By Rabbi Or N. Rose | Sep 17, 2020
It is customary to begin reciting Psalm 27 on the first day of Elul, one month before Rosh Hashanah, continuing through Sukkot (Feast of Booths). Like the sounding of the shofar (ram’s horn), this twice-daily practice—morning and night—is intended to help us reflect on our beliefs, questions, hopes, and fears as we prepare for a new year.
When I revisit the psalm this year, I find myself drawn to verse 4:
One thing I ask of YHWH; this do I seek:
to dwell in the house of YHWH all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of YHWH and to visit God’s abode.
As a person who finds the path of teshuvah, of turning and returning to self, other, and God, both daunting and absolutely necessary, the poet’s words of yearning feel truly resonant. My attraction to this snippet of text is enhanced by the interpretation of the eighteenth-century Hasidic sage Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel of Zlotchov. Why, asks Reb Yehiel Mikhel, does the psalmist need to say, “this do I seek” after already stating that he has a request of God? The rebbe’s (master) answer is that what appears to be a mere literary flourish is, in fact, a profound lesson on humility. By adding the seemingly extraneous phrase, the biblical poet is urging us to remember that even when we “behold the beauty of YHWH” or feel at home in God’s “house,” we must understand that the journey is not over.
The words “this do I seek” are intended to guard against spiritual arrogance and/or complacency. While it is important to acknowledge personal growth and the transformative power of religious experience, we human beings are limited, and therefore must continue searching, questioning, and contemplating, knowing that there is no end to the process. How could it be otherwise, when dealing with God and issues of ultimate concern; in the words of our Hasidic preacher, always be aware that there is “a greater rung of understanding” to be reached beyond our current level of comprehension.
This lesson was brought home for me with unusual force this past spring when co-teaching a course on the Psalms with a Catholic colleague for a diverse group of Jewish, Christian, and Unitarian Universalist graduate students and seminarians in the Boston area. The conversation only deepened when our regular weekly meetings were disrupted by the pandemic. While it took us all some time to find our Zoom “footing,” our explorations of these ancient prayer-poems—which are full of raw emotion—became more urgent.
Among the most meaningful and humbling experiences for me was our discussion of Psalm 27:4. Four interrelated questions animated our dialogue on this evocative text:
- Are you able to experience God’s presence or the sacred in the midst of the pandemic?
- Has your understanding of sacred space and time shifted while in quarantine?
- Who are the people that have been most helpful to you in your ongoing search for meaning, purpose, or beauty in this difficult time?
- How might you be helpful to others—even from a distance—in this time of illness and uncertainty?
Listening to the broad range of responses from this diverse group of thoughtful and caring seekers, was both grounding and inspiring. Our digital encounters became an heikhal—a holy “abode”—in which to grapple with difficult personal, communal, and societal issues. When other aspects of my spiritual life felt weakened or even hallow, this weekly ritual felt increasingly important.
As I journey through Elul and prepare for the High Holy Days, I pray that we all have the resilience to continue the search for the sacred with honesty and openness, doing so in the company—by Zoom or in person when safe—with supportive companions who remind us of the beauty and mystery of life. May we together contribute to the creation of a world—our shared sacred dwelling—that is inclusive, just, and sustainable.
Rabbi Or Rose is the founding Director of the Betty Ann Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College. His most recent publication is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: Essential Teachings (Orbis Books).