Psalm 1 describes the person who is happy or blessed: “His delight is in the Torah of the Lord, and in his Torah he meditates day and night.” Rashi comments, “In the beginning it is the Torah of the Lord, and after he has toiled to master it [by meditating day and night], it is called his own Torah.” Meditation is the way in which we make the Word of God our own.
In Jewish Spiritual Practices (Jason Aronson, 1990), Yitzhak Buxbaum distinguishes between “vacuum meditation,” which “works by emptying the mind of its contents,” and “pressure meditation,” which, “conversely, seeks to fill the mind so completely with particular thoughts and feelings that what is meditated on is realized in experience.” Vacuum meditation corresponds to Eastern or mindfulness approaches. Pressure meditation, or “filling” meditation reflects the picture in Scripture, as well as most Jewish and Christian practice.
Mussar, the Jewish practice of ethical development, employs meditation as part of its regimen. In the Mussar classic Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh (Feldheim Publishers, 1995), R. Menachem Mendel Levin tells of two young men “who took it upon themselves to pray with devotion, concentrating their attention on the meaning of the text.” One became a great Torah scholar who explained, “For many years I took it upon myself to focus my mind on a single thought—either Torah or prayer—for a specific period of time. By doing so, I eventually trained myself to be able to concentrate for an hour or even more.”
To understand in more detail how this practice works, note that in Psalm 1 the Hebrew word for “meditate” is hagah, from a root meaning “a low sound or murmuring.” The practice of biblical meditation involves speaking Scripture to oneself and addressing one’s own soul with its words. Joshua was told to not let the Torah depart from his mouth, because he was to audibly repeat its words to himself, producing an obedient and courageous attitude (Josh 1:8). Biblical meditation lifts the Word of God off the page, through our voice and imagination, and into the heart, where it has transforming power. In the Messianic community, we would see this entire process as empowered and directed by the Ruach.
Such a practice is similar to what is known in Christian tradition as Lectio Divina, which theologian and author John Jefferson Davis (in Meditation and Communion with God, Intervarsity Press, 2012) describes in four stages or components:
- Intention and invocation
- Reading and reflection
- Prayer in response to what is read
- Recollection, or follow-up, sometimes termed “contemplation” in traditional Christian sources
These stages are compatible with Jewish practice, as we’ll see, but first there’s a preliminary step, which is to prepare a time and place for meditation. Just as you usually get around to eating breakfast and taking a shower daily, you can build time for meditation into your daily routine. Start with ten minutes and aim for a half hour, but length of time is not as important as consistency and quality (although, of course, quality will suffer if you are rushed or superficial). It’s normally best to take this time in the morning, and in the same location each day, one where you will not be interrupted. And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Yeshua departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed (Mark 1:35).
As meditation becomes part of your daily ritual, it will have a fruitful impact on the rest of your activities. It can also be a powerful resource in Mussar practice, as well as in countering the common issues of depression or anxiety. Let’s consider the four components in more detail.
- Intention and invocation
“Intention” is parallel to the Jewish concept of kavanah, awareness of being in God’s presence as we read Scripture and worship. A phrase that often appears over the ark in a synagogue is helpful here: Da lifnei mi atah omed—Know before whom you stand. It’s also helpful to say the traditional blessing over the Torah before reading.
The Torah blessing can be preceded by the morning blessings, Birchot ha-Shachar, as an exercise in focus and kavanah. One technique is to link the recitation of the blessings with deep breathing, which both calms the soul and supplies additional oxygen to the brain. For example, take a deep breath, and then breathe out saying Baruch atah Adonai. Breathe in with Elohenu Melech ha-Olam. Breathe out with Asher natan la-sechvi binah. Breathe in with L’hav-chin bein yom uvein layla. This rhythm can be adapted to shorter blessings by breathing in after the whole blessing is said, in preparation for breathing out with the next Baruch atah Adonai.
Intention and invocation may also include personal reflection and even confession of wrongdoing. This isn’t a time for extended self-examination, but if you’re aware of anything blocking your focus on God, take responsibility, confess it, and commit to making it right. If the wrong involves another person, commit to making amends with that person right away, and then return to your quiet focus.
- Reading and reflection
It is best to have a daily reading plan, so you don’t use up time trying to figure out what to read. This plan can simply follow the weekly Torah and haftarah readings, and may include Brit Chadasha texts as well. Another traditional practice is to read through the Psalms, which include excellent texts for meditation and reflection. Don’t worry about reading a prescribed amount of Scripture, though. Meditation differs from Bible study in that it involves a slow, often repetitious reading that is focused on listening for the Spirit’s message within your daily text. This does not mean that your meditation is limited to practical or personal issues; there may be times when your attention is drawn to texts describing the character of God or Messiah. The key is sensitivity to the Ruach; listen for the voice of the Lord in your verses and give time to reflecting on what speaks to you in the moment.
Remember, the Hebrew word for “meditation” implies speaking to oneself. We are instructed to have the word not only in our minds and hearts, but on our lips as well. If you are unable to speak the Word out loud, try whispering it to yourself. Or you might find it helpful to write out the verses. As appropriate, feel free to change the wording slightly to make the verse more immediate and accessible; for example, change a reference to God to “You” instead of “Him.”
In Eat this Book (Eerdmans, 2006) Christian author Eugene Peterson notes,
Scripture often employs the metaphor of eating or food to describe the Scriptures. We not only hear and speak God’s Word, but we also consume and digest it. Words spoken or written to us under the metaphor of eating, words to be freely taken in, tasted, chewed, savored, swallowed, and digested, have a very different effect on us from those that come at us from the outside, whether in the form of propaganda or information.
Savoring the text and the richness of its details involves looking at it from different angles and perspectives, weighing various interpretations and applications. As you voice or write out the passages, emphasize different words to gain new insight, changing words if necessary. Another metaphor for this slow and meditative reading is worry. Think about how your mind works when you are worried about money. You go over your monthly income time after time, adding it up and comparing it to your bills. You look at the situation from a dozen different angles, weighing every asset and liability. “Worry” about your Scripture passages in the same way.
- Prayer in response
This deep reading of Scripture will often produce new insights, both into Scripture and into your own life and challenges. Respond to these insights by translating them into prayer, for yourself or for your loved ones. Your prayer response might also be an expression of gratitude to God for what he has revealed to you during this time. Again, you might find it helpful to write down your prayers. This helps both in bringing them into clearer focus, and in keeping track of what you pray about and how the prayers are answered.
You can integrate your meditation within the traditional morning prayer service by doing your reading and reflection after the Torah blessing at the beginning of the morning service. The custom is to recite the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24–26) at this point, followed by brief passages from Mishnah and Gemara. Instead, or in addition, you can read and reflect on your meditation passage here. The rest of the morning prayer regimen provides opportunities for response to what you’ve read. For example, it’s not unusual to employ the Amidah as a framework for informal, personal prayer, and you can include prayers inspired by your daily reading at that point. Regardless of the specific approach, it’s important to allow time for prayer in response to your meditative reading of Scripture.
Psalm 1 says, “His delight is in the Torah of the Lord, and in his Torah he meditates day and night.” The morning time of meditation prepares you for the rest of the day, and you can sustain the impact of your meditation time throughout “day and night.”
After you’ve discovered the key words or verses that are especially speaking to you, keep them with you through the day. Write them out on a 3X5 card or on your phone, and commit them to memory if you can. Review them when you’re waiting in line, caught up in traffic, or during your coffee break at work. The process of memorization itself helps establish the impact of the verses in your heart. Even if you don’t get the verses memorized perfectly, you’ll have them deeply impressed within.
Use your verses to build up your trust and sense of expectancy in God. When depression, doubt, or negativity attack, combat them directly with Scripture. Biblical meditation gives you positive words to speak that will overcome these negative sentences and foster trust in the Living God. For example, if you struggle with anxiety, you might include Psalm 27 in your morning study:
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
After meditating on this verse and its personal impact, you can carry it with you all day. When the voice of anxiety or depression starts speaking in your ears, you can replace it with words like these, which now belong to you.
If you practice Mussar, your meditation can focus on texts that deal with the middah, or virtue, that you are cultivating at the time. For example, these verses from Psalm 27 can help you practice equanimity. When you encounter something that makes you fearful or unsettled, you speak these words, which you’ve already “digested” through your daily meditation, to your own soul and restore your sense of equanimity and calm.
In applying Scripture to counter depression or anxiety, or to foster Mussar practice, it’s essential to realize that Scripture is not a means to an end. In other words, we don’t meditate on Scripture in order to defeat depression or cultivate virtue. Rather, the challenges of life help us to understand and appreciate Scripture more deeply, and to draw us more deeply into the word. The goal of biblical meditation isn’t a change of mood or behavior, although these are side benefits, but an encounter with the living God within his word.