The Amidah was written in the 4th century BCE when the Jews first returned to the Land of Israel from Babylonian exile and struggled to re-build the Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed earlier by Nebuchadnezzar. When the Temple stood and God’s presence was readily accessible, it was easy for the Jews to communicate with Him, but with the Temple in ruins, they were rendered speechless.
The Amidah, as we know it, was composed by the Sages of the Great Assembly with the idea of helping common people speak directly to God and keep their connection to Him alive and personal. To accomplish this, they created a prayer which became known as the Shemoneh Esreh (“Eighteen Blessings”) or the Amidah (“Standing Prayer.”)
The Amidah is the central tefillah of all three daily services that make up the Jewish liturgy—morning (Shachrit), afternoon (Minchah) and evening (Maariv).
We start the Amidah with the verse from Psalms:6
Adonai, open my lips, and my mouth will speak Your praise.
The common understanding of this introduction is that we are in the presence of the King, and we are unable to speak. Therefore, we ask Him to help us in this regard. However, there is an even deeper message expressed in these words. The word Adonai means “Master.” In Jewish law, whatever a servant owns actually belongs to his master; the servant has no possessions whatsoever. This law also governs our spirituality: God is our Master, and, in essence, we own nothing. For example, it is incorrect to say “my life” because it is really God’s life. We do not own the life-force within us.
Many people find this a difficult concept to accept even if it is self-evident. If we were owners of our lives, then we could stop and start our lives whenever we wanted. We could stop our heart beating and then start it again at will. If we were the masters of our thinking, then we could stop thinking and start whenever we pleased. But we cannot; we are constantly thinking. The same goes for our feelings; we are constantly feeling and cannot make ourselves stop. We can choose what to think, what to feel and what to do with our lives, but the actual power to think, feel and live is God’s, though He shares it with us. In other words, the powers within us do not originate with us. All we can do is humbly and gratefully receive the powers of life that God, the Master of Life, lovingly shares with us.
Even our will is not our own. We are not the source of our will-power, and we do not have a choice to have a will. Ironically, free will is imposed upon us. However, what we do with our will—how we direct it and invest it—is our choice. What to choose is our choice, but the fact that we are able to choose at all is not our choice.
Similarly, our motor skills are not ours. We did not create the knowledge or the skill required to open our mouths. Therefore, when we say, “Adonai, open my lips,” we should contemplate the miraculous mechanism of our facial muscles and the wondrous ability to speak. We should appreciate and marvel at the fact that seventeen separate muscles mysteriously work in perfect coordination, shaping our lips to express every letter and syllable of the words we speak.
Who taught us how to do that? Who enables us to open our lips? We call that great whoever—Adonai. He is the Master Self who benevolently shares Himself—His will, wisdom, etc.—with us as He asks us to be His partners in the world.
When we begin the Amidah, this introductory phrase helps us acknowledge the mysterious, marvelous and empowering truth about our connection to God. We must recognize that we are not simply praying to God. We are actually praying with God.
As we mentioned before, tefillah is not about changing God’s will. Rather, it is about changing ourselves so that we can channel God’s will in the way He wants it to be channeled in the world. Tefillah is referred to as avodat Hashem—“service to God.” Through our tefillah, we serve God by becoming a channel for His will and vision in the world. God wants healing, peace and redemption to fill our perceptual world, but for that to happen, He needs us to channel His will. And the more we want what God wants, the more His will and blessings will become manifest.
Therefore, we begin the Amidah by acknowledging God’s part in our prayer. In effect, we are saying, “Master, You open my lips. I know this is a partnership between us. You provide the raw material—the will, the thoughts, the feelings and the motor skills—and I determine what form to give these God-given powers.”
Aristotle taught that everything in existence could be defined in terms of substance and form. There is no such thing as form without substance, or substance without form. Through our tefillah, we take our God-given powers and form them into expressions of praise: “Master, You open my lips, and my mouth will speak Your praise.”
This is true of everything we do. Our daily life is a partnership with God. He provides the raw materials—the substance—and we determine the form. We don’t have a choice to want, think and feel—we are always wanting, thinking and feeling—but we can choose what we are going to want, think and feel. We didn’t choose to be born, but we can choose what to make of our lives. Our goal is to take the powers God shares with us and turn them into His praise.
What is praise? In Hebrew, praise is called tehillah. The root word of tehillah is hallel. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century father of neo-Orthodoxy, explains: “The literal meaning of hallel is ‘to reflect,’ tracing back [godly] rays to the [Divine] core from which they emanate, and the acceptance of these rays [ourselves] as being emanations of that [Divine] core.”7 In other words, to praise God means to reflect His greatness by becoming a living manifestation of His truth, knowing it and celebrating it. Created in the image of God, we are meant to mirror His splendor and glory. Therefore, at the start of the Amidah, we acknowledge that our service to God in tefillah is to reflect His truth. Just as the brilliance, warmth and vitality of the sun reverberates in every ray of its light so too we want God’s presence to reverberate in everything we think and say at this moment.
This is the meaning of praying with kavanah. This Hebrew word is most often translated as “concentration,” but it also means “alignment.” We sometimes find ourselves midway through the Amidah only to suddenly realize that all along we have been distracted. Lost in our thoughts about other matters, we don’t even remember reciting the prayer up to this point. We have been praying without kavanah.
When this happens to me, I find it to be an amazing mystical experience because who prayed if it wasn’t me? My mouth was moving, yet I was thinking about something else. If I was not aware of forming my words, then how did my mouth know what words to say? It’s an incredible experience to “wake up” in the middle of the Amidah and say, “Wait! If I didn’t say these words, then who did?”
When this occurs, I become very aware of the paradoxical truth of how within the self there could be a split between its higher conscious aspect and its lower unconscious aspect. The lower self is speaking, and yet the higher self is not connected to what the lower self is doing. In order to become fully aware and present, I have to bring these two parts of myself into alignment. Any state of mind that is short of total inner connection is a form of sleep, itself a form of death.
The split between the higher and lower self also helps explain our relationship to God in a profound way. Within God there exists a relationship between God who is the Supreme Self and the individual souls (us) who are aspects of Him—rays of His Divine light, so to speak. Our awareness of this brings additional meaning to our introduction, “Master, open my lips and my mouth will speak Your praise.” In other words, the praises we are about to express are not only about God but at this very moment coming from God. When we align our self with the Supreme Self—our individual soul with the Universal Soul—we literally encounter God as our partner and together we pray. We then experience the words flowing from us as a joint venture of Divinity and humanity.
We can imagine how alive and focused we would feel when our higher self and lower self are working together—when we are fully present in our thoughts and words. And better yet, we can imagine how even more invigorated we would be when our lower and higher self are connected with the Supreme Self, and we experience God’s presence in what we think, say and do.
If we are conscious that God is opening our lips, then we will be completely connected to Him and able to speak His praise. When we achieve this inner connection and harmony, we will then sing God’s praises with our whole selves. These praises are for God—they are His praises. But also, mysteriously, these praises are coming from God—they are His praises in this way too—because when we align our selves with Him, we experience ourselves as His mouthpiece.
Summary and Paraphrase
We begin the Amidah by recognizing our total dependence upon God and our partnership with God. Although we pray to God, we also pray with God. Our very ability to speak to Him is coming from Him this very moment.
When we say, “Adonai, open my lips,” we should contemplate how all our facial muscles miraculously work with perfect coordination in order to shape our lips to express every letter and syllable. How wondrous is the ability to speak! Who taught us to do that? Who empowers us to do that? Adonai—the Master Self.
When we feel God’s presence in our every move— how truly it is He who opens our mouth—our mouth will automatically speak His praises. These praises will not only be about Him, but mysteriously we will experience these praises coming from Him. When we align our will with His will, our vision with His vision, we become His mouthpiece and His presence will reverberate in every word from our mouth.
Master, open my lips … I know this prayer is a partnership between us—You open my mouth with Your wisdom and skill and my mouth will then automatically speak Your praise … Let me use the power of speech to exalt You, and as Your mouthpiece, let me channel Your glorious presence.