Categories
Holiday Rituals spirituality

Always in God’s Sukkah

You shelter me in Your sukkah at a not-good time…
in Your solid presence I am uplifted.

— Psalm 27:5

Your sukkah, God, I am sure, does not look like mine.

You need no beams or boards, no tubes or trestles,

no Velcro or duct tape or twine to hold the parts together.

You create with words all the structures and shelters, 

all the connections and interconnections,

the gravity and the glue to keep 

our bodies breathing, our planet spinning, our universe expanding.

Of course, the decorations of Your design are stunning in their beauty.

Constellations, maple trees and quaking aspens,

even the matrix of molecules that fuel a deadly virus, 

each unique and awe inspiring, like You.

We too are Your decorations—works of beauty in Your sukkah—

shining light on a dark day and into the night, 

finding words of praise to sing or whisper to each other and to You, 

feeling alone and afraid, and then brave and patient, and then not.

Ever hopeful.

With my feet on the ground I feel you, solid as concrete, like a rock beneath me; 

with my fingers outstretched I sense You in the air around me;

with my head raised high, above the chaos that swirls all around me, 

without my own sukkah, I celebrate in Yours, 

and with abundant gratitude for the harvest that is my life, I offer blessing:

Blessed are You Adonai, Ruach of the Universe, for the obligation to sit in Your sukkah.

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press. 

From Mishkan T’filah for Youth Visual T’filah

Categories
Books CCAR Press High Holy Days

Reading ‘Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27’ during a Pandemic

Read the same psalm every day for fifty days?
The same one we read last year? 
Using the same book and the same practice?
Yes. Yes. Yes and yes.
Get a new notebook or open a new computer file.
Sharpen your pencils or find your new favorite pen.
But yes, return to the psalm, return to the book, return to the practice
(this is after all the psalm for the season of return, t’shuvah).

Why? 
Because the world has changed.
Because the ways we see or hear,
experience and reflect on the same words have changed.
We know it to be true from our experience,
reading the same Torah portions in their annual cycle.
We see a character or situation from Genesis in a new way
because of something or someone we encountered or considered.
We understand the ethical demands of Leviticus differently
because we are sitting in a different chair, the light is brighter or dimmer,
we’ve lost or gained: a friend, a few pounds, some perspective.
And so this year, as we make our way in a world infected with COVID-19,
we hear, read, experience Psalm 27 again.

Who has not felt fear that the deadly virus will approach us, ravage our bodies? (27:2)
Who has not waged a battle against the enemy, scrubbing, wiping, wiping again, hands and handles, with disinfecting bleach? (27:3)
How many of us, confined to our homes, small or large, alone or with others, have not imagined being in a better place, a Palace? (27:4)
Who has sought out a hiding place, a fort or cave of pillows and blankets, constructed by children or adults, a shelter for body and soul? (27:5)
How can we sing, knowing it spreads disease with vengeance, needing the balm of music to tamp down the fear, still the heart, calm the breath, fill the soul? (27:6)
Will a face be recognized behind this mask? (27:8)
Who have we abandoned? (27:10)
On these chaotic days that merge one into the other, when voices of leadership sow discord, who has not noticed that facts are seen as fiction and fiction becomes fact? (27:12)
And what about gratitude for those who have followed the right path, stayed home or gone to work, first responders, caregivers, grocery store workers, truck drivers? (27:11)
When did we last cry out the Psalmist’s prayer?
Protect me, protect my loved ones, my coworkers, the most vulnerable, all of us.(27:7)
Are we ready to affirm the ancient words? Fill us with hope, keep us patient as we wait, for we have strong hearts and we have courage, we have each other, and we have You and Your light; we can wait, hopefully. (27:14)

The psalm is the same but the world is not, and none of us is unchanged. If you are new to the practice, welcome. If you are returning, welcome back. The Invitation (page xv) will help you get focused and organized (you have until August 21). This year, in response to readers and rabbis, there is a Navigation Chart to help match the Reflections for Focus to specific days of the season, as well as a Study Guide with textual passages and activities to accompany each verse. We have also provided a musical recording of Kavei El Adonai composed by Cantor Richard Cohn. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is available from CCAR Press, and I welcome you to join with my congregation, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, weekly to engage in the practice online. We will be meeting Wednesdays at 9:00 a.m. CT starting August 19; details will be available at www.tedallas.org



Rabbi Debra J. Robbins has served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas since 1991 and currently works closely with the Social Justice and Adult Jewish Learning Councils, the Pastoral Care department, a variety of Worship initiatives, and teaches classes for adults. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Prayer

Psalm 94:19: Soothe the Soul

Psalm 94:19 is traditionally read on Wednesdays. Whichever day you find yourself reading this in this challenging time, may it bring you comfort.


בְּרֹ֣ב שַׂרְעַפַּ֣י בְּקִרְבִּ֑י תַּ֝נְחוּמֶ֗יךָ יְֽשַׁעַשְׁע֥וּ נַפְשִֽׁי׃
When disquieting thoughts rage inside me, Your comforting brings me joy.

I need, we need, our world needs this psalm,
this verse, on this Wednesday morning [1], on any day.
“When I am tangled within, unsettled,
You comfort me, you soothe my soul.” [2]


שַׂרְעַפַּ֣י sar-ah-pie.
A unique word in the Bible, a favorite of the troubled Job. [3]
Perhaps a portmanteau of two words next to each other in the dictionary.
Sar-ah-pie is like saraf, with the letters sin, resh and peh—to burn.
My angst, my concerns burn within me, threaten to consume me like a fire.
Sar-ah-pie is like s’ra-ah, with the letters sin, resh and ayin extend or stretch.
My worries expand,
spreading out like flames fueled with dry timber until they rage,
filling my head, my heart, with fear and dread,
in the dark of the night and as the day dawns.
Tangled in the sheets and in my mind,
I wake. I rise.
I am unbalanced, again, like the world just yesterday. [4]

תַּ֝נְחוּמֶ֗יךָ Ta-n’chum-echah.
Buried within prefix and suffix, nun, chet and mem, nechum, Comfort.
You, God, You comfort me—
like a Parent can sooth a child after a nightmare,
like a Teacher can nourish a mind,
like a listening Friend can calm a raging one,
like a Leader can steady a country or community,
like a Shepherd can shelter the flock,
like a Rock can give shade a stifling day,
like a deep Breath can slow a pounding heart.

And finally, a Hebrew tongue twister,
worth practice, memorization, repetition.
Hold it in the mouth, release it from the lips,
know it, in the heart, by heart.
Two words:
three shins, two silent ayins, a yod at the beginning and at the end.
It’s onomatopoeia: Shshshsh…

נַפְשִֽׁי Y’sha-a-sh’u nafshi.
You, God, You soothe, You soothe my soul.
Gentle, calm, intimate.
This isn’t about the whole world,
it’s about my world, my essence, my breath.
I, the parent, the friend, the student, the leader,
a shepherd, a rock,
tangled,
I am comforted by my Breath Within.
Each breath exhaled, like wind scattering clouds,
releases a bit of pain, some worry, a flash of anger,
cools the raging fires of fear,
opens space for hope, and joy and gratitude.
These words, this Breath, soothes souls.


[1] Psalm 94 is the psalm identified in Jewish tradition to be read every Wednesday.
[2] Thanks to my student and teacher Tammy Cancela for this thoughtful insight on being “tangled”.
[3] This word appears only here and in Psalm 139:13. The BDB dictionary associates it with the root letters sin, ayin pay as in Job 4:23 and 20:2.
[4] From the Psalm read on Tuesdays: “They do not know, they do not understand, in deep darkness they stumble to and fro—all the foundations of the earth are tottering.” (Psalm 82:5)

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas and author of the recently published book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press 2019, also available as an ebook.

Categories
Prayer

Clean Hands Carry Blessings

Our Jewish tradition has long guided us to turn to the Book of Psalms at times of challenge and at the same time to engage with these heartfelt human words on a daily basis. Each day of the week is assigned a Psalm for reading and reflection (the holy days and seasons are assigned psalms as well). 

I recommend this practice—Sit quietly, take a few deep breaths, read Psalm 24 (if you have a Bible handy), read the “Reflection for Focus (Clean Hands Carry Blessings),” write for just five minutes—ask yourself, what experiences or emotions do these words evoke for me? And then sit still with just your breath or maybe repeating a few of the Hebrew words or the English phrase, “clean hands carry blessings” for five more minutes. Show yourself some compassion, and then give thanks for your hands that can carry more than you realized and these moments for reflection at a difficult time.

Psalm 24:4-5
Clean Hands Carry Blessings

נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּֽבַר־לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר ׀ לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה׃

יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְהוָ֑ה וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ׃

The clean of hands and the clear of heart, those who do not say, “By my life” when they do not mean it,
who do not swear to that which is a lie.
Such ones will carry with them a blessing from God,
a blessing of justice from the God of salvation.

(Pamela Greenberg translation)

A Sunday psalm, an any-day psalm, an everyday psalm,
an all-day psalm during a pandemic.
Instruction, encouragement, inspiration,
from an ancient world to a modern time.
The earth and all its continents, the seas and all their shores,
all of us everywhere,
and each disease,
God made it all.
A miraculous universe to share,
where we are blessed
to live and learn, care and cure, to do no harm,
to do what’s right and just and fair, and prudent,
with strength and patience and dignity.
Partners with our Creator
we battle against a relentless foe,
unseen but deeply felt, both microscopic and global.
A feared enemy at the gates,
of our homes and schools and stores,
synagogues, mosques and churches–
like God it knows no borders, sees no differences.
We fight together with heads raised–not hunkered down.
Feet grounded by gravity, rooted in the enduring facts of nature,
with clean hands to carry blessings.
We wash our hands and inspect our hearts–
an opportunity, over and again, to breathe,
and recite these words, taped above the sink:

Who will stand in a holy place?
I will.
With clean hands.
With an open heart.
I can carry blessing from God
deliver justice for all people.
Like God I am strong.
With God I can open gates of healing and hope.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ ר֣וּחַ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו

וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדַיִם

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu Ruach HaOlam
asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al netilat yadaim.

Blessed are You, Adonai, Breath of the Universe,
for giving us the sacred opportunity to lift up our hands toward blessing.

This heart, these hands, my Breath can open healing gates for Holiness to enter.

Note: 1. In Jewish tradition, Psalm 24 is recited each Sunday as part of the daily liturgy. 2. The blessing for washing hands (adapted) is traditionally recited before eating a meal that includes bread. It originates in the Mishna (Yadaim), and the rabbis crafted the practice and the blessing by expanding on Exodus 40:30-32 and Leviticus 15:11.

For a full version of Psalm 24 and other Psalms, see Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms in a New Translation, by Rabbi Richard Levy, CCAR Press, 2017, also available as an ebook.)


Rabbi Debra J. Robbins is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas Texas and author of the recently published book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press 2019, also available as an ebook.

Categories
Books Prayer

Sacred Practices with Psalm 27

These 50 days from the first of Elul to the end of Sukkot and the celebration of Simchat Torah can be overwhelming for clergy, with so many details and demands.  It’s easy to lose focus or be too focused; to help others and forget to open our own hearts.  The spiritual tradition of reading Psalm 27 every day is an antidote to these tendencies with its imagery of the season (temple, sukkah, shofar) and its words that evoke a range of emotions (loneliness and fear, joy and courage, the need for patience).  It coaches us in the sacred practices we need to do our work (professional and personal) throughout the season: sit still, stand tall, sing, cry, listen, walk in God’s paths, see Goodness, hope.  And it reminds us that little by little we make our way into the New Year, with Light.

This Reflection for Focus is one of fifty-two pieces (one for each day of Elul, plus a bonus for Simchat Torah and the day after) included in my book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year (pages 82–83).  It invites focus on the phrase, ori b’yishi, in Psalm 27:1

Of David.
Adonai is my light and my victory—
From whom should I feel fright?
Adonai is the stronghold of my life—
From whom should I feel terror?

Really?! I ask myself,
read the same poem, Psalm 27, every day
for the entire month of Elul,
for the ten days from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur,
for the four days until Sukkot begins and on every day of it as well
until the season concludes with joy at Simchat Torah?
Start each day with a relentless recitation of the same words?
My Light
My Salvation (a more common translation than “victory”)
My God . . . ?

Yes.

“You are my Light, on Rosh HaShanah,
and my Salvation, on Yom Kippur,
forgiving my sins, redeeming me from the narrow place of my life.”

Little by little, day by day, starting in Elul,
the Light starts to glow,
and I begin the work.
Little by little, day by day, on Rosh HaShanah
the rays peek above the horizon.

“Redemption doesn’t happen all at once.”
Like the sun that rises,
little by little,
until the dawn breaks
and Light floods the world with warmth and hope,
so, too, t’shuvah.
Little by little, day by day.
A tiny shift
a spark of awareness,
a single apology,
and then another.
No excuses,
no caveats,
no ifs.
And one response when asked for forgiveness: “Yes.”
With God as my Light I begin to see on Rosh HaShanah.
With God as my Salvation, and little by little, day by day,
I might experience at-One-ment on Yom Kippur.

Footnotes:

You are my Light, on Rosh HaShanah: William G. Braude, The Midrash on Psalms, vol. 1 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), p. 370 (Psalm 27:4).

Redemption doesn’t happen all at once: From Mishkan Hanefesh, vol. 1, Rosh HaShanah (New York: CCAR Press, 2015), p. 165, based on imagery from Jerusalem Talmud, B’rachot 1:1.


Rabbi Debra J. Robbins has served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas since 1991 and currently works closely with the Social Justice and Adult Jewish Learning Councils, the Pastoral Care department, a variety of Worship initiatives, and teaches classes for adults. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Healing Prayer

Psalm 27:4 In God’s (Not Yet Perfect) House

I wrote the draft of what would come to be a Reflection for Focus in my book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27, “In God’s [Not Yet Perfect] House” on October 4, 2017, a few mornings after country music fans were murdered at the Route 91 Harvest Festival.  The reality of what seemed unbelievable was becoming incomprehensibly comprehensible and I reflected on the Psalmist’s affirmation, and deepest desire, to live in God’s house.  It was hard that morning to feel like we were living in God’s house—where such hatred was possible. 

It was chol hamo’ed sukkot and the fragility of the world felt all too real.  In the weeks that followed, as I edited this piece, my goal was to capture that moment in time, and allow it to reflect the timelessness of the psalm, to help us see hope and find courage, to make God’s house a holy place.  What I never imagined is that what I wrote would be relevant, over and over again, in just two years, not because it brought illumination to Psalm 27:4 in a new way, but because we would bear witness, again and again, to mass shootings, in public places—in synagogues and mosques, in school and shopping malls, and now in the mid-western city of Dayton and the Texas border city of El Paso.  The scenes of bloodshed are horrifically similar, the calls for political action and the lack of it are also despairingly alike, and our urgent questions of faith remain too.   

Psalm 27:4 In God’s [Not Yet Perfect] House

One thing have I sought from Adonai—how I long for it:
That I may live in the House of Adonai all the days of my life;
That I may look upon the sweetness of Adonai,
And spend time in the Palace;

The boots scoot, the hats ride high, the beer flows,
guitars twang, harmony rings loud.
Here in God’s country house
the story is always bittersweet:
love then loss, pain then healing,
doubt then faith, then doubt again.

This is God’s house, but is God home?
Some say, no.
Thousands plan to party while one has other plans.
Ten minutes of sheer terror.
Shots. Bullets. Blood. Final breath.
Fear. Horror. The dread of death.

This is God’s house, but is God home?
Some say, maybe.
He uses his body as a human shield.
She grasps a stranger’s hand
while the life force ceases.
They hold each other and move silently toward the exit.

This is God’s house, but is God home?
I say, yes.
This house of God, where we live,
where we gamble
with our money, with our values,
with our own lives and the lives of others,
is not yet perfect.

But God is always home.
Rescuers. First responders.
Kind people with holy instincts
doing God’s work,
singing melodies of courage,
in God’s not yet perfect house


In honor of those who survived and in memory of those who were murdered at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, Las Vegas, October 1, 2017, between Yom Kippur and Sukkot 5778.

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins has served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas since 1991 and currently works closely with the Social Justice and Adult Jewish Learning Councils, the Pastoral Care department, a variety of Worship initiatives, and teaches classes for adults. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Prayer

Opening My Heart with Psalm 27

Some say there is a distinction for some between being an author and being a writer–authors write books and writers, write.  Many of us, who serve as clergy in congregational and communal settings, especially at this season of the year, strive to resist being authors of sermons, articles or blogs and focus instead on being writers rabbis and teachers and leaders writing from our experiences about the issues and topics that touch us and trouble us, hoping to find the words that will open our own hearts and those who we serve, to do the sacred work of teshuvah.

For several years I  used my writing practice at this season to explore the words of Psalm 27, verse by verse and phrase by phrase and my reflections were recently published as a book, technically makes me an author, but in my soul and practice I remain a writer.  But as Elul approaches I find myself in need of a reminder, of what to do, how to begin writing that will open my heart on each of these 50 sacred days that will lead from Elul to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and finally to the joy of Simchat Torah. 

This excerpt from the introduction and invitation of my book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is as much about the daily practice it encourages as the work of writing that the season demands of clergy.  It serves as a reminder to me of how to get started and I hope will encourage you as well.

Following the practice of my writing coach from nearly twenty years ago, with a more recent endorsement from John Grisham, I try to write in the same place, at the same time, every day. This builds muscle memory. “Ah yes,” my body says, “I sat in this chair, at this table, facing

this window, this wall, in this room, and I know what to do here.” The light is different, the temperature is different, the material, the fragment for focus is different. I am different today, but this time and this place are the same, and I know what to do here: I write.

I also need a clear uncluttered space in which to write, to limit my distractions (which I highly recommend even if you think all the stuff doesn’t bother you). Billy Collins says it perfectly in his poem “Advice to Writers”:

Clean the space as if the Pope were on his way.

Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

I’m not expecting the Pope, but am hopeful that I might encounter something holy—maybe God’s presence will alight on the desk or wrap itself around me or inspire me for just an instant in these five minutes.  And so I prepare to experience Collins’s words:

You will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.
What better way to welcome God’s presence,
to encourage it to join me for even an instant of inspiration.

I know it seems almost counter-intuitive to train oneself to write by writing, but as Mary Daly teaches, just as “we learn courage by couraging” we learn to write by writing.  And so the practices of Opening the Heart with Psalm 27 are not only for lay people to use 50 days a year, they are for us, rabbis who are writers, at this season and in our souls, people who write not only to motivate others but to open our own hearts.  And so this last bit of advice for myself, and perhaps for you my colleagues as well, also from the introduction and invitation (page xviii):

Writers, like athletes and musicians, have rituals that help them succeed at their work. While these rituals may seem to be quirky or repetitive, the routine is often transformed into a spiritual practice. Just as we can train the muscles of the hand to write, we can train the muscles of the heart to reflect, to create, and to connect with emotions, experiences, memories, hope, ourselves, and yes, God. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is a way to begin the training.


Rabbi Debra J. Robbins has served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas since 1991 and currently works closely with the Social Justice and Adult Jewish Learning Councils, the Pastoral Care department, a variety of Worship initiatives, and teaches classes for adults. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Death spirituality

What is Your Concept of Soul and Afterlife?

As we ask big questions during the High Holy Days, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, presents a range of Jewish responses to both theological and philosophical questions pertaining to God, humanity, and the Jewish people. In the spirit of the High Holy Days, we would like to share some of the inspirational responses included in the book, for a thoughtful and meaningful New Year.

In yoga class we do an exercise where we imagine holding a basketball in our hands. With minds focused on the present, feet planted, and hearts lifted, with our hands we trace the shape, push against the edges, even toss it into the air and catch it. We can feel the ball even though we can’t see it; we interact with it even though it is not there. The same is true of the souls of our loved ones after they have died.

At the first Yizkor service led by Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, nearly twenty-five years after my mother died, he taught something that has taken me twenty-five years to understand: “Our relationships with our loved ones continue even after they are gone.” Like the basketball at yoga class, we can’t see them or feel them, but we can hold them, and our relationships with their souls, with our own souls touched by them, continue.LITFXXX_Page_1

For many years I thought my soul, the sparkling sacred essence of who I am, was a response to my mother’s death, that I am who I am because she died, that I took on her soul when we buried her young body. But now I know that isn’t entirely true. I have my own soul, formed and shaped, expressing my own values, dreams, and personality, breathed into me by God on the day I was born, not on the day she died. I am a wife and mother, a friend and a rabbi, not only because my mother died when I was a child, but because in the eleven years that we had together in this world, she shared her soul, her passions and commitments, with me—and because in the years since I have made them my own. She was clear and consistent about her core values, and they endure and find new expression in my life: hospitality, Jewish life in America and Israel, teaching and learning, nurturing friendship, being part of a complicated family, expressing creativity, being organized and in charge. With my feet planted, as I breathe deeply, focus quietly, lift my heart, feel confident and supported, I can see her soul and my own. I feel and embrace our ever-evolving and deepening relationship, life and after-life, breathing together for eternity.

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX.

Excerpted from Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published in 2015 by CCAR Press.