Havayah S’fatai Tiftach (chant)

Music and audio © Alexander Massey 20 Oct 2014

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Havayah, Sh’chinah, Adonai,
S’fatai tiftach,
Ufi yagid t’hilatecha.

All-That-Is-Was-And-Shall-Be, In-Dwelling Presence, Yah,
Open my lips, 
And my mouth will declare Your Praise.

For many years, I have joined with my community to say the Amidah, beginning it with the verse from Ps 51:17 that begins ‘Adonai …’ But I have often felt constricted by this word. In the text, the letters are actually aleph-dalet-nun-yud. So it really is Adonai, and not yud-heh-vav-heh (YHVH), the unpronounceable name of God, with which we usually substitute the word Adonai. But I feel trapped by the word. Just when I want to expand into a more open feeling of being present to the Presence, I find this word tugging me into troubled associations with a severe figure, masculine, judgemental, not a listening presence at all. It conjures up associations with my father, with whom I had a very poor relationship.

So, just as many Jews have substituted YHVH with saying Adonai, I find myself wanting to do the opposite, and replace the printed Adonai with saying something else. What can I say to step into Being, Existence, Presence, Is-ness and Becoming? I want to use the sounds that more and more contemporary Jews choose to say for YHVH, the fluid, compassionate aspect of God – Havayah – a reference to the verb ‘to be’ and ‘to become’.

But there are many aspects to God, and each time we use a different God-name, we draw into the world and into our awareness, a different aspect of God. The words Adonai s’fatai tifach begin with aleph-shin-tav, spelling eshet, meaning ‘wife’. So I think of the feminine aspect of God, the In-Dwelling Presence, the Sh’chinah.

This whole prayer is about surrendering, opening. S’fatai, my lips, are a threshold through which God can enter the world; with the power of speech, we are partners in Creation, and can play our part in speaking holiness into the world.  Tiftach – as I open, I surrender, indeed in this prayer I hand over to God to open my lips for me. And in doing so – yagid – I will declare, and make manifest – t’hilatecha – God’s praise and substance.

This journey of opening begins with …

Havayah – Becoming present to Is-ness, consciously allowing …

Sh’chinah – the Presence, to dwell within me, so that now …

Adonai – the concrete experience of the physical power of God in the world feels warmer and more supportive than before – something truly to be celebrated.

I received a teach from Rabbi Anne Brener who told me that Rabbi Goldie Milgram has taught that there is a connection between the word Adonai and eh-den, meaning a ‘threshold’. I was delighted to discover that I can now also cross a threshold into the presence of God as I say or sing the word Adonai.

Suggestions for singing:

  1. Hum the first 8 bars to begin with, so the lips do not yet open. These first 8 bars can be repeated.
  2. When ready, move on to chant bars 9-16.
  3. These two 8-bar sections fit with each other, and can then be sung simultaneously.
  4. When ready, move from this yearning first half in the minor, into the second half of the text. The C major chord is the door to open up from from Am to A major, representing the shift at the boundary of the two sections, the ‘lips’.
  5. Bars 17-20, and 21-24 can be laid over each other in a second round.