“And They Will Keep” – V’shamru

 

Image: Exodus 31: 16-17 in Hebrew. (from www.ReformJudaism.org)

If you attend Shabbat services in a the synagogue, sooner or later you will notice these lines, either sung or spoken:

V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et HaShabbat,
la’asot et HaShabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam.
Beini u’vein b’nei Yisrael ot hi l’olam,
ki sheishet yamim asah Adonai
et hashamayim v’et haaretz,
u’vayom hashvi-i shavat vayinafash.

It’s actually a quotation from the book of Exodus:

The children of Israel will keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath in every generation as an everlasting covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever, for in six days God made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day [God] ceased work and refreshed God’s self. – Exodus 31:16-17

Reading this in the context of a Shabbat service, we remind ourselves why we continue this ancient practice. We keep it because our ancestors were commanded to keep it. We keep it because it is our custom as a people. We keep it in remembrance of our unique Creation story.  We keep it because it keeps us.  We have many different ways of keeping it, but when we do, our lives are fuller.

Jews have had a special place in our hearts and in the liturgy for these verses from Exodus because they express our love affair with Shabbat. We love them so much that we often sing them.

Many different musicians and cantors have set it to music: search YouTube with the string “v’shamru” and thousands of recordings will pop up. One version you will hear in many Reform and Conservative shuls is a tune by Rabbi Moshe Rothblum:

One of my favorites is this one by Cantor Jacob Goldstein:

 

And the meditative Debbie Friedman z”l setting:

What is your favorite prayer in the Shabbat service? If you tell me in the comments, I can either direct  you to an article I’ve written on it, or I will be inspired to write one!

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Guest Post – The Sleeping Children

Image: A Syrian refugee mother and her newborn infant at a clinic near Ramtha, Jordan. Photo: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development/Wikimedia some rights reserved. 

This post was written by Emmett Koehler. Emmett is a member of the Board of Trustees of Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA, a leader in their young adults group, and I am proud to say that he’s a graduate of my Intro to the Jewish Experience class. He wrote this as a meditation on the prayer Emet v’Emunah (Truth and Faith) from the evening service, for the Community Shabbat Service.


The sleeping children are awakened by their mothers’ trembling hands.

The same weathered hands that clutched these children the night before, praying the angel of death would pass over them.

The mothers’ hands are busy making bread that won’t be baked, packing only what can be carried, and bolting the doors and windows of homes they will never see again.

Some hands are confident, moving strong and sure with the certainty of freedom; while others are hesitant, slick with fear.

These mothers’ hands, old and young, weak and strong, once held sons and brothers and husbands who left, but never returned.

In vain, their hands shield children from the sights of sorrow, women holding lifeless sons who were not passed over by the angel of death.

The mothers point fingers east, into the desert, but cannot fathom the pain and sorrow and toil that await their tired and broken hands.

But these selfless hands will raise the children who one day pick up stones and plows and bows to build a nation these mothers will never see

GOD stretched out a hand over Egypt to deliver the people of Israel from slavery, sending plagues and performing miracles. And in this time, a thousand hands of a thousand mothers carried their children out of Egypt, to freedom.

– Emmett Koehler

Hashkiveinu – The Jewish Lullaby

Image: A mother swan protects her young with her wings. (mrsbrown/pixabay)

Cause us to lie down to peace, Adonai our God, and raise us up to life, our Protector. Spread over us the shelter of your peace. Direct us with good advice before You, and save us for the sake of your Name. Watch out for us, and keep enemies, plagues, swords, famines,  and troubles from our midst, and remove the Adversary from in front of us and from behind us.

Cradle us in the shadow of your wings, for You are God who guards us and saves us. For You are God, our gracious and merciful Protector.  Guard our departure and our arrival to life and to peace, from now and ever more. – translation from the Ma’ariv service, in the Siddur

Hashkiveinu (hash-kee-VAY-noo) is one of the most beloved prayers of the evening service. It goes back to ancient times, when sleep was poorly understood. The sages believed that sleep was 1/60th of death (Berakhot 57a.) Moreover, a sleeping person is vulnerable to attack – even if we don’t die then, bad things can happen. Thus the custom developed of bedtime prayers.

Hashkiveinu (“Cause us to lie down”) is a beautiful prayer with melodious Hebrew. Notice all its requests:

  • that we may have peaceful sleep
  • that we may live to wake
  • that we may hear good advice in our sleep
  • deliver us from enemies and other bad things

Notice, too, the lovely images for Divine protection, which give us concrete images to hold as we go to sleep:

  • “shelter of peace” – literally a “sukkah of peace”
  • “Cradle us in the shadow of your wings”

It echoes the images in Psalm 91 of the safe shelter and the protecting mother bird:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. – Psalm 91:1-6

Cantors and musicians have written many beautiful settings for Hashkiveinu. One of my favorites is Craig Taubman’s from Friday Night Live:

If you search YouTube.com, you’ll find recordings of many other musical settings. If you have trouble sleeping, try playing one of them a few times, thinking about the words as you listen.

Sleep well!

Psalms: Treasury of Emotion

A woman on Twitter asked me tonight if I could suggest a prayer “to help (her) stay strong, positive.” She commented that most of what she had found online were prayers that seemed too formal for her. What a great question!

While it is always fine to pray in our own words, Jewish tradition offers us a treasury of prayers covering a vast landscape of human emotion. That treasury is the Book of Psalms, or to use its Hebrew name, Tehillim.

When people first look in the book, it may seem foreign. Unlike many books in the Bible, it doesn’t tell a story. It’s a collection of prayers that Jews (and others!) have found helpful for putting words to human experiences.

Some psalms address experiences I have not yet had, and they don’t speak to or for me. That’s ok. I browse past them and find the ones that speak to my experience in the present. It might be an entire psalm, or just a few verses. I can choose whatever I want.

I can also choose to omit what is not helpful to me. Psalms use language about God that may seem archaic to a modern ear. If the theology seems foreign, I am free to skip those verses. I am also free to seek an accessible translation. 

The nourishment in the Psalms is in the way they offer me a words for feelings that I can barely express. In giving me the words for those feelings, they put me in touch with generations before me who have had the same exact feeling. They can help me identify feelings more precisely, too. For example:

Psalm 13

(1) For the leader. A psalm of David.

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

(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?

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

(5) lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exult when I totter.

(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.

This is a little psalm but it packs a punch for me. It expresses the frustration I feel when some painful, stupid problem refuses to go away. The ancient author and all who have prayed it since have felt the same impatience. I’m not alone! People have been here before!

And then, if I am open to it, Psalm 13 offers hope. The author was comforted by faith; they offer me that comfort. “my heart will exult in Your deliverance” – my troubles will not last forever, and when they end, my heart will rejoice! I can borrow the author’s faith and courage long enough to survive the moment. Like the writer of Psalm 13, I can endure. 

Other psalms address other situations. I recommended Psalm 27 to the questioner on Twitter. If I am full of joy, I might look to Psalm 150.

There are many lists online of “psalms for such-and-such  situation” but I recommend browsing the treasury for yourself. I am awesome by the range of emotion available: everything from murderous rage to giddy delight. Psalm 23 offers poetic images that comfort. Psalm 58 is perfect when I totter on  the brink of cynicism or despair, when I have watched too much of the news, or let social media get to me.

I invite you to dig around in this closet of goodies. Some psalms may shock you with raw violence; others express great joy. Only the individual can know which one fits their moment, and so it is worth the investment of time to become familiar.

Notice how even the darkest psalms offer at least a bit of uplift at the end. Those psalms say yes, life can be terrible, but despair is not our way. Take the hands of the others who have walked this path, and know that you are not alone.

The Earth Is Alive

Image: A photo of “creep” on the Hayward Fault. Nothing hit that curb – the earth moved at different rates, and the curb burst. (Leonard G/Wikimedia)

I went to a meeting about earthquake preparedness last night. I live in a little city south of Oakland, CA, atop something called the Hayward Fault. Sometime in the next thirty years, we are likely to see a big quake here, and I like to stay current in my knowledge about the fault, and get a sense of what I need to do to be ready for trouble.

Big earthquakes are no-kidding scary.  Little ones are disorienting, because we don’t expect the ground to move. When I felt my first California earthquake, I wasn’t sure I had felt anything, until someone said, “That was an earthquake” and turned on the radio to find out about it. The biggest quake I felt before 1989 was a 5.3, and I thought a truck had run into the house. In the Loma Prieta Quake of 1989, I saw my china cabinet walk across the dining room floor as I ran to grab my youngest.

Earthquakes here are communal moments. We turn on the local news station to find out about it, or we go to Twitter. “Did you feel it?” “My dog alerted me just before it hit!” “My dishes rattled.” “Where was the epicenter?” “What was the magnitude?” Most locals agree that anything below a 5 is a minor thing. Anything much above a 5, though, is something else altogether.

Earthquakes happen because the earth’s crust is in motion, giant “plates” sliding over the surface of the planet. Earthquake zones are those places where two or more of those plates meet. Sometimes the plates creep quietly along. Sometimes they stick and then jerk into motion. Those are the quakes.

Tonight I learned something new that was even more astonishing. Some scientists think that “our” faults (the Hayward, the San Andreas, etc) “communicate” with other faults far away. I don’t begin to understand that, but I heard a respectable geologist say it tonight.

When I feel a tremblor I recite the blessing for earthquakes:

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shekokho oogevurato malei olam.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, whose strength and might fill the world. – Tractate Berakhot 54a

 

 

Yes, earthquakes are scary. They also create amazing landscapes – they are the reason that the California coast is so utterly beautiful. We can’t control them. And that is true for much of nature: even when we think we understand it, Mother Earth is older, wiser and stronger than any of us can imagine. What earthquakes have taught me is that the earth is very much alive.

It behooves us to maintain an awe for nature. We are accustomed to harnessing it for our own uses, but it never pays to underestimate the power of forces far beyond our control.

A Passover Wish

Image: Two lambs. (FraukeFeind/pixabay)

When I searched through some of the free image sites online, most of the pictures I found when I searched for “Passover” looked like the one above.

Most of the world doesn’t know much about Jews. They know what they read (in the Bible, in the media, in books) and they know what they’ve heard. The Christian world knows us through the filter of Christianity. For Christians, Passover is a festival mentioned in the Gospels, and it’s about sacrificial lambs, both real and metaphoric.

Never mind that we haven’t been in the lamb-sacrificing business since spring of the year 70. That was the year the Romans knocked down the Temple – and since then, we have honored the commandments to make sacrifices with prayers, not with lambs.

There are Jews who want to rebuild the Temple. I’m not one of them. For one thing, someone else’s place of worship now stands on that spot, and it’s holy to them. For another, as Maimonides taught, God was ready for us to be done with the sacrifices. They were an early version of worship, given to us when we could not have understood anything else.

For me, today, Passover is a festival of freedom. It calls me to free others from bondage. It calls me to free myself from old, bad ideas and habits. It calls me back to that homely altar, the dining room table, to eat matzah and ask questions and never, ever to settle for an easy answer. It calls me to gather with Jews, to laugh and cry and do mitzvot, to not lose heart when the bad guys seem to be in charge, or when my own internalized Pharaohs give me grief.

I wish every reader of this blog a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover. May your find your courage to do your work in this world. And may there be no more sacrificial lambs.

What, Me Worry? (I worry.)

Image: Gabi, who just finished digging up the garden in search of “snakes.” Photo by me, all rights reserved.

 

It’s been a very odd year for some of us. The weather has been weird and the news has been exhausting. It seems like every day something new comes crawling out of my radio, and I find myself regarding the news like a mysterious bug in my kitchen. Do I need to worry about this thing? Where did it come from? What should I do about it? What will happen if I don’t do anything about it?

My dog knows what to do with mysterious bugs: Gabi eats them. She lived on the street for a while, and I imagine bugs were cheap unthreatening protein for her. When she first came to live with us, she was a scourge on spiders. Now she is downright nonchalant: she only eats them if she’s missed a meal.

Her hunter reflexes are never far from the surface, even though she’s a cute little toy poodle. When we used to go walking by Lake Chabot, she would size up the ducks and then dance by my side as if to say, “You want one? I’ll get you one! Just say the word!” I never said, “Go git ’em!” because I was pretty sure we’d get in trouble if she began retrieving ducks from the park. She had no doubts, though: those ducks were TOAST.

The photo above is from the day she dug up the drip watering system in the garden. I suspect that she thought the periodic hissing from the water flow was snakes, and she was going to get her some snakes, yes ma’am! She was puzzled when I wasn’t happy about the giant holes she dug trying to get at them. You can see her puzzlement in the picture, along with her muddy paws and snout.

Gabi is not given to worry. If it’s a bug, she eats it. If it’s a duck, she offers to go get it. If it’s a snake in the back yard, she stares at me reproachfully, knowing that she isn’t allowed to dig it up.

I am more of a worrier. I want to do the right thing, and in uncertain times and situations, I spend a lot of energy just figuring out what to do. I keep my earthquake kit stocked, and I wrote letters to my elected officials. Still, most of it feels like doing not much.

That is why prayer and study are essential in my life. Sometimes I have to remind myself to sit down and say the holy words and let them speak to me. Sometimes I have to remind myself to just quiet down and listen for God. Sometimes I study to find the answer to a question, and sometimes I study because it IS a Jewish form of prayer, and when I study, my mind quiets and I can hear the voice of the Holy One speaking to me through the texts.

Some might say, “Ha! Religion is the opiate of the people! I knew it!” but that’s not how I see it. Prayer and study help me see exactly who I am and who I strive to be. When I pray and study regularly, I sober up and quit worrying so much. I let go of the things I cannot control and do something about the things I can. I let go of fantasy concerns and simply move from mitzvah to mitzvah.

I cannot make peace in the Middle East. I cannot make Washington do what I think is best. In truth, I have no idea what would settle everything in either place. But it is in moving from mitzvah to mitzvah, climbing steadily through life, that I may reach the calm that sometimes eludes me, even in a difficult season.