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Cherishing Our ‘Selah’ Moments

Now ask yourself, family members and friends a simple question:  What takes your breath away?  
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August 2, 2023
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Isn’t it curious that the word “selah” appears time after time in the Hebrew Bible and in our prayer books yet defies translation? If you don’t believe me, try typing “selah” into your Hebrew to English app.  You will come up empty.  

It usually occurs at the end of a verse, typically one of special importance.  Some say it might be an ancient musical notation, so it is fitting that a Rabbi friend of mine thinks of it as “sound the trumpets, focus on what was just said.”  It is a sort of Jewish mic drop.

I think we all need to appreciate the extraordinary “selah” moments in our lives.  

In Siddur Lev Shalem, directly preceding the Torah service, there is a beautiful passage from Rabbi Naomi Levy that concludes with: “I yearn to succeed, but I often forget what is truly important.  Teach me, God, to slow down.  May my resting revive me.  May it lead me to wisdom, to holiness, to peace, and to You.”

What are those occasions that are “truly important” – moments that are worthy of our most thoughtful reflection?

Maya Angelou has written: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Maya Angelou has written: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”  “Selah” moments are those instances that leave us breathless.

I have been asking people to describe such moments and, predictably, they mention life events — births, marriages, religious ceremonies, and the like. But when I ask them for other examples, their answers have surprised me.

My wife, who has traveled the world beside me in conjunction with my work, talked about being rendered speechless after turning the corner following a long, dusty ride from Delhi, and viewing the Taj Mahal for the first time.  She was enthralled by its beauty and, a dozen years later, thinks of it often.

A close friend said that it was the night that Barak Obama was elected president. My friend, who is Black, was in Chicago’s Grant Park when the future president stepped out on stage, accompanied by his wife and daughters.  My friend was overcome with emotion as he recounted witnessing the dawn of a new America that included a First Family that resembled his own.

Another dear friend, a biblical scholar who made aliyah decades ago, told me that she regularly climbs a particular staircase in the Old City to be greeted by intoxicating views of the roofs, domes, minarets, parks and buildings of Jerusalem. The spectacular diversity of peoples and places inspires her each time.

My co-author, Gary Saul Morson, a prolific authority on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, gets his greatest joy from teaching undergraduates.  When he runs a discussion section and the students enthusiastically talk about ideas, some of which he hadn’t thought of himself, he pauses, smiles, and realizes that he has contributed to something truly special.

One of the most remarkable people I know, a former chief of staff to the President of the United States, is stirred deeply whenever he attends a sporting event and F-16 fighter jets soar over the stadium during the national anthem.  A proud veteran and a pilot, he removes his hat, salutes, and discreetly sobs.

 One of my daughters, an art historian and curator, tells me that of all the rarefied pieces of art she studies, it is Van Gogh’s ubiquitous Starry Night that captivates her most.  She never tires of standing in front of it at the Museum of Modern Art, losing herself in its brilliance.

My other daughter just graduated from college.  She grew up on college campuses and questioned the cult-like devotion that many alumni have for their alma maters.  But as one of her college’s commencement events, the seniors marched through an historic gate, with alumni who were there celebrating their reunions lined up along the path, applauding wildly for the newest entries into the alumni body. That gave her pause, as she recognized that she had become part of a noteworthy history.

For me, it is bursting with pride when I see the exquisite Star of David on an El Al plane.  Wherever I might be, I am reminded that the Jewish people are there with me.  I cry a bit each time.

For me, it is bursting with pride at airports from Seoul to Bangkok, Athens to Madrid, Johannesburg to Istanbul, when I see the exquisite Star of David on an El Al plane.  Wherever I might be, I am reminded that the Jewish people are there with me.  I cry a bit each time.

During my 22 years as a college president, people would often say to me that a college presidency was the toughest job in the world.  They were wrong – it is being a rabbi.  Our life events mean everything to us, and rabbis need to be on top of their games every single day.  A yawn, a mispronounced name, and the magic is gone.  Talk about pressure!

So I am giving the last word to an extraordinary example of the best of the rabbinate, Steven Stark Lowenstein from Am Shalom in Glencoe, Illinois: “For me as a rabbi, I see and experience ‘selah moments’ every single day.  It is truly a sacred privilege.  From the look of amazement and exhaustion of new parents in the hospital as a beautiful child arrives, to the excitement of the first day of religious school.  It is a child celebrating a Bet Mitzvah with parents and grandparents tearing up in the front row.  It’s a new spouse circling a partner under the chuppah to arrive at the deepest level of their soul, or the ring being placed on the index finger connecting hearts forever.  Even in death, I’ve watched children eulogize parents, and parents find the impossible words to eulogize their children.  I’ve watched too many friends filling in the graves of their classmates taken far too soon and how a community comes together to comfort the mourners.  It is the big moments that we experience with family and friends but also it’s the normal everyday moments of interaction that we sometimes take for granted, such as a beautiful shabbat dinner with friends, affixing a mezuzah on a new home, a first trip to Israel or simply wearing a new tallit for the very first time. Every such moment is a moment of reflection to connect with God more intimately, and for twenty-nine years I have been humbled to have a front row seat.”    

Now ask yourself, family members and friends a simple question:  What takes your breath away?  

Selah.


Morton Schapiro is the former President of Williams College and Northwestern University.  His most recent book (with Gary Saul Morson) is “Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us.”

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