“If you’re not 20 minutes early, you’re late,” my ballet teacher, Marie Paquet, used to tell her adult students: Without time to leave behind the outside world and prepare to focus, warm up physically and mentally, class could be frustrating, even dangerous. Over the years, I’ve realized that her adage also applies to worship services. Still, life and public transportation don’t always support early arrival to services.
But necessity, as I’m sure “they” rarely say, is the mother of invention in kavanah [intention]….
This past Shabbat, Shabbat Sukkot, I entered the sanctuary un-early and a little frazzled. Moreover, this particular service skipped over some introductory prayers that ordinarily help me focus. This left me struggling to follow the service. But, then, in a moment provided for silent prayer, I stopped struggling and simultaneously “heard,” quite clearly:
“On Your behalf, my heart says: ‘Seek My face!'” (Psalms 27:8)
I wish I could say that this verse instantly helped me find my way into the service. But I can say that I my inability to keep up became suddenly irrelevant. Moreover, I stumbled into a three-part message encapsulating the fall holidays. I am hoping it will carry — for me and others, I hope — the essence of the season of teshuva into the mundane, post-holiday world.
A Journey In and Out, with Psalm 27 and the Rav
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (AKA “the Rav”) notes that God’s attribute of Gevura [strength or severity] “makes a chronological journey during the holidays,” from Rosh Hashana through the close of Sukkot. The path the Rav describes, based on the Zohar and outlined in more detail below, is meant to show how we can
- enter the Days of Awe with Mercy tempering Judgement,
- seek atonement while the full weight of judgement is suppressed, and
- return to the mundane world with a renewed sense of what we can and cannot control.
In a similar vein, Psalms 27:8 reflects a three-part call of the holiday period:
- from an initial wake-up call at Rosh Hashana, (“On Your behalf”)
- through the internal work of teshuvah, (“my heart says”), and
- back out into the rest of the year, following Sukkot, with a fresh sense how much is required of us (“‘Seek My face!'”)
Both trajectories present a protected space/time for effecting change but then bring us back out, where demands await. The odd perspective shifts of Psalm 27:8 encompass this changing focus, from outside in and back out again.
Elsewhere in Psalm 27, the seven-part “single request” (“One thing I ask of the LORD…,” verses 4-7) intertwines actions the individual and God will take; this reflects thinning boundaries — as the fall holidays progress — between human and divine. The view of Sukkot as a celebration of the Oral Law is a related reminder of the on-going partnership between the People and God.
These and other aspects of the fall holiday experience (additional associations linked above) can be encapsulated in the verse, “On Your behalf, my heart says: ‘Seek My face!'” It requires no particular prayer structure or physical architecture to do its work. Its three short phrases condense a sense of urgency. Moreover, centered in the individual’s heart, it can persist long after the sukkah is gone.
“On Your behalf”/Rosh Hashana,
recognizing the “You” of “Your behalf,” God as distant sovereign
- The Rav calls Rosh Hashana a time of “hirhur teshuvah” [the ‘stirrings’ of return or repentance],” as we recognize the Sovereign and how far therefrom we have drifted over the year.
- The “single request” of verses 4-7 (“One thing I ask…”), encompasses seven parts, three of which ask that God act directly: “keep me safe,” “hide me,” and “lift me on a rock.” This posture reflects a recognition of God as “You” and a desire for a closer relationship.
- The Days of Awe begin, the Rav says, with a call for “awakening from spiritual complacency.”
See “The Message of the Shofar” in Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified (Edison, NJ: Ohr, 1998.)
“my heart says”/selichot [forgiveness prayers] & Yom Kippur
accepting our own responsibility for teshuvah/return, with God as source of direction and hope
- Yom Kippur offers a moment of nearness unique in the year, according to the Rav: “The closer His approach, the greater the teshuvah obligation…On Yom Kippur, Hashem knocks on the door of every Jew.”
- As Psalm 27 progresses, images of physical shelter, however precarious — tent, sukkah, rock — give way to less tangible forms of support: teaching, leading, faith. Verses 11-12 mark a turning point: “Were my father and my mother to forsake me, the LORD would take me in. Teach me Your way, LORD, and lead me on a level path…” (Koren/Sacks translation).
- It was on Yom Kippur that Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the second tablets, the Rav notes, so Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the Oral Law.
See Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur; “Rabbi Akiva’s Homily on Teshuvah” in Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified.
“‘Seek My face!'”/Sukkot
celebrating fragile plenty and leaving us with renewed awareness of our partnership with God, Redeemer in exile with us
- The remaining four parts of the ancient “single request” (discussed above) include actions of the individual seeking God’s face: to dwell in the House, to gaze on the beauty, to worship in His Temple, and to “sacrifice…with shouts of joy.”
- During Sukkot, Kohelet reminds us that “No man has authority over the lifebreath” and that “the lifebreath returns to God who bestowed it” (8:8, 12:7; JPS translation). But it is from within a structure emphasizing the fragility and temporary nature of our own lives that we request the “Divine Presence to rest among us” and seek to “unify the name of the Holy One” (from a common sukkah meditation). Symbolic ushpizin [guests] extend this meditation: Seven biblical characters, each associated with an attribute of God, are welcomed into the sukkah, with one highlighted each night.
- The Rav notes that Sukkot, a holiday based primarily on oral traditions (what constitutes a sukkah, e.g.), celebrates the Oral Law. This is the on-going endeavor to bring God’s face into daily life…until the People and God are jointly redeemed.
See Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur
Gevurah‘s journey, per the Zohar and the Rav
- Gevurah is prominent at the New Year — through liturgy, Torah readings, and shofar blasts — but “mitigated by Chesed and Tiferet, Mercy and Glory”:
- “On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…But teshuvah and tefilah and tzedakah [repentance, prayer, and good deeds] can annul the severity of the decree.”
- Abraham is ordered to sacrifice his only son, but the angel stays his hand.
- The broken blasts of the shofar are harsh, but the teru’a notes are surrounded by whole teki’a sounds.
- “On Yom Kippur, a day of total Chesed, the midat hadin [aspect of judgement] of Gevura is completely suppressed,” the Rav explains.
- Gevura and judgement re-emerge at the conclusion of Sukkot, “as we pray for life-sustaining rain which is provided through the sefira of Gevura.
See Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur, pp.889ff
Notes on Psalm 27
As noted in (See part 1 of 4, the first half of verse 8 begins in the psalmist’s heart — “my heart said” [amar livi] — and is directed “to You” [lecha: masc. singular, 2nd person]. What the heart says, however, is a first-person expression, presumably from God: “Seek My face”
לְךָ, אָמַר לִבִּי–בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי
אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ יְהוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ
In Thy behalf my heart hath said: ‘Seek ye My face’;
Thy face, LORD, will I seek.
– 27:8, Old JPS translation