Heart strings and the holiday cycle

“When the last rose of summer pricks my finger…”

Outside McPherson Square Metro Station, 9/15/15
Outside McPherson Square Metro Station, 9/15/15

Early in the holidays, I shared a message I’d found stenciled on the sidewalk, suggesting that maybe, when one’s heart is already broken, “protect yo heart” might be Days of Awe advice worth considering. Comments included thoughts about the Shekhinah’s wings sheltering “the bereaved, the brokenhearted” and a warning: “…the fact that your heart is broken as an existence proof that you have a heart that can be broken.”

Both comments have stayed with me through the ensuing days. But I admit to finding this breakable heart more debit than asset at the moment, and, while I’ve experienced shelter in my own personal griefs, I am not convinced that it extends to those most in need, in my town or beyond, in the vast, and sadly expanding, diameter of so many bullets and attendant trauma.

…Although I witnessed only one, the District has seen 116 homicides, as of 9/25/15; of course, this figure does not take into account the many other violent crimes in DC — or elsewhere — nor does it calculate the trauma for families, friends, and neighbors of each crime or the disastrous conditions that contributed to the crimes….

“…and I can’t hear the song for the singer”

This morning, the L’Chayim V’Yayin Torah study group completed a year of weekly studies by reading V’zot HaBrachah [“this is the blessing”] (Deut 33:1 – 34:12). We noted how different it was to focus on the death of Moses in this format, where we had time to really consider the scene and his final words. We usually meet this portion as part of a Simchat Torah celebration — in which the final words of the Torah are quickly linked to the initial words, as we begin a new reading cycle.

I personally do not usually mourn, or even much consider, Moses’ death: He remains centered forever, after all, in the narrative of the People’s trek out of bondage and toward freedom. Like Moses, we never quite make it out of the Wilderness, but go around again each year, glimpsing, perhaps, but never getting beyond the River Jordan.

Our study group paused, however, to consider the position of a revolutionary who can only lead the folks so far, who sees but does not cross over. We discussed an essay on this portion — “This is the Blessing: The ‘First Openly Gay Rabbi’ Reminisces” (more below) — which relates the life of Moses to that of a “social pioneer,” being “first” when young and “last” when old.

“When the strings of my heart start to sever”

Meanwhile, a few days ago, I stumbled upon a recording (20 years old, but new to me; see below) from a different sort of revolutionary He is also at the banks of a river — although, unlike Moses, he has not seen the other side. Somehow, “when the strings of my heart start to sever” put me in mind of an oddity of the first and last words of the Torah:


The last word of the Torah is ישראל (Yisrael), making the final letter of the Torah ל, lamed. The first word is בראשית [“in the beginning”], with the initial letter ב, bet. Linking the two letters forms the word “heart [לב, lev]” — either read “backward,” so the Torah is seen as the “heart” of the Jewish people, or stretching the lamed around to meet the bet, as we do when one reading cycle completes and the next begins on Simchat Torah. (more on this here)

“If I were at the border of the promised land, knowing I couldn’t get in,” writes the “social pioneer”(see above):

…I’d say, “Be true to yourself.” I don’t say it glibly: it’s one of the most difficult challenges any of us face….Whatever it costs you to live a life of integrity, you have to do it.
— “This is the Blessing: The ‘First Openly Gay Rabbi’ Reminisces,”
by Allen Bennett as told to Jane Rachel Litman
Torah Queeries. NY: NYU Press, 2009. p.280

The author of “Black Muddy River,” though younger than I am now when he wrote these lyrics, reported later that the song

…is about the perspective of age and making a decision about the necessity of living in spite of a rough time, and the ravages of anything else that’s going to come at you.
— Robert Hunter, quoted in David Dodd’s “Greatest Stories Ever Told”

May all find healing in the rolling to come

Black Muddy River

This particular rendition is an encore at July 9, 1995 Grateful Dead concert (the last before Jerry Garcia died). Vocals are some of Jerry’s last public words.

“Black Muddy River”
When the last rose of summer pricks my fingers
And the hot sun chills me to the bone
When I can’t hear the song for the singer
And I can’t tell my pillow from a stone

I will walk alone by the black muddy river
And sing me a song of my own…

…I don’t care how deep or wide
If you got another side
Roll muddy river…

…When the strings of my heart start to sever
And stones fall from my eyes instead of tears

I will walk alone by the black muddy river
and dream me a dream of my own
I will walk alone by the black muddy river
And sing me a song of my own
And sing me a song of my own
— Robert Hunter, 1986
Full lyrics at Dead-net
David Dodd’s annotated lyrics


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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

3 thoughts on “Heart strings and the holiday cycle”

  1. “…while I’ve experienced shelter in my own personal griefs, I am not convinced that it extends to those most in need, in my town or beyond…”

    “…stretching the lamed around to meet the bet, as we do when one reading cycle completes and the next begins on Simchat Torah.”

    “May all find healing in the rolling to come”


    Thank you for a brilliant commentary, and for continuing to share your experiences so eloquently. I think your focus on the needs of the community is key to real joy. How beautifully that finds expression in the ritual of rolling the Torah scroll from the end to begin reading again immediately from the beginning, and rejoin the lamed to the beit to form the word lev, heart.

    I once read that the reason for some of the Jewish restrictions for mourners, such as attending parties, were related to not trying to stretch a person wounded by grief too far, too fast. I’m sorry not to recall the source of that reading right now. A metaphor could be related to physical healing, little by little, as strength returns to an injured limb. Another restriction seemed to challenge growth in another direction — mourning and burials are postponed on Shabbat — recognizing the need for continued comfort and connection with community joy — something it’s natural to feel isolated from when beset by grief or trauma. The ancients recognized the need for retreat and renewal, as well as gentle connection, in the process of healing. They recognized that it takes time, and careful balance of respect for privacy with community involvement. I think part of the difficulty is that the individual is not the same person after a trying event, and needs time alone to integrate who they are becoming, as well as time to find recognition in the eyes of the community for who they are becoming. The person returns to community with more experience and wisdom. This is still a human need, but it’s probably even harder to find balanced ways to meet it in our modern world. There is some enactment of these needs in the rituals like being called up for an aliyah to the Torah, or bensching gomel, or formal events like b’nei mitzvot, weddings, and other life cycle events. There are many events in life that can be harder to recognize and honor. Many prayer leaders and liturgists have tackled the need for new rituals, but living these changes is also an informal task for everyday life that we all face moment to moment. We, and our communities, all need to change and grow continually.

    This week I reread a short book by Buber, because I wondered what it means to be commanded to rejoice during our current holiday of Sukkot, and how that effort might be different from our contemporary culture’s pursuit and aggrandizement of gratification.

    This is quoted from “The Way of Man — Ten Rungs,” by Martin Buber, 2006 Citadel Press, NY, NY, p.67

    [from Ten Rungs]

    “Against Dejection

    In the psalm we read: “Who healeth the broken in heart…” Why are we told that? For it is a good thing to have a broken heart, and pleasing to God, as it is written: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit…” But further on in the psalm, we read: “And bindeth up their wounds.” God does not entirely heal those who have broken hearts. He only eases their suffering, lest it torment and deject them. For dejection is not good and not pleasing to God. A broken heart prepares man for the service of God, but dejection corrodes service. We must distinguish between the two as carefully as between joy and wantonness; they are so easily confused, and yet are as far removed from one another as the ends of the earth.”

    This reminds me of the story about how to recognize the prophet Elijah sitting at the gates of the city among all the wounded. Elijah unbinds only one wound at a time, so he’ll be ready to jump up and announce the messianic time of redemption. Let’s see if I can find that reference.

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