19 August 2009

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Psalm 27

Of David.

The Eternal is my light and my help;
whom shall I fear?
The Eternal is the stronghold of my life,
whom shall I dread?
When evil men assail me to devour my flesh
it is they, my foes and my enemies
who stumble and fall.
Should an army besiege me,
my heart would have no fear,
should war beset me,
still would I be confident.

One thing I ask of the Eternal,
only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the Eternal
all the days of my life
to gaze upon the beauty of the Eternal
to frequent his Temple.
God will shelter me in God's Sukkah
on an evil day
grant me the protection of God's tent,
raise me high upon a rock.
Now is my head high
over my enemies roundabout
I sacrifice in God's tent with shouts of joy,
singing and chanting a hymn to the Eternal.

Hear, O Eternal, when I cry aloud,
have mercy on me, answer me.
In Your behalf my heart says
"Seek my face!"
O Eternal I seek your face.
Do not hide from me;
do not thrust aside your servant in anger;
You have always been my help.
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me,
O God my deliverer.
Though my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord will take me in.
Show me Your way, O Eternal,
and lead me on a level path
because of my watchful foes.
Do not subject me to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses and unjust accusers
have appeared against me.
Had I not the assurance
that I would enjoy the goodness of the Eternal
in the land of the living

Look to the Eternal. (Hope in the Eternal.)
be strong and of good courage!
O look to the Eternal!


I've waited all summer for this Psalm, traditionally read in our daily prayers during the Hebrew month of Elul, the last month on the Hebrew calendar, which officially begins at sundown on Thursday night. Associations with this Psalm exist for people during Slichot services (at CBE we commemorate Slichot on Saturday night September 12); as part of the High Holy Days liturgy; and, as I said, during the entire month of Elul. I will often encourage of making it a spiritual practice to read this psalm every day for a month because the simple discipline of the same poem, read mindfully every day, for thirty days, can have a range of unanticipated effects that is worth trying. It can't hurt, I promise.

Great poetry of any form has texture. It is, to a degree, a kind of verbal terrain that is worth "hiking" if you will and seeing where it leads you and how you come out of the experience as a result of "heading down the path." People in AA have mantras. People in yoga have set moves. People who go to the gym or head to the park for a walk, run or ride all have a set of rituals that they employ in order to *be* in a rhythm that can create moments of sublime connection. Obviously, given my own spiritual proclivities, I believe similarly interesting things can happen with the Jewish tradition and the Hebrew language when actually practiced like a *discipline*.

Give it a try.

I have two very strong associations with this Psalm--one from 8 years ago, after 9-11, with the smoke and death of the destruction very much hanging in the air of lower Manhattan during Rosh Hashanah that year; and recently, at a Shiva Minyan for a new friend, who, too soon after our really getting to know one another, died after her own long fight with cancer.

On the Rosh Hashanah after 9-11, in the Chapel at HUC, I led the NYU service during my work as Hillel director on campus. There were people who showed up in the service on Rosh Hashanah eve who had spent the better part of the prior week on the bucket brigades, searching for survivors, recovering body parts, and obviously deeply scarred by the traumas of their own selfless service to the sanctity of human life. The surrender in this psalm, the pleading calls for tranquility and transcendence, moved me so greatly that night that I promised to always return to this psalm in a whole new way as a result. To never mock perfect faith but honor it, value it as a level of service that in my skeptical imperfections I can only remain, at best, humble with inadequacy. There at NYU we read the psalm, in Hebrew and then in English, standing, as a kind of anthem in the face of death and terror.

"One thing I ask of the Eternal,
only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the Eternal
all the days of my life
to gaze upon the beauty of the Eternal
to frequent his Temple.
God will shelter me in God's Sukkah
on an evil day
grant me the protection of God's tent,
raise me high upon a rock."

We all wanted that. Reading news today of this insane wave of suicide bombings in Baghdad, traumas are re-opened. Faith is laid low. One strives for transcendence, if only for a fleeting moment.

The other time I heard the psalm in a new way was at Shiva. The family was half-American and half-Israeli and quite secular but deeply rooted in Jewishness, Israel, and language. One person at the Shiva announced that the deceased loved singing Psalm 27 at family celebrations and it would be perfect to add to the service and so those in the family who knew it's melody for the words, "One thing I ask of the Eternal, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the Eternal all the days of my life to gaze upon the beauty of the Eternal to frequent his Temple." And then we all caught on to the melody and sang it over and over, not just that night but all nights at the shivas.

What was that sanctuary the family wanted? The presence of their beloved, gone but never to return? The hope for a future, distant reunion? Memory? Here words, language, melody, conspired together and made a perfect shelter, expelling, if momentarily, the bitterness of death.

Perhaps it's not popular to say but fear of death should be on our minds as we approach the High Holy Days. Asking ourselves what are lives amounted to in the last year, how we matched up to our expectations, to those of others, to those of God, ought to weigh heavily upon us in this awe-inspiring and introspective days.

There is so much to do to make our world truly just, truly habitable, truly good. And despite our best efforts, we often fail. The humbling recognition of that is inherent in the message of these days. "How awesome and full of dread."

Great hatreds, like toxic waves, wash over our land. We often don't measure up. But we should. We must. And sometimes, in the refuge of our own need for taking stock, for creating the sanctuary from which our hopes can rise into a reality of blessing and goodness and decency, we are more than our own worst failures and fears.

"Look to the Eternal. (Hope in the Eternal.)
be strong and of good courage!
O look to the Eternal!"

2 comments:

Amanda said...

Thank you for this. I will look towards the Eternal in the coming days and think about what has been this past year and what I hope for the year to come.

susan said...

Its a beautiful Psalm. I would only comment that when looking at the certainty of our death, we should do so not with fear but with compassion - for ourselves and for all around us who must face the same end. If we can become comfortable with the knowledge of our death, maybe that can give us more room to contemplate the real meaning of our lives, and this will lead us to engage in acts of compassion and of lovingkindness.