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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
Oh goodness. A million things I should be doing, including sleeping. Let’s be real — I haven’t been sleeping much. So I might as well remind myself of the brilliant Michael Fishbane insight I read this morning regarding Shabbat HaChodesh.
Special Shabbats to prepare for Passover
Before I quote Dr. Fishbane, a word about the Shabbat that just ended. It was the fourth of four special Shabbats (Shabbatot in Hebrew) that move us toward Passover. Two things make these days special: they have a unique, out-of-order Maftir portion. So that means the last thing traditionally read from the Torah on Saturday morning is related to the theme of the Shabbat. If we were all in synagogue for this, that would mean taking out two Torah scrolls from the ark — one for the regular weekly portion, one for this special ending portion. Then there’s also a special section of the Prophets: the Haftorah, related to the theme of the day. So this last special Shabbat is announcing THE MONTH. Because there are multiple first months in the Jewish yearly cycle; but the one coming up is the first month of the year according to the Torah. Yes, that means that the New Year / Rosh HaShanah is in the seventh month of the year; whereas Passover is in the first month.
Month One is About to Begin!
The thing is, before we were a Temple-based religion, we Hebrews were agrarian. (Probably before that we were nomads, but our holidays start from the cultivation of land part of our history.) And of course, like all good stewards of the land, we recognized Spring as a time of renewal, rebirth, and beginnings. So Nisan is the first month. It starts next Thursday, by the way. As it says in Exodus 12:2, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”
Mystical vision, Practical implementation
The Ashkenazic Haftorah portion for last week (aka earlier today) is Ezekiel 45:16-46:18. It offers a vision for the future Temple, which is different from the vision of the Temple described in Exodus. Rather than getting bogged down in these details, let’s look at the conclusion of Dr. Fishbane’s brilliant commentary on this passage from Ezekiel and its place as part of Shabbat HaChodesh:
The daubing of the entrance to the home and Temple with blood marks them off as two types of space. The first embodies the family, whose bonds are biological and legal. The family is the nuclear core of personal history and religious rite and preserves a parochial character by virtue of intimacy and a common name. Alongside this dwelling stands the Temple, whose space is communal and whose rites have an official and public status. The Temple opens its doors for collective worship and thus transcends the private histories of its worshipers. How one may live in both homes—standing firm in loyalty to hearth and blood, but open to the larger commitments a divine dwelling symbolizes—is a question each reader must answer repeatedly.
Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, p360.
This paragraph gut-punched me when I read it during my Zoom minyan this morning. In the context of 2020, the Temple in the above paragraph is a stand in for all of our obligations, responsibilities, identities, and communities beyond the walls of our homes. In a very short amount of time, my family was forced to collapse all that we do, and all that we are, into the space of our home. How are we living in both homes? Well, we must stay within the confines of the personal in order to protect the collective.
The Home and the Temple: Living Beyond Ourselves and Within Ourselves With Grace
And the question that I want to sink into as I prepare for the most unique Passover I’ll ever experience, is how to live in both homes simultaneously. How can I personally thrive while the world seems to be collapsing around me? How do I continue to make space for all the doors I was trying to open before my front door became the harbinger of potential death?
This I know for sure: I will not be the student I intended to be this semester. Since I have accepted primary parent responsibility for a four year-old and a six year-old without full-time weekday school / childcare, staying focused on my five graduate courses is difficult. Daf Yomi has fallen by the wayside. I’m a bit trepidatious that I might break my commitment to publicly counting the Omer. At the end of the day, none of that matters. If my family, both those within my home and those in other homes, makes it through this pandemic alive, that will be enough. If my neighbors are supported while so many of their jobs disappear, that will be enough. And if our essential workers — in healthcare, at grocery stores, at the postal service and other delivery personnel — survive and thrive, that will be enough.
Distinctions need to be made
Yet this magical, delicious Shabbat reminded me of the eternal truth of Shabbat, which is a refraction of the eternal truth of being alive: all of life is a balance of life and death. Judaism traditionally has laws about this. We bungle the translation and call them “purity” laws. What we’re really talking about are ancient ways to distinguish the living from the dead. As we continue our walk through this narrow place, this modern-day Mitzrayim, may we find the ways to allow ourselves to thrive despite the severe restrictions that surround us. If you are struggling to pay for your next meal or your next rent bill, you’re probably really angry reading my words. I deeply understand how lucky I am to be securely held by the love of my family in my home, in a community where I do not have to fear that my neighbors will spit on my Chinese Jewish kids. (Seriously, stop blaming Asians for this pandemic. It took an entire world to bungle the response to this.)
Choosing to Thrive
I am making a conscious choice to begin living differently in my second week of living with my entire family always under the same roof than I did my first week. I will be more conscientious of my time reading the news and interacting with social media.
I will not try to know how many new cases have been confirmed more than once a day. Since most of the country does not have enough supplies to perform tests; how much do the numbers really mean?
I will ground myself in the aspects of life that I have control over: my interactions with my family, my obligations to my communities, and my rabbinical studies.
I will make time for gratitude every day.
I will make time for prayer every day.
I will read a physical book every day.
I will tell my family I love them every day.
I will be present to the Present; to my physical body and the bodies around me.
And I will never give up hope. We are all deeply connected, beyond this mortal coil. May our bodies remain strong, our social distance complete, and may we be there for one another when we need help.
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.