion was distilled most profoundly by the Hasidim, the mystical pietests of Eastern Europe that include many of our forebears, most prominently through a practice honed by the famous Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, a town in what today is southwestern Ukraine, the practice known as hitbodedut, literally translating to self-seclusion.

Hitbodedut, Rabbi Art Green writes, refers to solitary, daily conversation with the Holy One.[10]

While the words of the siddur can serve as a jumping-off point, ultimately, hitbodedut is more spontaneous than that. When we perform hitbodedut, when we pour out our most intimate longings, needs, desires and frustrations before the Holy One, Reb Nachman teaches,

This prayer and conversation should be in the language one normally uses[11] because it is difficult for a person to say everything he wants to say in the Holy Tongue, that is, Hebrew. … In our native tongue, in which we normally speak and converse, it is much easier and so more likely leshaber libo — to break one’s heart.

This is one of the most traditionally revered rabbis in history. And here he is saying, when you’re on your own; don’t worry about the Hebrew. Speak in whatever language you know. Easier to break one’s heart that way.

This is not meant to abolish the practice of taking out our siddurim, our mahzorim, our prayer books. These serve the purpose of uniting us together, giving us a shared set of words to rally around, to gather around, also fundamental to the religious experience.

But, Reb Nachman teaches, the original prayer experience was an expression of the heart before God in each person’s native tongue. “Make a [daily] habit of praying before God from the depths of your heart,” he says. “Use whatever language you know best.”

Note that Nachman recognizes this effort won’t always spark fireworks. No matter where a person is coming from, he says, even if he is totally and absolutely distant from God, they should speak about it all.

“I have no idea where to even start,” one might say. I don’t even believe in God,” one might say.

It’s all fair game.

Whatever is real and is happening for you in that moment — I’m bored, I’m antsy, I’m disconnected — whatever is real for you in that moment, is that which you should bring before God. As Nachman says,

Even if occasionally a person’s words are sealed and they cannot open their mouth to say anything at all to Hashem, this itself is nonetheless very good,” Nahman says,

That is, their readiness and their presence before Hashem, and their yearning and longing to speak despite their inability to do so — this in itself is also very good.”

The renowned monk Thomas Merton once wrote what was, in essence, a version of this:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

That’s hitbodedut. We don’t have to bring anything to the practice other than our hearts, wherever they are.

“It is written,” Rebbe Nachman says, quoting the book of Job,

אֲבָנִ֤ים ׀ שָׁ֥חֲקוּ מַ֗יִם, “Water wears away stone. Your heart may be like stone. It may seem that your words of prayer make no impression on it at all. Still, as the days and years pass, your heart of stone will also be penetrated.

That’s the paradigm for Jewish prayer. Working on our hearts, tapping on our hearts, cracking at our hearts … until they break open.


[1] David Wolpe, David: The Divided Heart (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press; Illustrated edition (September 16, 2014), p. 82

[2] “The Twelve Steps.” Alcoholics Anonymous, Accessed 7 October 2022.

[3] See Jonathan Safran Foer (Author), Nathan Englander (Translator). New American Haggadah. Hardcover – Illustrated, March 5, 2012, p. 124.

[4] Exodus 8:15. See my extensive discussion:

[5] For this idea see Rindenow-Kalev, Yocheved. “What Goes Down Must Come Up,” The Jerusalem Post, 8 April 2020, Accessed 7 October 2022.

[6] For citation of this in connection with Ascent/Descent see Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, “Vayeshev: What goes down must come up!” 22 November 2021, Accessed 7 October 2022.

[7] Green, Arthur. “Hasidism.” 20th Century Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs, edited by Arthur Allen Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Jewish Publication Society, 2009.

[8] Lew, Alan. This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

[9] Breitman, Barbara in Teutsch, David A. A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living. Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press, 2011.

[10] Green, Arthur. Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (Jewish Lights Classic Reprint). Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

[11] For most of us, English.

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