“From the Depths” by Rabbi Danielle Upbin
Min Ha’meitzar karati Yah
Anani ba’merchav Yah
“From a narrow place I called out to YAH
God answered me within the expanse.” – Psalm 118: 5
Traditionally, Psalm 118 is chanted as part of Hallel, a series of Psalms recited on Jewish celebratory holy days, such as Rosh Hodesh (the new moon) and the Festivals. Min Ha’meitzar is usually a call for celebration. It is chanted from a place of freedom, from the headspace of having passed through the tough times. It suggests that we were enslaved, and now we are free.
It is not uncommon, however, for this verse to also find its way into personal prayer, when we are still in crisis – the moments that cry out for answers, to find our way out to the other side. This verse is a vision of how we long to feel and how we long to be seen.
I love the symmetry and rhyme scheme. Its literary nature hints to a Master Plan just beyond plain sight. In translation, ha’meitzar is “the constricted space”, a narrow “blind spot”, our own personal Mitzrayim, which is the Hebrew word for Egypt. Mitzrayim is enslavement, darkness, and hopelessness. When you are down and out, you aren’t just in the meitzar, you become it. Notice what happens in your body when you are stressed: tightness in the chest, tense shoulders, altered breath, temperature change, the toxic loop of negative thoughts. The meitzar becomes an all-encompassing grip on our sanity.
No one wants to be in the meitzar. God doesn’t want us in the meitzar either. So, as the Psalmist suggests, God has already heard our cries. The verse points us to an answer that is always-already within us. The antidote to our constriction, the verse suggests, is the creation of more space.
God is known by many names – some are transcendent, some more imminent – Rock, Redeemer, Protector, Judge, Parent, or the Ineffable One – to suggest a few.
This prayer, however, calls for a singular name – the power of Yah. You can’t get any more personal than Yah. Yah is different than the Tetragramaton or Eloheem. Yah is not Protector nor Redeemer. Yah is neither Judge, Father, nor Rock. Yah goes right to the Source – our deep Soul-Connection.
Say it… well, first take a deep breath and then exhale…. Yaaaah…. That’s how you really say it. Yah is the Breath of Life. It is an answer to our prayers. Maybe not “the” answer, but it is the key to navigating our present crisis. Yah directs us to get quiet. Conscious, mindful breath creates the opening for us to step into our soul-expanse. When we begin to focus on the breath, to slow it down, to welcome the discomfort instead of pushing it away, the grip on our body loosens and our thoughts become clearer.
From a place of calm, we are invited to take a step into a Wide Open Space – the merchav Yah. We are invited to pause and take it in. From the merchav, we can better choose from the full range of possibilities that lay ahead. We can see for miles; we can make a conscious choice about how to respond. The Open Space doesn’t profess to solve our problems, and it doesn’t erase the root-cause of our trouble. But it does provide us with the foundation to master our next step. It creates a “safe-haven moment” in which to reflect and prepare our way forward.
In times of crisis, the Psalmist reminds us that we can and should cry out to God. There is a place for wailing and gathering with others, but we must also allow ourselves to get quiet to hear an answer.
May we see the day when we can all breathe a little more easily, when we all feel a little more space, more openings, and more answered prayers. And may that Wide Open Space become the anteroom for a more peaceful tomorrow.