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


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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


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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


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Psalm 25 verse 2: trust, shame, and overcoming resistance

A translation of the verse

my God, in You I rely completely. אלקי בך בטחתי

may I not be ashamed; אל אבושה

Let them not gloat, my enemies, over me. אל יעלצו אויבי לי

Perfect and Imperfect Verbs

Commonly understood time does not exist in Biblical Hebrew. Actions are either [perfect / complete / full] or [imperfect / incomplete / in process].

Biblical poetry relies on understanding verb tense without temporal reference.

Further, how negation occurs is important. Al, אל, negates imperfect verbs, indicating hope and desire for another (usually God) to not allow something to happen.

Trust, Shame, and Enemies

It is curious how many Jewish prayers plead to not be shamed and declare trust in God. I am never clear what the original intent of these sentiments was. Rabbinic authorities claim Jews felt shame for straying from halakha, Jewish law. What is the deeper shame indicated?

My shame revolves around how often I do not live up to the person I want to be. Yelling, pushing people away, getting stuck in anger loops. These are the things I struggle with.

Trusting in the Holy One completely? I am not always sure. I lose my connection to the Divine. My exhaustion and my anger often overwhelm me. The enemies I struggle with most are not external. My internal demons loom large in my daily reality.

Do my enemies exalt over me? Are they gloating at my defeats? Which enemies are we talking about? There is an organized space within me that is not me. This Shadow gloats at my defeats. I try to keep my shame at bay and trust in Goodness and Love.

Turning from Shame

This verse alone does not provide me the path to believe in it. My daily experience, my daily dread of pandemic living, cannot be overcome with the platitudes of this verse.

Rather, I must remember that I am strong. My strength, and God’s song, shall be my salvation. (Exodus 15:2). As Siddur Masorti explains: “the plain meaning of the text is actually that deliverance comes about through the combination of ‘my strength’ and ‘Yahh’s song.’ This sensibility is echoed by the rabbinic tradition which frequently affirms that: ‘One who comes to be purified is assisted by Heaven.’ (Talmud Shabbat 104a).”

My trust can begin with belief in my own strength. From there, I can form the will to overcome my destructive patterns. Daily, I snap at my son’s constant need for physical interaction. Daily, my demons overcome my best judgment. I do not need to wallow in shame. I can rise again, resolve to trust my strength and flow into the Goodness that surrounds us.

More sources

A good friend gave me one of the greatest gifts I have ever received: a copy of Siddur Masorti: An Egalitarian Sefardi Siddur. It is such a beautiful companion to weekday prayer. The insights are rich, universal, and deeply inspiring.

The Valley Beth Shalom weekday minyan introduced me to a beautiful melody for Exodus 15:2, which is part of Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. Searching the internet, I learned it is a Shefa Gold chant. There is a gorgeous interpretation by the Valley Outreach Synagogue Young Adult Ensemble.

The Books


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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

The rod and the staff of the Divine

Friday, May 29, 2020 Shavuot סיון 5780 6

I am making my way through the psalter, reading a psalm a day. Accepting that my resolve may not allow this to be a truly daily practice, I pick it up as my endurance allows. 

The echoes of Psalm 23 were too great yesterday for me to consider it. There is so much cultural baggage attached to the psalm and the King James translation of it. Two years ago, we translated the psalm as part of our Hebrew class. 

Rabbi Abraham Greenstein pierced my soul with his explanation of the rod and the staff of HaShem. It is a metaphor that permeates Judaism, hiding in plain sight the essence of our traditions. We craft pathways towards goodness because we understand there are many impulses pulling on individuals. We see the Divine as the ultimate Shepherd: guiding us on life’s journey, reminding us that doing the right thing is not necessarily the easy thing. 

The rod limits are frame of movement for our own protection. Represented by Gevurah, גבורה, strength / discipline in the Sephirot. The Way, Halakhah, הלכה, was meant to hold us in a warm embrace, allowing us space to feel God’s holy Presence. The staff guides us on the journey. The internal compass and the Bat Kol בת קול, daughter of Voice, echo of prophecy, who lead us towards the Truth that seeks us all the days of our lives.

May we each have the ability to hear the Truth and act in alignment with that Truth.

Psalm 23

A song of David.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I do not lack.
In grassy pastures, He has me lie down, by waters of rest He leads me.
My soul He restores, He guides me in paths of righteousness for the sake of His name.
Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You set before me a table, in front of my enemies; You rub with oil my head; my cup runs over.
Only goodness and kindness will pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall return to the House of the Lord for the length of days.

Original translation based on the teaching of Rabbi Greenstein

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.