How do you start, or for that matter, conclude, a conversation with God? This is the question the Rabbis of the Talmud grapple with in a fascinating discussion of how the daily amidah (the central part of the Jewish prayer service) should begin and end (see Berakhot 9b). Quoting the great Rabbi Yohanan, the Talmud states that the amidah should conclude with the final line of Psalms 19, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, Oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (19:14). In classic Talmudic fashion, the question is raised, “isn’t that line better said at the start of the amidah than at the end?!”. The answer offered there is that since it is the last verse of a Psalm, it is fitting that it be the last line of the amidah as well.
However, this really just begs the question of why this line is at the end of chapter 19 of Psalms instead of at the beginning. One response comes from the commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra (11th C. Spain) who writes that the meaning of the verse in question is, “may willful sin not govern the words of my mouth”. What it most helpful about this comment is the fact that Abraham ibn Ezra writes it using the future tense thus highlighting that the verse “may the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable before You”, is also in the future tense. In other words, the reason this line is not at the start of Psalm 19, or the amidah for that matter, is because it is not really about the Psalm or amidah they are attached to, but rather, about what we will say and think about in the future, as a result of having recited them.
This idea is put most beautifully and succinctly by Abraham ibn Ezra’s brother, Moses ibn Ezra, in a line from his poem, “ana k’av z’doni timhehu”/”Clear away my sin as a cloud”, that is now recited during selihot this month (see post, “Prayers Before Dawn”, as well as this link to a most beautifully chanted version of this poem in the Portuguese tradition). In the middle of the poem are the words “my thoughts can tear me down or build me up”. Especially as we come closer to Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, we can remind ourselves that our words and thoughts have a profound effect on how we act in the world and thus, using opportunities like chanting Psalm 19 or the amidah to shape our speaking and thinking for more positive and constructive action can aid us in building a happier New Year.