A Brief Explanation of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur begins Sunday evening. It is a day of quiet contemplation, a time for us to look into our lives, acknowledge our wrongdoings, and resolve to do better in this New Year.

In contrast to the way in which the shofar’s loud blast on Rosh Ha-Shana proclaims the world’s creation, Yom Kippur bids us to look quietly and sincerely into our inner souls.  Long ago on this solemn day the high priest could enter the holy of holies  — the inner most sanctum of the ancient temple — with the entire congregation waiting outside.  The priest prepared himself for the ritual for no fewer than seven days.  The people believed that when he emerged after pleading with God for the future of our people and he was still alive and well that a new year of health, joy, meaning and prosperity was assured.  

Today, we have no more priests to make atonement for us.  

Today, each of us must look into our own holy of holies.  Each of us must look into our own arc of the Covenant to examine our deeds –to regret the things we have done wrong and to say we are sorry to God and to one another for those transgressions.  When we have done these things sincerely, we may indeed enter the New Year feeling cleansed and renewed. 

At the Surgeon

In the waiting room

Whew! With God’s help and Vickie’s, I survived Rosh Hashanah.

Now, we are sitting in the waiting room of the surgeon to whom we were referred in the emergency room early Rosh Hashanah morning.

The diagnosis is linguinal hernia. Will it need surgery? If so, how soon?

Sitting here my mind wanders back to my first hernia surgery on March 17, 1953. I had just turned seven years old. Back then my hernia occasioned a six-day hospital stay. My lingering memory from back then is that everyone wanted to cheer me up by making me laugh. The problem was laughing hurt like hell.

Now, they say, hernias are either outpatient or one night in the hospital affairs.

Mostly I am concerned about my ability or lack thereof to exercise during these next several weeks. We shall see.

After the visit

Well … yes, I need surgery, but the good news it’s it can wait until after Yom Kippur. Vickie and I both felt very comfortable with Dr. Salomon Levy Miranda of Venezuela. He explained the robotic procedure he opts to use, and we both felt we are in very good hands. Barring complications it will be outpatient.

Unfortunately, it will be several weeks until I can play tennis again. That is a big concern because, honestly, it is tennis and the ability to play frequently and vigorously that has kept me sane and fit during these months of pandemic. But I will pray the prayer of Rabbi Nahum of Gamzu:

גם זו יעבר. And this too shall pass!

With God’s help, may I look back on this episode two months from now as just an inevitable speed bump on the unpredictable road of life!

God Carried Me

There is a well-known story about a man privileged to see the course of his life as “Footprints in the Sand.”  Most of the time there were two sets of prints but occasionally there was only one. God explained, “Where you see two sets, that is where I walked with you.”

“But why,” the man asked, “did you leave me in the places where there is only one?’

“No,” the Eternal One answered, “the places where there is only one set of footprints are the places where I carried you.”

Rosh Hashanah began auspiciously. Our evening service was our first attempt to live stream from our sanctuary, and despite a few glitches it went well thanks to our amazing Tech Team at Bat Yam Temple of the Islands as well as the prodigious efforts of Cantor Murray Simon, and our amazing first-time Shofar blower, Elissa Karasin-Samet.”

We had no professional lighting crew, no specially installed Klieg lights, no choir and no musical instruments except the awesome Abbey Allison at the piano.

As the rabbi of the congregation I felt like a bit player in an amazingly well coordinated volunteer effort. I could not be more proud of the congregation I serve.

At midnight that night I awoke with a sharp pain where my right hip meets my torso. I lay there for a while thinking and hoping it would go away. When it did not, I took some pain medication; it only got worse. So I woke Vickie.

She called our daughter-in-law physician in San Francisco who advised us to go to the ER.

The staff at Lee Memorial could not have been more helpful. Feeling a lump, the doctor diagnosed a hernia and ordered a CT scan and a very strong narcotic for the pain. Four hours later, he suggested I be admitted and further evaluated the next day.

When I explained that this was Rosh Hashanah, and I hoped to conduct services in a few hours, he agreed to release me with a strong prescription if the pain recurred.

When we got home and took showers, I fell into a deep narcotic induced sleep. When Vickie woke me, I could not believe it was already time to get up. Somehow I led the service.

Afterwards several congregants shared that it was one of the most meaningful worship services they had ever attended.

As for me, I have no doubt. That was one of the times God carried me.

Why We Celebrate Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah, as I have explained in other essays, rose from minor importance to the major status it enjoys today because our people needed  an occasion to celebrate the vital ideals inherent in Genesis’s Story of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4).

For me the Tee shirt pictured captures that message:

Translation:

“And God said …”

Then all the scientific stuff

“And there was light.”

In other words:

Genesis does NOT tell us HOW the world was created.

But it tells us a great deal about WHY

  • However it was done God initiated it
  • It was not an accident. The creation of the world is purposeful and meaningful.
  • Therefore our lives have (or at least they should have) purpose and meaning.
  • We are the only creatures created “in God’s image.” That does not mean we look like God. It means we have the most power to affect our environment and the quality of life in society for better or ill.
  • Once each week we need a day to step back and think: “How am I using my talents to make a better world.

Yes Genesis tells an awful lot about WHY we are here and what God wants from us! Why we are here and what God wants from us are the reasons we celebrate Rosh Hashanah!

Awe, Dread … and Hope

Ready or not Rosh Hashanah arrives tomorrow! And I do not feel ready. 

Never in my career have I prepared more for the Days of Awe, and never in my career have I felt less prepared.

Frankly, were it not for the amazing Tech Team of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands, I would feel completely lost in leading our community and those who join us from afar in virtual worship. I cannot thank them enough. 

This year is just so different from anything we have ever experienced. Of course I am not alone in that feeling.

Never in my life have I heard so many people – or any people for that matter — quote the liturgical poem for Rosh Hashanah Eve, Ahot Katanah, “Little Sister.” The prayer stems from the biblical book of Song of Songs (8:8) and references Israel as the Eternal One’s “little sister” who suffers greatly yet remains faithful to God. The prayer proclaims, “Let the old year with its curses end … May the New year with her blessings begin.”

Indeed that is the hope of all of us: a new year of blessings, a new year free of the Covid-19 curse, a year free from racial injustice, free from police brutality, free from hunger, eviction, unemployment and want.

May the New Year starting so ominously blossom into a year of peace, kindness, racial harmony and good health.

And yet so much is uncertain. My former student and now friend, Rabbi Debra Kassoff and Rabbi Annie Belford beautifully capture that uncertainty in these words:

Knowing You are God, not knowing what that means…
We proclaim the sacred power of this day,
The sacred power of the shofar’s blast,
The power of the internet connecting us 
While the power of an infinitesimally small virus reshapes the meaning of what human power can and cannot do…
It is awesome and full of dread. 

How can we not feel dread in a time like this? And yet we remember:

In encouraging the exiled children of Judah to return and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem the Babylonians destroyed in 586 BCE the prophet Zechariah (9:12) proclaimed, “Return to your strongholds, you Prisoners of Hope.” 

“Prisoners of Hope” describes the perseverance of he Jewish people through all that has befallen us over the millenniaPrisoners of hope we have been, and Prisoners of Hope we shall remain.

 Knowing what we have survived inspires me to believe that we will endure through the pandemic and all of its accompanying nightmares.  Somehow, some way – as we always have — we will endure and emerge from the coronavirus darkness.

And so with awe and dread, but bolstered by the hope that will not release us. we will step into the New Year.

L’shana Tova!  A good year!

A New Year Message Especially to Unaffiliated Jews

 

Horrible things have marked the year 5780. The Coronavirus pandemic, horrific instances of police brutality, the stark reality of racial injustice, and the sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents all combine to make this a time for Jews to show the world we are proud of who we are and the values we espouse.

All of my life I have been grateful that our American constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But I also embraced the fact that it guarantees “freedom from religion.”

While Jewish religious thought and ritual mean everything to me, I have always understood that there are many Jews who are not religiously observant and have no desire to become so.

Many Jews purposely choose to come to southwest Florida precisely because it is easier to blend into the mainstream of life here without overtly practicing their heritage.

 I always felt their choice to be non-observant was as valid for them as my choice to be observant is for me. … until now

In these perilous times, I find myself putting the question to my non-observant acquaintances that I never felt the need to ask before.  It is the same question that Mordecai, through the courtier Hatach, put to Queen Esther:  Who knows if you have not come to be where you are for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

At first Mordecai encourages Esther not to reveal her heritage when she becomes the King’s bride.  In the face of Haman’s anti-Semitic threat to destroy us, though, he tells her, now is the time to reveal yourself and stand at such a time with all of us. 

There is much about the pandemic we cannot control. We also cannot control the actions of misguided or deranged people who perpetrate anti-Jewish hate.  But we can control our response. Now is not the time for Jews to remain in the closet. It is the time to stand proudly as Jews.

Throughout history, beginning with Pharaoh in Egypt through Hitler a generation ago, many tyrants have risen to try to destroy us. Many have been the threats to our lives and comfort level in society. None of them have succeeded.

But the biggest ally of anti-Semitism is our own indifference to the precious heritage that is ours. 

The pandemic has been rough on all of us. Often, we feel isolated and alone.  The many different virtual activities Bat Yam Temple of the Islands has sponsored, have provided a valuable antidote to the loneliness of many in Sanibel, around the country and in other parts of the world as well. The Days of Awe are almost here. Now is the time to stand up and be counted with pride as a Jew. Now is the time – even though it is still virtually – to come home.

Just Before the New Year

In just a few days Rosh Hashanah arrives

For me that is the most important time in the year to remember the teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunam, an 18th-19th C. Hasidic leader in Poland:  Each of us should have two pockets, In each we should carry a different quotation.

In one, for when we feel puffed up and full of pride, let there be the reminder, “I am but dust and ashes!” In the other pocket, when we feel that our efforts futile and have no consequence, let us read: “For my sake the world was created.”

 During this month of Elul we have, hopefully, dedicated our thoughts to examining our actions and thoughts during the past year with the goal of becoming kinder and more caring in the year ahead. If our self-scrutiny is honest we know that there are many times we have fallen short of our own ideals and God’s hopes for us. At such times it is easy to fall into despair and see ourselves as without merit, or little more than dust and ashes.

 At such time it is good to remember that our tradition teaches us that this world is no accident and that our lives are not accidents either. They can have purpose and meaning!

 We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world.

God charged us at creation to use our talents to make the world a better place. Few of us will find the cure for cancer or bring about world peace, but that should not stop each of us from dong something. We each can teach a child to read, help an elderly person cross the street, cook and serve a meal at homeless shelter. The possibilities are endless.

 But when we become puffed up in the pride of our accomplishments or even in our acts of kindness, it is good to remind ourselves that as Abraham realized when he addressed the Almighty (Genesis 18:27) we are ”but dust and ashes.”

 One of life’s must difficult challenges is to find the balance between conceit and despair

Henry David Thoreau reminded us: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”

 I think that it is no accident that, as Bahia ben Asher of Saragossa (13-14th c.) noted, the zodiacal symbol for Tishri and the Jewish New year is usually a balance scale. As we count down the weeks toward Rosh Hashanah, our tradition (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40 B) enjoins us to think of our good and evil deeds as weighing equally on the scale of merit, and that our next act will tip the scale of judgment for good or for ill.

 Think of the power the image of the balance scale can have. 

If each of us wakes up feeling an urgent need to do a good deed, what an amazingly positive impact our collective actions will have on our families, our communities and our world.

What If I Don’t Believe in God?

 (In loving memory of Jampa Williams)

The Torah assumes that God exists, and the concept of a single, good caring God who wants us to use our talents to make the world a better place. 

But what of those who don’t believe?  

In Noah Gordon’s novel, The Rabbi, young Michael Kind intervenes to rescue Rabbi Max Gross from a New York City mugging.  The encounter with the Rabbi stimulates in Michael questions about his own beliefs.  He returns to the Rabbi’s apartment and says:

 “‘Tell me about God.’

‘What is it you want to know?’

‘How can you be sure that man didn’t imagine God, because he was afraid of the dark and the lousy cold, because he needed the protection of anything, even his own stupid imagination…. I think I’ve become an agnostic.”

‘No, no, no,’ Rabbi Gross responded.  ‘Then call yourself an atheist.  Because how can anyone be certain that God exists …. Do you think I have knowledge of God?  Can I go back in time and be there when God speaks to Isaac or delivers the Commandments?  If this could be done there would only be one religion in the world; we would all know which group is right. Now it happens to be the way of all men to take sides.  A person has to make a decision.  About God, you don’t know, and I don’t know.  But I have made a decision in favor of God.  You have made a decision against Him.’

‘I’ve made no decisions,’ Michael said a bit sullenly.  ‘That’s why I’m here. I’m full of questions.  I want to study with you.’

Rabbi Gross touched the books piled on his table.  ‘A lot of great thoughts are contained here,’ he said.  ‘But they don’t hold the answer to your question.  They can’t help you decide.  First you make a decision.  Then we will study.’

‘No matter what I decide?  Suppose I think God is a fable, a bubbeh-meisir.’

‘No matter.’

Outside in the dark hallway, Michael looked back at the closed door of the shul.  Goddamn you, he thought.  And then, in spite of everything, he smiled at his choice of words.”

Like young Michael, many of us do not believe in God.  Many of us do not believe in a God who judges us. 

Our Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are ten days apart on the Jewish calendar.  The holy days, and the days between them, are a time for introspection and contemplation of one’s life and actions during the past year – a time for reflection, and repentance.

The starkest – and, for many – most difficult prayer of the High Holy Day season is the Unetaneh Tokef, which we pray at the morning service on the Holy Days:  The words “Unetaneh Tokef” mean, “Let us acknowledge the enormity (of this sacred day.)”

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed

How many shall pass on and how many shall come to be;

Who shall live and who shall die;

Who shall see ripe old age and who shall not;

Who shall perish by fire and who by water;

Who by sword and who by beast;

Who by hunger and who by thirst;”

But, the prayer concludes,

“Repentance, Prayer and Charity temper judgment’s severe decree.”

I certainly do not believe, and no one I know believes, that those who died in the past year died because they were deficient in repentance, prayer and charity.

None of us knows who shall live and who shall die in the coming year.  To a great degree, how long we live is beyond our control, but how we live is up to us.

We can unlock the door of unbelief that stands between many of us and the prayers of this day with a single Hebrew word: כאלו, K’eeloo, and it means, “as if”.

It is a simple concept.  Whatever our beliefs, if we can act – K’eeloo – “as if” we stand this day under God’s scrutiny, we shall make a giant leap forward.

The word Israel – in Hebrew, Yisrael – means, “One who struggles with God.”  It does not mean, “One who believes in God”, and it does not mean “One who is always comfortable with God.”  The High Holy Days invite us to serious struggle and effort.

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is one of the best “struggling tools” ever.  It has the power to change our lives.  

Once, during the Russo-Japanese War at the beginning of the 20th century, wrote S.Y. Agnon in Days of Awe

“A committee of Jewish soldiers passed through all the hospitals and announced there would be public prayer” for the Holy Days.

It was an awful sight.  Many of those who came were incapacitated, gloomy, and lean as corpses; many…were armless, lame, leaned on crutches, were armless, lame, leaned on crutches, were blind, and bore wounds of every description….

During the Unetaneh Tokef prayer no words were heard in the House of Prayer; only tear-choked voices filled the atmosphere of the little house.  The cantor’s voice became stronger and stronger and struck sparks in the air: ‘Who will live and who will die, who in his time, and who before his time.’  Those were terrible and awful moments.”

How many of these men were believers?  I do not know, but the real possibility of imminent death gave urgency and meaning to their prayers.

The purpose of this day of Yom Kippur is to imagine our imminent death.   On this day we separate ourselves from bodily pleasures.  We imagine that we have died, and we envision ourselves trembling before the throne of a God who calls us to account for our actions.

Even if we do not believe in God, is not well for us to try to answer the questions our tradition ascribes to God? 

How did we use the time we had?

Did we use our abilities simply to provide for ourselves, or did we work to make the world a better place?  What did we do last year that we wish we could change?

Actions in the Jewish religion are more important than beliefs.

The Jerusalem Talmud ascribes the following quotation to God: 

“Would that My people forsake Me but keep My commandments!”

Elie Weasel was a young journalist living in Israel when he published his first book, Night, in 1958.  Once, he had been a budding Talmud scholar, an ilui, a gifted one, a genius.

He was, in the words of Francois Mauriac, “One of God’s elect.  From the time when his conscience first awoke, he had lived only for God and had been reared on the Talmud…dedicated to the Eternal.”

But then, during the Holocaust, he watched “his mother, a beloved little sister, and all his family except his father disappear into an oven fed with living creatures.”  He watched the slow agony of his father’s tortured death from exposure, exhaustion and dysentery after a merciless midwinter march from Gleiwitz to Buchenwald.

Never…” Wiesel wrote, “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and turned my dreams to dust.”

No one who has read Night can ever forget Wiesel’s description of the scene where the Gestapo hanged a small child. 

‘For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes.  And we had to look him full in the face.  He was still alive when I passed in front of him.  His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed.

Behind me I heard a man asking:

‘Where is God now?’

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

‘Where is He?  Here He is – He is hanging there on the gallows.’

Out of the broken pieces of his life and his faith, Elie Wiesel forged a remarkable career that ranks him among the greats of Jewish history and earned him – among many honors – the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986.  He may have stopped believing in God, but he acted as if a God of love, mercy and justice watched and judged his every action.

The Talmud teaches us (B. Kiddushin 40B that we should approach Yom Kippur thinking our good deeds and our bad deeds balance each other on the scales.  Therefore, we should go through life alert to any opportunity to do good that will tip the scales in our favor.  Who knows what the impact of that next mitzvah will be?

Once, a rabbi was missing from his synagogue on the holiest night of the year.  The worried elders searched for him all over town.  Eventually they found him in a small house close to the synagogue holding a small baby in his arms.

 “What are you doing here?” the dumbfounded elders asked the rabbi.

“On my way to Kol Nidre services, I heard a baby crying.  Seeing no one in the house, I stopped to comfort him.

For Jews, what we do is more important than what we believe or how we pray.  Comforting a crying child is a more sacred act than the holiest of prayers.

s Rabbi Max Gross told Michael Kind, “About God you don’t know, and I don’t know, but it is in the nature of human beings to make a choice.

Personally, my choice is for God.  My faith strengthens me in times of trouble; my faith enhances life’s joys.  For me faith in God is a precious gift.

That gift, though, is not one that everyone has or wants.  But even for those who do not believe, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur holds hope and promise.

Even if we do not believe in God, we can choose to act – K ‘eeloo – as if we do.

Even if we do not believe in God, we can act as if our fate rested on the merit of our actions.

And even if we do not believe in God, we can choose life and blessing – for ourselves and for others.Is not that the choice that really matters?

Harry William Fuchs

Twelve years ago today, our son Ben and I were playing tennis when Vickie walked up to the courts.  We knew something had to be very wrong if she showed up in the middle of our game.  We were dumbstruck when she told us my beloved first cousin Harry had a sudden heart attack and died.

Our family was in shock!  

Harry was vibrant, alive, to all appearances healthy, and then in an incomprehensible instant he was gone!  Our hearts and our minds reeled in disbelief. My cousin Harry was kind, easy going and had the most wonderful smile and infectious laugh of anyone I have ever known.

It is no surprise to me that family and friends gathered from London, California and many places in between to bid him farewell and pay him tribute.  

One of the most remarkable things about Harry is that he was still friends with almost all of the people with whom he went to grammar school, high school and college.  It is remarkable the way he stayed so closely connected with so many different people.

If we could choose a motto for Harry Fuchs, we could do no better than the words, “Life is Good.”  Indeed, life was good for Harry, and Harry was good to life.  He lived each day to the fullest.  He managed to fit exercise, reading, cooking, work, parenting, and often much more into each day and still get to bed at a reasonable hour.  He was intellectually, curious, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and he was – and now will be – forever young.

Harry William Fuchs never aged.  At 53, he looked like he looked in college—maybe even better.   I guess Harry was never meant to grow old.  He left life in its prime.  He was never sick, he never had to depend on anyone, and he never gave anyone reason to pity or feel sorry for him.

It was always easy to remember Harry’s birthday.  He was born on 5/5/55 in Manhattan, but he lived most of his life in Great Neck.  I loved my Uncle Ali and my Aunt Mimi dearly, but they had Harry rather late in life.  That reality did not make life easy for a child of the 60’s and 70’s born to European parents who both grew up with great wealth but came to this country with nothing.  They deeply loved Harry, but Ali was often away on business, and Mimi always had a hard time saying, “No,” to the apple of her eye.

After high school Harry went off to Wyndham College, but after that institution folded, he completed his studies at the University of Vermont.  In his youth he sometimes tried to hide it, but Harry was a very deep thinker with a fine, curious mind who majored in chemistry.  The last thing on his mind was to enter the fur business with his father, but Ali was persistent, and the fur business at that time offered a much more comfortable lifestyle than that of an unemployed research chemist.

I am sure there were some clashes in those early days between strait-laced nose-to-the-grindstone Ali and his “when does the party start” son.  But things changed dramatically after Harry cut his hair and became seriously successful in the fur trade.  

I still can hear the pride and love in Ali’s voice – and such gushing praise did not come naturally to Ali – when he spoke to me about Harry.

As years went by their relationship changed.  At the end it was Harry who was looking after and taking care of Ali. Lovingly he drove his father to and from work every day, and in so doing allowed Ali to cling to his life in the fur trade that he loved so much.   It was a heroic chapter in the life of Harry William Fuchs which he very seldom talked about.

My cousin Harry always loved kids, and they loved him.  My now grown children – who flew across the country to attend Harry’s funeral – remember vividly his and their joy when he carried them on his shoulders years ago when we all visited the Statue of Liberty. 

Along his all too short life’s journey Harry Fuchs was blessed with several positive influences.  

Linda Canina was Harry’s first lasting love.  They lived together for ten years.  They were different in so many ways, but she made his spirits soar and inspired him with her intellectual brilliance and love for life.  She seemed to awaken in Harry his deep and eclectic love for learning.  He read widely and avidly—on politics, sports, fashion, Israel and the Middle East.  He was interested in everything.

And then there was Bonnie! I’ll never forget the first time I spoke to Harry after he had met Bonnie on a ski trip.  It was like his whole world had changed and his whole demeanor was somehow different.  They had much in common and shared a deep and special love.  Although their marriage ended in divorce, their mutual respect and affection abide.   To their great credit, each has worked hard and made many compromises to make things as easy as possible for Casey.

When Harry met Randi, she brought a whole new dimension to his life. She gave him a newfound sense of stability and calm.  She is so down to earth and comfortable with herself that Harry became more grounded through her love.  He still loved to live well, and he did, but he no longer needed to jet around the world.  Rather he could find his pleasures in life with Randi, the music on his ipod, the beach, his bike, and a beautiful sunset. 

And then of course, there is Casey!

When Casey came into his life, Harry became a different person.  In his own words Harry said: “I really learned to love after I became a father.”

 In Casey, Harry’s life came full circle. Harry adored Casey, and I know that love will NEVER die. 

As Casey told me, “No matter what I did, he was always interested.  The most important thing for him to know was, ‘How was your day?’”

When Casey was in the hospital, Harry slept there.  He was there when she went to sleep, and he was there when she woke up.

Twelve years later, it is still hard to believe that he is gone. Yet, when we close our eyes and think of him, we shall see his smile, we’ll hear his laugh, and his memory will remain a blessing in our lives . . . always.

Psalm 23: A Personal Reflection

With gratitude to Rabbi Andi Fliegel

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.

He restoreth my soul.  

He guideth me in straight paths for His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

For thou art with me.

Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.

Though preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

Thou hast anointed my head with oil.

My cup runneth over

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Except, perhaps, for the Shma the twenty-third Psalm was the first prayer I ever learned. 

Throughout my public school years (grades 1-8 at Ashland School, East Orange, NJ) each morning began with a Psalm read by one of us students.

The Twenty-third Psalm was by far the most popular selection although some readers chose number 117 because it was the shortest of all the 150 Psalms in the book.

Without even realizing it, I memorized the words in the King James translation that we read in school.

As a rabbi, I invoked Psalm 23 at many funerals pointing out that, “Few words have brought more comfort to more people than these thoughts attributed to King David as he sat among the Judean hills some 3000 years ago.” For that reason I also include Psalm 23 as part of the Yizkor ritual on Yom Kippur.

Yes, I employed these verses frequently, but the Psalm only attached itself to my heart in the anxiety I felt leading up to and following my aortic valve replacement in 1996.

I had recently read The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson, which offers a simple four-step guide to meditative relaxation:

  • A quiet atmosphere
  • A comfortable position
  • A mental device
  • A passive attitude

Dr. Benson’s formula would get me through open-heart surgery both in 1996 and 2012.  It would also sustain me during a life-threatening strep infection that centered in my left hip in 2016 and following my painful rotary cuff repair in 2018.

For my “go to” mental device I decided to memorize the twenty-third Psalm, so familiar to me in King James English, in the original Hebrew.

And now, as the Days of Awe approach in this unprecedented time of Covid-19 I find ever-greater meaning in these words although some of them are counter intuitive.

Vickie and I have walked though the sheep fields outside of Husum, Germany, where sheep seem to outnumber people, near the North Sea.

What my eyes and nose beheld made it abundantly clear to me that lying down in those green pastures was the last thing I would want to do.

And yet as is the case with biblical narratives, we must escape the literal to embrace the exquisite metaphor the Psalm offers us.

The idea that God takes care of our needs and offers comfort in times of trouble has great appeal. I marvel that through all the horrors history has imposed on our people, the idea still resonates. 

That even after the Shoah we can recite and on some level believe those words is a miracle to me. And yet, we can and we do.

Instead of blaming the Eternal One for society’s ills, we turn to God for comfort and the strength to bear what seems unbearable. 

Certainly for me, when my pain and fear are very great, the Psalm reminds me, “My cup runneth over,” and I count my many blessings.

.The Prophet Zechariah (9:12), active in a time of calamitous upheaval, calls the Jewish people “Prisoners of Hope.” For me the 23rd Psalm is the embodiment of that idea. 

“Yea though I walk thought the valley of the shadow of death,” I trust in God’s presence and God’s protective care.

At the same time I express the hope that “I shall dwell in the ”House of the Lord forever.”

According to biblical and subsequent Jewish thought, “dwelling in God’s House” is a privilege we should seek to earn, not a right to which we are born. As Professor Robert Alter points out in his commentary on Psalms (Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2007, Kindle loc. 2234), “ . . . the privilege of enjoying God’s presence in the Jerusalem sanctuary is a consequence of having followed the ways that God dictates to humanity.”

At this sacred season of the year we acknowledge that we often fail to meet God’s expectations of us and our expectations of ourselves. 

One of my favorite stories tells of a Monarch’s son who was estranged from his father. He journeyed far away from his home.  The father, longing for his son, “sent a message, “Return to your father.”

The son replied, “I cannot. The distance is too great.”

Replied the father, “Come as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you. (Pesikta Rabati, Shuva Yisrael)

Especially during times of pain and fear, Psalm 23 has been my mantra.

 Even in the face of death, God will comfort me; God will restore my soul.

For my part, though, I must strive to be worthy of God’s favor. I must do my utmost to fulfill my covenantal responsibilities as God articulated them to Abraham:

Be a Blessing. (Genesis 12:2)

Follow God’s teachings. (Genesis 17:1)

Bring justice and righteousness into the world. (Genesis 18:19) 

But when I fall short – as I often do — of fulfilling those sacred obligations, I trust, God will meet me halfway, and, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”