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

Heart of Psalm 25: Verse 11

לְמַעַו-שִׁמְךָ ה״

וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנִי כִּי רַב-הוּא

For the sake of Your name, Cause of Being:
May You forgive my willful and wayward acts, though they are plentiful.

The heart of the psalm: acknowledging my waywardness, requesting pardon

Benjamin Segal states: “The central verse (v.11) stands alone.” He explains that it is a prayer for forgiveness in the singular. The second half of the verse is used as part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, which is unusual because sins are generally stated in the plural during our communal day of atonement. (Segal, p 115, 117)

Pandemic living and this season of joy

I have been so wayward during this holy season. It has been so difficult for me to stay rooted in joy. Throughout the pandemic, I have struggled to stay grounded and focused. Recently, I realized how much I miss being around other people. Past retreats I attended feel so much more meaningful in the rear view mirror.

My last time traveling was for the final week of the Davennen Leadership Training Institute in February, right before the shutdowns. DLTI supports creating meaningful prayer experiences for communities across the United States.

Last Sunday, I learned that a friend, Benjamin Telushkin, z”l, from DLTI passed away unexpectedly right before Sukkot. It is strange to bear such heartbreaking news to a community. Ben lived in NYC and our cohort is spread out across the country. So, I did not have the opportunity to have a socially distanced, in-person conversation with another grieving friend. Yet again, Zoom became our communal gathering space.

Benjamin Telushkin: embodiment of joy

It is quite easy for me to get stuck in my head, intellectualize my thoughts, rationalize my actions. In many ways, Ben was my opposite. He relished being Jewish, holding space for love to flow through him. With his wife Grace, he was creating a beautiful family.

Ben was also one of the first people I met on my way to DLTI. We both caught a ride from New York City to the Isabella Freedman Retreat center, sharing the journey with two other DLTI’ers. You never forget the first people you meet on your way to meeting 70+ new friends.

I pray Ben’s soul is released from the material world. May he ascend to the infinite with which he was constantly reaching towards. I pray his soul is able to continue its journey while also maintaining her connection with his wife and family.

Ben’s Gematria Poem:
Ipoem with the “I” in Uppercase

Resources for the Journey

“The Meaning of Life During COVID times” an interview on the study of happiness.


Image by Alexandru Manole from Pixabay

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


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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


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Flowing with Compassion and Kindness: Psalm 25 verse 6

Recall Your compassion, Cause of Being,
And Your kindness;
For eternal are they.

זְכֹר-רַחֲמֶיךָ ה״
וַחֲסָדֶיךָ
כִּי מֵעוֹלָם הֵמָּה

Compassion begins in the womb

In Hebrew, the root of compassion is womb. רֶחֶם, rechem, means womb and from that root, רַחֲמִים, rachamim, compassion forms. In the womb of the Divine, I am surrounded by compassion and covenantal kindness / love / faithfulness. 

Kindness rooted in covenant

חֶסֶד, chesed, is a truly foreign concept, thus difficult to translate. 

Brown-Driver-Briggs gives the primary definition of chesed as kindness. This seems a simple word to accept, but I am compelled to precisely define kindness, because it is often replaced by lovingkindness when translating chesed. Google / Oxford Languages defines kindness as “the quality of being friendly, generous, considerate.” Google defines lovingkindness as “tenderness and consideration towards others.” 

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer taught a course on psalms at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. In that course, she stressed that the actions implied by the word chesed rest on the covenant between God and Israel, the people who wrestle with God. 

Ultimately, the word represents the outflowing of positive energy based on a concrete relationship of chosen connection. This is why the root in a different form, חַסִיד, chasid, means a pious person. 

Tetragrammaton

When I type Hebrew names of God, I try to change them according to traditional malformations to indicate the ephemeral nature of this website. So, I wrote Elokai, replacing an “h” sound with a “k” sound. The true name of God is abbreviated as ה״, which itself is an abbreviation of HaShem, The Name. Jews do not pronounce The Name. Instead, we say the word Adonai, which means my Lord. 

The true name of God is referred to as the tetragrammaton, a fancy word that means “four letter word.” The precise translation of the tetragrammaton could be “was, is, will be.” It is a form of the Hebrew root “to be.” That is why I translate it as either Cause of Being or Ground of Being.

Existence rests on HaShem. The Oneness, the point before the Big Bang, the flow of reality. These are the essential aspects of the Divine. When I sink into my soul, when I rise above my ego’s attachments, then I can begin to connect with the Cause of Being. 

Values before material existence

Ultimately, this verse reminds me of a very Jewish concept: there are things that existed before the beginning. The essential thing that existed was Wisdom (see Proverbs 8). From wisdom flowed other aspects of the Divine, including compassion and lovingkindness.

This idea of the outpouring of Divine energy, which occurred before the beginning, finds voice in Jewish mysticism, particularly Lurianic Kabbalah

Concluding with verse 7

Alone, this verse is a patchwork of words and concepts. Psalm 25 verse 6 reaches towards verse 7, surrounding it with love and acceptance. Tomorrow, with the help of the Divine, I will sink into that reality.

Beautiful 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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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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Psalm 25 verse 1: The Divine, prayer, and me

Returning to my journey through Psalms

The ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, 10 days of Teshuvah; of turning and returning to our essential selves. Cheshbon HaNefesh, accounting of the soul: clearly defining our vision and taking stock of how we have connected to that vision.

I started, then silently gave up, reading a psalm a day during the pandemic. Psalm 25 patiently waited for me to catch up. She took my breath away. I’ve been noodling for days how to do justice to this gorgeous explanation of all that draws me into Judaism. As the gates of Yom Kippur closed, my answer came. I shall write about one line per post until I have expounded on all of the depths she finds within me.

Psalm 25 begins

For David. לדוד

אליך ה״ נפשי אשא

Unto You, Cause of Being, my essence I lift.

Alter explication

Robert Alter translates this line “To You, O Lord, I lift my heart.” He explains: “The Hebrew noun used is nefesh, meaning “essential self” or “life breath. The clear meaning of the idiom is to pray fervently or plead.” (p84, The Book of Psalms)

Theology

Like many psalms, there is no doubt here that God exists. I cannot know with certainty whether scientific advances, human capacity for creating misery, or cynicism sowed the flourishing seeds of doubt that live among us.

Prayer and COVID-19

Reflecting on the plague we are surrounded by, my capacity for prayer waxes and wanes. At times, I plead with the universe for relief. More often, I am completely distracted by the responsibilities of parenting young children without respite.

Recently, I began attending weekday minyan — morning prayer service on days that are not holidays — with other students from the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. Learning the complete traditional prayer service has been enlightening. It returned the miraculous morning prayers to my consciousness: the beacons of light that whispered this path to me and push me towards a better version of myself.

Verse 1 Unfurls

Temerity: beginning a prayer to HaShem with a personal address. As if I have the right to speak to You directly.

Girded with the strength of The Essential Name, my essential self lifts towards You.

Seeking unity with the Divine flow beyond time and plague.

Fervently hoping for enlightenment and strength.

Daring to seek guidance on my journey.

Remembering You. By remembering You; returning to my essence.

Dive Further

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