#BlogElul 19: Ask

#BlogElul 2013There is a tradition of reciting Psalm 27 daily during the month of Elul. Almost four years ago, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat shared a melody she had learned for one of its verses, and I have found myself humming it at this time of year ever since. I encourage you to go give it a listen, because it truly is beautiful.

The English translation in Mishkan T’filah differs slightly, as translations are wont to do, from the version of Achat Sha’alti Reb Rachel sings for us.

One thing I ask of Adonai, only that do I seek:
to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of Adonai, and to frequent God’s Temple. (Psalm 27:4)

This psalm’s author, I like his style. He’s got chutzpah to spice his humility. First, he tells God he’s only asking for one thing — just one little thing, that’s all. Then he proceeds to ask for three things, not least of which is to move into God’s place. He wants to bask in God’s beautiful presence and hang out together pretty much all the time. It sounds like he wants to become God’s best bud/roommate, or possibly some kind of divine puppy.

Psalm 27 Puppy. Picture by bullcitydogs on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bullcitydogs/5085583464/

Source photo by bullcitydogs on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

My puppy-dog eyes are not nearly as convincing, but I still find myself thinking that Psalm 27’s author has the right idea. If you are going to ask the Source of Life, the Universe, and Everything (with apologies to Douglas Adams) for something, you might as well think big. I’m not sure I can think much bigger than to request the ability to “set God before me always” (Psalm 16:8) — that is, to recognize in every moment of every day that there is an ineffable Something inside and beyond us, a Presence in which we dwell that dwells within us.

I’m almost afraid to ask for that kind of awareness. Even so, I’m here, I’m alive, and I have the ability to ask big questions even when I’m not sure I’ll grasp the answers. Why not ask and see what happens?

#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.


#BlogElul 18: Pray

#BlogElul 2013This post is scheduled to go live in the moments before I light Shabbat candles. Candle-lighting time here is at 7:05 PM, nearly a quarter of an hour earlier than the first Shabbat of Elul only two weeks ago. Next week, the final Shabbat before the New Year, we will light candles before seven o’clock for the first time since mid-April. The seasons are truly turning, even if I can’t yet tell by the weather.

When someone, traditionally a woman, kindles the Shabbat lights, she will first light the candles, wave her hands over the flames, and cover her eyes before she recites the bracha, the blessing: “Blessed are you, Adonai our god, Sovereign of the Universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.” Then she opens her eyes to see the glow of the flames.

Shabbat candles

Sometimes I make my own Shabbat candles.

There may a small, yet discernible pause between “…l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat,” the last words of the bracha, and the uncovering of the eyes. Custom has it that this liminal moment between secular week and sacred Sabbath is a particularly auspicious time for prayer. I don’t know that the One to Whom I address my prayer keeps a timecard that says this moment is better than that moment for directing one’s attention to the Divine. I do know that the quiet ritual of candle-flame, murmured blessing, and the deep breath I take before I open my eyes makes me feel as if I don’t have to struggle so hard to find the right state of mind, the right kavanah, for prayer.

Shabbat shalom to you. May you find your own quiet, in-between moments in which the barriers fall away.

#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

#BlogElul 17: Awaken

#BlogElul 2013Anyone who thinks that studying the Hebrew Bible is dry, dusty, and dull should try the Song of Songs on for size. We Jews call it Shir HaShirim while my Christian friends may be more familiar with it as the Song of Solomon, but either way, it’s a pretty juicy read. It’ll wake you up — possibly to the point of needing a cold shower.

Awake, O north wind,
Come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden,
That its perfume may spread.
Let my beloved come to his garden
And enjoy its luscious fruits! (Song of Songs, 4:16)

Animated George Takei Oh MyWhen you realize that the poem’s female voice is speaking in the above passage, and that the “garden” to which she invites her lover is exactly what your naughty mind is giggling about…. Well, in the words of George Takei, “Oh myyy!

One of the things I love most about Torah* study is exploring the many layers of meaning that exist simultaneously and with equal truth. The plain-language interpretation of the Song of Songs is that we’re talking about erotic love between a man and a woman. That’s what the words mean in their basic sense. Right along with that meaning, though, are allegorical interpretations that have been around for a very long time: that the two lovers in the poem are also God and Israel, or perhaps God and a human being’s soul. All these interpretations can exist together, without one cancelling out the other, and they all have important things to tell us.

The very name of the month of Elul (אֱלוּל) can be read as an acronym for another phrase found in the Song of Songs: Ani l’dodi v’dodi li (אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי), which means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” At this time of year, when we spend so much time reflecting on the distance our actions have put between ourselves and the Divine, I need that reminder of my constant connection with the ultimate Source of love.

* All Jewish text study is commonly referred to as “Torah study,” whether or not the text in question comes from the first five books of the Bible.

#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

#BlogElul 16: Change

#BlogElul 2013When I was a kid, I tried to change into a unicorn.

Wait, scratch that. My best friend down the street, Deborah, and I half-convinced ourselves that we were unicorns, exiled from our magical, rainbow-filled cloud palace and trapped in awkward-human-girl form. Our real names were Crystal Prism and Crystal Lynn (oh good gracious, I never realized until just now that those names sound like they should be gyrating on a pole; I have no idea how our mothers kept straight faces), and we were locked in a struggle to unleash our true unicorn potential, change back into sparkly-hoofed equines, and return to our real home.

We wrote poems — incantations, spells designed to help us effect this change from small, boring girl to marvelous creature of myth. We rhymed “unicorn” with “true form,” which should tell you all you need to know about the verses we laboriously hunt-and-pecked out on one of the family computers.

Yes, I still have copies. No, you may not see them. They were that good.

Unicorn Binder

This is the original binder containing the fruits of our childhood poetic genius. There is not enough wine in the world to get me to show you.

I’m afraid we were ultimately unsuccessful in our quest to transform ourselves into unicorns, even with the dubious assistance of a couple of crude unicorn carvings (“magical totems”) for which we eagerly forked over our allowances at the mall. Eventually, the far less glamorous change of adolescence came upon us, and we lost interest in playing Unicorns in Exile.

The thing in which I found I had not lost interest, once the tumult of puberty was behind me, was the process of change itself. The idea that we have truer, deeper selves, hidden by sometimes unsatisfying outward appearances, is an alluring one. How many times have we looked back on some action of ours, a time when we missed the mark, and said, “No, not this, that’s not the real me”? How often have we felt that others were not seeing ourselves as we truly are inside?

The month of Elul, a month of reflection and transformation, is an opportunity for me to look deep and see where there is a disconnect between my innermost heart and my actions in this world. Where there is disharmony, I need to work on getting back in tune with myself and the universe. In other words, that is where I need to do teshuvah.

I may not be able to change into a unicorn, but I can change my behavior to bring my outward face into alignment with the best parts of my inward soul. That kind of change is magic enough for me.

#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

#BlogElul 15: Learn

#BlogElul 2013Say what you will (and I have, in no uncertain terms) about the hassle of frequent military moves, they do serve to keep our minds in learning mode. Our PCS from Virginia to Florida earlier this year has provided us with ample opportunity to flex our mental muscles and make new connections in our networks of neurons. We are constantly rewiring our brains to deal with our changing situation.

We started learning new things long before we packed up and left the Old Dominion, such as how to prepare a house for rental. We learned about property managers and painting and plaster repair. We learned about refinancing and paperwork and how to make zillions of trips to the hardware store to take care of zillions of little things.

When we arrived in Pensacola, we learned how to search for a rental house, which we had never done before; the process differs from finding an apartment, moving into base housing, or buying a home. We started learning the local roadmap, all the ways and back ways and shortcuts and times to avoid certain routes. We scoped out the commissary and civilian grocery stores and the local restaurant scene, which seems to have changed for the better in the seven years since my husband’s SNA days. We learned about parks and trails and beaches, places to go and be outside in our new state.

Blackwater River

We can’t wait to learn how to go tubing down the meandering, sandy-bottomed Blackwater River.

We learned about frogs and toads and anoles. We got ourselves a guidebook so we could begin to put names to unfamiliar birdsong and feather patterns in our own backyard. We learned about gigantic mosquitos.

T-6A Texan II

A T-6A Texan II, the kind of airplane my husband flies here in Florida. U.S. Navy photo by Jeff Doty (RELEASED)

My husband jumped headfirst into learning the new airplane he was to fly for this set of orders. He learned T-6A systems and checklists and emergency procedures. He made flashcards for everything, and I learned about the Texan II as I quizzed him and helped him run practice checklists in “chair-flying” study sessions.

Our new synagogue proved full of things to learn. We learned new names and faces. We learned our new rabbi’s style of leading services, and we learned new melodies for familiar prayers. We started learning our congregation’s history, its feel, its tone — its ruach, if you will. We relearned, for the first time since college Hillel and Jewish Midshipmen Club, how sweet it is to spend time with other Jews close to our own age.

We learn every day, but I know the pace of day-to-day knowledge acquisition will continue to slow as we get more and more comfortable at this duty station. In a little more than two and a half years, though, we expect that impending-move jolt to kick our brains back into their thirstiest state. We’ll learn all over again.

#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.