During the Hebrew month of Elul ~ the last cycle of the moon before we enter a new year through the gates of the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) ~ Jewish practice is to do cheshbon ha’nefesh (a soul accounting). This opportunity is accompanied by twin kavannot (intentions) of loving self-compassion and exacting self-review. We are to carefully consider how we have spent the past year and determine which things we wish to change about our behavior, ways we intend to seek forgiveness from people we have wronged, how we will recalibrate and chart our course in life so as to align with the Sacred within and around us.
It is also a part of our mystical tradition that the Source of Blessing is very close at this time of year, as we prepare for these Days of Awe with critical analysis of who we have become and who we wish to be. “The King is in the Field,” according to tradition, a reference to ancient custom when a monarch approached a city and was greeted with pomp and ceremony once within the city walls, but when “in the field” was accessible and approachable by the common folk.
Each day of the month of Elul, our ancient wisdom tradition instructs us to sound the shofar ~ the piercing ancient sound of the ram’s horn that calls to a primal and soul-deep part of our being. And each day of Elul and through the Yamim Nora’im, we read Psalm 27. Rabbi Edward Feld, in his book, Joy, Despair, and Hope Reading Psalms describes Psalm 27 as “a bridge, forming an arc between confidence and despair.”
Recently I was asked by Faith In Public Life, a strategy center for the faith community advancing faith in the public square as a powerful force for justice, compassion and the common good, to share words of inspiration and and encouragement for people “doing the work” and feeling weary. FPL has been a wonderful convener of clergy here in central Ohio ~ bringing us together for monthly breakfasts to learn and strategize about important local and national issues like better cultural awareness and sensitivity and other training for law enforcement and sanctuary for long-time residents who face deportation.
This has been a difficult year, as an American, to remain positive and energized in the face of anger, apathy, antipathy, and repeated assaults on the human bodies of the most vulnerable among us and on the ideologies of social and environmental justice. How do we keep doing the long hard work when it feels that strong forces are trying to bend back that arc of the moral universe we trust bends toward justice? We dig deep into our faith and wisdom traditions and those of our neighbors, colleagues, friends. We hold each other’s backs and stand beside the stranger to offer encouragement. And we pursue justice with courage and determination.
Below is an interpretive English translation of Psalm 27 by my rebbe (spiritual teacher), Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l (of blessed memory):
YaH, you are my Light, my Savior,
whom need I dread?
YaH, with You as my strong Protector
who can make me panic?
When hateful bullies gang up on me,
wanting to harass me,
to oppress and terrorize me —
they are the ones who stumble and fall.
Even if a gang surrounds me,
my heart is not weakened;
if a battle is joined around me
my trust in You is firm.
Only one thing do I ask of You, YaH,
just this alone do I seek:
I want to be at home with You, YaH,
All the days of my life;
I want to delight in seeing You,
when I come to visit You
in Your Temple.
You hide me in Your succah*
on a foul day;
You conceal me unseen in Your tent
and also raise me beyond
And now, as You have held my head high,
despite the presence
of my powerful foes,
I prepare to celebrate and thrill,
singing and making music
to You, YaH!
Listen, YaH, to the sound of my cry
and, being kind, answer me.
My heart has said:
I turn to You,
Your Presence is what I beg for;
don’t hide Your Face from me.
Don’t just put me down,
You, who have been my Helper,
don’t abandon me, don’t forsake me,
God, my support.
Though father and mother have left me
You, YaH, will hold me securely.
Please teach me Your way
And guide me on the straight path;
discourage those who defame me,
False witnesses stood up against me,
belching out violence.
don’t let me become
the victim of my foes.
[I would not have survived]
If I had not hoped that I would yet see
YaH’s goodness fully alive on Earth.
So, friend, you too, hope to YaH.
And make strong your heart!
And most of all — keep hoping to YaH.
* harvest booth