Who by Fire, Who by Water: Which Is Your Favorite Prayer of All Time?

During this uplifting time before Yom Kippur, we asked artists and intellectuals to share their favorite verses of prayer and poetry with us.

Alit Karp
Alit Karp
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Rachel Elior (scholar): First rains and last

My favorite prayer is the ancient birkat kohanim (priestly blessing) that was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. With this prayer, the priests and their coreligionists would bless the pilgrims arriving at the Temple during the moadim (religious holidays):

"May God bless and shine his light upon you.

May he share with you his good treasure which is in heaven,

And shower your land with plentiful and timely rains, both first and last.

May he provide you with bountiful grains, grape juice and oil,

And may land yield up delightful fruit, so you might feast and flourish."

The similarity between the Scroll's version, in which the address is in the plural, to the famous biblical version of the birkat kohanim ("The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee" [Numbers 6:25] ) in which the "you" is singular, suggests the existence of ancient liturgical traditions dating back to the first millennia B.C.E., which were subsequently lost to us. It is something of a miracle that a present-day speaker of Hebrew has no trouble reading the 2,300-year-old benediction. This beautiful, benevolent blessing, which testifies to the continuity and vitality of the Hebrew language, speaks to universal human wishes that are as relevant today as they were back then. For, considering everything that lies beyond limited human control, God's grace and the goodwill of Creation are as necessary to us as ever.

Haim Be'er (novelist): Keep a gate open for us

My favorite lines are from the Ne'ilah (the concluding prayer service of Yom Kippur), found in the Ashkenazi Mahzor (prayer book). The mood, when this prayer is recited, is of things drawing to a close: the crisis of the fast has already passed, and the worshipers are tired; shadows lengthen as the sun begins to set; and the candles, which, in bygone days before electricity in synagogues, had been lit the previous evening, are flickering out. During this transitional time, a sense of ending fills the worshipers' hearts, a feeling that the window of opportunity is closing along with the gates of heaven. The time of reconciliation is almost over and everything, therefore, must be done briskly and purposefully. This is when the following fragment is recited (it is a very ancient text, and I do not know its exact origin): "Keep a gate open for us, at this hour when the gates are being locked. For the day has passed. The day will pass, the sun will come and go. So we come up to your gates."

Lea Goldberg once said that her friend, the poet Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, told her this was the most beautiful Hebrew prayer. Indeed, the verse was incorporated, in one version or another, into the poems of some of the finest Hebrew poets: Goldberg and Ben-Yitzhak themselves, David Vogel, T. Carmi, and many others.

Dror Burstein (writer ): Inhale and exhale

I find myself returning, time and again, to the saying of the ninth-century Chinese Zen master Linji (better known by his Japanese name, Rinzai): "Simply trust the thing acting inside of you at this moment." As with all epigrams, it is difficult to understand this saying out of context. It is not an isolated aphorism, but part of a compilation which is, in turn, embedded in a web of cultural meaning. Nevertheless, we might say that Linji's reminder resembles a handkerchief with a knot in it: the knot being a reminder to the handkerchief that it is, in fact, a handkerchief.

In other words, the saying invites us - in the midst of all the stressful, euphoric and mundane moments of existence - to look at the life force pulsating within us (breathing, heartbeats, our growing nails) and to remind ourselves, time and again, not to take that force for granted. The duration of its private expression - the "I" - is limited and transient, but this life force is also part of an infinite, never-ending being, of which the self also partakes. The genius of Linji's saying consists in reminding us that we carry within us all that we need in order to recall who we are. There is no need for Holy Scriptures or masters; all we need is to inhale and exhale.

Ehud Ben-Ezer (writer): Long live Hebrew, human labor!

For many years now I have been carrying a small note in my wallet. It was with me during my time in the army, in the kibbutz, in the university and also later. Somewhere along the way the note had gotten wet and the writing on it smudged. But I know it by heart:

"The following is what I have learned in my life, and my personal testament:

Life is wicked, but always secret... Death is evil. The world is a conflicted place, but also diverse and, sometimes, beautiful.

Man is miserable, but, on occasion, also wonderful.

The nation of Israel, examined logically, has no future.

Nevertheless, one must work.

As long as there is breath in your body, lofty deeds and uplifting moments exist.

Long live Hebrew, human labor!" (Y.H. Brenner, "From Here and There," 1911)

My grandfather, Raab Ben-Ezer (1858-1948), who was one of the founders of Petah Tikva in 1878, dictated the following lines to my father in the summer of 1930. They conclude his memoir, "The First Furrow":

"Insofar as my son and grandchild are concerned, my wish is that they carry forward the tradition of living industriously and constructively. This is neither a command nor a bequest, but merely a wish: that they take up agriculture or some other useful line of work. They know well how I have always despised those who work in the parasitical professions. An honest man fulfills his duties of work and defense with a clear conscience. He leads a productive life, helping others and himself. That is the wisdom that I have acquired and which I now pass on to them - should they want it, of course." For me, Yom Kippur is not a day of self-examination: I neither fast nor attend synagogue. But I do sometimes ask myself whether I have lived up to my grandfather's expectations. My answer is both yes and no. My father used to say to me: "Your grandfather began the first furrow, and you have completed it."

Nurith Gertz (scholar): Overcoming despair

Eliezer Slutzkin came to Palestine with the Second Aliyah, lived here his entire life and passed away at a ripe old age. When asked one time whether, in moments of hopelessness, he ever considered leaving the country, he replied that reading Brenner's "From Here and There," before arriving in Palestine, had immunized him to despair. Were someone to ask me that question, I would have given the same answer, and would have pointed to a specific passage from Brenner's novel:

"The following is what I have learned in my life, and my personal testament:

Life is wicked, but always secret... Death is evil. The world is a conflicted place, but also diverse and, sometimes, beautiful.

Man is miserable, but, on occasion, also wonderful.

The nation of Israel, examined logically, has no future.

Nevertheless, one must work.

As long as there is breath in your body, lofty deeds and uplifting moments exist.

Long live Hebrew, human labor!"

I am not sure what it is about Brenner's words that comforts me more: is it knowing that people back then already despaired of this place? Or is it the insight, that it is possible to try and overcome this despair, even without hope? However it may be, I often repeat these words to myself - lately, even more often.

Efrat Mishori (poet): I wish now to live

"I glanced at a wall mirror stained with life (I wish now to live more than, three years ago, I had wished to die)."

I have thought of these opening lines of "A Virtual Farewell," by poet Sigalit Davidovich (and found in her book "My Face beyond the Glass"), several times in my life: once, several years ago, when I was going through a severe crisis; and again in the last year, during which I separated from my husband of 24 years (half my lifetime).

A small confession is in order: I am a dramatic creature, perpetually traveling up and down a steep emotional road. My routine resembles a roller-coaster ride, shooting back and forth between the opposing extremities of existence: life and death. But, in my own strange way, I blossom - for blossoming also has its low points, its periods of wilting.

These lines playing in my head enable me to see that the feeling of death is momentary and life is strong. And even if I did want once to die, now, a year later, I discover that life persists - despite me, without me - and stains the mirror. The instant that the calamitous seeds of optimism take root in me, I lift my little head, cup my sweaty, flower-like palms and sip from these lines the strength I need to bear the hardships, the gray, Sisyphean everydayness of life, as captured by my fleeting reflection.

My wish to live now is more interesting than my wish to die three years ago.

Eyal Megged (writer): For theirs is the kingdom of heaven

To whom do I pray? How do I pray? These are perhaps the most intimate questions of all. I think it is easier for a person to reveal how he makes love than it is to disclose how he prays, or the exact words he uses. In any case, my favorite verses in the Holy Scriptures are those found in the New Testament. They help my appeal to God that we may become better, kinder human beings, both toward the weak and helpless among us, and especially toward the animals that are under our dominion, and which we subject to ceaseless suffering. From the Sermon on the Mount:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy."

(Matthew 5:3-7)

And from "Judgment of the Nations":

"Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."

(Matthew 25:40)

Agi Mishol (poet): A clean slate

"It is now permitted to pray with transgressors of the law."

I think of this sentence before I get up on stage to recite my poems. In my heart, I invite the listeners to pray along with me. I "permit" them to open themselves up to places that are usually kept hidden and disavowed, to places that we poets have taken upon ourselves (as a kind of public service ) to expose. It is we who are, in a sense, the transgressors, because we have learned not to take ourselves personally. We make use of our selves to try and touch a common human denominator, to reveal the most vulnerable and darkest corners of the soul. We thus help those who listen to find legitimacy for their own dark corners. We awaken, even if for a moment, a sense of comradeship. We remind our audience and ourselves of who we are and where we came from.

The verse originates, of course, in the cantor's speech prior to the central Yom Kippur prayer, Kol Nidre. After taking out the books of the Torah and passing them between the worshipers, who then kiss them and ask forgiveness for their trespasses, he declares that the herem (the excommunication ) on transgressors has been lifted. The dry-sounding preamble, which is dictated as if to some protocol - "by the word of God and men, of heaven and of earth, it is now permitted to pray with transgressors of the law" - has, in fact, great emancipatory power. It turns every person, and the hidden transgressor within, into a pure, pastless present, a clean slate: someone who is fit to join with the rest of the worshipers. There is nothing secular about transferring this ceremony and this text to the realm of poetry. Anyone who writes knows them well - both the Torah ark and the prayer of poetry.

Admiel Kosman (poet): Turning one's eyes inward

At times, when I feel the world bearing down on me, I find myself thinking of a sentence that comes from the Buddhist tradition. According to this sentence, when a miracle "falls" into the heart, it becomes a liberating key, with the help of which I am thrown out of my bitterness and into a land of hope.

The sentence, which I first encountered in "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" by Sogyal Rinpoche, is a quote from Shantideva, the eighth-century Buddhist sage, and it goes as follows: "All happiness results from the aspiration to make someone else happy; all suffering, from the desire to make oneself happy."

This book has taught me that in situations in which I tend to blame the "world" outside, or to demand that some imaginary "Father" work a small miracle and set his "crappy world" right, I should instead look into myself. We need to understand that whatever we manage to rectify in external reality is but a reflection of what Rinpoche calls "the inner miracle" - which is always the hardest: "The Tibetan mystic Terton Sogyal said that a person who can turn a floor into a ceiling or fire into water does not impress him. The true miracle, he said, is when a person succeeds in freeing himself from a single negative emotion."

Peter Kriksunov (translator): On Verlaine's "Autumn"

There are several prayer poems that I like to recite in times of anxiety or joy. Lately, I have been thinking of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's outstanding translation of Verlaine's "Autumn," which opens with the following lines:

"When a sighing begins

In the violins

Of the autumn-song,

My heart is drowned

In the slow sound

Languorous and long"

(English translation by Arthur Symons)

I was introduced to Jabotinsky's translation many years ago, by my late friend Moshe Zinger, a wonderful poet and translator. We used to read it aloud, enjoying its short lines, unforced rhymes, and local phonetic affinities to the French original. The very reading of the poem brings joy. However, the darker times that are related to it need also be mentioned.

An Israeli television program that aired on the 60th anniversary (2004) of the Normandy Invasion told of the part played by Verlaine's poem in the war. It was used by the Allies (in its original version, of course) to signal the start of the invasion: its lines were read out twice on the French Resistance's underground radio, and the invasion began!

Verlaine's short poem became a symbol of Europe's liberation from the Nazi occupation. The beauty of its poetry became fused in my mind with the struggle for freedom. Even at the darkest hour, poetry's lines will light the way for the forces of good, until their ultimate triumph.

Almost 70 years have passed, and thick clouds are once again darkening the sky. In our present circumstances, let us not forget that the power of poetry can still join forces, as an equal, with our capable army and modern weapons.

Aharon Shabtai (poet): The things I've done

I often think of a helpful axiom that I learned from my friend Moshe Gershuni: "I prefer to regret the things I've done, than regret those I didn't."

Zeruya Shalev (novelist): Have mercy

The various prayers, appeals and supplications can all be summed up with three words: "God, have mercy!" That is also the essence of my favorite plea: the ancient "Our Father, our King, hear our voice and have mercy on us" of Yom Kippur. It is also the meaning of the two words upon which rests the entire Christian mass Kyrie Eleison: Lord, have mercy!

This appeal is the quintessence of all religions, prayers and wishes. There is no need to articulate the words to feel that they express the most profound yearnings of the soul; that these are the words spoken by a person pleading, with head upturned, for his or her life.

An ornamental curtain covering the Torah ark, from Prague, 1592.Credit: From the book 'Embroidery' by Yaniv Bracha