Sometimes, rabbinical study feels like pulling back the curtain. Today I learned the horrifying history behind a blessing I have enjoyed for many years – one that Jews sing before entering the silent, standing prayer (amidah) in our prayer services.
God, open my lips,
that my mouth may declare Your praise.
This line from Psalm 51 serves as an entry point, often chanted many times out loud before we retreat into personal, silent meditation. I’ve always appreciated this prayer because it invites us to be present, centered, and focused, to clean out the remains of the week and to approach our prayers with gratitude. Open my lips so that I may praise. Open my heart to all that is praiseworthy within me and around me. This is the space I want to occupy before I enter the silent amidah.
Today, I learned from Midrash Tehillim (commentary on the psalms) that Psalm 51 was spoken by King David. This is not surprising, as many of our psalms are attributed to him. However, given the intentions I bring to this blessing, I was surprised to learn of its moment of origin. This is a prayer offered to God in a moment of shame. King David has raped and impregnated BatSheva, the wife of his best friend, Uriah. He has sent Uriah to war, placing him at the head of charge, knowing that Uriah will be killed. Rather than facing Uriah, David murders him – not with his own hands, but with his decision to place him directly in danger. David murders Uriah in a way that renders him, from an outsider’s perspective, blameless.
But Nathan, a prophet who serves King David, sees exactly what has happened, and is not afraid to face him. In 2 Samuel, Nathan approaches David with a parable. The story says:
“When [Nathan] came to David, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as God lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”
Nathan tells David that God will punish David and his family for these evil actions – for taking BatSheva and murdering Uriah, even though David has more wealth and power than he will ever need. Hearing this, David is horrified and he composes and sings Psalm 51, a prayer that begs God for mercy. The statement that opens our silent meditation, “God, open my lips that my mouth may declare your glory” is line 15 of Psalm 51.
All my praying life, I have been approaching silent communion with the Divine with this line, sung by a rapist and murderer who has just realized that he is a monster. It’s even possible that David is only begging for mercy because he knows that God will punish him, instead of praying from a place of true remorse. What does this mean about the placement of this line in our daily liturgy?
I’ll admit that my first instinct was to drop the blessing entirely from my own practice. How can I echo David’s words knowing the context in which he spoke them? I reminded myself that as clergy, my job will be to support others in discovering how these and other verses are applicable to our lives today, but I was still frustrated that I’ve been singing these lines for so many years without knowing why.
Then I remembered how powerful this prayer has been for me – when I sing this line, it grounds me in the present, preparing me to praise, instead of losing myself in frustration about what might have been, and anxiety about what might come next. Grounding in the present is a lesson in humility – we can acknowledge the past, but we can’t change it, and we have limited control over the future. All we really have is this moment.
David prays Psalm 51 in a moment of humility as well. Realizing what he has done, he approaches God and says “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” He acknowledges his actions, and asks God for help anyways. “God, open up my lips so that I may declare Your praise,” says “God, I really screwed up. I know I can’t change what I’ve done, but I can ask You to open my lips to praise You.”
It is really hard to face the truth when we have screwed up. If I dig beneath the surface, I realize that my urge to cut this blessing from my own practice comes from a place of fear. “Well I’m not a rapist and a murderer, so why should I pray like one?” I don’t have to pray like David, but I do have to pray like me. And I don’t want to face my flaws any more than David wanted to face his. Maybe that’s the reason for this line’s placement in our liturgy. It’s a reminder to acknowledge how human we are when we approach That which is Larger than Us.
Sometimes, rabbinical study feels like pulling back the curtain. And if I’m afraid of what I’ll find there, there’s a good chance it’s something I need to face after all. “Adonai, s’fa tai tiftach” is a reminder to recognize our flaws and to pray from a place of honesty – Yes, we have made mistakes. Yes, we are human. And yes, we still need reminders that the world is worthy of praise.