Rosh Hodesh Nissan, Miriam, and tzaraat

lia rosen

Jews celebrate the New Year in the fall, still, Nissan is considered the first month of the year because it is the first month in which we were a free people. In midrash and legend, the first Rosh Hodesh was marked by Moses as the preparations for the Exodus began in earnest. If you didn’t begin spring cleaning on the day after Purim (some people really do this!), this week is a good time to begin to rid the house of hametz/bread and any of the things you wish to discard.

Nissan is also the month, according to legend, in which Moses’ sister Miriam, died. Chabad.org records this piece of “Jewish History” as “Miriam’s Passing (1274 BCE) Miriam, the sister of Moses, passed away at the age of 126 on the 10th of Nissan of the year 2487 from creation (1274 BCE) — 39 years after the Exodus and exactly one year before the Children of Israel entered the Holy Land.” I love the exactness of this (although the date of Nissan 10 is disputed).

This week’s parsha, Tazria, describes how to diagnose and treat a skin disease, tzaraat, which later afflicts Miriam. This connection between Rosh Hodesh Nissan, Miriam, and tzaraat is rich material for poetry and drash. Here are a few; we’ll share more on Saturday morning, hope you can make it.

Snow/Scorpions & Spiders

by Girls in Trouble

Well my mother named me bitter
Although as a child I was so kind
Hiding myself in the trees to watch over my brother
But still my name was bitter
Bitter the taste of the sea
Bitter the cries of the horses drowning behind us
If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don’t have a choice
So when he said You’re banished,
Seven days in the desert alone
I just started walking
I knew there was nothing to say
The scorpions and the spiders
Crawled up to me and stopped in my shade
Together in silence they watched
As the sun crossed the sky
And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your G-d should turn from you
wouldn’t you turn too.
Still I don’t regret a minute
And I don’t regret an hour
of the week that I lived all alone
at the top of the mountain
Though no voice came down from heaven
and I never saw words written in fire
I did see the birds of prey pick all the carcasses clean
If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don’t have a choice
And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your G-d should turn from you
wouldn’t you turn too.
[Suggested by Rabbi Alana]
Poem in Praise of Menstruation

by Lucille Clifton

if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon          if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta          if there
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain          if there is
a river
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel          if there is in
the universe such a river          if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
water
pray that it flows also
through animals
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave
[suggested by Margo Schlanger]

Sent Out of the Camp

A d’var Torah for Parashat Tazria by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

This week’s parashah deals with a somewhat puzzling disease, called tzara’at, often translated as “leprosy.” As the Torah describes it, it’s an affliction that could appear on human skin, on clothes, or even infect houses.

It’s not clear if the affliction is truly physical, as Leviticus seems to indicate, or if it’s a physical manifestation of spiritual distress, as a number of commentators suggest. However, either way, the solution to the problem is isolation. The afflicted party is shut up for a week or more, forced to live outside the camp, away from the rest of his or her community.

On the one hand, this quarantine is traditionally understood not as a punishment, but rather a time to recover and protect others from infection. One could also imagine it as something of a retreat—a time for someone who is physically or spiritually unwell to recuperate and regain strength.

On the other, well, I can’t help but think about what it must have been like to be told that you must be cast away from loving, human connection as a result of contracting an ailment or stumbling interpersonally. What kind of impact did being sent away from the camp have on the afflicted?

Between 80,000-100,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the United States on any given day, many for rather minor infractions. Despite the fact that more than 15 hours in solitary confinement may begin to have an adverse impact on a prisoner’s mental health, the average sentence in solitary can run, depending on the state, anywhere from 23 months to 7.5 years, and longer for those on death row. Many argue that, in light of the significant mental harm that it causes, solitary confinement should be classified as a form of torture.

Joe Giarratano, a prisoner at Virginia’s Wallens Ridge State Prison, reflects:

Human beings are social creatures. We need psychological, intellectual, spiritual, environmental stimulation to function properly, to grow and develop. Without that stimulation we deteriorate. I do not care how strong one is mentally; solitary confinement will adversely affect you. I have literally watched grown men deteriorate before my eyes, and go mad. There were times during my… stint that I lost it and began to hallucinate and lose my grip on reality. What the public needs to realize is that eventually all of those who experience that will be released back into society, far more broken than when they went in.

Many traditional commentators attempt to cast the metzora, the one with this strange Biblical leprosy, as responsible for their own suffering—for example, citing a tendency towards malicious gossip as the reason the person needed to be exiled. But there’s another textual tradition that regards them with a softer eye.

For, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) tells us, no less than the Messiah will be found sitting among the lepers, and will be known as “the leper scholar.” That is to say, the one who will bring healing and redemption to the world aligns her- or himself with those who have been forced into isolation. And the Sifra, the ancient midrash on Leviticus, tells us that, even in the lepers’ isolation, “the Divine Presence still abides among them.”

It’s on God to be with those who suffer. It’s on us to prevent unnecessary suffering, insofar as we are able. When we push for just and humane reforms to our contemporary prison system, we engage in the work of the Messiah.

Refugee Thanksgiving

Like so many others, I have been devastated by the images and stories of Syrian refugees that are everywhere in the news.  And equally devastated by the ugly absence of compassion from too many politicians.  It will be to our country’s great shame if we do not do better in the weeks and months ahead.  Thanksgiving is the refugee holiday; the ritual celebration of safe arrival.  So I wanted to pass along to our community three readings from Jewish Reconstructionist Communities (the Recon national umbrella group) for our Thanksgiving tables — to remember our highest aspirations and inspire our capacious empathy.

I give thanks for our wonderful community.

Intro:

We pause before our set table. We are deeply grateful. Life holds no guarantees. And still: we are not huddled into a refugee camp in southeast Turkey nor jammed ten to a room in a crowded apartment in Berlin. We are not suffering the northern Mexico heat while waiting to cross, not sleeping in a field in Serbia, not waking up at a way station in Sweden. We are not on a boat, praying we’ll reach a distant shore alive. In our many ways, we have made it to the other side. We pause and take a breath. Some face extraordinary violence, and we don’t. Some go hungry, and the table before us holds an overflowing, to-some-eyes almost unimaginable bounty.

The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands,your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.” Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

A Thanksgiving Prayer, by Rabbi Naomi Levy

For the laughter of the children,
For my own life breath,
For the abundance of food on this table,
For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,
For the roof over our heads,
The clothes on our backs,
For our health,
And our wealth of blessings,
For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,
For the freedom to pray these words
Without fear,
In any language,
In any faith,
In this great country,
Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.
Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen

 

More information here.

Annual Meeting 2015 Opening Prayer

Offered by Barbara Boyk Rust

AARCAnnualMeetingNov-22-2015Dear God,

Thank you for this morning, for this time and this place to meet and share our thoughts and wishes for the well being of our sacred community.

May we receive the wisdom that we need to move ahead with ease and strength.

May we listen to each other with open hearts.

May we speak with caring and respect.

May we act in balance and alignment with our needs and our resources, with our creativity, our energy, our time, and our finances.

May we be guided to create and act in accordance with the depth of our commitment to ethical values honoring all life, in support of healing and blessing for ourselves, humanity and the earth.

Thank you so much for a community that cares, respects and opens, sharing common aims for honoring self, family, community and the world.

Amayn

Poetry by Janet Eigner

chamisaDuring a break in High Holiday services, AARC member Sally Fink brought me a copy of a stunning poem by her friend, the Sante Fe, Jewish poet, Janet Eigner. How grateful I am to be introduced to her! The poem, Sanctuary, has yet to be published so we can’t put it up on this blog yet. Below is another of her exquisite poems. And here is a wonderful review of Eigner’s second poetry collection, What Lasts is the Breath, “Reflecting on her contact with the Hopi and how it deepened her understanding of Judaism, Eigner said, ‘I do understand that ruach, (breath or spirit or wind) all can refer in Jewish belief, to God, and that the concept began simply and gained God meaning over the centuries of Jewish evolution.’”

Isaac’s Blessing
by Janet Eigner

When Isaac, a small, freckled boy
approaching seven, visits us for Family Camp,
playing pirate with his rubber sword,

sometimes he slumps in grief,
trudging along, his sacrifice and small violin
in hand, his palm over his chest,

saying, Mother is here
in my heart. Before he leaves for home,
we ask if he’d like a Jewish blessing.

Our grandson’s handsome face ignites;
he chirps a rousing, yes, for a long life.
We unfold the prayer shawl,

its Hebrew letters silvering the spring light,
hold the white tallis above his head,
recite the blessing in its ancient language

and then the English, adding, for a long life.
Isaac complains, the tallis didn’t
touch his head, so he didn’t feel the blessing.

We lower its silken ceiling
to graze his dark hair,
repeat the prayer.

Yom Kippur Readings (2015)

These were some of the readings at our 2015 Yom Kippur services.

Who by Fire

by Leonard Cohen

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?

The Kol Nidre Mirror to Our Soul

by Sandy E. Sasso, in All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed., Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011) [edited and adapted]

Life is filled with more than the scrapes and bruises of childhood that require nothing more than a kiss and a hug to make them better.  Life’s real issues are far more complicated and sometimes intractable.  Technology assures us a solution for every problem; medicine promises a pill for every pain.  But religion recognizes that we are mortal; we can’t fix everything.  Kol Nidre reminds us to forgive ourselves for it.

I recently learned that you can trap bees on the bottom of a Mason jar without a lid.  The bees fly in for the honey at the bottom of the jar and then they think they are stuck, because they never look up to see that the jar is open.  Life weighs us down.  Like the bees on the bottom of the Mason jar, we think that there is no way out of our situation, that we are trapped.  Kol Nidre – the High Holy Days – tells us to look up.

Technology is not so forgiving.  One of the problems of the Internet is that it does not forget; it keeps all our data – forever.  We cannot delete foolish e-mails or unflattering photos.  Our digital past remains indelibly with us.  How different is the Book of Life where tradition pictures God recording our good and bad deeds.  That record is erasable through t’shuvah.  If we regret something written in our own life’s book, atonement is our delete button.  The Rabbis teach that if individuals have repented, we are not allowed to remind them of their past errors.  Our past does not shackle us to the bottom of a Mason jar; we can look up.  We can begin again.

New Year’s Poem

by Rachel Barenblatt, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2006/9new_years-poem.html

I’m cleaning the cupboard
beside the stove, low to the floor,
where pots and pans hide
haphazardly.

Our kitchen is well-used,
baker’s rack gleaming
with neat jars of peaches,
string beans, preserves

but one swipe of paper towel
across this hidden surface
and I flinch at the grime
I never noticed before.

This is teshuvah: opening
every closed-up space. I’m
a window smeared with dust,
a cabinet in need of scouring.

It’s simple work, but
part of me resists, preferring
distraction to clarity.
When I make the leap

I suddenly can’t believe
I ever ignored the dirt.
Hot water blesses my hands
into action. God, help me

put my house in order,
begin the year in readiness
for the wonders I know
are coming, are always here.

God Was In This Place & I, i Did Not Know

by Lawrence Kushner

We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done – not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover some good within it. We begin not by rejecting the evil, but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do. This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

We lose our temper because we want things to be better right away. We gaze with lustful eyes because we have forgotten how to love the ones we want to love. We hoard material possessions because we imagine they will help us live more fully. We turn a deaf ear, for we fear the pain of listening would kill us. We waste time, because we are not sure how to enter a relationship. At the bottom of such behavior is something that was once good. On this sacred day, a day of communion and of light, our personal and collective perversions creep out of the cellar, begging to be healed, freed, and redeemed.

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye taught: The essence of the finest t’shuva [turning] is that “deliberate sins are transformed into merits,” for one turns evil into good, as I heard from my teacher [the Baal Shem Tov], who interpreted the Psalm verse “Turn aside from evil and do good” to mean: ‘Turn the evil into good.’

The conclusion of true t’shuva, of true turning, is not self-rejection or remorse, but the healing that comes from telling ourselves the truth about our real intentions and, finally, self-acceptance. This does not mean that we are now proud of who we were or what we did, but it does mean that we have taken what we did back into ourselves, and acknowledged it as part of ourselves. We have found its original motive, realized how it became disfigured, perhaps beyond recognition, made real apologies, done our best to repair the injury, but we no longer try to reject who we have been and therefore who we are, for even that is an expression of what is holy.

We do not simply repudiate the evil we have done and sincerely mean never to do again; that is easy (we do it all the time). We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again, and thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.

On Jewish Identity

by Theodore Bikel (published in Moment Magazine, May/June 2010)

I consider myself to be a Jew in the vertical and horizontal sense. Horizontal, because I feel myself to be kin, relative and family of every Jew who lives today, wherever he or she may be. Vertical, because I am son, grandson and descendant of all the Jews who came before me; I am also father, grandfather and ancestor of all those who w\ill come after me. Am I special because I am a Jew?… I am not better than my neighbors, not nobler; I just carry a knapsack that is heavier with memory, with pain. As a Jew, I peddle the lessons of history. As for survival in the face of mortal threats, we who have repeatedly stared into the jaws of death are better able to deal with the threats than those who face them for the first time. But when we tell the world about survival, we are talking about creative survival, not mere physical survival. Everybody who is threatened with extinction fights for physical survival. Yet to survive as a moral people is as important, maybe more important. Far too often people forget this.

There is a Time

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing;
A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,
A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces;
A time for seeking and a time for losing;
A time for keeping and a time for discarding;
A time for ripping and a time for sewing,
A time for silence and a time for speaking;
A time for loving and a time for hating;
A time for war and a time for peace.

A Man Doesn’t Have Time

by Yehuda Amichai

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

I needed to talk to my sister

by Grace Paley, in Fidelity (2008)

I needed to talk to my sister
talk to her on the telephone I mean
just as I used to every morning
in the evening too whenever the
grandchildren said a sentence that
clasped both our hearts

I called her phone rang four times
you can imagine my breath stopped then
there was a terrible telephonic noise
a voice said this number is no
longer in use how wonderful I
thought I can
call again they have not yet assigned
her number to another person despite
two years of absence due to death

The Essene Book of Days

by Danaan Perry (Earthstewards Network, 2003) [edited]

Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings.  I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment.  It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life.  I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers.  But once in awhile, as I’m merrily (or not-so-merrily) swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see?  I see another trapeze bar swinging towards me.  It’s empty, and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it.  It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me.  In my heart-of-hearts I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present well-known bar to move to the new one.

Each time it happens to me, I hope that I won’t have to grab the new one.  But in my knowing place I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar.  Each time I am filled with terror.  It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it.  Each time I am afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars.  But I do it anyway.  Perhaps this is the essence of what mystics call the faith experience.  No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow, to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives.  And so for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.”  It’s called transition.  I have come to believe that is the only place that real change occurs.  I mean real change, not pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.

In our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a “no-thing”, a no-place between places.  Sure, the old trapeze bar was real, and that new one coming towards me, I hope that’s real too.  But the void in between?  That’s just a scary, confusing, disorienting “nowhere” that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible.  What a waste!  I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and that the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void, where the real change, the real growth occurs for us.  Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are extraordinarily rich places.  They should be honored, even savored.  Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out-of-control that may accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, the most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.

And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang-out” in the transition between trapeze bars.  Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens.  It can be terrifying.  It can also be enlightening.  Hurtling through the void, we just may learn to fly.

Self Forgiveness First

by Donna Schaper

The first thing people do when restoring old chairs is strip — strip right down to the bare wood. They do this to see what the original might have looked like and to determine if the thing is worth doing over. They strip away all the years of grime, the garish coats of paint piled one on top of the other. They get rid of all the junk that’s been tacked on through the years and try to find the solid, simple thing that’s underneath.

I’m like an old chair needing that stripping process. Every now and then I have to take a really hard look at the illusions I’ve built up in myself and see what I’ve gotten myself into. Illusions? Yes, illusions; the excess baggage I carry around, the unnecessary; all that keeps me living off center too long. Stripping myself of all this is an intentional letting go of these illusions. It is a spiritual act of personal forgiveness. God lets us let go.

It’s hard work to let God forgive me. I have to discover the original under all these coats I’ve added, strip away all the cynicism and anger I’ve built up, get rid of the junk I’ve taken on, defy my disappointments, and find what is real again.

Compassion

by Kristin Neff

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment? Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect? You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness.  Things will not always go the way you want them to.  You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals.  This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.

 

Rosh Hashanah Readings (2015)

Yom Kippur Sonnet, with a Line from Lamentations

by Jacqueline Osherow, in Dead Men’s Praise (1999)

Can a person atone for pure bewilderment?
For hyperbole? for being wrong
In a thousand categorical opinions?
For never opening her mouth, except too soon?
For ignoring, all week long, the waning moon
Retreating from its haunt above the local canyons,
Signaling her season to repent,
Then deflecting her repentance with a song?
Because the rest is just too difficult to face –
What we are – I mean – in all its meagerness –
The way we stint on any modicum of kindness –
What we allow ourselves – what we don’t learn –
How each lapsed, unchanging year resigns us –
Return us, Lord, to you, and we’ll return.

The Journey

by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork

One day you finally know
what you have to do, and begin,
though the voices around you
keep shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
begins to tremble
and you feel the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cries.
But you don’t stop.
You know what you have to do,
though the wind pries
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
is terrible.
It is already late
late enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you leave their voices behind,
the stars begin to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there is a new voice,
which you slowly
recognize as your own,
that keeps you company
as you stride deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you can do,
determined to save
the only life you can save –
Yours.

Cold Feet

From Siddur Sha’ar Zahav

They say cold feet are a sign of turning back,
The failure of internal will –
But I say it can be the other way,
The body’s anticipation of things to come.
Whether demons are nipping at your heels
Or gnawing within, here’s the thing:
Settle quietly, close your eyes,
Then take the most deliberate, deep breath,
As though it were the very first (God’s breath) –
And when you can feel it penetrate every bit of your being,
Making the rest of your life possible,
You open your eyes
And take that first step out into the sea of reeds.
Watered feet are just the price of coming home.

Cruel Waters

by John Miodownik

Why, I asked? Why have all these seemingly friendly, well-mannered and trusted brooks and rivers, which we have grown up with, turned on us so unexpectedly, so violently, so destructively? What angered them? What provoked their rage to do us such harm? Why have these placid waters swelled to such a powerful surf rolling over our beloved Vermont villages swallowing homes, roads, bridges, trees, memories and dreams?

My son’s basement flooded full to the first floor threatening the very foundation of his home. All was sad, all was bleak, as the indifferent muddy waters invaded his life. But, at once, the small community rejected such harsh indignity. Regiments of neighbors hurried from near and far, armed with pumps, buckets, shovels, mops and endless energy to help stem the tide the best they could.

Left floating in the aftermath were personal belongings – clothing, bedding, old photographs, children’s treasured artwork, important files and valued documents. All were lovingly cleaned by strangers, and hung up on lines to dry. There, fluttering in the morning breeze, was one particular salvaged document. It was not signaling surrender but rather hope over chaos, cruelty and ruthlessness. By chance, it was my father’s official release paper from concentration camp Buchenwald.

Atonement Songs

by Judith Rafaela, in Another Desert: Jewish Poetry of New Mexico (2001) [edited and adapted]

The wild sounds of the shofar
pierce my skin and open my heart.
And I’m crazed for tunes in a minor key
that vibrate my tailbone and belly
and echo out across a shul packed
with doubters and believers
who come together
one day of the year to hear
archaic formulas and prayers.
Just for this moment
open us to rich tones –
Simple melodies that convey truths or fictions
about our fate.

What Can I Say

by Mary Oliver, in Swan (2010)

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

From Where Redemption Will Come

by Annie Dillard

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in God’s holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead — as if innocence had ever
been — and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been.

4th Translation of Psalm 27 for Elul

mishkan-rabbiyael-n23With one week left before Rosh Hashanah, the preparatory month of Elul is waning. The 4th translation published in this blog of Psalm 27, is by Rabbi Yael Levy, director of  “A Way In: Jewish Mindfulness Program” at Reconstructionist congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia. Here is a beautiful, downloadable version of the Psalm with Hebrew and Rabbi Levy’s translation. For the other translations in this series browse through our Latest News.

Psalm 27 – Meditation for Elul

To the Beloved,
The Infinite Presence is my light and expanse, who should I fear?
The Infinite Presence is the strength of my life, what shall I dread?
When forces come close
Seeming to devour me,
When narrowness threatens,
And opposition attacks,
All that is menacing stumbles and falls.
Even as an army of mistrust besieges me
My heart does not fear.
Even as thoughts and desires rise up against me
I still have trust.
One thing I ask of the Infinite,
One thing I seek,
To dwell in the Presence all the days of my life.
To awaken to the beauty of each moment
as I pass through this world.
The Infinite shelters me as I encounter difficulty and pain.
The Infinite holds me close in deep and hidden places.
And lifts me high upon a rock.
Now I can see through to what is true.
And I will offer my gifts of thanks
And I will sing and make music to the Eternal.
Please, Infinite One, Listen to my voice, hear my call.
Be gracious with me.
Answer me.
You call to my heart, “Seek my presence”
Your presence I seek.
Please don’t hide from me.
Please don’t let me turn away in anger.
I long to serve.
You are my help.
Do not let me feel abandoned. Do not let me turn away.
In You I am safe.
For my Mother and father have left me
And it is you who gathers me in.
Teach me Your ways. Guide me on the path of integrity.
There is so much to lead me astray.
Don’t let me give in to all that torments me,
the lies, the illusions, the menacing threats.
I must have faith that I can see through all of this
I can see the good, the blessings, the ways of life.
Cultivate hope in the Infinite Presence.
Let your heart be strong and filled with courage.
Cultivate hope.

Translation by Rabbi Yael Levy
Elul 5773 /2013

Another Translation of Psalm 27

full moonWe are midway through Elul (check out the full moon at our BBQ tomorrow August 30). Below is a third translation of Psalm 27, traditionally recited each morning of Elul in preparation for the Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe. You can find the first two translations I posted here and here. (Next week I’ll post a fourth.) In her inaugural leading of Kabbalat Shabbat services last night as our visiting rabbi, Rabbi Alana mentioned the psalms/tehillim that are part of the Friday night service, which started me off thinking about how much of our liturgy is drawn from the Psalms. According to this source,  “seventy-four of the hundred and fifty Psalms are incorporated bodily in the Siddur.” The Reconstructionist siddur uses many interpretive translations of the Psalms. The interpretation (can it be called a translation?) of Psalm 27 below, by Rabbi Patti Haskel, is the most colloquial I’ve found. I love it that she can translate the ponderous beseeching of the psalm into these light, easily relatable words. You can find this poem on Ritualwell.org (a wonderful resource for many things) here.

Psalm 27/Poem by Rabbi Patti Haskel

Good morning, God, happy Elul.
This day, one thing do I ask of you, God,
One thing do I seek:
To dwell in your house
All the days of my life.

… and while I dwell with you
Perhaps a few more things I might request:
Good health is at the top of my list—
For me, my family, my loved ones,
While we’re at it how about everyone, everywhere.

And perhaps food:
A healthy nosh for all who are hungry.
Quench all hunger and thirst with your love.
We do hunger for more than food and drink, so
Please quench other needs as well.

Okay, how ‘bout safety.
Safety from earthquakes, hurricanes,
Safety from one another.
Safety from all that frightens us
Safety to rest in your care.

And laughter.
Please give us much fun, silliness
to giggle at, many many smiles.
Smiles as we watch children investigate their worlds,
Smiles as we explore the lives of our elders.

God, let me behold your graciousness
Today… each day of Elul… each day
Of this year, and next, and then the next,
While I visit your temple
And immerse in your love.

2nd Translation of Psalm 27 for Elul

Elul, a month of spiritual preparation for the Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe. Here is another interpretive translation of Psalm 27, which is traditional to recite daily during Elul. I found this translation, by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, on Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s blog, the Velveteen Rabbi. You can access the original blog post here.

Psalm 27, as translated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Yah! You are my light.
You are my savior.
Whom need I dread?
Yah, with you as my strong protector who can make me panic?
When hateful bullies gang up on me, wanting to harass me, to oppress and terrorize me
They are the ones who stumble and fall.
Even if a gang surrounds me my heart is not weakened.
If a battle is joined around me my trust in You is firm.
Only one thing do I ask of You, Yah:
Just this alone do I seek, I want to be at home with you, Yah,
All the days of my life.
I want to delight in seeing You.
Seeing You when I come to visit You in Your temple.

You hide me in your sukkah on a foul day.
You conceal me unseen in Your tent.
You also raise me beyond anyone’s reach
And now, as You have held my head high despite the presence of my powerful foes
I prepare to celebrate and thrill, singing and making music to You, Yah!
Listen, Yah, to the sound of my cry
And, being kind, answer me!
My heart has said, I turn to seek you.
Your presence is what I beg for
Don’t hide Your face from me.
Don’t just put me down, You who have been my helper.
Don’t abandon me, don’t forsake me, God my support.
Though my father and my mother have left me
You, Yah, will hold me securely.
Please teach me Your way.
Teach me Your way and guide me on the straight path.
Discourage those who defame me
Because false witnesses stood up against me belching out violence.
Don’t let me become the victim of my foes.
I wouldn’t have survived
If I hadn’t hoped that I would see, yet,
Your goodness, God, fully alive on earth.
So I tell you, my friends: you too hope to Yah! Be sturdy!
And make strong your heart. And most of all, keep hoping to Yah.

Psalm 27 for Elul

Hand painted Yemenite Shofar

Hand painted Yemenite Shofar

Today is Rosh Hodesh Elul, tonight will be the first of day of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. Last night Rabbi Strassfeld and Rabbi Levitt offered us some meaningful words about using the month of Elul to prepare for the Yamim Noaim/Days of Awe.  The way I understood their messages, we ask so much of ourselves during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, facing ourselves, making teshuvah/change, we need another month to prepare ourselves.

According to one rabbi, “sometime around the year 1745 Ashkenazic Jews began to recite Psalm 27 morning and evening from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah.” Perhaps some of us already practice this. Perhaps others will find it comforting and meaningful. Each week in the month of Elul, I will post a different translation of Psalm 27. The Hebrew with traditional translation is here. The first translation is by Rabbi Brant Rosen and you can find the blog where he first published it here.

Psalm 27: you are my light and my hope

you are my light and my hope
why should i fear?
you are my life and my strength
so why do i tremble?

when i contemplate surrender
to my dread of the unknown,
i hold tight to you
and your strength gives me strength.

i only ask one thing of you,
just this one thing:
that i may be welcome in your house
all the days of my life,
to dwell in your innermost place
in safety beneath
the softness of your wings.

be my shelter when
i am wracked by hardship and disquiet,
offer me sanctuary and from there
i will sing hymns to the darkness
with openness and love

do you hear my song?
do you hear me when i cry
to you?
do not turn away –
i seek you endlessly,
i turn constantly toward your light.

in my darkest moments
of this i am sure:
i will never be alone,
yes, even if my father and mother
abandoned me, you will be there
to gather me up

guide me in your ways,
lead me down the paths
of wholeness and peace,
remind me that no matter
how far i may stray
there is always a road
to return.

though i don’t always see it
i will ever trust in your goodness
right here
right now
in the land of the living.

hold on to your hope
and be strong.
the time of our return
will soon arrive.