11 March 2019

Searching for two prayer
books and finding a poem
on the search for God

‘Party on Purim’ … a ceramic glazed tile (20x30x1.5 cm) by Joel Itman, featured for Purim and March 2019 in a Jewish Art Calendar published in Italy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Moving between two houses regularly, and having moved books from the shelves of my study at the Church of Ireland Theological College to the Rectory in Askeaton, it was inevitable that some books should go astray somewhere between south Dublin and Co Limerick.

Are they in Dublin?

Did I decide to leave them behind?

Are they still in a box under the stairs?

Did I put them on the wrong bookshelf?

Two books I have been missing – or unable to put my hands on – for almost two years are two Jewish prayer books I have owned for about half a century. The first book, the Hebrew and English Authorised Daily Prayer Book published in London in 1962 by the United Hebrew Congregations, representing Orthodox synagogues in Britain, contains a prayer I wanted to use in a recent workshop when I was comparing the prayer of the Pharisee and the Publican.

The second prayer book, Service of the Heart, was published in London by the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues in 1967, and the edition I have is dated 1969. I was delighted to rediscover it on a bookshelf in the Rectory a few days ago.

This is a rich treasury of spiritual resources, and later I often it often when I was a Reader in Saint Maelruain’s Parish, Tallaght (1994-2000).

One of the poetic prayers I have used on occasions, ‘Lord, where shall I find You?’, is a translation by Rabbi Chaim Stern (1930-2001) from David Frischmann’s Hebrew version of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Gitanjali. It was also included in the Sabbath Prayer Book of the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation.

David Frischmann (1857-1922) was a Jewish writer, poet, essayist and translator. His translations include the works of Tagore, Goethe, Heine, Byron, Oscar Wilde and Anatole France.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a Bengali poet and the first Asian Nobel laureate. Two of his poems have become the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.

Dr Chaim Stern (1930-2001), an American Reform rabbi, is regarded as the foremost liturgist of Reform Judaism. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and studied in Orthodox yeshivot as a child. But the Holocaust caused him to become far more secular than his family.

An outspoken political activist, he travelled to Mississippi to fight for civil rights as a Freedom Rider in 1961. In 1962, he became rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London. Although Stern returned to the US in 1965, he was back in London in 1967-1968 back, lecturing at Leo Baeck College and serving as rabbi of Westminster Synagogue. He was a senior rabbi in Miami, Florida, when he died in 2001.

He co-edited two prayer books for the Liberal Jewish Movement in England:On the Doorposts of Your House and Gates of Joy – and edited the new liturgy of the Reform movement.

Searching for books can be a spiritual joy. And the first resource I turned to when I rediscovered Service of the Heart was this Jewish version of Tagore’s poem about our search for God.

Lord, where shall I find You?

Lord, where shall I find You?
Your glory fills the world.

Behold, I find You
Where the ploughman breaks through the hard soil,
Where the quarryman explodes stone out of the hillside,
Where the miner digs metals out of the reluctant earth,
Where mean earn their bread by the sweat of their brow,
Among the lonely and the poor, the lowly, the lost,
You are with them in blazing heat and shattering storm.

Behold, I find You
In the mind free to sail by its own star,
In words that spring from the depth of truth,
Where endeavour reaches undespairing for perfection,
Wherever men struggle for justice and freedom,
Where the scientist toils to unravel the secrets of Your world,
Where the poet makes beauty out of words,
Wherever noble deeds are done.

Behold, I find You
In the merry shouts of children at their play,
In the mother’s lullaby, as she rocks her baby in the cradle,
In the sleep falling on his infant eyelids,
And in the smile that dances on his sleeping lips.

Behold, I find You
When dawn comes up golden, bearing gifts,
And in the fall of evening, bringing peace and rest from the
Western sea,
In the joy that flows from heaven with morning light,
In the current of life flowing day and night through all things,
throbbing in my sinews and in the dust of the earth,
In blades of grass beyond count, in every leaf and flower.

Behold, I find You
In the wealth of joys that quickly fade,
In the pulse of life that comes from eternity and dances in
my own blood,
In birth, which renews the generations continually,
And in death, knocking at the doors of life.

O my God,
Give me the strength never to cast off one in need,
Never to bend the knee before a haughty tyrant,
Give me strength to lift my spirit above the trivial,
To bear lightly my joys and my sorrows,
And in love to surrender all my strength to Your will.

For great are the gifts You have given me:
The sky and the light. This my flesh.
Life and the soul—
Treasures invaluable, treasures of life and of love.

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