Song of the Sons


The centerpiece of the third section of the Tanach, the section known as Ketuvim (the Writings), is the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms contains some of the most majestic poetic images in the history of the Hebrew language. They express awe at the artistic power of the Creator and express wonder at the reality of all Being. They reflect on the redemptive design of the God of history who took us out of Egypt and anticipate the ultimate redemption at the end of days. They cry out in the pain of human suffering and appeal to a God of healing. They protest the injustice that surrounds us and the domination of the powerful over the weak. They sing of the yearning for communion with God. And more.

Nowhere is the relationship between God and the Jewish people articulated with more poetic power or artistic beauty than in the 150 chapters of the Psalms. The Psalms have withstood the test of time with their undiminished power to inspire, to move, to touch and elevate the human soul.

The original purpose of the Psalms was liturgical, written to be sung by a choir of Levites during the sacrificial service in the Temples in Jerusalem. Still, in our own day, many of the Psalms are used liturgically and comprise entire sections of the prayer book, the most obvious examples being Psukei d’Zimrah (the preliminary service recited daily before the Shachrit prayers) and Hallel, (the thanksgiving liturgy recited on holidays and Rosh Chodesh), the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century used Psalms when creating the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which introduces the Shabbat evening prayers with great beauty.

Although the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) ascribes authorship of the Book of Psalms to King David, even the Talmud ascribes composite authorship, insisting that David incorporated earlier collections of Psalms into his own. Among those the Talmud identifies are two collections, Psalms 42-49 and Psalms 84-88, 13 in all, that were written by the sons of Korah.

It is a stunning statistic that almost 10 percent of the Book of Psalms was written by the sons of Korah. The very name, Korah, symbolizes all that can go wrong in communal life. Korah was the cousin of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, who protested the undemocratic centralization and personalization of power in the other side of the family. Korah led a rebellion in the wilderness against the authority of Moshe and Aharon. In the guise of egalitarianism and inclusiveness, with the claim that all of the Levites are equally holy, Korah incited 250 followers to join him in his rebellion. The rebellion was immediately recognized as a thinly veiled exercise of political opportunism and a shameful power grab. The rebellion ended badly, as it should have, as it was destined to. In the final scene, Korah was swallowed up by the earth, his minions and his ideas disappearing with him into the depths.

But his sons were not with him.

One might think that because his end was so dramatic, so violent, and so final, that Korah was wiped out once and for all. Remarkably, even though Korahism was dealt a fatal blow in the wilderness, the line of Korah did not die. The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms.

That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Psalm 49 was selected to be read in a house of mourning. Beyond the ideas contained in the words themselves lies the power of the Psalm’s authorship. The heading of the Psalm reads: “To the leader: A Psalm of the sons of Korah.” The message of Psalm 49, a lesson the sons apparently learned from the bad example of their father, is that death comes to everyone, rich and poor alike. The importance of wealth and status in life is exaggerated because neither can protect us from death; nor are they of any use to us after we die. What is important in life, and in death, are the relationships we have formed with loved ones, with friends, and with God. Love transcends death. Love is eternal, and lives on after us.

Korach is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope. Korah brought dissension and tension into the world; his sons comfort the bereaved. Through the words of the sons of Korah, and by their example, we are inspired to embrace life with gratitude, with optimism and with passion, as long as our souls remain in our bodies.

Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at pnetter@tbala.org.

David: Great Leader or Damaged Hero?


“The Life of David” by Robert Pinsky (Schocken Books, $19.95).

Every morning, pious Jews pray to God that “the offspring of Your servant David may speedily flourish … for we hope for your salvation all day long.”

The hope of future redemption and a return to ancient glory has long been a staple of Jewish life, based upon God’s promise to David that “your house and your kingship shall ever be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever.”

Through exile and persecution, Jews have held fast to that promise, waiting and praying for the Messiah, who will descend directly from the house of David. Not just a figure of hope for the future, though, David himself has played a role in our collective imagination as a great king, a giant-killer, a musician and poet. Legend says that David himself authored most of the Psalms.

But David’s story is far more complex, and far more interesting. He was, though various rabbis have tried to deny it over the centuries, a deeply flawed — and so fully human — character.

It is the complexity of the character that Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States, examines in his new book, “The Life of David.” Brought up on a cheder education, Pinsky has been familiar with the figure of David his whole life, and has been drawn to him, because, as he put it in a phone interview (followed up briefly via e-mail), “This is one of the most manifold and interesting lives ever lived. Great writer, great leader, great killer. His family life, his sex life, his political life, his life in art. All richly complicated and enigmatic.”

Indeed, most people know details of the legend of David — the young shepherd who killed Goliath with nothing more than a slingshot; the young king who spied Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop and committed adultery with her.

As Pinsky writes, “It is an essential part of David’s meaning that he is visible at so many stages of life. Not for David to die young like Achilles, nor to endure old age offstage and out of our sight like Odysseus, nor to go down as a grizzled warrior like Beowulf charging into the cold twilight a final time to kill and die for his people … David’s drama is that of a life entire.”

Pinsky bases his treatment of David in the firm belief that he had to have existed, if only because no people would have created a hero so damaged. As the author intended, the book is “not a traditional biography nor an historical novel,” with the result that the telling dips liberally and idiosyncratically into the realms of biblical scholarship, literary criticism and midrashic exegesis to build its vision of a man who emerges as fascinating and very, very dangerous.

Pinsky writes as a poet, which may be difficult for some readers to follow. The later chapters are more solidly chronological, but generally speaking, the text is not organized sequentially, but associatively, looping back and forth, returning to potent images in a sort of refrain. Ultimately, though, the somewhat elevated style parallels the larger-than-life quality of the story it tells.

And what a story it is. David is by turns pious, loving, brutal, coldly calculating. In Pinsky’s hands, the world in which David flourished is revealed as full of “violence and swagger,” with David the master of that world. Although Pinsky never tries to whitewash David’s character — on the contrary, he revels in the contradictions that David presents — the king remains exemplary. Despite dealing with a character who could be thuggish in his dealings with friends and foes alike, Pinsky accepts the Bible’s attitude toward him, resulting in the outline of a man to be admired more than condemned.

David is the great biblical hero, toward whom the text of the Bible inexorably builds and after whom it never quite recovers. So few of us actually read David’s story from start to finish. We have grown accustomed to viewing the Bible through a veil of sacredness, which often obscures the insights it reveals into psychology and politics. As Pinsky noted, “We think we know these figures and their stories, then we understand how we do not, and then in that strangeness, we find something like ourselves in a new way.”

The “Life of David” returns David to where he belongs, not merely in prayer, but to life.

On Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m., Robert Pinsky will read from “The Life of David” as part of ALOUD at the Central Library. For more information, call (213) 228-7025 or visit

Remember Sept. 11 the Jewish Way


I’ve always had a difficult time assimilating tragedy, and although it hit much closer to home for me, Sept. 11 was not much different.

Even though it touched people all around me, and I was definitely affected, it still did not seem as intense or painful as it should have been.

I sought the solace of my friends, and gave it as much as possible, just like everyone else in New York City. And although I knew people who died in the Trade Center, and others who lost close relatives and friends, I still only understood the calamity in my mind. It didn’t really hit my heart the way it hit others’.

Then I found a uniquely Jewish way to relate, and was able to come to personal terms with this tragedy.

Many who died in the Trade Center were never found intact. Outside a hospital in the East 20s, a number of refrigerated containers were set up to hold the various body parts that had been recovered while they awaited DNA testing and proper burial.

Of the nearly 3,000 people who died the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a large number had to have been Jewish. Thus, it was assumed that many of the human pieces in those containers had come from Jewish bodies.

When a Jewish person dies, there is a tradition that someone stay up with the body all night before it is buried, watching over it and saying Tehilim — Psalms. Called shmirah (which literally means guarding), it is a sign of respect for the person who has died. As the days rolled on after Sept. 11, and body parts were recovered, a 24-hour rotation of people began to do shmirah in a tent (or trailer once it got colder) next to those refrigerated containers.

One benefit to freelancing is that I have a flexible schedule, so I often volunteered for a middle-of-the-night shift, from 2-6 a.m. For the bulk of that time, I was alone, saying Tehilim or silently meditating about the tragedy and the real people who had been lost.

Until then, I had mostly focused on the narrow escapes of the living. I had friends who should have been at work in the Trade Center, but weren’t that morning for some strangely miraculous reason or another. Others I know were chased through the streets of downtown by a cloud of smoke and debris as the buildings came tumbling down. Some had even been inside the second tower, or lower down in the first, but thankfully were able to get away safely.

I also knew a young woman, though not a close friend, who was among the Cantor Fitzgerald employees who never made it out. And after Sept. 11, I became friends with a woman who lost her brother that morning. The stories I heard about these people put a personal face on Sept. 11.

Still, despite these personal connections, I still felt less deeply affected by Sept. 11 than I should have, until I engaged in this Jewish ritual.

Jewish mourning practices are designed more for the living survivors than for those who have passed on. The process of moving from the intense seven days of shiva, to the less stringent 30 of shloshim, to the even more relaxed year of mourning following the loss of a parent, allow the survivor to accept the pain of loss and ease back into regular life.

The three weeks that lead up to Tisha B’Av, however, play out differently. As observant Jews approach this day of mourning for the loss of the two temples in Jerusalem, there’s an increase in the intensity of mourning. This allows us to acquire and assimilate a feeling of this loss, even though we never experienced it.

In much the same way, the shmirah I did after Sept. 11 allowed me to feel more compellingly the tragedy of that day. This year, on Sept. 11, I will again be saying Tehilim for the memory of those we lost. I invite you all to do the same.

May all of their neshomot (souls) have an aliyah (uplifting).

Joel Haber (

Learning to Breathe


 

For the last several years I have had a relationship with a man in prison, and I have seen how his soul has become anguished and diminished by sitting in that cell.

I met William after he was released from prison the first time, and I helped him get back on his feet. Now I write him words of comfort from the Psalms, from the Torah and from meditations that I have found to enhance an ailing spirit.

However, I have never been in prison and can barely imagine what it must be like. The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the soul can be compared to a piece of coal. If even the smallest spark remains, it can be fanned into a large flame; but if the spark is extinguished, the coal’s life is over. In attempting to keep William hopeful, I have learned a great deal about the human will and the effect of enslavement on the soul. In that, William’s story relates to this week’s parsha.

After 400 years of slavery in Egypt, Moses is sent to redeem the people. “And Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel and they couldn’t hear Moses because of an impoverished spirit and difficult work” (Exodus 6:9). I have long been fascinated by this existential verse in the midst of the redemption drama. Rarely do we as readers get an insight into the inner life of an individual character in the Bible, let alone into the psyche of the nation as a whole. Rashi teaches that kotzer ruach, the “impoverished spirit,” refers to “anyone who is troubled; they have short wind and breathing, and are not able to take a deep breath.” Rashi creates this drash by relating the word for short (kotzer) and troubled/despair (maitzar). In addition, maitzar is the same root as the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim. When we are enslaved, our breath, our neshimah, is shallow and our soul, our neshamah, is unable to expand to its full potential.

Judaism offers us an exodus from our mental slavery, but many of us are too stuck in our ways to hear the call. We are begging for ways to make our lives more meaningful, richer in spirit, holier in essence. Yet, when I suggest Shabbat, prayer, tikkun olam, a life of mitzvot, the most common answer I hear is, “Sounds great rabbi, but I can’t. It is too different or too difficult. I don’t want to make changes that will make my life unfamiliar.”

This is our contemporary slavery — our Egypt is familiarity and complacency, and they are hard shackles to break. However, if we do not break them, our souls perish from lack of air and shortness of breath.

William’s incarceration is perhaps easier to understand than the spiritual enslavement I believe keeps the souls of many supposedly free people locked away. So many of us are living, without really knowing it, in our own Egypt. And the scariest part is that we do it voluntarily. Unlike my friend, William, whose imprisonment is an easily recognizable consequence of his actions, many of us have unwittingly allowed our souls to be shortened and our breath squelched in our pursuit of “happiness.” We are all slaves to something — time, work, bad habits, money, greed, insecurity, whatever. But our souls cannot survive without being nourished; and when they are not, it becomes almost impossible for us to realize that freedom, spiritual freedom, is attainable. The Israelites couldn’t hear Moses because their souls were buried and their breath, the source of life, had been shortened; likewise, we cannot hear the cry of our spirits because we are too busy and too afraid to truly listen to our own hearts.

In his comment on this verse, the Sfat Emet spells it out for us: hearing requires being empty of everything. How difficult this was for the enslaved Israelites, and how difficult for us; our inability to empty ourselves, to forget this world’s vanities, prevents our hearts from being empty and free to hear God’s word. This is why we mention the Exodus in the blessing after the Shema — we must remind ourselves daily to strive for freedom in order to hear, and to strive to hear in order to be free.

Every morning when I open my eyes, I say the words, “Elohai neshama shenatata bi tehorah hee” — “My God, the soul which you placed in me is pure.” This short meditation is what helps me to keep from drowning in my own slave mentality. I sent this message to William in my last letter; I reminded him that the Israelites, in their slavery, forgot to breathe and lost touch with their eternal, spiritual freedom. I prayed that he would keep breathing and expanding his soul so that when his physical freedom came, he could be ready to make the most of it. And that is my prayer for all of us, as a community, a nation and a universe. When redemption calls, may we have sufficient breath to answer.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. His first book, “Seeking Holiness,” has just been published and is available at www.pjtc.net. He is a certified Jewish meditation instructor and a member of the Southern California Rabbinical Council of Americans for Peace Now.

 

Shhhh … I’m Praying


Am I the only one who goes to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services to listen and participate?

Probably not. But why do I feel that way sometimes?

I realize it would be hypocritical to say I sit (and stand and sit and stand) through all those hours of psalms, songs, sermons and speeches totally focused and absorbed in prayer and pious contemplation. I’m human. My mind wanders. I think about a thousand things.

I read a passage in the Machzor and wonder how it relates to my life. A phrase captures my attention, and I try to understand what it really means. A thought enters my head, and I find myself lost in the liturgy.

But the services are skillfully arranged to bring me back. My mental meandering suddenly stops when the Torahs are removed from the Ark and carried around the sanctuary. My daydreaming ceases when the shofar is blown. The noise of the busy street just outside the synagogue doors seems to fade when I’m tuned in to the rabbi’s broadcast frequency.

And when the Kohanim gather on the bimah and the rest of the congregation turns its collective face away, I am entranced by the haunting sound of the davening.

A synagogue is a house of worship. When we gather there on yom tov and Shabbat, it’s for one reason — prayer. We pray for understanding, consolation, guidance and more. And on Yom Kippur, forgiveness heads the list of what we seek.

We should always feel welcome at our synagogues. But we should remember where we are and why we are there. There will be opportunities to talk to friends following services. There will be hundreds of other days during the year to discuss sports, stocks and other secular subjects.

I am easily distracted, I was not blessed with X-ray vision and I have allergies.

I can’t concentrate when the level of chatter among the worshippers turns into a deafening drone. I can’t see the bimah when the tall woman seated in front of me wears a big hat that puts feathers in my face. I sneeze and get a bad headache when I’m near someone soaked in perfume or cologne.

I do enjoy an occasional giggle and other happy sounds of babies and small children in shul. But when the kids cry incessantly, it’s time to take them out for a change of scenery or whatever.

The stress of living in our techno-driven society can be overwhelming. The frenzy of phone calls, e-mails, deadlines and demands can darken the brightest day.

So now, more than ever before, I treasure this time of year. I welcome the breaks from commerce and computers. I appreciate the switch from virtual to virtuous. And I value this chance to recharge my spirit, review my actions and reactions, and reevaluate my goals and the path that leads me to them.

Maybe I’m too sensitive to my surroundings. Or maybe I’m just a chronic complainer who never learned how to pray well with others. But whatever the reason, please humor me. Give me and my legions of co-kvetchers a break this year. Go easy on the fragrance. Turn off the alarm on your watch. Leave your cell phone at home. Shut off the bleeping beeper. Try to keep conversation to a minimum.

It’s all a matter of respect — for these holy days and for your rabbi, cantor and co-congregants.

In return for your cooperation, you’ll get our gratitude and good wishes for a healthy, happy and hassle-free new year.