Choosing to be Guided: Psalm 25, verses 12 and 13

Whoever the person who fears the Ground of Being,
God shall guide them on the path that they should choose.
Their essential self in goodness shall rest
and their seed shall inherit the land.

מִי-זֶה הָאִישׁ יְרֵא ה״
יוֹרֶנּוּ בְּדֶרֶךְ יִבְחָר
נַפְשׁוֹ בְּטוֹב תָּלִין
וְזַרעוֹ יִירַשׁ אָרֶץ

Gender neutrality clearly separates human from Divine

I could not figure out anything to write about this couplet. The original language is written about the man and his seed. Using male pronouns seems to conflate human volition with God’s direction. Does God guide the man on a path that God chooses? Or does God’s guidance allow the man to choose the correct path? Since the same pronoun is used for both verbs in verse 12b, either reading is correct.

Transforming the English into gender neutral terms for humans and their actions allowed me to meditate into the couplet. My body completely resisted and rejected the abundance of verbs conjugated in the third person male with third person male pronouns. 

Who chooses when God guides?

The breadth of psalm 25 implies that God guides and a person chooses correctly. But that implication is hard to provide and even harder for me to connect with. The couplet doesn’t begin with “the man,” rather it begins with mi-zeh. This phrase can be translated as “who is this” or “whoever” or “whose.” When looking mi-zeh up in my Evan-Shoshan Concordance, I found another example of the phrase that clarifies and confirms my suspicions on the original intent of this couplet.

Consider the use of mi-zeh in Lamentations 3.37:
מִי זֶה אָמַר וַתֶּהִי
אַ״דֹ״נַי לֹֹֹֹא צִוָּה
Whose decree was ever fulfilled,
Unless the Lord willed it? (JPS translation)

Free will vs determinism

Herein lies the crux of the biblical understanding of human autonomy: we have free will, and all of our choices are ordained by God. I do not personally agree with this theology. Free will has ultimate meaning to me: we can choose to allow the Ground of Being to lead us. We can also choose to willfully ignore Goodness. 

Following the Divine

When we choose to follow HaShem, our essential self is at rest. This is not to say we will always prosper; or that true believers never feel sadness, anger, or grief. Rather, we are able to flow with life’s ups and downs. We can ride the wave, rather than getting pummeled into the rocks.

For me, this is what it means to be guided by HaShem. Not that my life will be perfect, but that I will be able to respond to life with equanimity. I am constantly falling off this path. And so, I return, repent, and renew my alignment with Kindness and Truth.  

May we all have the will to follow the path of kindness and truth. 

Signposts on the journey

Steadfast Love and Truth: the Path of HaShem, Psalm 25, verse 10

The path of God is a narrow bridge. Steadfast Love and Truth guide me towards Goodness.

All of the paths of the Ground of Being are steadfast love and truth;
For those who guard with fidelity His covenant and His testimonies.

כָּל-אָרְחוֹת ה״ חֶסֶד וְאֱמֶת
לְנֹצְרִי בְרִיתוֹ וְעֵדֹתָיו

Chesed v’Emet: Steadfast Love and Truth

Is it kindness, lovingkindness, or steadfast love? How to translate the constantly morphing חסד? She pulses with life, avoiding exact translation. Chesed is the deep feeling of being held in sacred relationship: a healthy partnership, where kindness prevails.

Some translate אמת (emet) as אמונה (emunah), truth as faithfulness. This is also the root of אמן, amen

HaShem’s path is for the lowly and wayward. We are led in steadfast love and truth.

Christians and Guardians

Fun fact: נצר is Hebrew for Christian. Before that meaning was invented, it was a verb meaning “guard with fidelity, keep, observe: elsewhere of man observing the covenant.” Wikipedia has an interesting etymology connecting Nazereth with נצר.

Concentric circles of meaning. Fundamental differences separate me from my Christian friends and neighbors. Yet, the core of our spiritual pursuits is connected: striving towards the best versions of ourselves, living in alignment with God. 

Finding my way to the path of kindness and truth

I have been thinking a lot in the last week about wayward paths. How certain we can be that we are pursuing the good, aligning with the holy, when we are really elevating our egos and nestling into the death grip of the Yetzer HaRa, inclination towards destructiveness. 

God’s covenant and testimonies should lead us on the path of kindness and truth. We need lampposts along the way. Human guides to break our complacency; remind us of the lies nipping at our best intentions. And we need to be forever watchful that we do not reify other humans. No matter how charismatic our spiritual leaders are, they remain flesh and blood. 

So I return to the Ground of Being. I breathe in humility. Breathe out anxiety and fear. May I be a watchtower for kindness and truth. Loosen my ego’s grip. Accept the world as it is. Sing out testimony to the soul-nourishing, life-affirming truth within God’s path. 

Books for the journey


Image by jbauer-fotographie from Pixabay

Following God’s path: Psalm 25, verses 8 and 9

Good and upright is the Ground of Being
therefore He guides offenders on the path.
He leads the lowly in justice
and He teaches the lowly His path.

טוֹב-וְיָשָׁר ה״
עַל-כֵּן יוֹרֶה חַטָּאִים בַּדָּרֶךְ
יַדְרֵךְ עֲנָוִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט
וִילַמֵּד עֲנָוִים דּרְכּוֹ

Translation relies heavily on Robert Alter, in addition to the BDB Lexicon

He is God. She is God. They is God.

I did not try to remove the gendered language from translation. I purposefully want to sit in the uncomfortable truth of the patriarchal representation of the Divine embedded in my tradition. 

Acknowledging patriarchy without diminishing the holiness of Jewish wisdom makes people uncomfortable. Sometimes, assumptions arise when I alter God’s gender in prayer. I see gender as a real thing that brings meaning to our lives. Yet the Creator of Reality is beyond gender. We attach to a gendered understanding of HaShem because it is the shadow of God that can be understood by humans. Becoming aware of God’s female aspects, of the ways in which the Divine is Goddess, allows us to break free of the barriers inherent in gendered language. Once we see that all gender expressions reflect Divine love in the world, we can live into deeper reality. 

Offenders and lowly: not willful sinners

Willful sinners know they are doing wrong and revel in their waywardness. Evil resides with willful sinners. 

Offenders — people who miss the mark, but are not intentionally going astray — seek guidance. Chataim is the plural form for people who commit chait. Rabbi Avraham Greenstein explains chait as missing the mark, short of ability. 

“Sin,” has gradations in the Jewish mind. The two other levels of sin involve stronger levels of choice in rejecting God’s instruction. Avon is a willful crookedness, being stuck on a tangential path. Pesha is rebellious rejection of God. 

Similarly, the lowly did not choose to be in that state. They may have been brought low by the inequalities inherent in society. Or they may struggle with depression. 

Waywardness exists within all of us

A core teaching of The Tanya: human inability for perfection.  Perhaps once in a generation, a tzaddik exists. Most of us are beinoni: pursuing the holy, struggling daily with the Yetser HaRa, the inclination towards destruction / chaos / evil. We beinoni have a war raging within.

These verses do not describe other people: they describe my own struggle to stay on the path of Goodness and Uprightness. When I raise my voice towards my children, I stray from the path of goodness. Every time I say things I regret. Every time I succumb to despair. It is easy to stray from the path of HaShem. 

The Ground of Being awaits my return. 

Alignment with Goodness and Truth is a daily struggle. I trust that the Cause of Goodness reveals the right way to me. As I move towards holiness, the Holy One, Blessed be She, moves towards me. 

Companions on the Journey


Image by Valiphotos via Pixabay.

Acknowledge the past, focus on kindness and goodness: psalm 25 verse 7

The offenses of my youth and my transgressions, may You not recall
In Your lovingkindness recall me. You.
For the sake of Your goodness, Ground of Being.

חַטֹּאות נְעוּרַי וּפְשָׁעִי אַל-תִּזְכֹּר
כְּחַסְדְּךָ זְכָר-לִי-אַתָּה
לְמַעַן טוּבְךָ ה״

Acknowledge transgressions and move forward

Has your mind ever played the trick of reminding you of every youthful transgression you ever committed? Perhaps the person you were in your early 20s does not resemble the person you are today. Let me put it simply: I am extremely grateful the internet was in its infancy when I was in college. 

Beyond my choices in college, perhaps I should try to scrub the internet of my blogging when I was in my 20s. Given the political nature of securing employment, perhaps I should have more anxiety about my peace activism. I do not want to hide my younger self: she was forged from Jewish values and persuasive rhetoric. Fundamentally, my persona coalesced around opposition to the status quo and mainstream ideas of security and nationalism. When I woke up to how rigid and angry I was on a daily basis, my surety cracked. Making space for uncertainty, I opened the door to returning to a relationship with HaShem. 

Wrapping myself in kindness and goodness

Lovingkindness / covenantal love: the choice to be in relationship and obligated to act faithfully.  For the sake of goodness. 

Within the text of psalm 25, HaShem is asked to remember these choices when connecting with a human. To embody the psalm, I must remember chesed, the sturdy love, the kindness, I should show to my family and my society. For the sake of Goodness, I choose to rise above my baser instincts. My transgressions are not as important as my commitment to lovingkindness.

Just as I ask HaShem to overlook my transgressions, so too must I probe to the deeper meaning of living in community. What words can I say to expand the reach of goodness? How can my actions embody the covenantal love embracing me continuously?

Flow through books


Image by Nina Czapska from Pixabay.

Being led on God’s paths: Psalm 25 verses 4-5

דְּרָכֶיךָ ה״ הוֹדִיעֵנִי
אֹרְחוֹתֶיךָ לַמְּדֵנִי
הַדְרִיכֵנִי בַאֲמִתֶּךָ וְלַמְּדֵנִי
כִּי-אַתָּה אֶלֹקֵי יִשְׁעִי
אוֹתְךָ קִוִּיתִי כָּל-הַיּוֹם

Your paths, Ground of Being, lead me in.
Your ways teach to me.
Guide me in Your truth and teach me.
For You are my God of salvation.
It is You I wait for at all times.

Waiting for and hoping in HaShem

ק.ו.ה is a root that I previously thought always meant “hope.” Looking it up in the Brown-Drivers-Briggs lexicon, the meaning is “wait for.” On Pealim.com, the definition is “hope.” In the הִנֵה Biblical Hebrew Tool Box, it is defined as both “wait for, hope.” The Even-Shoshan Concordance defines it as “יחל, צפה” (not exactly useful for those of us who are not fluent in Hebrew). Those verbs have similar definitions on Pealim: “To await, look forward to, hope for” and “To watch, to await, to look forward to, to anticipate.”

Translations of this poem seem uniform in translating this root as “hope.” I am curious if waiting is the older understanding of the verb. Hope seems more aligned with a modern sensibility. Not physically waiting for HaShem’s appearance. Not expecting HaShem to change location at all. Rather, metaphysically placing trust in HaShem’s paths. 

Choosing to wait

Personally, I prefer being jarred by the consequences of “waiting.” It recognizes that I am not always prepared / aligned with the Divine. It holds space for the doubt that accompanies waiting. 

Acknowledging doubt

These paths that I fervently pray to be led on — am I always available to walk on them? What takes over when I yell at my children? Forevermore will I be able to dismiss my actions as the result of pandemic living? 

And am I sure I know the paths of HaShem? Is it truly important for me to continue slicing my way through this psalm, rather than preparing food for my family or reading books to my children? Will I have the stamina for this endeavor when my courses resume on October 18?

The solid truths guiding me

This I know for sure: the ways of HaShem help me separate from the chaos that surrounds me. I align with my higher self. I see time as a continuum, and my time on earth as a drop in the bucket of the universe. 

Truthful focus through waves of chaos

While I hold myself accountable for each of my actions, I do so gently. Each moment is another chance to let go and flow into the Goodness and Truth waiting to be seen. This is how I am delivered to the person I can become: when I believe in the reality of the Divine, I accept the reality of the world of values. 

Having strength to become more expansive. My bodily autonomy is not as important as my son’s need for security. I can push past being over-touched / almost strangled.  

Psalters, Bibles, Dictionary


Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Belief, Judgment, Treachery: psalm 25 verse 3

I translate mimicking the word order placement in Hebrew, to give you a sense of how verbs may precede or follow their subject. In the case of verse 3, I reviewed multiple translations and looked up the majority of the words in the Brown-Drivers-Briggs Hebrew-English lexicon (BDB). 

כָּל-קֹוֶיךָ לֹא יֵבֹשוּ
יֵבֹשוּ הַבּוֹגְדִים רֵיקָם

Yo! All of those waiting for You will not be shamed
Shamed: those who deal treacherously in vain. 

Robert Alter points out the chiastic structure of this verse. The layout A B B A, represents a chiasm. In this case: subject verb verb subject, first verset ending with the exact word beginning the second verset.

Shame, honor, social order

I have to imagine that for the psalmist, honor was most important. Similar to the way my Chinese partner describes ’saving face’ as a paramount value in Asian culture. The shame feared in this verse is larger than the personal feeling 21st century readers may imagine. Less tied to personal guilt, or personal identity — this is societal debasement. The message is clear: believers should prosper, swindlers should not.

The poem has not yet provided insight into the nature of the Divine or what it means to follow the Divine. Those pools will flow later. The key hinted at in this early verse is that the path of HaShem is the ethical one. Google / Oxford Languages defines “treacherous” as: “guilty of or involving betrayal or deception.” BDB defines habogdim as the ones who “deal treacherously, faithlessly, deceitfully in the marriage relation, in matters of property or right, in convenant, in word and in general conduct.” 

Personal application

This chiasmus gives me infinite hope. No longer do I need to see Judaism as telling me to feel shame for every single mistake I make, weighing me down with the infinite ways I am not living up to my vision for myself. Rather, girded by my belief in Goodness and Truth, I wait for the Divine as I move towards my vision for myself. I remember I am not the worst person in the world. I can remember that in the end, my word matters and my choice to be truthful matters. Liars who manipulate for their own gain reap what they sow. The parts of me that attempt to focus my attention on anger and resentment; my Yetzer HaRa, my inclination towards chaos, will be disappointed.

Psalters, Study Bible, and dictionary


Image by Melk Hagelslag from Pixabay

The pandemic’s crushing weight

I have a vision of moving this blog to a new URL. A few weeks ago, I gained clarity into how off-putting my blog title really is. Considering how terrifying reality can be, does anyone want to learn spirituality from someone who claims to be broken? Isn’t there enough brokenness without bringing that into your religious life?

Brokenness and repairing the world within

Accepting brokenness as an innate part of the human condition was a huge step forward on my own spiritual journey. It is part of Luranic Kabbalism as explained by Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah. Yet, I also recognize how disconnected most Jews are from Jewish mysticism specifically and theology more generally. So I want to provide a URL that does not require a metaphysical leap. With HaShem’s help, that URL transformation is coming soon.

Real talk on life with kids

Now, I just want to be frank. Parenting two small children while basically being locked at home for the foreseeable future is a heavy weight. My four year-old is afraid to touch the floor. That makes it quite difficult to get him to pick up the mess he makes on a daily basis. My six year-old cries over the vagaries of playing video games. And refuses to meet with people via Zoom. So I’m not entirely sure how virtual TK and second grade will happen alongside my fifth year of rabbinical school. I’ve already put off my synagogue internship to allow myself time to be primary parent four days a week. (My classes meet on Sunday and Monday.)

Ways forward

I can’t tell you that scheduling time to attend minyans daily will help make your life feel more meaningful. Zoom services are fundamentally different from in-person davennen. We need space to find our own way into prayer and our own way into the structure needed to make prayer a daily part of life.

Another option is daily study. In 2020, I have tried Daf Yomi and reading through the psalter. I have not finished either of these projects. Yet, I can say with certainty that allowing space for deep reading– even if you never finish the book –is soul nourishing.

Ibn Pakuda’s Duties of the Heart

This summer, I am doing an independent study on Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Currently reading Bahya ben Joseph Ibn Pakuda’s The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart. I purchased the book in 2011 and deeply remember how long it took me to read the academic introduction by the translator, Menahem Mansoor. Desperately wanted to connect with the book, as it is the first comprehensive treatment of Jewish ethics. At the time, I stopped reading in the chapter about the importance of keeping the commandments. My progressive, antinomian ego could not accept moving through the logic of a different time. The book is revolutionary for three main reasons: its focus on the inward space of religious practice, its thorough description of repentance / teshuvah, and its statements on ethics.

Simultaneously, it is also a book of Jewish theology. Being a Jew born post-Shoah (after World War II and the Catastrophe), I wonder how to make Jewish spiritual practice relevant to people who are so jaded by our communal and individual experiences. Yes, absolutely, Jewish civilization and ethnicities are important in their own right. And yet, there is something deeply powerful — both in these received texts and in contemporary religious conversations, that should resonate with modern Jewish souls and the souls of seekers.

I have 200 pages more to read before offering more thoughts on Ibn Pakuda’s magnum opus. After that, I might dabble back into the Talmud or the psalter. I might also start another series of books — Daniel Matt’s translation of the Zohar. I have to constantly remind myself that it is okay not to read everything. That there’s no way for me to read everything. And yet, sometimes I think my books are gossiping about me and making snarky comments about how few I’ve read cover to cover…

Books, Books, Books!

Photo credit: Image by Lars_Nissen from Pixabay

Becoming a Holy Community. Thoughts on Parshat Mishpatim

Crowd Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

A People of Holiness Shall You Be To Me.

וְאַנְשֵׁי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ תִּהְי֣וּן לִ֑י

A People of Holiness Shall You Be To Me.

We are called by Torah to be a holy people. Big assignment. What is holiness? How can we experience holiness beyond ourselves, within community? My questions about this idea led me to explore ethics and mysticism, Mussar and Kabbalah.

A Kabbalistic leader called Sfat Emet said: “First we set right our actions; then we listen. Then comes the time to correct our deeds.”

Mussar is straightening our thoughts, feelings, and actions with those around us – it is how we correct our deeds.

How can I grow by correcting my deeds? Well, maybe I can try not to speak from anger. Be compassionate to the souls around me. Recognize that my journey is only one story among billions occurring during this blink of the universe. We each live a unique story. I can try to understand yours.

Perhaps we can each minimize the control of our Yetzer HaRa, our inclination towards destructiveness. We can remind ourselves to get enough sleep, to not give in to every passing fancy on the internet. We can try to be fully present to our lives.

Seeking to act with straightness can help us walk into the Garden of Faith. We can choose the will to break bad habits. Choosing to pray and study wisdom texts can affirm the nurturing presence of the Ground of Being.

All of these actions help us learn about the holiness that pulses through the universe. Without right action, without Mussar, there is no Receiving, there is no Kabbalah. The Concealed Wisdom, Chochmah Nistar, is a false shadow without right action. We can really be a holy people and live in alignment with the Good in all of us.

Let’s go for it. Each of us finding, as best we can, the path that helps us become a wholly good person.

May we each find the courage to transform ourselves, to bring about constant renewal, and through our transformation be the Anshei Kedoshim we are called to be.

#—#

This d’var Torah was originally written for the final week of Davennen Leadership Training Institute. I had the honor of being one of three people to “lab” my d’var and receive editing advice from Rabbi Marcia Prager. Her version cut out many of the paragraphs regarding Kabbalah, in favor of laser focusing on good actions as the only real tangible thing we can do in this life. She looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t know what holiness is; do you?” Rabbi Prager, one of the holiest people I know, said that to me. Since Judaism is full of sanctification and drawing us towards holiness, I decided to keep my thoughts about it as this thought piece moves forward. I spoke of it at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park & Eagle Rock this Shabbat, which gave me the opportunity to again witness how difficult it is for me to speak for us. Not because I want to talk at people (heaven forbid!); but because I am still finding my voice to speak on behalf of other people. I am so hesitant to assume that anyone else is seeking what I’m seeking that I default to “I” language, as I am in this explanatory note. So thank you, Reb Marcia, DLTI, and the good people of TBI, for helping me find my voice.