Psalm 27 and Evil-Doers

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I am indebted to Rabbi Scheinerman for insights into the following lines.

בִּקְרֹב עָלַי, מְרֵעִים-- לֶאֱכֹל אֶת-בְּשָׂרִי: צָרַי וְאֹיְבַי לִי; הֵמָּה כָשְׁלוּ וְנָפָלוּ

 

אִם-תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי, מַחֲנֶה-- לֹא-יִירָא לִבִּי: אִם-תָּקוּם עָלַי, מִלְחָמָה-- בְּזֹאת, אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ

 

 

2 When evil-doers assail me to devour my flesh,
It is they — my adversaries and enemies — who stumble and fall.
3 Should an army besiege me, my heart would not fear.
Should war beset me
Even then would I be confident.

Eventhough many psalms can be read on a national level as well as a personal level, when we read psalm 27 before the High Holy Days we tend to concentrate on the personal.

Therefore we need to identify the “evil-doers”, “adversaries” and “enemies”. Too often we are prompt to see “others” – whoever they might be – as being responsible for all that goes wrong in our lives: callous colleagues, selfish neighbors, tactless friends, the list could go on and on.

It is true that we are influenced and affected by what others do, don’t do, say or don’t say. However we sometimes need to acknowledge that other people can’t be blamed for all our failures and shortcomings. Elul is the time to assess our own responsibilities.

Does this mean that the “evil-doers”, “adversaries” and “enemies” might be inside us, at least partially. Probably so. We need to admit that we sometimes have inclinations to do the wrong thing. Judaism has a term for this evil leaning, yetzer hara. When we say something or act, we often have choices. Thus we can talk to people or ignore them, utter a nice word or make a scathing remark. Similarly when we learn that someone we know is ill, we may visit them or find excuses to saty at home. Haven’t we all experienced this inner struggle?

Elul seems to be the right month to pay more attention to our inner conflicts and find more satisfying answers.

To help us move forward, Rabbi Scheinerman makes the following suggestions:
“If you’re a write-it-down person, go ahead and keep a journal of your thoughts. If you’re a poetry person, put your thoughts down in poetry. If you prefer to share your ideas with others, find someone who’s a good listener. If you prefer privacy, that’s fine.”

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Got them at Last

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I’ve now got my school supplies; which is just as well considering I am going back to school on Monday. I went shopping this morning and got these. The big folder is for the students’ papers, the little blue notebook to put marks in and the other one is to note down what we’ve been doing after each lesson. I reckon I don’t need to explain what the red felt-tip pen is for.

The only thing I now have to do is find illustrations to put inside the two blue notebooks; lovely ones to look at every now and again.

Teacher’s Anxiety

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I too am going back to school; it’s not just the kids. The problem is I can’t say I am very eager to go back. 

For teachers too, a new year is synonymous with a lot of changes:
– a new timetable. Don’t underestimate its importance. A good schedule means a happy teacher. 
– new colleagues. For so-called experienced teachers it might mean people who sometimes need guidance or encouragement. Occasionally it becomes tricky to help young teachers who experience difficulties with their classes.
– new students. That’s just a big lottery as we don’t choose them but neither do they choose us! 

This coming year, going to school also means:
– a new deputy head.
– the Holocaust project.
– a collaborative blog between my students and students in the US.
– “recruiting” students for our exchange with Sweden.

Unfortunately going to school also involves far less time blogging and this is something I dread a bit since I have spent a lot of time writing for this blog and reading other people’s blogs this summer. I know I will have to select what I read and I fear I will not feel “as connected”.

Relieved

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Just before we went away on vacation, I saw the colleague I was going to work with on the Holocaust project.

She had both good and bad news. The good news was that the six-day seminar on the teaching of the Holocaust in junior and high schools she had attended in July had been very enriching and had given her numerous new ideas for topics to cover for our project.

The bad news was that her classes had been changed and that we would only be able to carry out the project for one class instead of the scheduled two. We were all the more disappointed as we had already spent a lot of time on this.

On a personal level, I felt a bit discouraged as I had just started re-reading material for this project. In addition, I couldn’t quite understand why the administration want us to conduct projects so much, especially when different subjects are involved, and then don’t make sure this will be possible.

My colleague was supposed to go and see the head about this problem. I felt confident he would try to solve it as he had seemed to back the project right from the beginning but there might have been other issues involved, such as completing some other teacher’s timetable, that could make it hard to find a solution.

This afternoon I got a message from my colleague; it seems everything will be as formely scheduled. I must admit I feel relieved as this project was one that I genuinely wanted to carry out.

The photo at the top of this post was taken in Budapest, in the courtyard of the Dohany St. Synagogue. It is a memorial, a weeping willow tree made of granite and steel which commemorates all the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust.

Psalm 27: the Beginning

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As mentioned in my first post about Psalm 27, I’ll only focus on a limited number of lines or will deal very quickly with some of them. So let’s start with the beginning.

יְהוָה, אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי
The lord is my light and my salvation
A number of religions associate the divine with brilliance. For instance, Myanmar (Burma) is famous for its golden buddhas and statues; people come from all over the world to see them. Yet we affirm that God is light. This is different. A shiny object will attract your attention but won’t help you see. When we declare that God is light we mean (among other things) that we can turn to Him and be guided. Thus Elul is the time for us to turn away from shiny idols – not necessarily buddhas but the shiny things that attract too much of our attention – and look inward for personal introspection under God’s light.

Having said this it should seem logical that God is our salvation. However we often fail to see that God is an active partner in our own redemption. Rabbi A. R. Scheinerman tranlates יִשְׁעִי by “my life”. This is an interesting rendition as it highlights the idea that salvation is a present business. It does not only have to do with the world to come but should preoccupy us here and now. Judaism is more preoccupied with life than death; thus teshuvah is not only about getting ready to face God when we die but to assess what needs changing in our lives to live them more fully and avoid repeating the same mistakes in a very near future.

מִמִּי אִירָא
Whom then shall I fear?
Don’t we tend to lead our life as if other people were constantly rating it? Moreover we often feel that judging others is easy while judging ourselves is another matter. Thus we tend to avoid self-introspection because we fear that what we will see might be painful. Sometimes we also dread the steps to take in order to erase the wrongs and try and start afresh.

However, if we remember that we are looking at ourselves under God’s light, we needn’t be afraid. If we believe in a personal God (this is one of the reasons we repeat daily in the Amidah that our God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob) we should try to remember that God does not expect us to be perfect but to move along the road of our own improvement.

יְהוָה מָעוֹז-חַיַּי
Adonai is the stronghold of my life.
Judaism does not offer a definition of God. Rather we are encouraged to study, to act and to pray. This is how we “know” God and how we can make him the “foundation” of our lives. Elul might be the right time to assess the time we spend studying Torah, whether we pray enough or with kavanah and whether we don’t tend to shun some mitzvot.

מִמִּי אֶפְחָד
Of whom shall I be afraid?
During the High Holy Days we hear the words judgement, punishment and retribution yet the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah insists that this is a time of joy and new beginnings, a joy which is often reflected in our own preparations for the festival. That’s why we should approach Tishri with hope rather than with dread.

Honey Cake

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Like the brown rice recipes, this one comes from my friend Shimshonit. Even the introduction is hers.

Many years ago, my mother-in-law saw Leah Rabin on a talk show before Rosh Hashana, where Mrs. Rabin shared her recipe for honey cake. My mother-in-law managed to copy the recipe down and passed it on to me.

1 3/4 cups honey
1 cup strong coffee
2 tablespoons brandy (I once made homemade etrog liqueur that worked nicely here)
3 1/2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder (I find Israeli baking powder weaker than American; I would use 5 teaspoons of Israeli baking powder)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup chopped raisins
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
4 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Grease a 10″ (25 cm) tube pan. Heat honey and coffee to boiling in a small saucepan. Cool completely. Stir in brandy. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and spices onto waxed paper. Add almonds, raisins, and lemon zest.
Beat eggs slightly in large bowl. Add honey mixture, sugar, and oil. Beat until smooth and completely blended. Add flour mixture and beat until smooth. Pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake at 300 degrees F (150 degrees C) for 1 hour and 15 minutes until center springs back when lightly pressed with fingertip. Cool on wire rack 10 minutes. Loosen around edges and tube; turn onto rack to cool completely.