“And God Will Gather Me In”: Thoughts on Elul

31 08 2011

Today is Rosh Hodesh Elul, the first day of the month of Elul, the month traditionally reserved for introspection leading up to the holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when our fate is signed, and Yom Kippur, when our fate is sealed.

Like so many other things Jewish (and not), I find it difficult.

I recently saw a blog post by a new blogger, Heshbon Hanefesh (welcome!), that resonated with me, and reminded me of Psalm 27, which has gotten me through some tough times in the past. This Psalm is traditionally recited, at least by Ashkenazi Jews, after Shacharit and Ma’ariv throughout the month of Elul. (I think that in Nusah Sefard, it’s recited after Minchah, instead.)

For those who have never seen it or need a refresher, here it is:

א לְדָוִד: ה’, אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי–מִמִּי אִירָא;
יְהוָה מָעוֹז-חַיַּי, מִמִּי אֶפְחָד.
1 [A Psalm] of David. The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
ב בִּקְרֹב עָלַי, מְרֵעִים– לֶאֱכֹל אֶת-בְּשָׂרִי:
צָרַי וְאֹיְבַי לִי; הֵמָּה כָשְׁלוּ וְנָפָלוּ.
2 When evil-doers came upon me to eat up my flesh,
even mine adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell.
ג אִם-תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי, מַחֲנֶה– לֹא-יִירָא לִבִּי:
אִם-תָּקוּם עָלַי, מִלְחָמָה– בְּזֹאת, אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ.
3 Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war should rise up against me, even then will I be confident.
ד אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-ה’– אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ.
4 One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.
ה כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי, בְּסֻכֹּה– בְּיוֹם רָעָה:
יַסְתִּרֵנִי, בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ; בְּצוּר, יְרוֹמְמֵנִי.
5 For He concealeth me in His pavilion in the day of evil;
He hideth me in the covert of His tent; He lifteth me up upon a rock.
ו וְעַתָּה יָרוּם רֹאשִׁי, עַל אֹיְבַי סְבִיבוֹתַי, וְאֶזְבְּחָה בְאָהֳלוֹ, זִבְחֵי תְרוּעָה;
אָשִׁירָה וַאֲזַמְּרָה, לַיהוָה.
6 And now shall my head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me; and I will offer in His tabernacle sacrifices with trumpet-sound;
I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the LORD.
ז שְׁמַע-יְהוָה קוֹלִי אֶקְרָא; וְחָנֵּנִי וַעֲנֵנִי. 7 Hear, O LORD, when I call with my voice, and be gracious unto me, and answer me.
ח לְךָ, אָמַר לִבִּי–בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי; אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ ה’ אֲבַקֵּשׁ. 8 In Thy behalf my heart hath said: ‘Seek ye My face’; Thy face, LORD, will I seek.
ט אַל-תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ, מִמֶּנִּי– אַל תַּט-בְּאַף, עַבְדֶּךָ:
עֶזְרָתִי הָיִיתָ; אַל-תִּטְּשֵׁנִי וְאַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי.
9 Hide not Thy face from me; put not Thy servant away in anger;
Thou hast been my help; cast me not off, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.
י כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי; וַיהוָה יַאַסְפֵנִי. 10 For though my father and my mother have forsaken me, the LORD will take me up.
יא הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דַּרְכֶּךָ: וּנְחֵנִי, בְּאֹרַח מִישׁוֹר–לְמַעַן, שׁוֹרְרָי. 11 Teach me Thy way, O LORD; and lead me in an even path, because of them that lie in wait for me.
יב אַל-תִּתְּנֵנִי, בְּנֶפֶשׁ צָרָי: כִּי קָמוּ-בִי עֵדֵי-שֶׁקֶר, וִיפֵחַ חָמָס. 12 Deliver me not over unto the will of mine adversaries; for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out violence.
יג לוּלֵא–הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-ה’: בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים. 13 If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!–
יד קַוֵּה, אֶל-ה’: חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-ה.’ 14 Wait on the LORD; be strong, and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the LORD.

The verse that always grabbed me was verse 10: “כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי; וַה’ יַאַסְפֵנִי”
/ For though my father and my mother have forsaken me, the LORD will take me up.

Except that, instead of “take me up,” I would say “gather me in.” As I commented on Heshbon Hanefesh’s post, all I want is for God to gather me in. Please, God, gather in all of my scattered bits. Sometimes, it feels as though bits of my life are flying off in their own directions, leaving a diminished “me” behind.

As an adolescent, I felt very abandoned by my parents, and that’s when this verse began to speak to me.

Writing now, on Rosh Hodesh Elul, I am very fearful. Not of God’s judgment, but of the process of Elul. Of it failing me, or me failing it. Of God slipping further and further away from me, beyond my grasp. I have lately had a much more difficult time connecting to Judaism, Jewish community, and Torah than I would like. I don’t really know why, or what’s going on exactly, but the severe depression of this past fall/winter has probably taken its toll on my spiritual life, which feels empty and depleted. I am often left wondering why I do all of the Jewish things that I do, in addition to what I am doing here on this earth.

I am also fearful of the shortening of the days, as Heshbon Hanefesh is. Fearful is too weak a word. Terrified is closer. I think that I have gotten progressively more and more depressed each of the past three autumns. Or maybe 1 (2008) and 3 (2010) were the worst. In any case, my psychiatrist said that seasonal affective disorder can start as early as August and that I’d better start using my light box. The bulb burned out at the end of last season and I finally ordered a new one today. But, hell. I can’t get depressed again. I can’t. I’m starting graduate school and will have a more structured environment, which should help, but also considerably more stress (both academic and financial), which may not. I’m not sure I ever really recovered from this past fall and winter’s bout.

Back to the Psalm–another verse, verse 4, has also long spoken to me, and I actually had it written on a shtender* that I bought in Jerusalem when I was eighteen: “אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה– אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ.”
“One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.”

I want God in my life, but I’m angry at God. I am having misgivings about organized religion. It feels like too much for me a lot of the time. I am not sure that one can have God, at least not the God I want and in the way that I want, without organized religion. I am also not sure that one can have community, or at least not the community that I want, without organized religion. Even though “community” often disappoints or infuriates or bores me, I don’t know what I would do without it.

I am hoping that I can put some thought/effort/writing into all of this, in one form or another, throughout Elul and arrive at a more satisfactory place than I find myself now.

What’s your Elul going to be about? How do you feel about Psalm 27?

[Here are some thoughts about teshuva from 2003/2009. This post wasn’t really about teshuva, interestingly enough. I’ll have to think about that some more!]

* Shtender is the Yiddish word for lectern. The one that I bought looked something like this.





“For these things I weep”: Tisha B’Av thoughts

8 08 2011
טז עַל-אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה, עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם–כִּי-רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם, מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי; הָיוּ בָנַי שׁוֹמֵמִים, כִּי גָבַר אוֹיֵב. 16 ‘For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water; because the comforter is far from me, even he that should refresh my soul; my children are desolate, because the enemy hath prevailed.’

This verse appears in Lamentations 1:16, part of Megillat Eichah, which Jews around the world read tonight, on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av.

For these things I weep? No, I weep for so many other things! I do not weep for these things.

* * *

I’ve been having mixed feelings about this year’s three-week long period of mourning since, oh, the 17th of Tammuz or so.

For the first time ever, I didn’t even make a pretense of fasting on the 17th of Tammuz, the day that starts off this mourning period. (I normally try and then I eat if I feel really sick later in the day, as Jewish law dictates for these minor rabbinic fasts.) In addition to the depression that I struggle with, I also have “food issues.” Not really an eating disorder, more like disordered eating. I was trying to eat better around the 17 of Tammuz, and that meant not skipping a day of food. I was also trying to get work done, and that required coffee. So I had breakfast with coffee and went to work.

It wasn’t that I didn’t feel sad; it was that I felt sad about the wrong things, and about nothing at all. You know how you can just cry and cry and cry and not even really know why, except that it feels like the world is going to end? Like nothing will ever be okay; like everything will always be broken? So, yes, I’ve had a bit of that lately. July and August are not normally a bad time for me; they’re usually somewhat neutral.

I didn’t want to “do” the Three Weeks. I didn’t feel like trying to deflate my already flailing mood. I didn’t go out to any live concerts during this period, but, let’s face it, I don’t usually go to live concerts all that often anyway.

But what to do about Tisha B’Av? I could not really be in the mood for commemorating the loss of the Temples in Jerusalem during the Three Weeks or Nine Days, and just do the minimal, rote requirement, but ignoring Tisha B’Av is out the question for me.

כ רְאֵה יְהוָה כִּי-צַר-לִי, מֵעַי חֳמַרְמָרוּ–נֶהְפַּךְ לִבִּי בְּקִרְבִּי 20 Behold, O LORD, for I am in distress, mine inwards burn; my heart is turned within me
כא שָׁמְעוּ כִּי נֶאֱנָחָה אָנִי, אֵין מְנַחֵם לִי 21 They have heard that I sigh, there is none to comfort me…

For one thing, there are these excerpts from the first chapter of Eichah that lay forth my pain for the world to see. I know it isn’t my pain, but it is. It is all of our collective pain, since the Temple was destroyed and everything went to hell. The agony of unceasing tears and of soul-rending sighs are expressed here, and are heard by the entire congregation, which sits on the floor, in the dark, partaking in the terribleness that was and still is. In Judaism, I feel like all of the pain that ever was, still is on Tisha B’Av. That’s part of the beauty of this religion that re-enacts both redemption and suffering, each in its own time, but together, as a community. “Behold my pain!” the author of Eichah proclaims in 1:18. “וּרְאוּ מַכְאֹבִי” How often do I want to shout that from the rooftops? Often. (Hence the blog, among other outlets.)

Just as Sukkot and Simchat Torah are difficult holidays for me, because they so often proclaim the “season of our joy” just as my Seasonal Affective Disorder is kicking into high gear, I find some solace in the open expression of sadness that Tisha B’Av welcomes into my community. Sadness is not only okay on this day, it’s required. Finally, something that’s easy for me! But also, the acknowledgment that sadness is a part of life, a part of our history, a part of our tradition, somehow makes me feel more a part of things, less on the sidelines, peering in through a window.

יא כָּלוּ בַדְּמָעוֹת עֵינַי, חֳמַרְמְרוּ מֵעַי–נִשְׁפַּךְ לָאָרֶץ כְּבֵדִי, עַל-שֶׁבֶר בַּת-עַמִּי: בֵּעָטֵף עוֹלֵל וְיוֹנֵק, בִּרְחֹבוֹת קִרְיָה. 11 Mine eyes do fail with tears, mine inwards burn, my liver is poured upon the earth, for the breach of the daughter of my people; because the young children and the sucklings swoon in the broad places of the city. {S}
יב לְאִמֹּתָם, יֹאמְרוּ, אַיֵּה, דָּגָן וָיָיִן: בְּהִתְעַטְּפָם כֶּחָלָל, בִּרְחֹבוֹת עִיר–בְּהִשְׁתַּפֵּךְ נַפְשָׁם, אֶל-חֵיק אִמֹּתָם. 12 They say to their mothers: ‘Where is corn and wine?’ when they swoon as the wounded in the broad places of the city, when their soul is poured out into their mothers’ bosom. {S}
יט קוּמִי רֹנִּי בליל (בַלַּיְלָה), לְרֹאשׁ אַשְׁמֻרוֹת–שִׁפְכִי כַמַּיִם לִבֵּךְ, נֹכַח פְּנֵי אֲדֹנָי; שְׂאִי אֵלָיו כַּפַּיִךְ, עַל-נֶפֶשׁ עוֹלָלַיִךְ–הָעֲטוּפִים בְּרָעָב, בְּרֹאשׁ כָּל-חוּצוֹת. 19 Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches; pour out thy heart like water before the face of the Lord; lift up thy hands toward Him for the life of thy young children, that faint for hunger at the head of every street.’ {S}

There is a second reason to not give up on Tisha B’Av, just yet. And that is the way that Tisha B’Av can try to pry me away from my own gaping pain and open my eyes to that of others. We don’t only cry for the loss of a building and sovereignty when we cry on Tisha B’Av. As illustrated by these verses from chapter two of Eichah, we also cry for the tremendous human suffering that accompanied the destruction of Jerusalem.

One of the many, many problems with being depressed and with struggling with depression is how self-centered it makes one. I wake up each morning wondering if I will make it through the day. Will I get up? Will I eat properly? Will I shower? Will I get any work done? How will I feel? Will it be better or worse than yesterday? The self-centeredness of my distress is, itself, distressing. I can’t necessarily force my way out of it. One thing that was great about a recent vacation that I took was how it took me outside of my closed little world of dark rooms and self-loathing and out into the world.

On that note, the American Jewish World Service recently put out a prayer for East Africa, specifically focusing on their terrible famine, in connection with Tisha B’Av. More here.

I hope that this Tisha B’Av and every future Tisha B’Av will turn from a day of sadness and mourning into a day of redemption and ever-lasting happiness. And I hope that you all find your ways through this difficult and confusing day of tears, but not the tears we’re used to. I’d love to hear your thoughts.