Beginning tonight I will periodically and briefly explore prayers from the siddur (prayerbook). I'm calling this series "Explorations of Jewish Psychedelia" because 1) it's eye-catching and 2) the Greek roots of the word brush up against my understanding of prayer. Psyche means "soul" and delos means "manifest." Liturgy is psychedelic in two ways. First, it is the manifest content of the historical Jewish soul, recorded over time. Second, prayer is an attempt to make the soul manifest, to draw it out of its latency and into reality.
Tonight, some thoughts on the evening prayer known as the ma'ariv aravim. The title comes from the first sentence, usually translated in a way that looks something like this: "Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, whose word brings on [ma'ariv] the night [aravim]."
A sweet little poetic touch here. The phrase ma'ariv aravim captures precisely and concisely the central idea of the clause: that God's word is the cause of night. ma'ariv is the verb form [causative, if you care] of the root a-r-v, night, the noun that follows directly after it.
Ma'ariv, "brings on night" is an unusual word. It is created by taking the root of the noun evening and just making it a causative verb. In fact, most literally, the sentence means "Blessed are You, Adonai....who nights the night." By this verbal play, the sentence reflects on a linguistic level the expressed meaning of the sentence - night is caused by God "nighting." So, the author tries to get us to see through language what is beyond language. The passing of the day and the coming on of darkness is effected by God speech. But the "speech" in this case is actually just the attribution through clever language of a physical reality - the coming of darkness - to an action by God.
This is a more beautiful way of understanding the mysterious idea that God creates through speech. Taken simply, and literally, we imagine a being that actually speaks words which then create physical reality. This is pretty hard to accept. This prayer gets at something deeper: the understanding of physical reality as God's speech.
In the creation story, our translations usually read something like "God said 'Let there be light' and there was light." Because of the way the present and future tenses of the verb 'to be' work in English (be/was), the translation cannot capture the linguistic identity of God's spoken word and the result. In Hebrew, it is y'hi or, v'yhi or. To capture the similarity in both the sound and appearance of the words, ignore the illogical syntax in the following English, which reflects the identity of the two Hebrew phrases: "God said 'Let there be light,' and let there be light."
That English captures how the exact Hebrew command by God is used to express the result. Another way to render it in English that is more true to that feature of the Hebrew, but less true to the grammatical meaning, would be "God said 'Light!' and: light!"
In both the Genesis story and this beautiful prayer, the Hebrew captures the true meaning of divine speech: physical reality is God's articulated message to human beings. There is something causing physical reality, a force 'speaking' it into existence. If we listen, we can hear.