Thoughts on the Prayers for Returning the Torah to the Ark
It has been some time since we looked at the prayers for taking out the Torah scrolls before the Shabbat and Festival readings (Seder Hotzaat HaTorah). This week, I'd like to look at the prayers for returning the scrolls to the ark following the reading (Seder Hachnasat HaTorah). The two sections are complementary and form a kind of bracket around the readings. As we take the Torah out, the reader proclaims, “Gadlu ladonay iti...” “Magnify the Lord with me...” and the congregation responds with the verses from Chronicles and Psalms lauding the Almighty. When we prepare to return the Torah, the reader chants the closing verses of Psalm 148 that are part of the daily Hallel prayers of P'sukei D'zimrah as he sings, “Yehal'lu et shem Adonay ki nisgav sh'mo l'vado.”Celebrate the name of Adonai; God's name alone is exalted.” The congregation responds with the final verse of the Psalm, “Hodo al eretz v'shamayim...” “God's glory encompasses heaven and earth; God extols the faithful – raising up Israel, the people God keeps close. Halleluyah.” As with the prayers for taking out the Torah, the emphasis, at first, is on praising God rather than focusing on the Torah which we have just read. As with the taking out of the Torah, here too, we begin a procession around the congregation. Since we went around to the right previously, we now return the Torah in the opposite direction, around the left and back up to the bimah once more to deposit this sacred burden in the ark.
As we carry the Torah through the congregation, we chant a Psalm. On Shabbat, that is Psalm 29 and on weekdays, we chant Psalm 24. Both of these Psalms appear in other contexts in our worship as well. We sing Psalm 29 as the sixth Psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night, before the L'cha Dodi each week. Psalm 24 is the Psalm of the Day for Sundays. It is the Psalm that was sung by the Levites in the ancient Temple on that day of the week. Psalm 29 bears the heading “Mizmor l'David” “A Psalm of David” while Psalm 24 is “L”David Mizmor” “Unto David, a Psalm.” The rabbis noted the difference, that sometimes King David, the purported author of many (or for some, all) of the Psalms, sometimes began to sing a Psalm and inspiration came to him, this is “L”David mizmor,” “unto David, a Psalm.” On other occasions, he felt inspired and felt the need to sing a Psalm, that is “A Psalm unto David, Mizmor l'David.” We too have these differing experiences of prayer as noted by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book Man's Quest for God. Some of our prayers are words written by others (that's what we have been looking at over the past year and more in this blog) and we try to feel the emotions and thoughts of the authors. These prayers Heschel calls “prayers of empathy.” While other times we feel filled with our own words and emotions and offer our own personal prayers from the heart.. These we can call “prayers of expression.”
Following this theory, the 29th Psalm, the one we sing on Shabbat, began as a prayer of expression. The rabbis saw it as a description of the powerful emotions aroused by the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. The Psalm describes a thunderstorm, an earthquake, the word “kol” “voice” is repeated seven times. One might imagine the feelings of turmoil felt by those at the foot of Sinai as the earth shook, the heavens opened, the lightning and thunder were powerfully accenting the divine voice heard from the heavens. The Torah describes this sense of synesthesia, visual and aural cues mixed together as one, “And all the people were seeing the thunder and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking.” The Psalm does not speak of the words of revelation, but of the experience of being in the Divine presence at the time of revelation.
This Psalm begins with praise, “Acclaim the Lord, children of the Divine (It is not clear who those are, they angels? The gods of the nations? Or, perhaps, the people of Israel), acclaim the Lord with honor and strength. Acclaim the Lord, with the honor due God's name; bow before the Lord in the splendor of the sanctuary.” Now the Psalmist describes the force of this storm, coming in from the sea, “The voice of the Lord thunders over the waters; God, glorious thunders – the Lord over the great sea. The voice of the Lord, with all its power; the voice of the Lord with all its majesty; the voice of the Lord shatters the cedars. The Lord shatters the cedar of Lebanon -makes the trees dance like calves, the mountains of Lebanon and Sirion like wild bulls.” The Psalm continues in this manner describing what may in fact be an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. He concludes by taking us back to the Great Flood in Noah's day and says, “The Lord was enthroned above the flood waters; enthroned; the Lord is eternally sovereign. The Lord will grant strength to His people; the Lord will bless them with peace.” After arousing our emotions, we end with a confident expression of God's sovereignty that will bring peace to us all.
On holidays which occur on a weekday, we substitute Psalm 24 for Psalm 29. This Psalm, as mentioned, is the Psalm for Sunday, the beginning of the days of creation and it appropriately begins by describing God's role in creation. “The earth is the Lord's and all its fullness, the land and all who dwell on it. It was God who founded it upon the seas, and set it firm upon the flowing streams.” The Psalmist then turns to the worshipers and asks, “Who shall ascend the mount of the Lord? Who may stand in God's sanctuary? He replies, One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken God's name in vain, nor sworn deceitfully. He will receive a blessing from the Lord, a just reward, from God the deliverer. This generation seeks You; the descendants of Jacob long for Your presence.”
The last series of verses seem appropriate as we return the Torah to the ark, opening the gates, so to speak, the gates of wisdom and knowledge that we have gathered from our reading of the day and now we return the scrolls to their place. The Lev Shalem siddur renders it this way, “Open up, O gates -open up the entryway to eternity; let the exalted sovereign come. Who is the sovereign who is exalted? Adonai, mighty and triumphant, Adonai triumphant in battle. Open up, O gates – open up the entryway to eternity; let the exalted sovereign come. Who is the sovereign who is exalted? Adonai Tz'vaot is the sovereign who is exalted, selah.” As in Psalm 29, so here too, we end with God's sovereignty affirmed as we approach the open doors of the ark.
Returning to the bimah, the doors of the ark wide open, we replace the scrolls in their proper position and we bracket this portion of our worship with words set down in the book of Numbers. There we find two verses encased in a kind of parentheses formed by two upside down letters, the letter “nun.” before and after. The first verse we chanted when we took out the Torah, “Vay'hi vinsoa ha-aron, as the ark was carried forward, Moses would say: Adonai, rise up and scatter Your foes, so that Your enemies flee Your presence.” Now, as we return the Torah, we read the second verse, “Uv'nucho yomar, Whenever the ark was set down, Moses would say: Adonai, may You dwell among the myriad families of the people Israel.” Several more verses are recited. Depending on the cantor, some are chanted aloud and others read silently. We usually read the next three verses silently while the Torah is being secured in the ark, “Return, Adonai, to Your sanctuary, You and Your glorious ark. Let Your priests be robed in righteousness, and Your faithful sing for joy. For the sake of David , Your servant, do not turn away from Your anointed.” At this point the leader chants one more verse leading into congregational singing, “Ki lekach tov natati lachem, for I have given you good teaching, Torati al ta'azovu, do not forsake My Torah.” We have two melodies we use in our congregationa, more or less alternately for the final verses which are often sung loudly in a chorus of congregants, often with great fervor and emotion: “Etz hayim hi lamachazikim bah, It (the Torah) is a Tree of Life for those who hold fast to it, and those who uphold it are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace.” The chorus swells on the final verse, taken from the end of the book of Eicha, Lamentations, “Hashivenu Adoany elecha v'nashuvah, Turn us toward You, Adonai, and we will return to You. Chadesh yameinu k'kedem, make our days seem fresh, as they once were,” Another translation, “Renew our days as of old.”
As we pray, our hope is that through the study of Torah, we will find new paths to pleasantness and peace. We will renew our lives, finding new meaning in God's teaching that will link us to the experience of our ancestors at Sinai. In a sense, when we participate in this ritual of returning the Torah, we are ratifying the message we have read that day, and attempting to assimilate some aspect of that Torah into our lives. In the first blessing of the Sh'ma we speak of God renewing creation every day. Our task as partners in creation is to find ways to renew our lives each day as we come to learn more about God and His teaching of Torah.