By Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, 23 September 2017
May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart’
be acceptable to you, O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer.
Oh, those words! How often, when I see those words in the siddur, am I transported back to Temple Beth El of Rockaway Park, and to the memory of our rabbi, Dr. Robert Gordis, standing broad-shouldered in his rabbinic robes as he enunciated them. Each word was rich, resonant, full;
the “m’s” were thick, full of meaning, almost fat with life, with our mistakes, with our longings.
The words of my mouth…..the meditations of my heart.
Did my heart meditate?
Is that what my heart did when, long after my family went to sleep, I lay in my bed imagining dancing on a bridge to Europe across the Atlantic ocean whose waves I could hear so all through the night in my bedroom?
Or when I brooded that the popular clique at school would be mean to me, or my sister wouldn’t want to play with me any more?
What exactly were the “meditations of my heart”?
Did Dr. Gordis also have meditations in his heart? What about all the others in the congregation? What were their meditations?
It was a beautiful word. Med It Tay Shun. Hard and soft at once,
firm and quiet,
that “it” – yet gentle, that “shun.”
And my lips caressing each other with the “m” as in my own name, Miriyam.
And those meditations rolling into “BE” as in BE ACCEPTABLE – AND the punch of Acceptable. Almost as long as “meditation.” My Rock. Strong. STEADFAST.
But what did “my Redeemer” mean? What “redeemer”?
Redeemed from what?
Is God a Rock?
How can a Rock redeem?
The words of my mouth. The meditations of my heart.
I knew then that there was a world to aspire to, a world where words were big and round and juicy and strong and soft at once,
a world that had little to do with Belle Harbor, New York,
or with the girls at school who wouldn’t hang out with me or the stupid assignments some of the teachers at P.S. 114 Queens gave us.
A world where
the words of my mouth were somehow connected to the meditations of my heart, and they connected to something greater, something beyond us, to God, and it made me feel less alone.
Later, of course, I learned that the words that resounded from Dr. Gordis were the closing lines of Psalm 19, the awe-inspired and awe-inspiring psalm that connects the magnificent glory of our physical universe with our own bodies and souls and all three with the beauty of Torah:
The Torah of Adonai is true, and altogether just
more desirable than gold, than even the finest gold,
sweeter than honey from the honeycomb,
I too glow with Torah and with the great reward in showing it honor.
Who understands why we stumble?
But from the sins I keep secret, please cleanse me –
save me from my own arrogance – don’t let it control me, cleanse me of any great wrongs.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart ,fulfill your will,
Adonai, my Rock and My Redeemer.”
We often think of our Jewish tradition as a tradition of law and it’s clear why we do: after all, along with all the laws in our Torah, there is the proliferation of laws in Mishneh and those elaborate, intricate, sometimes (to me, at least) utterly baffling massive collections we call Talmud. Yet side-by-side (dare I say, in this minyan, “over and above”?) this religion of law, Judaism is at heart a religion whose deepest roots are STORY, and whose most eloquent voice is POETRY. The stories are what bind us together: the primal Paradise, the lost Eden, the saga of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac; Rebecca’s “I will go”; Jacob and Esau, a dream of the ladder to the heavens and a battle in the dark with an angel; Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers – tales of love and jealousy, anger and reconciliation, the human encounter with the One whose unpronounceable name is like the Breath of Life itself. And we haven’t even gotten to Moses! Slavery! Freedom! The Revelation at Sinai! The Promise of a Promised Land. Year after year we retell this story, relive the festivals that connect us both to the world of living nature, the energies of the year, and our own profound and riveting story.
And as powerful as is our Story, is our poetry.
Kumi, oh-ree, kee va Auray’ch, u’ch’vode Adonai alayich zarach! Arise and shine, for your light has dawned, the glory of God has shone on you!
The cry of Violence shall be heard no more in your land
Nor destruction within your borders.
No longer shall you have the sun to illuminate your day or the glorious moon to shine for you
For God shall be your everlasting light, and your God shall be your glory.
“Oh Miriyam, oh Miriyam,” my dear haftorah hevrutah, Abe Berman qvells to me over and over, “Isaiah! Who has poetry like Isaiah!”
As you behold, you will glow; your heart will throb and thrill –
your sons will come from afar, your daughters like babes on shoulders.
What makes the poetry of much of our tradition so vivid, so riveting, so soul-stirring, is much more of course than the beauty of its language. It is that the great resources of language are infused with an impassioned spiritual, ethical intensity: a Judaism of profound emotional engagement and moral commitment, personal searching and demands for social justice. That is one of the reasons Abe, over and over again, gets overwhelmed by the beauty of Isaiah. It’s why I do.
The vision of Isaiah – that interfusion of spiritual beauty with intense social engagement – is also echoed in one of the most profoundly beautiful inheritances we have: the collection of Psalms. The Psalms penetrate deeply into the anguish of spiritual and emotional crises:
I sought Adonai and Adonai answered me, saving me from my worst terrors….
And – crucially, especially in the troubled days of our world today – they rally us all to acts of social justice because our God demands it.
The eyes of Adonai are on the just, God’s ears are open to their cry.
Adonai is close to the heart-broken and those whose spirits are crushed.
Adonai unbinds the bound, Adonai gives vision to the blind, Adonai straightens the bent, Adonai loves the just, Adonai protects the outsider, helps widows and orphans stand on their feet. (Psalm 146)
And clearly, the Psalmist implies, so should we.
As we enter the new year, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart be infused with the poetry of our tradition, its impassioned call for social justice, and may we all make a joyful noise to Adonai, burst into songs and praise, shout out, sing out, make music (Psalm 98).