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  • Honey from the Poem:Teaching Ancient T’fillah through Contemporary Poetry
  • Dan Ornstein (bio)


Humans share almost all of our genes with the chimps, our closest evolutionary cousins.1 One of the few things that make us distinctly human is our limitless ability to communicate thoughts and ideas through words and language, a power that has allowed us to build, sustain, and destroy entire civilizations. Critical and thoughtful engagement with the words that we speak and the ways that we speak them is obviously imperative. One way we can do this is by reconnecting with the spiritual insights and wisdom of two of the oldest artistic genres of the written and spoken word: t’fillah and poetry. I am currently writing a book that helps the reader to understand t’fillah, our unique genre of religious poetry, by comparing select contemporary poems with select prayers of the siddur. Though they are often vastly different from one another, secular poetry and prayer both offer great meaning to us personally and collectively, which is why they have persisted for millennia. They are meant to be read slowly, appreciated for their beauty and power, thought about carefully, shared generously, and applied wisely. They demand that we work hard at understanding them, but their [End Page 74] value to us is immeasurable. I hope my book will be one small effort to help the reader listen to their varied, substantive messages.

As I demonstrate in the sample chapter below, my approach is to use individual poems as “posterior” or back-looking mirrors that can reflect our thinking onto individual prayers of the siddur. In each chapter, I do an analysis of, or meditation upon, one poem, and I then explore how that poem sheds light on one prayer. My hope is that anyone reading this book—Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and atheist, reader of poetry and faithful worshipper—will obtain a deeper appreciation of what both genres of literature are saying to us, and will be inspired by both to live more deeply and hopefully. In addition to helping the reader to engage with words more generally in a thoughtful and respectful manner, my other major goal is for this book to be a modern form of iyyun t’fillah (literally, placing one’s eye on prayer), the time-honored mitzvah of meditating upon the meaning of individual prayers, and their meaning for the individual in his or her relationship with God.2 In this respect, my primary audience is the Jewish community, but hopefully non-Jewish spiritual seekers will benefit from my writings as well. I have been influenced by, among other books, the master work of iyyun t’fillah in the English language, the multivolume My People’s Prayer Book from Jewish Lights Publishing; I wish to add my unique approach to it and other works of iyyun t’fillah. Additionally, I intend to re/acquaint the reader with a diverse selection of poems and poets of the English language and the important things they have to say. I focus mostly upon what an individual prayer is saying in light of the poem to which it is being compared. I look forward to Conservative Judaism readers’ thoughtful responses and constructive critiques of the sample that I provide below.

The book of Proverbs teaches us that death and life are in the hands of the tongue (18:21). Similarly, the poet Emily Dickinson wrote:

A word is deadWhen it is said,Some say. [End Page 75]

I say it justBegins to liveThat day.3

Words are never dead, though they have the power to bring life and death in their wake, depending upon how seriously and carefully we treat them. If the book I am writing can help our fellow Jews—and by extension all people—to grow in their relationship with God and others through a close and loving examination of the words of poetry and t’fillah, I will feel I have been successful. The sample chapter follows.

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pp. 74-86
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