Hope and self-loathing

28 10 2013

I’ve posted some of my visual artwork here, but not too much. It’s time to post more. I’ve gotten back into drawing and painting in a major way recently, and it’s mostly a good thing. Maybe entirely a good thing.

There are water marks on these because I don’t want anyone to steal them. They’re also not incredibly in focus. I hope that doesn’t detract from your viewing too much. Thumbnails are below; click on each to see a full-size image.

This was one of my first (recent) efforts. It’s how I’ve been feeling about feelings/emotions lately.

Feelings

Feelings

The next two go together.

The first is how I feel so often, but I also feel like I need to put on a cheery, rainbow face and pretend that everything is just fine. I mean, really, why wouldn’t it be? The colors start out and end up straight, but bend into a rainbow in the middle on purpose. The straight, harsh lines of my life and mind often have to contort themselves into a rainbow to make myself presentable to the world.

The second is what I hear other people telling me about my life or their own, but it’s behind a thick screen of greenish, brownish, greyish gunk and I can’t access or feel it.

Life is Too...

Life is Too…

Ain't Life Grand?

Ain’t Life Grand?

Sometimes, I feel like this (piece not finished yet; maybe I’ll re-post when I’m done with it):

Hope

Hope

 

But, often, I feel full of this:

Self-loathing

Self-loathing

I adore this last one! I thought I might feel worse putting my thoughts down on paper in living color this way, but I actually feel better having drawn out those little furry monsters of self-loathing. It helps to externalize it. It is this thing that I feel; not something inherently a part of me that can’t be put down on paper because it’s so essential to my self. I was also able to hear the actual voices of various people in the little speaking bubbles that I put in there. Some are voices that seem to come from inside my own head, but others are things that I’ve heard others say about me or others and that (apparently) made a deep impression.

Future pieces may include:

  • “Desperation” (that’s what I wanted to do right after I finished “Hope,” but “Self-Loathing” reared its ugly head instead!)
  • “Anger”
  • “Failure”

I would also love to do some with explicitly Jewish content. The phrase “אִם אָמַרְתִּי מָטָה רַגְלִי חַסְדְּךָ ה’ יִסְעָדֵנִי” from Psalms 94:18 has been going through my head for some months now. (My translation: “If I say, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your mercy, God, will support me.”)

Advertisements




Jewish texts that spark discussion about suffering in Judaism

9 09 2013

I co-taught a class recently at a private Jewish event, about Jewish life and suffering due to mental illness (broadly defined–not only depression). We did not really discuss theology. The purpose of the discussion was just that–to discuss mental health and suffering through a Jewish lens. In retrospect, we accomplished our goal of having a discussion, but perhaps it all could have been a bit more focused. Everyone has such different experiences with both Judaism and mental health that it’s really hard to pin down something specific to talk about, beyond sharing our own personal experiences and how we have been able to–or unable to–help others.

These were the texts that my co-facilitator and I shared with the group. We used these in various ways. I would love to hear any thoughts or reflections that you may have on these texts, or on the problem that I mentioned above (of narrowing the focus of the session).

The Biblical translations are based on the new JPS (1985).

Psalms 100:2

עִבְד֣וּ אֶת־הבְּשִׂמְחָ֑ה בֹּ֥אוּ לְ֝פָנָ֗יו בִּרְנָנָֽה׃

Worship the Lord in gladness; come into His presence with shouts of joy.

 Ethics of the Fathers, 1:15

הֱוֶי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת

Greet every person with a pleasant face.

Psalms 51

יח כִּי, לֹאתַחְפֹּץ זֶבַח וְאֶתֵּנָה; עוֹלָה, לֹא תִרְצֶה.

18 You do not want me to bring sacrifices;
You do not desire burnt offerings.

יט זִבְחֵי אֱלֹקִים, רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה:
לֵבנִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּהאֱלֹקִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה.

19 True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.

Lamentations 1:16

עַלאֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה, עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם–כִּירָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם, מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי

For these things do I weep, my eyes flow with tears. Far from me is any comforter who might revive my spirit…

ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשה ז:ב – Midrash Leviticus Rabba 7:2

וידבר האל משה לאמור: צו את אהרון ואת בניו לאמר זאת תורת העולה (ויקרא ו:אב)

[ב] זבחי אלקים רוח נשברה(תהלים נא, יט)

אמר רב אבא בר יודן: כל מה שפסל בבהמה הכשיר באדם. מה פסל בבהמה, עורת או שבור או חרוץ או יבלת אולא תקריבו אלה לה (ויקרא כב, כב), הכשיר באדם, זבחי אלקים רוח נשברה, לב נשבר ונדכה אלקים לא תבזה(תהלים נא, יט).

אמר רב אלכסנדרי: ההדיוט הזה, אם משתמש בכלי שבור גניי הוא לו, אבל הקבה כל כלי תשמישיו שבורין הן, דכתיב קרוב הלנשברי לב(תהלים לד, יט), הרופא לשבורי לב(תהלים קמז, ג), מרום וקדוש אשכון ואת דכא ושפל רוח להחיות רוח שפלים ולהחיות לב נדכאים(ישעיה נז, טו), לב נשבר ונדכה.

God spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons saying, ‘This shall be the law of the burnt offering…’ (Vayikra 6:1-2)
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise (Ps. 51:19).

R. Abba b. Judan said: Whatever the holy One, blessed be He, declared unfit in the case of an animal, He declared fit in the case of man. In animals he declared unfit: Anything blind, or injured, or maimed, or with a wen, boil-scar, or scurvy – such you shall not offer to the Lord (Lev. 22, 22), whereas in man He declared fit A broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:19) [to be true sacrifice]. R. Alexandri said: If an ordinary person makes use of broken vessel, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy One, blessed be He, are precisely broken ones, as it is said, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit He delivers (Ps. 34:19); He heals the broken hearts (Ps. 147:3); I dwell in the high and holy place; Yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit – reviving the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the contrite (Isaiah 57: 15). A broken and contrite heart

Psalms 6

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ בִּנְגִינוֹת, עַלהַשְּׁמִינִית; מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the Leader; with instrumental music; on the sheminith. A psalm of David.

ב יְהוָה, אַלבְּאַפְּךָ תוֹכִיחֵנִי; וְאַלבַּחֲמָתְךָ תְיַסְּרֵנִי.

2 O LORD, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.

ג חָנֵּנִי ה‘, כִּי אֻמְלַלאָנִי: רְפָאֵנִי ה‘–כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמָי.

3 Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I languish; heal me, O LORD, for my bones shake with terror.

ד וְנַפְשִׁי, נִבְהֲלָה מְאֹד; ואת (וְאַתָּה) ה‘, עַדמָתָי.

4 My whole being is stricken with terror; while You, LORD—O, how long!

ה שׁוּבָה ה‘, חַלְּצָה נַפְשִׁי; הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי, לְמַעַן חַסְדֶּךָ.

5 O LORD! rescue me! Deliver me as befits your faithfulness.

ו כִּי אֵין בַּמָּוֶת זִכְרֶךָ; בִּשְׁאוֹל, מִי יוֹדֶהלָּךְ.

6 For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?

ז יָגַעְתִּי, בְּאַנְחָתִיאַשְׂחֶה בְכָללַיְלָה, מִטָּתִי; בְּדִמְעָתִי, עַרְשִׂי אַמְסֶה.

7 I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed; I melt my couch in tears.

ח עָשְׁשָׁה מִכַּעַס עֵינִי; עָתְקָה, בְּכָלצוֹרְרָי.

8 My eyes are wasted by vexation; worn out because of all my foes.

ט סוּרוּ מִמֶּנִּי, כָּלפֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן: כִּישָׁמַע ה‘, קוֹל בִּכְיִי.

9 Away from me, all you evildoers, for the LORD heeds the sound of weeping.

י שָׁמַע ה‘, תְּחִנָּתִי; ה‘, תְּפִלָּתִי יִקָּח.

10 The LORD heeds my plea, the LORD accepts my prayer.

יא יֵבֹשׁוּ, וְיִבָּהֲלוּ מְאֹדכָּלאֹיְבָי; יָשֻׁבוּ, יֵבֹשׁוּ רָגַע.

11 All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.

Psalms 13

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ, מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the leader. A psalm of David.

ב עַדאָנָה ה‘, תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח; עַדאָנָה, תַּסְתִּיר אֶתפָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי.

2 How long, O LORD; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

ג עַדאָנָה אָשִׁית עֵצוֹת, בְּנַפְשִׁייָגוֹן בִּלְבָבִי יוֹמָם;

עַדאָנָה, יָרוּם אֹיְבִי עָלָי.

3 How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

ד הַבִּיטָה עֲנֵנִי, האֱלֹקָי; הָאִירָה עֵינַי, פֶּןאִישַׁן הַמָּוֶת.

4 Look at me, answer me, O LORD, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;

ה פֶּןיֹאמַר אֹיְבִי יְכָלְתִּיו; צָרַי יָגִילוּ, כִּי אֶמּוֹט.

5 Lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him”; my foes exult when I totter.

ו וַאֲנִי, בְּחַסְדְּךָ בָטַחְתִּייָגֵל לִבִּי, בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ:

אָשִׁירָה לַיהוָה, כִּי גָמַל עָלָי.

6 But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in your deliverance.
I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, excerpt from “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 17:2 (Spring 1978), p. 65 (I have shared this text on this blog before)

Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person’s own need-awareness is dull, and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence, which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence. Need-awareness turns into a passional experience, into a suffering awareness. Dolorem ferre ergo sum — I suffer, therefore I am — to paraphrase Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. While the Cartesian cogito would also apply to an angel or even to the devil, our inference is limited to man: neither angel nor devil knows suffering.

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs.”

Wishing all of my readers a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year!





“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.





Psalm 116: “Return, O my soul, unto thy rest”

16 12 2009

I don’t have a plan yet for the long-term viability of this project, but, in the spirit of the “one day at a time” attitude that I am desperately trying to cultivate in myself, I had a short thought that I would like to share in honor of Chanukah, the holiday of light and the redemptive power of hope. (See this post from last year for a longer thought about Chanukah.) I also wanted to thank you all for your comments, both public and private. They mean the world to me. And, rest assured that I won’t continue with this if I decide that it isn’t good for me. I need to balance that feeling, though, with the thought that it might just actually be my best chance at (psychological, if not spiritual) redemption. Scary. (Oh, let’s be realistic, what isn’t?)

Psalm 116 appears in the Hallel that we say every morning during Chanukah.

Psalms Chapter 116 תְּהִלִּים

א אָהַבְתִּי, כִּי-יִשְׁמַע יְהוָה–    אֶת-קוֹלִי, תַּחֲנוּנָי. 1 I love that the LORD should hear my voice and my supplications.
ב כִּי-הִטָּה אָזְנוֹ לִי;    וּבְיָמַי אֶקְרָא. 2 Because He hath inclined His ear unto me, therefore will I call upon Him all my days.
ג אֲפָפוּנִי, חֶבְלֵי-מָוֶת–וּמְצָרֵי שְׁאוֹל מְצָאוּנִי;    צָרָה וְיָגוֹן אֶמְצָא. 3 The cords of death compassed me, and the straits of the nether-world got hold upon me; I found trouble and sorrow.
ד וּבְשֵׁם-יְהוָה אֶקְרָא:    אָנָּה יְהוָה, מַלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי. 4 But I called upon the name of the LORD: ‘I beseech thee, O LORD, deliver my soul.’
ה חַנּוּן יְהוָה וְצַדִּיק;    וֵאלֹהֵינוּ מְרַחֵם. 5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yea, our God is compassionate.
ו שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם יְהוָה;    דַּלֹּתִי, וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ. 6 The LORD preserveth the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me.
ז שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי, לִמְנוּחָיְכִי:    כִּי-יְהוָה, גָּמַל עָלָיְכִי. 7 Return, O my soul, unto thy rest; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee.
ח כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת:    אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה; אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי. 8 For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה–    בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים. 9 I shall walk before the LORD in the lands of the living.
י הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, כִּי אֲדַבֵּר;    אֲנִי, עָנִיתִי מְאֹד. 10 I trusted even when I spoke: ‘I am greatly afflicted.’
יא אֲנִי, אָמַרְתִּי בְחָפְזִי:    כָּל-הָאָדָם כֹּזֵב. 11 I said in my haste: ‘All men are liars.’
יב מָה-אָשִׁיב לַיהוָה–    כָּל-תַּגְמוּלוֹהִי עָלָי. 12 How can I repay unto the LORD all His bountiful dealings toward me?
יג כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא;    וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא. 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
יד נְדָרַי, לַיהוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם;    נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ. 14 My vows will I pay unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people.
טו יָקָר, בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה–    הַמָּוְתָה, לַחֲסִידָיו. 15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.
טז אָנָּה יְהוָה,    כִּי-אֲנִי עַבְדֶּךָ:
אֲנִי-עַבְדְּךָ, בֶּן-אֲמָתֶךָ;    פִּתַּחְתָּ, לְמוֹסֵרָי.
16 I beseech Thee, O LORD, for I am Thy servant; {N}
I am Thy servant, the son of Thy handmaid; Thou hast loosed my bands.
יז לְךָ-אֶזְבַּח, זֶבַח תּוֹדָה;    וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא. 17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.
יח נְדָרַי, לַיהוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם;    נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ. 18 I will pay my vows unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people;
יט בְּחַצְרוֹת, בֵּית יְהוָה–    בְּתוֹכֵכִי יְרוּשָׁלִָם:
הַלְלוּ-יָהּ.
19 In the courts of the LORD’S house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. {N}
Hallelujah.

The entire Psalm is beautiful.

Here, in the middle of the joyous Hallel, where mountains dance like rams, we admit that we are, right now, in a place of “trouble and sorrow.”

Now that I look, I see that other parts of Hallel also contain a strong element of calling out to God from the narrow place, or מיצר. For some reason, I always had the impression of Hallel being a wholly celebratory, happy sort of collection of Psalms (that I loved to hate on when depressed). I probably had that assumption because we say it at celebratory occasions, like Chanukah, Sukkot, Pesach, and Rosh Chodesh. Also, probably, because this Psalm as well as many of the others is expressing the point of view of a person who has already been saved or redeemed: “וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ.” “He saved me.” “כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת:    אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה; אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי.” “For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.” But before today, I never noticed that some of Hallel can be read as coming from a place of deep despair.

I think that my favorite line from this Psalm is the fervent hope expressed in these distressed words from the seventh verse:
“!שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי, לִמְנוּחָיְכִי”
“Let my soul return to your rest!”

My soul, which was once at rest and at peace, is no longer. I beseech you, God, to return my soul to your rest, to your peace, to your comfort. Please God, listen to me, and speak to me, and, most importantly, let me hear your words and feel your eternal presence in my life.

The word, “מְנוּחָיְכִי” which comes from the root נח, or rest, has many connotations to me. Rest and comfort, but also, somehow, a loving embrace of God. Perhaps because it sounds (a little bit) like the word חיבוק, or hug. I don’t know why.

I am certainly not feeling that מנוחה, or rest, at the moment, but it’s times like these that I am so glad that I have these resources at my disposal. These words, in my lips and on my heart, with which to say:

Please, God, let me have back what I once had.

Please, God, let me have the kind of peaceful, restful soul that I imagine that others have, that may have always eluded me.

Please, God, incline your ear towards me. Be gracious and compassionate even when I cannot be. Especially when I cannot be.

And if it’s not quite true that “הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, כִּי אֲדַבֵּר;    אֲנִי, עָנִיתִי מְאֹד,” “I trusted even when I spoke: ‘I am greatly afflicted,'” well, maybe saying the words makes it so. In this case, I sort of think it does. Whatever reason I say these words, my saying them, in the midst of my great affliction, means that I still have hope or trust in God, or something greater than myself and my own deep personal pain and sorrow. I must still believe, a teeny tiny bit, in redemption, or I wouldn’t say these words.

And, finally, the words that get me every time:

ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה–    בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים. 9 I shall walk before the LORD in the lands of the living.

I shall. Because that’s where God wants me, and that’s where I will be able to “כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא” or “lift up the cup of salvation.”

Happy Chanukah!





Psalm 51: An alternative to Elohai Nishama

26 01 2009

God’s protection and control, as stated in the “אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה” prayer, rankles at times. It seems entirely untrue. On some mornings, the declaration of “וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי” “and You preserve it within me,” rather than being comforting and reassuring, chafes against my lived reality. If God protects my soul within me, why do I feel like my soul is battered, bruised, and blackened? If this is God’s idea of preserving the purity of my soul, that’s not a very promising indication of God’s abilities! And what kind of “אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת,” “master of all souls,” is this? This is part of a much broader question of God’s omnipotence and intervention in our lives, but on some mornings, praising God for protecting and sustaining me simply feels empty and false. What do I do? I say the words anyway, even though they leave a bad taste in my mouth, and I try to focus more carefully on what feels true to me at the moment.

Psalm 51 is helpful for presenting a different option for thinking about the purity or impurity of our hearts and our souls, and what sort of protection we can expect or not expect from God.

The Psalmist, speaking in the voice of King David, who has just been reprimanded by the prophet Nathan for killing Uriah in order to marry Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, does not feel that his heart is pure. Many of his feelings about himself seem more familiar to me than the declaration of the אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה prayer.

Verse 12 reads:

יב לֵב טָהוֹר, בְּרָא-לִי אֱלֹהִים;  וְרוּחַ נָכוֹן, חַדֵּשׁ בְּקִרְבִּי. 12 Create a pure heart for me, O God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.

This verse was a popular song when I was teenager. I remember noticing that people around me, and thus I, usually sang “לֵב טָהוֹר, בָּרָא-לִי אֱלֹהִים” instead of “לֵב טָהוֹר, בְּרָא-לִי אֱלֹהִים.” It’s not a big difference–just one vowel–but the meaning in difference is significant. What people were singing was “God created a pure heart for me,” in the mode of the “אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה” prayer, rather than what the verse says, which is “Create a pure heart for me.” The actual verse is a request of God. Our hearts may or may not have been created pure once-upon-a-time. (It seems that our spirits were once steadfast, since we are asking God to renew them, not to create them that way for the first time.) Our hearts are certainly not pure now, and we want them to be. God did not succeed at protecting them or us. That is the naked truth of this psalm. Our hearts become impure; battered; blackened. We ask God to help us purify them, or, in even stronger terms, to create new hearts and souls for us.

As I sometimes do, David feels that he arrived defective from the factory (Psalms 51:7), although perhaps in stronger terms than I would use.

ז הֵן-בְּעָווֹן חוֹלָלְתִּי;  וּבְחֵטְא, יֶחֱמַתְנִי אִמִּי. 7 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Note that I do not mean to imply through this analysis of Psalm 51 that I think that sin and depression are equivalent. It only seems useful to adopt the language that David uses to describe how awful he feels after having sinned, to describe how awful I feel when I am depressed. It is somehow reassuring to find my emotions reflected in ancient Psalms, even if the events that serve as catalysts for those emotions are very different.

In the next verse, he prays for wisdom, which I have certainly done:

ח …וּבְסָתֻם, חָכְמָה תוֹדִיעֵנִי. 8 …make me to know wisdom in mine inmost heart.

Other things he says in this chapter of Psalms also resonate. David feels blackened, and in need of purification. He wishes to be full of joy and gladness. He feels crushed and beaten down and hopes he won’t feel this way forever. Unlike the “אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה” prayer, David does not seem to feel that God protects his soul, that God is “אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת,” master of all souls. He recognizes that bad things happen in the course of our lives; things that require fixing, purification, and constant renewal. What we are created with is not always enough. We need periodic infusions, washes, purges, and help from God throughout our lives. Our souls do not remain pure or static.

ט תְּחַטְּאֵנִי בְאֵזוֹב וְאֶטְהָר; תְּכַבְּסֵנִי, וּמִשֶּׁלֶג אַלְבִּין. 9 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
י תַּשְׁמִיעֵנִי, שָׂשׂוֹן וְשִׂמְחָה; תָּגֵלְנָה, עֲצָמוֹת דִּכִּיתָ. 10 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which Thou hast crushed may rejoice.
יב לֵב טָהוֹר, בְּרָא-לִי אֱלֹהִים; וְרוּחַ נָכוֹן, חַדֵּשׁ בְּקִרְבִּי. 12 Create me a clean heart, O God; and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

The word that David uses to say “You have crushed” is “דִּכִּיתָ.” Interestingly, the root of this word is the same as the Hebrew word for clinical depression, which is “דִּכָּאוֹן.” (This word also appears later in this chapter, in verse 19, in reference to David’s crushed and contrite heart, sickened by recognition of his sin.)

I love the following verses. How much do I wish I felt like I was in God’s presence! How often do I feel cast away from God! How badly do I yearn for a willing spirit to uphold me and a restoration of joy!

יג אַל-תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי מִלְּפָנֶיךָ; וְרוּחַ קָדְשְׁךָ, אַל-תִּקַּח מִמֶּנִּי. 13 Cast me not away from Thy presence; and take not Thy holy spirit from me.
יד הָשִׁיבָה לִּי, שְׂשׂוֹן יִשְׁעֶךָ; וְרוּחַ נְדִיבָה תִסְמְכֵנִי. 14 Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation; and let a willing spirit uphold me.

If we skip a few verses about bloodguilt, which are, thankfully, irrelevant to my current state of mind, we arrive at a verse that is directly connected to prayer. It is recited right before we begin the Amidah, and asks for God’s to help us pray.

יז אֲדֹנָי, שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח; וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ. 17 O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.

This verse is a humble recognition that we cannot go it alone. We need God to open our lips, and perhaps our hearts, before we can declare His praise. We may yearn for a God who is in the driver’s seat, who protects our souls and keeps them pure, but in the end, Psalm 51 often presents a more realistic view for me of the imperfect state of my heart and soul, coupled with a yearning for a God who will help me fix it all.





“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

23 12 2008

Chanukah is a usually a sad time of year for me. A friend of mine died eight years ago, on the first night of Chanukah. I spent time with my grandfather over Chanukah in 2003, when he was dying of cancer. After that, I used to light via phone with my grandmother so she wouldn’t have to light alone and now she, too, is gone.

Last year, I spent some time thinking about lighting candles at the darkest time of the year and how Chanukah could stop being solely about sadness and loss for me. I thought about the miracle of Chanukah being not that we won some short-lived military victory against the Seleucids, or that the oil lasted eight days instead of one, but that we bother to light candles during this dark, depressing time of year at all, rather than huddling under the covers and waiting for the sunlight to return.

I thought about this idea a lot in the years immediately following my friend’s death, when I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of celebrating anything on anyone’s yahrzeit. Lighting candles? Singing Hallel? Whatever for? It seems impossible, but, lo and behold!, through the intervention of time, fading memory, and increased focus on the gifts we received from a person during her lifetime, we somehow live to celebrate again.

This idea–that there is value in lighting candles for eight nights simply to celebrate light during the darkest time of the year–is not a modern invention of the ecumenical mind, striving to find a unifying theme behind Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanza. The Talmud itself (Tractate Avoda Zara, 8a) mentions the idea:

ת”ר: לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר, “אוי לי, שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו, וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים!” עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית [ובתפלה]. כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר “מנהגו של עולם הוא.” הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים

“Our rabbis taught: When Adam saw the days becoming shorter, he said: ‘Woe is to me, because I have sinned and the world is returning to chaos!’ He prayed and fasted until the winter equinox when he noticed the days becoming longer. ‘This is the way of the world,’ he said, and he established an eight day festival.'”

I don’t know about you, but I have many days during the darkness of December (as well as October and November) when I think, “Woe is to me…the world is returning to chaos!” Whether I attribute this to my own sins or not is a separate matter entirely. But, my God! You don’t need to have to have full-fledged Seasonal Affective Disorder to fear the clutching darkness of winter!

Unlike Adam, we do not need to pray and fast to ensure the continuation of our world. Instead, we rely on our experiences from the past, of woe and chaos descending upon us and then, in time, being lifted, to know that, as Adam said,  “This is the way of the world.”

The idea that chaos and darkness are an inherent part of the world is integral to my theology. My God who is the God who is “יוצר אור ובורא חשך,” “creator of light and creates darkness.” [See blessings before the morning Sh’ma.] I don’t believe in a God who is all lightness. I believe in a God who creates darkness, too. I don’t understand the darkness most of the time, but I believe that it comes from God. Hand-in-hand with this belief comes the faith that, as the morning follows the night, spiritual and emotional light inevitably follow the deepest darkness.

The world is a mean, nasty place sometimes. Some nights, some Decembers of the soul, seem interminable. Depression always feels like a forever state to me–like I always was, and will always be, depressed. Even though I may intellectually recognize that I was not always depressed, that it comes and goes, my emotional memory is of the past being one big black pit, which no sunlight could permeate. Somehow, my experience of depression lessening in the past does not carry through to the present. Being unable to recall past happinesses is only one of the many curses of depression. But these flickering Chanukah candles remind me, in a tangible way, that this is false. They are a device to remind us that it is not always dark. Light is a real possibility. Dawn will approach, and whether I try to hasten its approach by lighting candles or by sitting in front of a light box or not, it will come. It will come, and I don’t need to sit weeping and lamenting in the darkness until it does. I can do something about it. I can light candles.

Despite Noah’s and our worst fears, God will not return the world to chaos. That is the covenant that God made with Noah and all of humanity after the flood. This is the miracle of Chanukah for me–that we have faith in “יוצר אור ובורא חשך,” “creator of light and creates darkness”–that we actually go ahead and light candles in the darkness, that we combine our faith in God’s hand in our lives with our own efforts at hastening the arrival of the dawn.

During Chanukah, it is customary to recite the 30th Psalm, because of the connection between the Maccabean rededication of the Temple and the original dedication of the Temple. In a beautiful confluence, this verse speaks to  the idea of a God who creates light and darkness, and a God who promises not to let us languish in the pit forever although he makes no promises against us falling into that dark space in the first place. Some of the most relevant verses to that theme are highlighted below:

א מִזְמוֹר: שִׁיר-חֲנֻכַּת הַבַּיִת לְדָוִד. 1 A Psalm; a Song at the Dedication of the House; of David.
ב אֲרוֹמִמְךָ יְהוָה, כִּי דִלִּיתָנִי; וְלֹא-שִׂמַּחְתָּ אֹיְבַי לִי. 2 I will extol thee, O LORD, for Thou hast raised me up, and hast not suffered mine enemies to rejoice over me.
ג יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי– שִׁוַּעְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ, וַתִּרְפָּאֵנִי. 3 O LORD my God, I cried unto Thee, and Thou didst heal me;
ד יְהוָה–הֶעֱלִיתָ מִן-שְׁאוֹל נַפְשִׁי; חִיִּיתַנִי, מיורדי- (מִיָּרְדִי-) בוֹר . 4 O LORD, Thou broughtest up my soul from the nether-world; Thou didst keep me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.
ה זַמְּרוּ לַיהוָה חֲסִידָיו; וְהוֹדוּ, לְזֵכֶר קָדְשׁוֹ. 5 Sing praise unto the LORD, O ye His godly ones, and give thanks to His holy name.
ו כִּי רֶגַע, בְּאַפּוֹ– חַיִּים בִּרְצוֹנוֹ:
בָּעֶרֶב, יָלִין בֶּכִי; וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה.
6 For His anger is but for a moment, His favour is for a life-time; weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.
ז וַאֲנִי, אָמַרְתִּי בְשַׁלְוִי– בַּל-אֶמּוֹט לְעוֹלָם. 7 Now I had said in my security: ‘I shall never be moved.’
ח יְהוָה– בִּרְצוֹנְךָ, הֶעֱמַדְתָּה לְהַרְרִי-עֹז:
הִסְתַּרְתָּ פָנֶיךָ; הָיִיתִי נִבְהָל.
8 Thou hadst established, O LORD, in Thy favour my mountain as a stronghold– Thou didst hide Thy face; I was affrighted.
ט אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה אֶקְרָא; וְאֶל-אֲדֹנָי, אֶתְחַנָּן. 9 Unto Thee, O LORD, did I call, and unto the LORD I made supplication:
י מַה-בֶּצַע בְּדָמִי, בְּרִדְתִּי אֶל-שָׁחַת:
הֲיוֹדְךָ עָפָר; הֲיַגִּיד אֲמִתֶּךָ
.
10 ‘What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise Thee? shall it declare Thy truth?
יא שְׁמַע-יְהוָה וְחָנֵּנִי; יְהוָה, הֱיֵה-עֹזֵר לִי. 11 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious unto me; LORD, be Thou my helper.’
יב הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי, לְמָחוֹל לִי: פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי; וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה. 12 Thou didst turn for me my mourning into dancing; Thou didst loose my sackcloth, and gird me with gladness;
יג לְמַעַן, יְזַמֶּרְךָ כָבוֹד– וְלֹא יִדֹּם:
יְהוָה אֱלֹהַי, לְעוֹלָם אוֹדֶךָּ.
13 So that my glory may sing praise to Thee, and not be silent;
O LORD my God, I will give thanks unto Thee for ever.

I will write more about this psalm when I get to that part of Shacharit, but for now, I will say that this Psalm reflects my belief that God does hide his face. We do become frightened as Adam did when the days seemed about to shrink into oblivion. But God eventually turns our mourning into dancing. God promises us that nothing that is bad will be bad forever. Redemption will come. We will be girded with gladness one day, and live to praise God again.

It sometimes seems like extreme folly to praise the God who brings darkness, the God who causes the days to shorten, the God who takes away the dawn of friends, family, and life itself, and who causes us to gird ourselves with sackcloth in the first place. I choose to believe, instead, that such praise of God is part of the miracle of faith, of recovery, and of the dawn that follows the darkness.

* * * * *

Postscript: I wrote most of this for Chanukah last year. To be perfectly honest, it is much more hopeful than I feel at the moment. The weeping is tarrying for much longer than a night and for much longer than I would like, and the dawn of joy seems impossibly far away. However, I am still lighting Chanukah candles, so perhaps there is still hope. Sometimes you just do the actions and the feelings follow later.





A prayer for prayer

24 11 2008

I found this in צלותא דאברהם, a siddur that I’ve been looking through. I thought it was beautiful.

It is a compilation of verses from Psalms that is meant to be said when one arrives at one’s prayer space in shul, but I can think of many other times for which it would also be appropriate. (I believe that there is a more formal prayer for prayer in Masechet Brachot, but I have not tracked it down yet.)

רַגְלִי, עָמְדָה בְמִישׁוֹר; בְּמַקְהֵלִים, אֲבָרֵךְ יְהוָהוַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי-לְךָ יְהוָה, עֵת רָצוֹן– אֱלֹהִים בְּרָב-חַסְדֶּךָ; עֲנֵנִי, בֶּאֱמֶת יִשְׁעֶךָ. הַקְשִׁיבָה, לְקוֹל שַׁוְעִי–מַלְכִּי וֵאלֹהָי: כִּי-אֵלֶיךָ, אֶתְפַּלָּל. יְהוָה–בֹּקֶר, תִּשְׁמַע קוֹלִי; בֹּקֶר אֶעֱרָךְ-לְךָ, וַאֲצַפֶּה. אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה אֶקְרָא; וְאֶל-אֲדֹנָי, אֶתְחַנָּן. שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי יְהוָה, וְשַׁוְעָתִי הַאֲזִינָה–אֶל-דִּמְעָתִי, אַל-תֶּחֱרַשׁ: שְׁמַע קוֹל תַּחֲנוּנַי, בְּשַׁוְּעִי אֵלֶיךָ; בְּנָשְׂאִי יָדַי, אֶל-דְּבִיר קָדְשֶׁךָ. אֲנִי-קְרָאתִיךָ כִי-תַעֲנֵנִי אֵל; הַט-אָזְנְךָ לִי, שְׁמַע אִמְרָתִי. אֲדֹנָי, שִׁמְעָה בְקוֹלִי: תִּהְיֶינָה אָזְנֶיךָ, קַשֻּׁבוֹת– לְקוֹל, תַּחֲנוּנָי.

My feet are on level ground. In assemblies I will bless the Lord. As for me, may my prayer come to You, O Lord, at a favorable moment; O God, in Your abundant faithfulness, answer me with Your sure deliverance. Heed the sound of my cry, my king and God, for I pray to You. Hear my voice, O Lord, at daybreak; at daybreak I plead before You, and wait. I called to You, O Lord; to my Lord I made appeal. Hear my prater, O Lord; give ear to my cry; do not disregard my tears. Listen to my plea for mercy when I cry out to You, when I lift my hands toward Your inner sanctuary. I call on You; You will answer me, God; turn Your ear to me, hear what I say. O Lord, listen to my cry; let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.

This is a prayer for both the prayer–the words being uttered, to “reach God in a favorable moment,” and for the prayer–the person praying, to be heard, answered, turned to, and not disregarded. I have a particular fondness for prayers or verses that make reference to ours tears, since I have shed a lot of them. God may disregard hastily muttered rote prayers, but surely he would not disregard tears! I also love the idea of praying for our prayers to be answered. The very idea tickles something in me.

One of the verses cited here, Psalms 39:13, which starts with the beautifully evocative “שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי יְהוָה, וְשַׁוְעָתִי הַאֲזִינָה–אֶל-דִּמְעָתִי, אַל-תֶּחֱרַשׁ:,” ends with a curious phrase: “כִּי גֵר אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ,” which I would translate as “Because I am a stranger with You.” What does it mean to be a stranger with God? To me, it means feeling alienated from God, distant from God, distrusting and wary of God–something I feel not infrequently.

The new JPS translation, however, translates these four words together with the rest of the verse: “כִּי גֵר אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ; תּוֹשָׁב, כְּכָל-אֲבוֹתָי,” “for like all my forebears, I am an alien, resident with You.” What does it mean to be a “resident alien” with God? The same words are used by Abraham at the beginning of last week’s parsha, Chayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:4), when he buys a place to bury his wife, Sarah, realizing that despite his long sojourn in the land of Canaan, he doesn’t have rights to a burial plot there because he doesn’t have ancestors there.

I am feeling the tension between being a resident and being an alien right now. On the one hand, this prayer or compilation of Psalms really pulls me–I want to be there, every morning, in my place, calling out to God, asking him to hear me, certain that He will listen to me, hoping he will answer me. I want to be a resident with God, and through my strong familiarity with prayer, I feel somewhat like I am. But, at the moment, God and I are strangers. I am not there every morning, walking in to shul, with these beautiful words on my lips, ready to call out to God and be sure that he will not disregard my tears.

So, instead of praying, I write about prayer.