There is a story behind the words that precede our amidah. First, one has to understand that the Amidah, said three times a day by traditional Jews, is a substitute for the sacrifices in the Temple that can no longer be performed. Just as the priests offered sacrifices to G-d morning and afternoon, through the evening, so we offer our standing prayers—our Amidah — three times a day. But these words are not a part of that standing prayer. They were added later by a third century sage named Rabi Yochanan. The Talmud tells us that he would place these words before his prayer – God, open my lips so that my mouth can tell of your praises, and place the words, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, my Rock and my redeemer.” Thus he would bracket, as it were, this central prayer with two verses from psalms – the first, from psalm 51, the second from psalm 19. This innovation was accepted by the rabbis, and for the following seventeen centuries we have followed the practice of Rabbi Yochanan. But there is a story behind this – none other than the story of David and Bathsheba. One evening, King David went to his rooftop and saw this beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing. He asked about her, and was told she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who was away at war with David’s general, Joab. Despite knowing that she was married, David sent for her, had relations with her and she conceived a child. This conception had to be covered up. It would not do for the people to know that David had abused his power in this way. So David sent for Uriah, Batsheba’s husband, who was at the front. He encouraged him to visit with his wife. But Uriah refused. He would not sleep with his wife when his comrades in arms were living in huts and roughing it in the fields, preparing for war. This was the code of honor of the soldier at the time, and Uriah showed himself to be an honorable man. But his honorable behavior presented a problem for King David, who needed Uriah to think that he was the father of the child that Bathsheba was carrying. The next morning, David sent General Joab, a note, carried by none other than Uriah. The note said, “Place Uriah directly in front of the fierce fighting, then withdraw from behind him so that he shall be struck and die.” This is how Uriah the Hittite, husband of Bathsheba, died on the field of battle. After the mourning period, David married Bathsheba. These words – My G-d, open my lips so my mouth may sing your praise – come from a psalm, a prayer, attributed to King David following the episode I just described. In it, David acknowledges the gravity of his sins, but is uncertain how he might atone for them. He knows that he has not only wronged Uriah, but he has sinned against G-d by committing adultery and conspiring to murder. He begs G-d for forgiveness. The psalm continues: Adonai, open my lips that my mouth might tell of your praise For You do not desire sacrifices –although I would certainly offer them if your did – neither do you care about burnt offerings. The real sacrifice to G-d is a broken spirit God will never despise the gift of a broken heart, suffused with melancholy. So here we have this ritual – this three- fold daily repetition of the Amidah – and a verse before it that reminds us that G-d doesn’t really care about our rituals! It is a daily reminder that our ritual of sacrifice, or what replaced it, prayer, is meaningless to G-d without an inner longing to be close to G-d, without a sincere desire to be forgiven by G-d for our wrong-doings and short-comings. These words represent an assurance to us that if we come before G-d with true contrition, there will be forgiveness for us, no matter how severe the sin. That forgiveness does not mean, however, that we will escape the punishment or consequences of our behavior. The child that David and Bathsheba conceived in their illicit union died shortly after childbirth. When we say these words, we are asking G-d to help us to pray. Not to find the words, which are in front of us in the prayer book, but to find the ability to recite the words with sincerity, to help us to find the proper frame of mind to offer these “sacrifices of our lips.” Although we know King David to have been and brave and valiant warrior, perhaps the bravest thing he did was to confront the evil that was within his own heart.
Open My Lips So I May Speak Your Praise
Adonai Sefatai Tiftach ufi yagid tehilatecha