“One of Me” and Genesis 2

There is no “man” or “woman” in the early part of Genesis, even after “the human” is created (twice). The first Torah portion, Breishit (Gen 1:1-6:8), read this week as the cycle begins again for the new year, gives two versions of humanity’s genesis. Neither one includes the word “ish” at the outset:

  • We are introduced to the earthling or the human in 1:26-27, and told ha-adam is in God’s image and male [zachar] and female [nekevah]. (Here are a few additional notes and translations for comparison.)
  • God crafts ha-adam from ha-adamah [“the earth” or maybe “arable land”] in Gen 2:7 (and ha-adam gets singular masculine grammar treatment).

We do not see the word “ish [man]” until after isha [woman] is created and recognized by ha-adam as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Subsequently, we read of ha-adam and ha-isha or ishto, usually translated as “the man” and “the woman” or “his wife [literally: his woman].”

Just prior to this, God introduces the human to all the other creates that have been created, but —

…no fitting helper was found.

Gen 2:20

There was no helper appropriate, or corresponding or opposite, [k’negdo] to the human — what the King James Version called a “help-meet.”

Not sure the Genesis text actually supports this reading, but this week I am seeing Elton John as “ezer k’negdo” for Lil Nas X.

…There has been a great deal written, ancient and current and in between, about what these verses might imply about gender and about relationships of various kinds. And there are so many layers of gender and sexuality to be explored in discussing Lil Nas X or Elton John or Dolly Parton. But it’s almost Shabbat, and that’s not my area of expertise/primary experience, and this is meant to be just a short thought…

One of Me

Recently Lil Nas X released “One of Me.” It’s an important work on its own (full lyrics), and it’s important that Elton John is featured on the song. In addition, the two of them appear together in a video advertisement. (Usually my inclination is to suspect advertisers of capitalizing on pain, but in this case I applaud Uber Eats for providing this urgently needed creative space, whatever their motives. Video “One of Me” for Uber Eats.)

Watching the elder (b. 1947) stand so publicly with the younger (b. 1999) has an enormous power. (Especially for someone raised in a home where “shush” was the only permitted, and the most polite, thing to say about Elton John’s sexuality, and anyone who remembers when the public was not kind to him.)

Without making any claims as to how the actual individuals involved — Montero Lamar Hill and Reginald Dwight or their public alter egos — feel about this, I see Elton John as ezer k’negdo, that corresponding-helper, for Lil Nas X, an elder appearing “opposite” in a way that allows the younger to appear more clearly as himself…to the world at large, if not to himself. Seems especially poignant in relation to a song about how so many want him to be something else.

Could something like that be meant when ha-adam says —

At last! This time! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”

Gen 2:23

after first seeing ha-isha?

Not sure the text supports this, but also not sure in this instance how much I care about being exact: Is is possible that we all have the power to serve as ezer k’negdo to others? to use our own selves in positive ways to help others see themselves more fully?


Elton John in a Lil Nas X cowboy get up and Lil Nas X in Elton’s feathers. More than that would be very hard to describe. But if requested, I’ll search out a video description.

Full official video from Lil Nas X below

not going to try to provide a video description, but if requested will try to find one

Full album — https://lilnasx.lnk.to/MonteroAlbum

Charity associated with this album — Central Alabama Alliance Resource & Advocacy Center — if you click through from the YouTube link there is a matching grant.

Singing and Praying about Enemies

“Ooh sha sha, we’ve got to live together,” voices used to tell me, from under my pillow at night. “What the world needs now is love … love between my brothers and my sisters …everybody get together, smile on your brother.” They promised “change is gonna come” and an “answer blowin’ in the wind,” later asking: “What’s going on? …. War, what is it good for? (Good God, y’all) … Why can’t we be friends?”

Daily messages from my transistor and from people around me were very far removed from the language of “enemies” and “wicked” in the Book of Psalms.

I did not grow up among Bible readers or folks who relied on psalms for comfort or instruction. As I became a Bible reader and a Psalms reciter as an adult, I’ve struggled to reconcile all those years of “love everybody right now!” with some of the darker images in sacred text and prayer.

Once, a long while back, R’ Joel Alter launched a Jewish Study Center class I attended by saying that some people find it unhelpful to focus on enemies but that, for the purposes of that class (on the Book of Deuteronomy), we would not debate the topic: “Don’t tell me we don’t have enemies.” I don’t think I’d said anything myself about my problems with the concept of enemies in sacred text, but Joel’s comment definitely spoke right to me, and started to shift my perspective.

Nevertheless, I remain anxious about psalms that say things like, “a host encamps against me” (Ps. 27:4) or “let God’s enemies be scattered” (Ps. 68:2) or that speak of “the wicked,” rather than wickedness. (Beruria, who taught her husband, Rabbi Meir, to pray for an end to “sins” rather than “sinners,” is my hero!) After all: Who gets to declare someone wicked or enemy of God?

I do love some psalms and find them deeply moving. I enjoy studying psalms. I joyfully, or mournfully, as the occasion demands, add my voice when psalms are part of the liturgy. I recite psalms when someone is ill or in dire straits. Still, though, when the world around me seems especially threatening, I often prefer to lean on Bill Withers or let Sly and the Family Stone carry me away.

photo: Joe Haupt (image description, full credit below)

Recently, however, I’ve had my perspective shifted again by the psalm medleys of Adam Gottlieb and OneLove. In one recent example (“Duppy Medley, with Psalm 27, below), his translation and the musical context prepare me for lines like, “when armies come at me, my heart will hold.” I could try to explain why I think this works for me. Instead, I’ll just share the video and ask how this lands for you this Elul.

This link allows Spotify users to pre-save Psalm 1 Medley, which includes a fantastic minor key “Hammer Song.” No cost, just need a Spotify account.

Here is the Patreon page for Adam Gottlieb & OneLove. Becoming a patron gives access to the Psalm 1 Medley before the September 2 release date and lots of other content.


And, here, for some different forms of uplift:

Sly Stone’s “Everyday People,” brought to you by Turnaround Arts (school groups around the country);

Bill Withers offering his own “Lean on Me” with audience participation; and

Playing for Change’s Song Around the World version of “Lean on Me.”


NOTES

“Everyday People,” Sly and the Family Stone 1968. “What the World Needs Now is Love,” Jackie DeShannon 1965. “The Hammer Song,” Martha and the Vandellas 1963 (Seeger and Hayes, 1949). “Get Together,” Youngbloods 1968. “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke 1964. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan 1962. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye 1970. “War,” Edwin Starr, 1970. “Why can’t we be friends,” War 1975.

Rabbi Joel Alter was then a relatively recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a regular teacher for DC’s cross-community Jewish Study Center after his day job in formal Jewish education. He is now a congregational rabbi in Milwaukee. Tagging him here with thanks and greetings.

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There were once some highwaymen [or: hooligans] the neighbourhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria said to him: How do you make out [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Because it is written (Ps. 104:35): Let hatta’im cease? Is it written hot’im? It is written hatta’im! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked men be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked men! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented. — Soncino translation, Babylonian Berakhot 10a. For more on this story, see also this PDF from a psalms study class a few years back.


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Image description: plastic rectangular transistor radio from the 1950s. Single dial and volume control. Photo: Joe Haupt via Wikimedia. License Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons 2.0. Official name: “Vintage General Electric 5-Transistor Radio, Model 677 (Red), GE’s First Commercially Produced Transistor Radio, Made in the USA, Circa 1955.”

Video description: Musicians performing live in a small, possibly home-based (decidedly not fancy) studio. Guitarist/vocalist on one side; drummer, guitarist, and additional percussionist on the other side.

Miriam, Amalek, Memory, and Mouths

This dvar torah is about remembering and how Jewish memory is built with the help of our prayerbooks. Some of what I learned in preparing today’s remarks can be found in this handout.

The end of the handout is the result of the earlier parts of my studies, a brief exploration into Mishkan T’filah and earlier drafts of the siddur, mostly focusing on one pair of pages where we find: “Six Torah episodes are to be remembered each day, to refine our direction.”

The “Six Torah episodes” section can be found on pages 43 and 205 in the actual Mishkan T’filah, on page 12 in the handout, shared here.

full text version can be found here

In similar passages (more on this later) in other prayer books, “What God did to Miriam” is included here. I turned to older drafts of Mishkan T’filah, hoping they might clue me into why Miriam is not on this page.

Endnote Deadend

An endnote in the published siddur says the Six Torah episodes were “adapted from a Sephardic siddur.” But it doesn’t specify which or say what was adapted. I could find no example anywhere, Ashkenazi or Sephardic, in another siddur which changes the verses so as to omit Miriam, as Mishkan T’filah does. Every other example over the last 1000 years seems to focus on the same six incidents, all of which include a Torah verse demanding that we “remember” and/or “not forget.” Only Mishkan T’filah uses a different list. Only Mishkan T’filah leaves out specific Torah verses. And only Mishkan T’filah adds in Korach — about whom we have no memory admonition in the Torah.

These seem significant differences, and I thought it a little odd that so much changed over the course of the drafts, while this passage remained static through five years or more of edits. (See the handout for some notes on changes that did occur over the drafts.) No one I asked — including some Temple Micah clergy, current and past, and other people I thought might know — had an explanation. Rabbi Gerry Serotta, who served as interim rabbi some years ago, sent a query on my behalf to the siddur’s chief editor, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, and to Rabbi David Ellenson. If we hear back, I’ll let you know.

Improvement by Removal?

Meanwhile, Rabbi Gerry and I guessed that removing Miriam had been an attempt to respond to feminist criticism about how Miriam is usually remembered: 1) focusing on her case of tzaraat, a skin condition, rather than on anything she actually did or who she was; 2) remembering “What God did to Miriam” in a way that accuses her of lashon hara [evil speech], although that is unclear in the text; and 3) blames Miriam alone, while the text clearly states that both Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses (Numbers 12:1ff).

If it’s true that the change was made due to feminist sensibilities, it seems ironic — and oddly instructive — that, as a result, Miriam is… just gone.


Acquiring Memory

In my travels through older prayerbook drafts, I was intrigued by the adage, attributed to David Ellenson: “Acquire the memory of what it means to be a Jew.”

This prompted me to wonder:

  • What did the siddur editors want us to remember with this set of episodes?
  • What does it mean that Miriam is not on the page?
  • What would it mean if she were there?
  • What does it mean that Mishkan T’filah made this change without explanation?
  • Would the passage land differently, had an explanation been included?

From there I followed many other branches of wondering, more generally, about how memory, and Jewish identity, are formed by our practice and our prayerbooks. That brings me to older material I found relating to the Six Remembrances.

On page three of the handout is a Talmudic source arguing why the verb “remember” should be understood to mean “repeat it with your mouth.” The link between speech and remembering is an old one in Jewish thought. The passage from Sifra discusses four of the verses in the Six or Ten Remembrances.

full text version can be found here

In addition to these four, the Exodus and the Revelation at Mount Sinai are included. Here, page 6 of handout, is a typical example of how the Six Remembrances appear in contemporary prayerbooks —

full text version can be found here

Intentions and Remembering

In addition to Mishkan T’filah’s “to refine our direction,” other intentions introduce these remembrances: from a simple “some say,” to “for the sake of unification of the divine name…” and “those who recite these are assured a place in the world to come.” (See page 2 of the handout for these various intentions and page 6 for details of how the Six and Remembrances and the “Six Torah episodes” differ.)

The Sifra passage also includes an expression that really caught my attention — the idea of “heart-forgetfulness,” apparently something that can be fixed with thought, while speech is required in other cases…..

This might be a good thing to keep in mind during Elul, thinking about what can be repaired by thought and memory and what requires speaking aloud.

Back to Miriam

Now, back to Miriam, who is not on the Mishkan T’filah pages but IS in this week’s Torah portion (now last week’s, Ki Teitzei, Deut. 21:10 – 25:19 — pages 7 and 8 of the handout). Deuteronomy 24:9 is one of only 12 times her name appears in the Torah.

Rabbinic imagination saw Miriam’s Well in the white space between her death and the lack of water in the next verse. And many other stories and lessons surround Miriam. But she appears in four incidents in the Torah — named three times and “his sister” in another — and is mentioned twice more. That’s it. That’s all she wrote about Miriam.

full text version can be found here

There is a lot of commentary about the two verses in this week’s portion– the one telling the listener to heed the priests in matters of tzaraat (Deut 24:8) and the following one telling us to remember what God did to Miriam.

What God did to Miriam is related in Numbers 12. The demand that we remember what God did to Miriam is usually understood as a warning to guard the tongue, due to links in commentary between tzaraat and sins of the tongue. But it’s crucial to note that there is no direct link — either in this week’s portion or in Numbers 12 or elsewhere in Torah text — between Miriam and evil speech.

What and How We Remember

The story in Numbers 12 is full of obscure imagery, and Miriam’s tzaraat is the same condition Moses experienced at the Burning Bush, where it was part of his recognition as a prophet, and not understood as punishment at all. Early Jewish teachers chose to make Miriam an object lesson rather than following another set of interpretations with a different set of lessons.

None of the other Six or Ten Remembrances involve an individual, so — regardless of initial intention — Jewish thought and law were greatly influenced by the linkage that developed between Miriam, and women in general, and evil speech.

  • But, is that a good reason to remove the text from recitation?
  • Does that facilitate forgetting of a helpful kind?
  • What is gained and what is lost in removing a passage with difficult associations?
  • Might it be better to keep it in and work to understand and re-interpret?

Theologian Judith Plaskow discusses this in a piece on this week’s portion, “Tzaraat and Memory.” I highly recommend reading the whole thing — either in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, in print, or on My Jewish Learning.

Writing in 2008, Plaskow raises the issue of how progress can actually be a challenge to memory and to further progress. I’ll add that her conclusion can also apply to the appearance of progress, as when a problematic text is removed from regular recitation or consideration, or when we make changes that don’t always benefit the most harmed or vulnerable.

She writes, referencing the other important “memory” verses in this week’s portion:

We blot out the memory of Amalek when we create Jewish communities in which the perpetual exclusion of some group of people — or the denial of women’s rights — are so contrary to current values as to be almost incredible. Yet, if we are to safeguard our achievements, we can also never forget to remember the history of inequality and the decisions and struggles that have made more equitable communities possible.


What We Remember, What We Fix

I’ve been watching a series of mysteries focusing on women in the mid-1960s. (For fellow mystery fans: Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, set in 1964-65 Melbourne, Australia, a delightful set of sequels to Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, set in the same area in the late 1920s.) And I’ve noticed that I am remembering, quite viscerally, how it FELT, as a girl and young woman, to have limited rights, opportunities, and expectations. And also of how dangerous it could be back then, in physical, legal, and psychic ways, for women and also for queer people and for many others….And I’m on the young side for these experiences; others have longer histories with inequality.

This exploration also reminded me of, on the one hand, how grateful I was to have to explain such things to our children as they were growing up. So many conversations that centered around: Queer people were forbidden from expressing their identity or acting on their sexuality, let alone getting married?! Women weren’t allowed to what?! US law defined whiteness as property and prevented Black people from what?!

On the other hand, I remember the desire to let them go on asking questions like “Do you have to be a mommy to lead services?” without ever realizing how impossible that question would have been in my youth and how painful it was for all of us who didn’t see ourselves reflected in leadership roles…or at all.

There is a strong tension between wanting to build a world with more equity and inclusivity, on the one hand, and the responsibility to never forget that we are sitting in a place built by damage; with many wounds still present, often unhealed, and so much work still to do. Continuing to REMEMBER, and recite, difficult passages can cause harm. But failing to remember carries it’s own risk.

The same applies in many ways to teshuva: When might it be appropriate to forget or not mention old harm, and when must we work to remember and confront? In other words, maybe, when are we dealing with heart-forgetfulness and when with something that requires us to use our mouths?

As I tried to figure out what happened with Miriam and the Six Torah episodes, I kept remembering these lines, from a song about memory and loss —

If you hear that same sweet song again,
will you know why?

— “Bird Song,” by Robert Hunter (1941-2019) & Jerry Garcia, z”l (1942-1995)
first performed Feb 19, 1971. “for Janis [Janis Joplin (1943-1970)]”

How much do we lose, and what do we gain, when we forget to remember why we chose to remember or forget?

This dvar Torah was originally prepared, and offered in a slightly different form, for Temple Micah (DC), 5781.


Handout in PDF and text versions

Full text version of handout for anyone who cannot easily do graphics is posted here.

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Remedy of the Bima?

Updated August 23, 2021

Gittin 55a states that an individual who experienced the theft of a beam, which was then built into a large structure, must receive the value of the beam as reparation. This ruling is מפני תקנת השבים, due to or because of…

תקנת השבים

outside (standard) translation of takanat ha-sh’vim:* a phrase meaning “[Rabbinic] Law of Penitence”

תקנת השבים

inside (word-by-word) translation: a phrase with roots תקנ “repair” [tiken] and שׁוב “return” [shuv] — something like the “repair of the returning” or the “remedy of reparation” (“Inside” translations don’t sound like smooth English.)

תקנת השבים

This is far-fetched grammar-wise, but it captures an important aspect of what’s on my mind regarding this text. Shifting focus, however grammatically fanciful: might we read בים [bim] as related to בימה “stage, platform, bima“?

…The modern Hebrew verb, “to stage” בים, biyem, was created from בימה. The Klein dictionary (c. 1983 CE) says בימה was originally a Greek loan word, but Jastrow (c. 1883) says specifically that this is NOT so, arguing that the Greek word βῆμα would be spelled with an aleph in Hebrew, rather than a hey. Either way, though, the examples Jastrow gives for בימה are all about holding forth, making announcements, hearing from distinguished speakers, etc. So, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to bima-ing as a verb meaning to hold forth from a raised position (metaphorically and physically)….

The result would be something like, “remedy of that which is bima-ed,” suggesting that those who experienced theft are entitled to reparation from a bima, for all that was taught, from positions of power, over the centuries, continuing to build up a bigger and stronger bira [large structure] of systemic racism.

How much bima-ing has continued to raise up many laudable-sounding ideas while failing to note:

  • that we sit on unceded, stolen land;
  • that our country was historically built with stolen labor;
  • that today stolen labor continues in our prisons and other inequitable systems;
  • that some among us experience relative security built at the cost of well-being, freedom, and sometimes the very lives of others, including Black, Indigenous, queer, and other people whose human rights have long been a stolen beam still built into a structure that benefits others; and
  • that Jews have often been complacently “bima-ed” around these topics for a long time?
photo intended as a random example of a bima — image details below

Heading into the Days of Awe this year, I wonder about the need to take more responsibility, from the pew, for what goes on from the bima:

If our Jewish communities are not hearing from those who teach Torah, in its many forms, about our obligations in regard to stolen beams, then do we, from the pews, have a responsibility to “remedy that which is bima‘ed”?

How do we do that?

What if we cannot (immediately) change the bima-ing? Then what?

What, exactly, is our responsibility — individually and collectively — when it comes to learning and what we are taught to act on as a community?

This is a musing prompted by this year’s Elul learning through SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. For a different musing, prompted by last year’s studies, see “About that stolen beam…

beam illustration — details below


takanat ha-sh’vim: This is a transliteration of the phrase as worked out in Beit Midrash [House of Study] of SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. The Talmud gives us no vowels, and the work of the Beit Midrash is to explore possible meanings before settling on one or more. Deciding how to vocalize, or transliterating too soon, prematurely limits the meaning….but I’m including this, and other transliterations, here for convenience.

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Image descriptions and credits:

Beam illustration: Stone Lintel Beam.jpg from Wikimedia Commons (4.0 Attribution-Share Alike), adapted annotations

Image description: simple drawing of a brick wall with an opening and lintel beam. Added notations read: “Stolen? Beam” and “Built into a large structure”

Bima Image: Synagogue of Villa Dominguez (Argentina): The Torah Ark and the Bimah

123- Villa Dominguez – Synagogue.JPG — Wikimedia Commons 4.0 Attribution-Share Alike.

Image description: Inclined smooth wooden reading table, covered in cloth, facing ornate wooden ark in a synagogue empty of people.

Or Olam: the light ahead and within

Seeking pieces of liturgy and other resources for uplift, as we try to move from the depths of Av to the new year, I’ve found myself returning again and again to “Eternal Light” — based on a line from the high holiday prayers — as composed by Norma Brooks and recorded by “Psalm Full of Soul” with guest artists The Blind Boys of Alabama (recording below).

Or Olam — Eternal Light

“Infinite light is preserved in life’s treasure-house; ‘Lights from darkness’ said God — it was so.” — from the piyyut “Or Olam

“And the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall become sevenfold, like the light of the seven days, when the LORD binds up His people’s wounds and heals the injuries it has suffered.” — Isaiah 30:26

These lines, from an ancient liturgical poem by Yose ben Yose (4th-5th Centuries CE) are added to the Yotzeir Or blessing on the High Holy Days. They refer to a Talmudic legend (Chagigah 12a) that the brilliant primordial light of Creation, too powerful for mortal eyes, was hidden away by God, and is preserved for the righteous in the world-to-come.

— liturgical verse and commentary from Mishkan Hanefesh for Rosh Hashanah (CCAR, 2015)

Each of us is a repository of life. We are where life is stored, and this eternal light rests inside each of us, waiting for us to manifest it with our actions. When we act justly, we bring this light into the world, answering God’s dictum, “Lights from the darkness!” When we help another, we bring the “it was so” into the present, an ongoing creation of light in darkness (R David Kominsky, b. 1971)

— commentary from Mishkan Hanefesh continued

The song, “Eternal Light,” is based on “Or Olam” and its commentary, as well as on Gen 1:3-5 and Isaiah 30:36 and 45:7. The same line appears in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies (see p.178 in Mishkan Hanefesh for Yom Kippur, e.g.) Video here, with lyrics, is shared with kind permission of Norma Brooks, composer. Full credits below.

For more musical inspiration, including some pieces for the high holidays, check out Norma Brooks’ earlier album, Bountiful Light, created with the help of musicians and choir members from DC and beyond.

Image description: Video is basically one static pair of images overlaid throughout with the song lyrics. Image 1 is a photo of the eight performers at recording session: Blind Boys of Alabama with “Psalm Full of Soul,” that is, Vanessa R. Williams, Vince Evans, and Norma Brooks. Image 2 is the album cover showing Psalm Full of Soul logo and a picture of Vanessa, Vince, an Norma laughing together. Static text: “Psalm Full of Soul ‘Eternal Light.’ Composer: Norma Brooks. Vocal Soloist: Vanessa R. Williams. Featuring guest artists The Blind Boys of Alabama.” On top of the static graphic, lyrics appear in a text box as song progresses. (Lyrics can also be found below.)


“Eternal Light” lyrics (Norma Brooks)

Eternal, eternal light
Source of life, source of life
Light of creation, God’s living treasure
O holy light, God’s holy light

Light from darkness
Light from darkness
God spoke, and it was so
Light from darkness
Light from darkness
Creator of heaven and earth

Eternal, eternal light
Source of life, source of life
Light of creation, God’s living treasure
O holy light, O holy light

O holy light, eternal light
O holy light, eternal light

When the light of the moon
Shall be as the light of the sun
And the light of the sun
Shall be sevenfold
As the light of the seven days,
Seven days of the week
Oh, in the future
There will be a more perfect light
The light resides
Within Each one of us,
Just waiting for us
Just waiting for us
To act justly, to act with purity,
Clarity and joy

The ongoing creation
Of light from darkness
O holy light, O holy light
Eternal light, O holy light

Eternal, eternal light
Source of life, source of life
Light of creation, God’s living treasure
O holy light, God’s holy light

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Credits for “Eternal Light”
Guest Artists: The Blind Boys of Alabama (Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Joey Williams, Paul Beasley)
Vocal Soloist: Vanessa R. Williams
Keyboards: Vince Evans
Guitar: Alvin White
Bass: Bryan Fox
Drums: J.C. Jefferson
Choir: Rhonda Burnett Chapman, Byron Nichols, Michael White, Vanessa R. Williams
“Psalm Full of Soul” (c) 2008

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Hallelu Avdei Adonai

UPDATE 9/22/21: Friends of Cantor Richard Kaplan share with sadness the news of his death on the first day of Sukkot 5782, 9/21/21.

This chant, which comes from Iraqi Jewish tradition, uses the phrase “Praise God, Servants of God” from Psalm 113:1 as a chorus and acrostic verses highlighting attributes of God: Mightiest of the mighty, Blessed among blessed, Greatest of the great…Guardian among guardians, Sustainer among sustainers. Here is a captioned version of the chant as presented in the 2000 “Tuning the Soul: Worlds of Jewish Sacred Music,” from Richard Kaplan & Michael Ziegler.

This video adapts, with permission, the one found on Kaplan’s YouTube channel by adding the lyrics with no other changes.

A note on teachers and transmission: I first learned the chant from Amy Smith and Bill Savedoff who taught it to Fabrangen Havurah for the high holidays years ago. Members of Fabrangen reported hearing the tune from a nearby synagogue when they were living in Jerusalem and helped our son share it during the service when he was bar mitzvah….again, years back. This video was prepared to share with Hill Havurah, 5781/2021. But a video with the fast-paced lyrics might be of use to many.

Whence Comes Help: After Tisha B’av

With Tisha B’av behind us, we are meant to be climbing upward, from the calendar’s deepest point, toward the new year. But how can we begin the climb while disasters mount around us and reasons to mourn continue to grow? Psalm 121 speaks to a moment such as this. I’ve found myself turning again and again in recent days to the Nefesh Mountain version of “Esa Einai.” And to this idea that there is stability, despite the constant change…even the mountains are shifting:

“Change is ceaseless, and transformation knows no pause. The dynamism both exhilarates and exhausts the spirit; no wonder that we seek stability amidst this endless process.” Thus writes R’ Everett Gendler in a commentary on Psalm 121. He then suggests that Psalm 121’s expression “mei-ayin” — usually translated as “from where?” — carries “echoes of the Creative Nothingness, the Divine Void, the AYIN” and that God’s four-letter Name [YHVH] hints at “stability amidst ceaseless process.” (Full comment found in Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim. Reconstructionist Press, 1996, p.215.)

Thanks to Nefesh Mountain for creating their uplifting music, and for permission to share their “Esa Einai” along with this commentary as part of an effort to begin looking upward.

Learn more about Nefesh Mountain, and check out their newest album, “Songs for the Sparrows,” just released in June.

Eicha for my city and others, 5781

Alas! How lonely sits the city
Once great with joyful people!
New horrors fill horizons now
while old pain never left
Each new loss diminishes
the streets themselves bereft

Bitterly we weep all night
cheeks wet with tears unseen
If we are to join together,
we must widen this choir of woe
When some cries are background noise
what’s the meaning of “friend” and “foe”?

City crying out with loss:
six-year-old child shot to death
joining a list, far too long,
of youth killed in past years.
Community grief so deep for some
while others escape most tears.

Down our roads, more peril
desolation, violence, fear
systems that crush and jail
separate, cage, and hate
Borders come in many shapes
Too often closed, that welcome gate

Evidence mounts. But do we act?
ICE camps remain; racism persists.
Policing prospers, yet safety eludes
Some thrive, while too many do without.
Must we ignore some of our truths
in chasing a joint goal to shout?

Forging coalition is struggle, tougher in anguish.
Inside affliction, can we hear another cry?
It is painful and complex, but we must keep trying
trying to heed the whole sound
I know you can hear it, God once declared loudly:
that voice of a sibling crying up from the ground

–V. Spatz, songeveryday.org CC-BY-SA


Back in 2019, a number of Jewish communities were marking Tisha B’av with vigils and protests, attempting to demonstrate that Jews will not turn our backs on refugees arriving in this country and on immigrant neighbors already here. The original “Eichah: for my city and maybe for yours” (2019) asked us to consider the following:

  • Recognize many ways our country has long separated families, caged and brutalized people?
  • Cry with our local, national and international communities, refugees and not, who lend different voices to the chorus of “How lonely sits this place!”?
  • Send prayer energy to our many beleaguered communities, near and far?
  • Commit to exploring, in the days to come, ways in which we are complicit in so much suffering and ways we might take up action for repair?

On this Tisha B’av, 7/18/21, DC-area Jews please acknowledge:

  • Nyiah Courtney, age 6, shot to death in Ward 8 on 7/16/21 (the 108th homicide in DC, 2021)

And remember:

  • Makiyah Wilson, age 10, shot to death in Ward 7 on 7/16/18
  • Karon Brown, age 11, shot to death in Ward 8 on 7/18/19

Here is the 2019 version, “Eichah: for my city and maybe for yours.” And here is a PDF to use and share of this version.

Reparations Background

New page, just posted, shares resources about reparations, from Jewish and non-Jewish or more general sources. REPARATIONS RESOURCES

RECONSTRUCTIONIST NEWS: Save the Date – Day of Learning on Reparations Join Reconstructing Judaism for a Day of Learning on the topic of reparations as we move into the month of Elul on Aug. 8 starting at 11 a.m. EDT. Stay tuned for more information and a link to register for this event! — from ReconstructingJudaism.org

REFORM NEWS: The Union for Reform Judaism issued a resolution on studying the issue. The resolution itself includes some background and references. The resolution then called for Reform congregations and members to support HR40; to “take active steps to redress the destructive effects of historic and ongoing systemic racism, including through education…”; and to commit to “assessment and evaluation to strengthen our own institutions’ efforts to combat implicit and explicit bias and promote racial equity.” There must be a report somewhere on what congregations and members have done in response in the ensuing year and half; will share when found.

See also —