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

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

Written in “Just Five Minutes”

A reflection by Rabbi Barry H. Block on working through Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, by Rabbi Debra Robbins, CCAR Press, 2019.

Debbie Robbins says:
“Just five minutes.”
Set aside five minutes,
No more,
To write my Elul reflections each day.
Much to my surprise,
I’ve disciplined myself to do it,
Just five minutes,
Every day.
Some days, I really need it,
Like the day that a traumatic pastoral need
Led me to extreme anxiety,
And I needed to figure out why.
Every day, I really need it.
As a rabbi,
My Elul preparation
Is all about writing sermons,
Musical cues,
Selecting reading,
Doling out honors,
All “work.”
I’m liable to ignore the inner, spiritual work of Elul;
There’s so much “rabbi work” to do.
And so I’ve resolved:
Take those five minutes a day,
And actually prepare my soul
For 5780.
Psalm 27 has opened my heart.
Funny thing:
For the first time,
Ever in my 29th year,
And that’s only since ordination,
All of my sermons are drafted—
Not “finished,” but fully drafted—
More than two weeks before Erev Rosh Hashanah.
Can that be a coincidence?


Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is now available from CCAR Press.

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

Psalm 27: Music and Spirituality

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Presss forthcoming publication, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 by Rabbi Debra Robbins, we invited Cantor Richard Cohn to share an excerpt of the chapter that he wrote.

Music offers us a powerful connection to spiritual practice. Melodies are both fluid—moving through time with flexibility and intention—and grounded—anchored in structures of rhythm, scale, and key. They embody aliveness within a defined structure, mirroring the flow of life itself.

In combination with the harmonies that support them, melodies can convey beauty, form, and emotion. They can touch on areas of comfort, hopefulness, serenity, warmth, and joy (among many others!), even suggesting more than one feeling at the same time. They are received and interpreted differently by each of us, and their resonance can vary from day to day, or even from one repetition to the next. In addition to emotion, form, and beauty, music miraculously transmits something from the formless dimension of spirit into the physical realm of song.

Rabbi Robbins has chosen the last verse of Psalm 27 to be a musical thread in our encounter with the complete text. Why anticipate the conclusion when we’re only starting out? One possible answer is to reflect on the closing words in their relationship to each stage of the journey: How do we move step-by-step toward a strengthening of the heart that lifts us in hope toward an awareness of the holy? Singing (or listening to) a melody corresponds exactly to that process, as we travel from note to note in search of a destination that exists in potential from the very beginning, but that can only be reached by tracing the entire path. As with the psalm itself, repeating the melody again and again can deepen and expand our understanding of the journey.

There are many ways to utilize the recording that accompanies this book. You may wish to begin with mindful listening, perhaps closing your eyes and bringing attention to the sound itself, to the shaping of individual syllables and words, or simply to the unfolding stream of music. You may find yourself starting to hum along, and you can add the words whenever you like. With each repetition, or from day to day, notice what’s new (or old!) in your encounter with the music. If you’d like to sing it on your own, rather than with the recording, see what happens when you try a different tempo or if you sing it more softly or loudly, more contemplatively or emphatically. Before long, you may know the music by heart. It may become an increasingly internal experience, becoming fully integral to your daily practice. If the melody begins to seem a bit less interesting, scale back to singing it only once a day, or sing it an extra time to see if you can bring something fresh to your interpretation.

May this singing practice be heart opening and soul lifting, as you explore the inspiring textures of Psalm 27.


Cantor Richard Cohn serves as Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He’s also served as president of the American Conference of Cantors, and he has been a featured conductor at the North American Jewish Choral Festival.

Categories
Books spirituality

Psalm 27: My ‘Go To’ Spiritual Walkabout Song

Author’s Note: This essay is dedicated to the memory of Angela Gold, z”l, whose neshama and harmonies blessed everyone she met.

I sing to myself. Not the “singing-in-the-shower” variety. Not the “sing-along-with-my-playlist-while-I-clean-the-apartment” variety. It’s the moment of “this-is-the-song-in-my-heart.” A song too big to hold in.

The song is always the same. Over and over. Usually under my breath, but if I think I’m alone in a staircase – which almost exclusively happens as I head to classes at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies – I might belt it out, just to hear the echo. I sing:

Here in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, I suspect that anyone who overhears knows what I’m singing: “One thing have I asked of Adonai, how I long for it, that I may dwell in the house of the Adonai all the days of my life, to behold the graciousness of Adonai, and to dwell in the palace.” It’s the fourth verse of Psalm 27, the essence of the Psalm. I sing the Paul Schoenfield rendition.

This spontaneous a cappella vibrates with my faith, a paradoxical faith, at that. On one hand, I believe with a perfect faith that – at any moment, perhaps the very next one – the glory of God’s presence might just appear. Perhaps right there in the stairway, on the next landing. On the other hand, regardless of whether I see it or feel it in the moment, God is right here, right now. Yes, God is here, and I’m still seeking God’s house, knocking at the gates of mercy, seeking the throne of holiness.

This contradiction is the essence of my yearning as I sing the line: knowing that I’m already in God’s presence, and yet knowing that I only can remain there by continually seeking God.

In her forthcoming book from CCAR Press, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27, Rabbi Debra J. Robbins writes: “Sit in the house of God. It’s the one thing that I really want. But now that I’m here, what do I do?”

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is a guide to using Psalm 27 to prepare for the high holidays. Every day from the second day of Elul, through Shemini Atzeret – including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot – traditional Ashkenazi prayer includes the recitation of this psalm.

With this book, Rabbi Robbins has created a guide to prepare spiritually for the Days of Awe by examining phrases from each line of the psalm each of the 50-plus-day period. Nine of the phrases she uses in this intentional spiritual practice, nearly one of every five days, come from 27:4, my walking tune.

Of the words “achat sha’alti” – “one thing I’ve asked” of God – she wonders: “If I can ask only one thing of God, what would it be?” Of the word “u’le’vaker” – “and to dwell” – she notices the connection to the word “boker,” or morning. Am I ready, aware and eager, each morning, to witness God’s presence? About the words “b’veit Adonai” – the house of God – she asks: “This is God’s house. But is God home?” We are invited to explore each phrase with a series of steps, including prayer, meditation, journaling and blessing.

Fifty days of reciting Psalm 27 as part of the High Holiday season is a practice that’s relatively new in the history of Jewish liturgy, beginning about 200 to 300 years ago. Rabbi Robbins has turned that daily recitation into an opportunity for spiritual growth before, during and just after the Days of Awe, the entire holy season from Elul to Shemi Atzeret.

For me, Rabbi Robbins has added new ways to think about – and to sing – my ‘go to’ spiritual walkabout song.

Click here for a guitar rendition of the Schoenfield setting for this verse. Here are settings by Chava Mirel, and Beth Hamon.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012),L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments(CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, now available!