Mourning, Mortality, Psalm 39, and Tish B’Av

Preparing for Tish B’Av tonight, as a non-Jew I have never done the fasting this sombre holy day requires. I know I have a lot to learn about all the reasons for us to remember this day with great mourning and prayer for not only Israel but for all of us, for God’s mercy to protect us from tragedies like this. Here is a great summary of the tragic events throughout history on the 9th of Av:

So, this year my heart calls me to fast and commit myself to mourning the terrible destruction and countless precious lives lost. I feel it like a tide pull in my DNA that there is much more to mourn that I have avoided for too long—our cruelty, judgmentalism, and intolerance toward others, even to those we love the most. I don’t have to look far to see this in action, which is precisely why I always avoid too much self-inspection and keep myself as busy as possible doing good deeds and congratulating myself for my excellent motives. Hah!

This will be a Psalm 39 day, and one we need to live through in order to even hope to become more generous, kind, patient, steady, and faithful people. Perhaps it has a lot to do with our view of our own and our loved ones’ mortality. If we can find a way to stop spending so much of our spiritual and psychological energy on protecting our lives, the lights might go on, and the shift in thinking we crave could take place.

“My heart grew hot within me, in my contemplations a fire blazed; then I spoke out audibly: ‘Let me know, O Hashem, my end, and the measure of my days, what it is; may I know when I will cease.’ . . . all is but total futility—all human existence.” (Psalm 39: 4-6)

It’s no accident that the Haftarah for this week’s Torah portion of D’Varim is Isaiah 1:1-27. Despite all the dire warnings, it ends with a call to repent and return to God to be made whole again. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? That’s because it is, when you take the fear of death out of the equation.

As always, my daily reading of George MacDonald’s poetry slates today’s reading with this cry for help:

Lord, let my soul o’erburdened then feel thee
Thrilling through all its brain’s stupidity.
If I must slumber, heedless of ill harms,
Let it not be but in my Father’s arms;
Outside the shelter of his garment’s fold
All is a waste, a terror-haunted wold.
Lord, keep me. ‘Tis thy child that cries. Behold.
(George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, July 25 reading)

Add a PS to all of this—the wonderful Prayer for Resurrection in the liturgy of daily Jewish prayers:

“As long as the soul is in me, I thank You,
Hashem, my God and the God of my forefathers, the Master of all Deeds,
The Master of all souls.
Blessed are You, Hashem,
Who restores souls to dead bodies.”

As Pippin would say, “Well, that isn’t so bad.”

And we can agree with Gandalf, “No. No, it isn’t.”Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 9.30.54 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-25 at 9.31.07 PM

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Our Relationships

I love a good romantic story where two people, who clearly were meant to be together forever, somehow find each other successfully and weather all the storms of doubt and distrust to walk off into the sunset, holding hands, their faces alight with delirious hope. Why is it that in real life, at least one of them is often walking dangerously near the spirit of dread?

No other relationship in our lives is more attractive, worrisome, pivotal, or essential as the one we have with our chosen beloved. It seems that there is always some kind of tweaking needed, as if deep veins of gold should be discovered more quickly to confirm the value of our choice.

gold miners1

Many times, when a relationship shatters or fails to even start, at least one of the participants discovers a disappointing lack of treasure. You dig and you dig and you look and you look, but there’s just not enough gold there. He doesn’t have enough manly stamina, she can’t maintain her attractiveness, he ultimately fails the devotion test, she isn’t grateful enough.

gold miner2

I always wonder what God thinks of these relationships strewn about the vast junkyard of dashed hopes and false starts. Does it matter to Him what we do with each other’s hearts when we tinker with eternal commitments and discard or devalue them?

“What is frail man that You should remember him, and the son of mortal man that You should be mindful of him?” asks Psalm 8 (Artscroll Tehillim). Why should we worry about God’s opinion when we’re just shopping, just testing the waters? I’m sure He doesn’t want us to rush into anything until we are absolutely certain, until we have prayed, inspected, evaluated, waited, and prayed through it again.

Maybe these so-called relationships “of ours” aren’t really ours at all. Maybe it’s not about what we “make” of them, whether they are long or short, whether we are loyal, committed, wandering, or unsure. What if that loser guy you ditched after three weeks of testing became a lifelong friend? What if that girl who didn’t quite measure up to your standards stood by you in a time of crisis? What if each time we give some of our heart—even just a guarded, tiny part of it—the tenderness, the yearning, the hope becomes part of each person involved?

Perhaps there is more to this relationship business than meets the eye. We’re so quick to say “it’s over” and “I’m moving on,” but perhaps each person we connect with stays with us in ways that we can’t fathom. Maybe these relationships hold much more value and depth than we realize. Some of us may not ever “have” a bashert, a soulmate. And some of us will “have” many, even though we don’t recognize them as they float in and out of our lives.

If these connections are not ours, but God’s, then ultimately it’s not about whether we have succeeded in landing the spouse or partner of our dreams. It’s about gratitude for the moments we have hoped together, shared ourselves, and learned more about love from each other.

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What We Learn From Those Who Have Gone On

I have a tendency to pre-grieve the loss of my loved ones. Granted, there is not much sense in that, and it brings on premature sadness, when the sadness of the actual loss is sure to be of a much deeper color, unrehearsable.

George MacDonald lost two of his children to childhood diseases, back when that was much more the norm. I suspect sharing such a momentous loss with so many other parents takes precious little of the pain away. He writes, in his March 14 entry:

Oh, my beloved, gone to heaven from me!
I would be rich in love to heap you with love;
I long to love you, sweet ones, perfectly—
Like God, who sees no spanning vault above,
No earth below, and feels no circling air—
Infinitely, no boundary anywhere.
I am a beast until I love as God doth love.

To me, this turns grief on its head, in a way. If I had lost those babies, I would probably be in a mental ward somewhere, or desperately driven to fill up all my time with volunteering and working—anything to keep the pain away. Yet here, MacDonald confesses that even the devotion and tenderness he has for his children is no better than a beast’s compared to the love of God, the perfect, infinite love of God.

And isn’t it true that our idea of our love and our loved ones is infinitely perfect, but the reality of our love is cut from a blighted cloth—instinctual, unwise, shortsighted, possessive, agonized? I suspect those who have gone on to be with God know the difference. I wonder if they watch our struggles to love with fond, pitying eyes.

Christian, Jewish, George MacDonald, love, loss, death, grief, God

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V’ahavta: And You Shall Love With All Your Heart #2: Leap Year (Not) But George MacDonald’s Is Hot

As I’ve mentioned, the Artscroll Tehillim (Psalms) and George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul are my steady morning companions. If I fail to start the day with these, the day itself seems to lose its hue. So yesterday, February 28, was NOT a leap year. However, it did afford me a double portion of MacDonald since he includes a 366th poem to cover February 29. And it’s a doozy:

Gather my broken fragments to a whole
As these four quarters make a shining day.
Into thy basket, for my golden bowl,
Take up the things that I have cast away
In vice or indolence or unwise play.
Let mine be a merry, all-receiving heart
But make it a whole, with light in every part.

Not to be outdone, MacDonald gifts us with a little poem snippet to kick off each new month. Here is the gem for March.

What if thou make us able to make like thee—
To light with moons, to clothe with greenery,
To hang gold sunsets o’er a rose and purple sea!

The V’ahavta says “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your understanding and strength.” With all your talent, expertise, knowledge, skill, experience, wisdom, power, and stamina. What does that look like?

First glance? A lot of striving. A goal-oriented adventurer would see a challenge. A road-weary traveler would see another barrier to success. Here’s the thing—MacDonald’s poetry (not to mention all his other writing) is so hot because he talks about just that. Our broken efforts can be remade, our souls can be remade right here in this life by the One who created us in the first place.

Because God alone can give us a heart that can love like that, “with light in every part.” It’s not something we achieve ourselves by some magic or extreme effort. And it’s not something we fail to pull off because we’re such spiritual losers. Nobody wins the Love Lottery by chance. God has a cosmic basket full of winning numbers—he showers them down like rain day and night. They’re in the air we breathe. How do we get one?

By asking.

This sounds so Pollyanna-ish. I know. I’ve been accused of that many times. But consider the possibility for a second. What if go-getters stopped trying so hard to redesign themelves with new diets, new skills, new resolutions, and new goals? What if the more reluctant and circumspect of us let go of our skepticism to embrace a foundational shift? The two ends of the behavior pendulum are identical in this one thing—we both believe that success or failure comes from within us.

And we’d be right in a sense—it does, but not the way we suppose. The elusive answer we pursue, or avoid thinking about, is as simple as pie. Ask for a heart that loves, and then love your God with all of it. This pie is delicious. This lottery is generous. We are invited to a sky-painting party.

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V’ahavta—And You Shall Love With All Your Heart: Anxiety and TM

Morning comes again. Dreams are abandoned for the business, pain, pleasure, and striving of the day. How can we get through the events and demands of this day and still feel peaceful inside, in touch with our true inner values and wisdom?

Some people do it by spending the day in and out of prayer, some are in and out of mini-getaways in their minds, but most of us can’t hang onto the peaceful perspective we had before we fully awakened that morning. We’ve pretty much blown it by mid-morning, if not before. If we get any of it back, it’s a short-lived victory as the day wears on.

For those of us who have not found a “home” yet for our unique faith, whatever it may be, the challenge is even greater. If we don’t have a regular spot in our week to pull back from all the stress and take a longer, wiser view, then we’re not likely to take it. Instead, we may escape a bit on our days off in one way or another, but always with that creeping thought in the back of our minds that it’s just that—a temporary escape. That thought does nothing but create sadness and kill off any real release we might feel.

At one point, I thought learning TM would help me with the constant tension that dogged me wherever I was, day in and day out. Then I abandoned the practice when I discovered the mind-boggling reality of a God who not only loves me, but takes an intense interest in my public life and my private soul. Somehow, chanting a mantra to re-center myself was an insignificant activity compared to learning more about, and drawing closer to, that passionate presence.

I look around at people I love who are governed by their anxiety. Not that I’m clear of that myself by any means, but I think TM could be a good practice for those who have not found a compelling relationship with God yet, and have not found a home for practicing their unique faith. I think if they can steer clear of TM’s religious aspects, avoid getting drawn into becoming a devotee, and just learn the technique, it could help with the physical ravages of anxiety.

But the deepest anxiety we have comes from not trusting ourselves, the world, or others to be faithful, true, loving, and good. As well we can’t and shouldn’t, because only God is all that and more, and only with him can we know true security. All our life is just a path of discovery toward this brilliant, eternal love.

In Judaism, prayer happens three times a day (for devotion, that trumps the two times a day practice of TM already, in my view), because we need that constant reminder of the Eternal One who never stops flooding us with goodness and safety. The V’ahavta, the prayer that is recited along with the Shema three times a day, drives this message home: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

It’s not just about receiving this great love, but about loving back with total trust, the kind of trust we have when we are fast asleep, when the chaos and cacophony of the day is silenced and held at bay. If we never succumbed to sleep, we might never experience this level of trust. Even those who do not value faith (which is more accurately translated as trust) benefit from the blessing of this hiatus every night.

I found a great article by Rabbi Danielle Stillman that describes this perfectly:

“We are commanded by tradition to say the Shema and the V’ahavta at least three times a day during the daily prayers. We cover our eyes for the Shema. This helps us go inward and focus — and it is also an act of trust.

“No recitation of the prayer embodies comfort and trust more than the Shema that is said right before bed. This is another time of trust and safety, when we prepare to close our eyes for the night, surrendering to sleep.

“Scholars believe that the bedtime Shema was developed as a protection against the dangers of the night. People felt comforted by recalling the One God and God’s loving commandment for us to love. Many parents say these prayers with their children before bed, infusing this quiet time of comfort with the loving words of the V’ahavta.”

I also enjoyed this video by an orthodox rabbi in support of TM and its positive effect on his journey of faith. But most of all, I love this delightfully dated but marvelous interview with orthodox rabbi Aryeh Kaplan ztl, about Judaism and meditation, which points to a deeper and more satisfying form of meditation than anything we could teach as a system or a lesson.

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I Shall Trust and Not Fear

I was waylaid by liturgy today. There I was, traipsing along feeling free on the high road, unencumbered by the ancient words I read, translating them into my life today, taking liberties with the meaning to support what I have come to believe.

Usually I lean heavily into the Haftarah each Shabbat, tracing it back to the Torah portion or just striking out into new territory depending on how it hits me. Well, this time, I finished the Haftarah, learning about another deliverance from Egypt in Jeremiah 46 to mirror the one in Exodus 13 where the Torah portion ends this way: “for with a strong hand, Hashem delivered us from Egypt.”

The sun had gone down and the beautiful deep blue light was still lingering in the sky. Time for Havdalah (the end of Shabbat). I put off writing this to say the traditional blessings, drink a tiny glass of wine, sniff the Besamim (fragrant herbs), and hold my fingernails to the light of the candle to watch the dance of firelight. This liturgy is dear to me, loath as I am to follow blind rituals. It blesses me every week with its message of peace, strength, and deliverance.

And there it was, even more obvious a connection to the Exodus message than the Haftarah itself this week:

“Heeneh El Yeshuatee Evtach Velo Efchad” (Behold! God is my salvation, I shall trust and not fear)

It seems that time rolls out like a carpet once in awhile, where my tiny life is invited into the royal hall to discover its unending connections to the Eternal One. Just this morning, I read Psalm 149:

“Let them praise his name with dancing, make melody to him with tambourine and lyre; for Adonai takes delight in his people, he crowns the humble with salvation. Let the faithful exult gloriously, let them sing for joy on their beds.”

How can we expect to trust and not fear, who are crowded together on this planet, facing certain death at some unpredictable time in the future, grasping for some shred of security, hoping for some reassurance of our worth, and aching to be loved for who we are?

It is impossible without God, even though we might have some good days when the sun shines, the revenues pour in, all are astounded at our talents, and we are surrounded with adoring loved ones. Can’t be counted on, can’t be trusted.

How can I sing for joy on my bed when I’m in pain, depressed, or worried? Here’s another connection with what I read from George MacDonald today:

“Oh Life, why dost thou close me up in death?
Oh Health, why make me inhabit heaviness?
I ask, yet know: the sum of this distress,
Pang-haunted body, sore-dismayed mind,
Is but the egg that rounds the winged faith;
When that its path into the air shall find,
My heart shall follow, high above cold, rain, and wind.”

—George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul

Where can all this hope and faith come from? God, unchanging, ever seeking to deliver us from these traps and prisons, has an answer that we can trust.

The Havdalah liturgy ends with:

“Bimherah Yavo Eleynu Eem Mashiach Ben David.” (May he quickly come to us with Messiah, son of David.)

I’m not Christian. I’m not Jewish. I’m neither and both. I won’t argue with anyone about who the Messiah is, when he came or when he is coming, because to me, that is like two ants arguing about the history and character of the sun. I would rather be the ant who wakes up with the sunrise, singing with joy on her bed.

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Complainers and Those of Misguided Spirit

Here we are in the first parshah of Exodus, and I discovered a fascinating connection between the vastly different Haftorah portions for this week. Normally, there is not a huge difference between what was chosen centuries ago to accompany each Torah portion, but this week, I was struck that the Ashkenazic portion is Isaiah 27:6–28:13 plus a tag-along of 29:22–23, but the Sephardic reading is Jeremiah 1:1–2:3. That’s different!

Usually, I gravitate to the Sephardic portions which I often feel speak more directly to the heart (and get right to the point) while the Ashkenazic portions are more heady (and typically longer). Also, I appreciate the exuberant passion of the Sephardic branch of Judaism (especially since my upbringing and the culture that surrounds me here in the Northshore area of Chicago is so WASPy and Western European).

Last week, we read the end of Genesis. It was powerful and positive. The descendants of Jacob were firmly placed and safe in Egypt, thriving and prospering. Then the shoe drops big-time right in Chapter 1 of Exodus. The Jewish people were promptly enslaved and tormented by a new Pharaoh with a sharp eye on profit margins and the threat of a potential takeover by this burgeoning crowd of successful foreigners. It would be like taking a bunch of properous, professional Northshore families and setting them to hard labor and living in huts.

Or quite a bit like what happened to Jewish families in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party.

This first week into Exodus, we learn two things: God’s people are in serious trouble in Egypt, and Moses has been chosen as their reluctant rescuer and spokesperson for God. The Ashkenazic portion in Isaiah pursues the first, foretelling a global roundup of all those who are “lost” and “cast away” (Isaiah 27:13) to a new understanding and trust in God. I always pay special attention to those add-on verses in Haftorah selections, and this one was especially fruitful:

“Jacob will not be ashamed now, and his face will not pale now, when he sees his children, My handiwork . . . who will sanctify My Name, they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and revere the God of Israel!” (Isaiah 29:22-23)

Well, even though that’s where the reading officially ends, look what comes right after it:

“Those of misguided spirit will attain understanding, and complainers will learn [God’s] instruction.” (Isaiah 29:24)

Ah-ha! I found the connection to the Sephardic reading, which I originally thought only focused on the similarity between Jeremiah’s calling as the reluctant prophet and Moses’ calling. But then I saw this, and it reminded me how often I fall into a misguided spirit and complain:

“they have forsaken Me . . . and prostrated themselves to their own handiwork.” (Jeremiah 1:16)

And I’m glad I read both readings, to see afresh how desperately we all need to be rescued by a reluctant but committed and brave prophet, so that we too can attain understanding and learn to trust in the One most worthy of our trust.

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