“Hashem, sifasai tiftach, u’fi yagid tehilasecha – Hashem, open my lips that my mouth may declare Your praises” (Tehillim 51:17). Did you ever wonder why we preface Shemoneh Esrei with this verse? Perhaps the following (supposedly) true story will shed light on the subject.
Vladimir pinched himself to make sure he was not dreaming. Was this really an invitation from the Czar? Well, it certainly looked real. The invitation was written on fine parchment, adorned with a red ribbon, and was sealed with the Czar’s personal emblem. He read the words for the hundredth time: “In recognition of your outstanding work as the architect of the brand new government buildings in Moscow, you are cordially invited to the palace of the Czar on April 7th at 11:30 am so that the Czar can personally thank you for your efforts on behalf of our country.” All the years of studying in university and apprenticeship had been worth it! He was not Vladimir the village boy any more. He was Vladimir, the famous architect from Moscow who would be meeting the Czar!
The months leading to the meeting flew by as Vladimir prepared himself for the greatest moment of his life. He thought about what favor he would ask for, and was taught by experts on palace affairs how to act and what to say.
Finally, the great day arrived! Vladimir was ushered into a beautiful waiting room decorated with priceless paintings and stunning chandeliers. As he sank into a plush chair, his heart began to pound and a tremor ran through his body. Suddenly, the massive gold doors swung open and two guards escorted Vladimir, who by now could barely walk, into the throne room. Sitting upon a huge ivory chair was none other than the Czar himself, who greeted him warmly and thanked him for his hard work.
“Would you like to request anything, Vladimir?” asked the Czar. Vladimir was now whiter than the magnificent marble floor and was shaking like a leaf. The attendant next to him whispered in his ear: “Say something – this is your moment!” Vladimir took a deep breath, opened his mouth and… nothing came out. As much as he tried, he was speechless. Open, close, open, close – his jaw went up and down like a seesaw, but he couldn’t say a word! After waiting a few moments, the Czar had his attendant pin a medal on Vladimir’s chest and sent him to the royal treasure house for a generous gift.
As soon as he was out of the palace, Vladimir wiped his brow and breathed a sigh of relief. He turned to his family who were waiting anxiously to hear about the visit, but he still could not speak. When his speech did not return even after several days, he went to the best doctors, but no one could help him. He simply had lost his speech out of fear of the Czar.
A certain rav related that his father once had to meet the king of a certain country. Before he entered the room where the meeting was to take place, the attendant told him that it is extremely normal for a person meeting the king for the first time to temporarily lose the ability to speak. “Not to worry,” he said. “It usually returns after a minute.”
Unfortunately, Vladimir was not so lucky.
A human monarch is here today and gone tomorrow – but when we say Shmoneh Esrei, we are standing in front of the Master of the Universe, the King of all Kings. He can end our life at any moment or bestow upon us unfathomable wealth, health, and true happiness. Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 93:2) writes: “One should stand up to pray with fear and humility.” A person who truly feels that he is standing in front of Hashem should not be able to get a syllable out of his mouth.
Fear Of Heaven
This is why Chazal established the aforementioned verse as the introduction to Shemoneh Esrei. We say: “I am so terrified that I can’t even begin Shemoneh Esrei, so please help me, Hashem!” And even if we do not really feel this way, the Reishis Chochma (Totzaos Chaim 178) writes that just reciting this verse should instill fear, because it tells us what should be happening. If we say these words with feeling – not just reciting them without thought – it will help us process the idea that we are actually standing in front of Hashem.
Of course, just saying this verse is not enough – we must start preparing ourselves from the beginning of davening. When we say birchos hashachar, the morning blessings, we instill within ourselves the reality that Hashem is involved in every function of our lives: seeing, standing upright, walking, and more. During p’sukei d’zimrah, the verses of praise, we learn that Hashem runs the entire universe and is involved in every detail. With birchos krias shema, we shoot right past the planets and stars into the world of the angels and see how these tremendously holy creatures shout the praises of Hashem in awe! Then we say Shema Yisroel and accept upon ourselves Hashem’s absolute sovereignty. Finally, we describe the redemption from Egypt with its tremendous miracles.
If a person does all this with meaning and fervor, he will come to the realization that the next step, actually having a personal meeting with Hashem, is absolutely terrifying. When he asks Hashem to open his lips, it will be very, very, real! The Reishis Chochma adds that this is why we specifically use the name of Hashem, “Adnus” – because it means we are aware that not only is He the master of all the worlds, He is my Master and is involved in my personal life!
Reaching this level of awareness certainly requires a lot of work, but “lo alecha hamelacha ligmor” – Hashem doesn’t expect us to complete the job – He only expects us to give it our hardest try!
One of the six constant mitzvos is fearing Hashem. This does not mean that we must always be shivering in our boots. Rather, it means we must live with the awareness that Hashem is always watching us, and we must act accordingly. In other words, we all know what is right and wrong, yet many times we have trouble actually doing the right thing because we forget that Hashem is with us. The more we instill within ourselves this reality, the more we will overcome our lusts and desires. If we can make Hashem’s presence even slightly more real to ourselves, it will be a great accomplishment!
One of the most important ways to achieve this great level is to ask Hashem for help. Throughout davening we ask for heavenly assistance in fearing Him. Do not let those opportunities slip through our fingers!
The pasuk states (Tehillim 103:17), “The kindness of Hashem is forever and ever upon those who fear Him.” The more we fear Hashem, the more He views us as one of “His people” who deserve special treatment and extra kindness. So let us try to say this opening verse with the feeling that we truly need Hashem’s help to open our lips, and hopefully we will see a world of difference in the way we daven and live!