25. In the 121st, David tells God he lifts his eyes to the mountains, and apprehends the source of his strength. Here in 25, it's his very soul. I think the soul is a heavier lift than the eyes and at this stage of life, I would have to agree. I often yearn for the day, for the spiritual eventuality, when a mere upward glance of the eyes reveals Truth. For now, more energy is required, greater effort. Make me know your ways. Teach me your paths. I remember being in 5th grade and learning how to field ground balls during practice one spring. The coach relentless pounded ground balls of every speed and dimension of bounce in my general direction until I could field the ball practically without thinking. My head hurt and I wanted to throw up afterward but the effort was worth it. I won a job starting third base and never looked back. I lifted up my whole soul for the sake of the team. "Life is wasted on the young." On the other hand, the young need to learn the value of an honest day's work. Jews learn. We're not born with grace. Torah is a path. Truth is a path. Love and kindness are paths. And walking those ways our feet get caught in nets, or in the dried and cracked earth. It is precisely at those moments when we feel alone. "I am alone and troubled." It takes work, even to be alone. Some people, when left alone, get into trouble. The first summer I lived alone I was beside myself with misery. I ran from the effort to find paths of Truth and Kindness and got horribly depressed. I drank beer and watched baseball every night and woke up with a headache every day. My back went into spasms. And then I dreamed of ground balls and I fielded them over and over again--all alone in the grass. Me and my coach. In fields of repose. "Forget the sins of my youth!" Lead me beside still waters.
26. I think we've all had days where we are so obsequious as to totally regret it later. Like, did we really mean to be that servile? And how do we think it made others feel? Especially when our fawning ways were disingenuous, ultimately serving our own ends. I mean, he even throws in a few jabs at the crafty bribe takers. Well what about your words, buddy? What are they if not the bribes the good guys make? I have to be honest, that's how I feel about the 26th Psalm. And David is such I gifted writer, I think we ought to give him a pass. Frankly, I just like him better when he suffers, like you and me. As for the Eddie Haskel of Near Eastern literature? No thanks.
27. Here's a Psalm I have a relationship with. In 1998 when I became the director of the Bronfman Center at NYU, I led the Conservative High Holy Days Services at NYU with my new friend Ari Kelman, who was working on his PhD with Hasia Diner (Ari is now a Professor at UC-Davis and a prolific intellectual.) I had never led Conservative services before and Ari was my cantor for the holy days. He grew up with a traditional liturgy so he led and I talked and taught. We made a good team for 7 years--plus two more with Brooklyn Jews. It was Ari who showed me that we had to read Psalm 27 as a regular part of the liturgy during the Days of Awe and that's what launched the practice for me from there on in as part of Elul as well. (Thanks, Ari.)
Hashem is my light and my salvation--whom shall I fear?
Hashem is my life and my fortress--whom shall I dread?
Can a fortress contain light? Can it hold it in?
And what about the parallels of light and life with fortress and salvation. What about this idea--my life is my salvation. Or, my salvation is my life. If you're looking for a radical sense of personal responsibility, this is it.
Only you can save yourself.
After my dad died of a heart attack I felt compassion for him. Then, for a long time, I was very angry at him. Angry because he smoked cigarettes and smoldered with anger and never exercised and generally, destroyed himself. He wove an occasional narrative of victimhood but once he was gone, his fortress of anger couldn't contain the light of truth.
Only you can save yourself.
"In this do I trust."
27 years later I sat near two young men whose parent died just under two years ago. They sat alone at a table, at a party, their surviving parent in a different corner of the room, with a new special friend, having a drink and a laugh. Slowly, with healing, moving on. The sons, both teenagers, drew pictures with markers, joked with one another, held one another in a tight knot of filial friendship that no one could penetrate. Their fraternal fortress. At their parent's funeral, a cousin suggested we sing "Achat Sha'alti" from Psalm 27, a simple and beautiful melody set to the words, "One thing have I asked of the Eternal, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Eternal all the days of my life. To behold the graciousness of the Eternal and to visit early in His Temple."
At the first shiva after the parent died, we sang these lines over and over and each time I hear them I think of a family in mourning but of course, as I've watched them mourn and heal over the last two years, I've seen these words, like light, escape the fortress of mourning and human suffering. I've heard the words, over and over, with new grace, with renewed graciousness; and I've seen the words rise like the sun, lighting a path of gentle morning, for an early visit to a sanctuary of new life.
The human capacity for birth and renewal never ceases to amaze me, which is what continues to confuse and frustrate me when people don't change, given the opportunities they have.
Only you can save yourself.
In this do I trust.