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The Counting of the Omer through Psalm 67

On the second night of Passover, we began counting the 49 days from Passover to Shavuot.

The Center for Jewish Learning has invited writers, poets, and Jewish learners in our community to reflect on each day of Sefirat ha-Omer (the Counting of the Omer period) to share some spiritual medicine and inspiration during this time of anxiety, mourning, and also hopeful anticipation of what new possibilities lie on the other side of this pandemic.

The daily reflections are based on the practice of reflecting on each word of Psalm 67, which is composed of 49 words (apart from the introductory “title” of the Psalm).

Introduction, Rabbi Tracy Nathan

Click here to view this as a Google doc.

SEFIRAT HA-OMER – COUNTING THE OMER 

On the second night of Passover, Jews around the world begin the process of counting the 49 days from Passover to Shavuot. This period of counting is called Sefirat ha-Omer, the counting of the omer. The omer was the measure of barley that the ancient Israelites brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, which the Torah describes in Leviticus 23:15-16: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete; you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord.” 

These days and weeks were times of anticipation but also anxiety. One could not be sure of what the harvest would bring, and still, one moved forward with hopeful expectation. Over time, these days became connected with sadness and mourning. The Talmud recalls the memory of a plague that felled 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students during the time of the Sefira (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62a).

With the loss of the connection to the agricultural religious practices of ancient Israel, the counting was transformed into a spiritual practice by the mystics of the 16th century. Counting practices help one to elevate one’s consciousness and awareness, as one moves from Passover to Shavuot, from Egypt to Sinai, from freedom to responsibility. 

The counting ritual of Sefirat ha-Omer also teaches us to be mindful of each day, as Psalm 90:12 reminds us: “Teach us to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  Sefirat ha-Omer helps us become aware of the blessings and teachings of each day, to strive towards the goal of receiving the Torah anew, and above all, to make each day count.

There is a practice of reflecting on Psalm 67 during the time of the counting of the Omer. This psalm is composed of seven verses and 49 words (apart from the introductory “title” of the Psalm). The Center for Jewish Learning has invited local writers, poets, and Jewish learners who have been a part of our CJL community to use one word from the Psalm as a prompt for a reflective piece, some spiritual medicine and inspiration during this time of anxiety, mourning, and also hopeful anticipation of what new possibilities lie on the other side of this pandemic. May we be present and aware in our journeys, as we anticipate revelation anew on Shavuot. 

Rabbi Tracy Nathan
Senior Educator, CJL
Director, Melton-St. Louis

Psalm 67

לַמְנַצֵּ֥ח בִּנְגִינֹ֗ת מִזְמ֥וֹר שִֽׁיר׃
אֱלֹקִ֗ים יְחָנֵּ֥נוּ וִֽיבָרְכֵ֑נוּ יָ֤אֵ֥ר פָּנָ֖יו אִתָּ֣נוּ סֶֽלָה׃
לָדַ֣עַת בָּאָ֣רֶץ דַּרְכֶּ֑ךָ בְּכָל־גּ֝וֹיִ֗ם יְשׁוּעָתֶֽךָ׃
יוֹד֖וּךָ עַמִּ֥ים ׀ אֱלֹקִ֑ים י֝וֹד֗וּךָ עַמִּ֥ים כֻּלָּֽם׃
יִֽשְׂמְח֥וּ וִֽירַנְּנ֗וּ לְאֻ֫מִּ֥ים כִּֽי־תִשְׁפֹּ֣ט עַמִּ֣ים מִישׁ֑וֹר וּלְאֻמִּ֓ים ׀ בָּאָ֖רֶץ תַּנְחֵ֣ם סֶֽלָה׃
יוֹד֖וּךָ עַמִּ֥ים ׀ אֱלֹקִ֑ים י֝וֹד֗וּךָ עַמִּ֥ים כֻּלָּֽם׃
אֶ֭רֶץ נָתְנָ֣ה יְבוּלָ֑הּ יְ֝בָרְכֵ֗נוּ אֱלֹקִ֥ים אֱלֹקֵֽינוּ׃
יְבָרְכֵ֥נוּ אֱלֹקִ֑ים וְיִֽירְא֥וּ אֹ֝ת֗וֹ כָּל־אַפְסֵי־אָֽרֶץ

[For the chief Musician, a psalm song with stringed instruments.] 

God be gracious to us, and bless us; let your face shine upon us. Selah.
That your way may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy;for you shall judge the peoples righteously, and govern the nations on earth. Selah.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
The earth has yielded her produce; and God, our own God, shall bless us.
God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth stand in awe of You.

  Night of/Day of      
1 Thu Apr 9/Fri Apr 10 אֱלֹקִ֗ים  Elo(k)im God
2 Fri Apr 10/Sat Apr 11 יְחָנֵּ֥נוּ yechoneinu grace
3 Sat Apr 11/Sun Apr 12 וִֽיבָרְכֵ֑נוּ  vivarchenu blessing
4 Sun Apr 12/Mon Apr 13 יָ֤אֵ֥ר  ya’er shine
5 Mon Apr 14/Tue Apr 14 פָּנָ֖יו  panav face
6 Tue Apr 14/Wed Apr 15 אִתָּ֣נוּ itanu with us
7 Wed Apr 15/Thu Apr 16 סֶֽלָה selah selah! exalt! 
8 Thu Apr 16/Fri Apr 17 לָדַ֣עַת  lada’at know
9 Fri Apr 17/Sat Apr 18 בָּאָ֣רֶץ  ba’aretz land
10 Sat Apr 18/Sun Apr 19 דַּרְכֶּ֑ךָ  darkekha path
11 Sun Apr 19/Mon Apr 20 בְּכָל b’khol all
12 Mon Apr 20/Tue Apr 21 גּ֝וֹיִ֗ם  goyim nations
13 Tue Apr 21/Wed Apr 22 יְשׁוּעָתֶֽךָ yeshuatekha salvation
14 Wed Apr 22/Thu Apr 23 יוֹד֖וּךָ yodukha gratitude
15 Thu Apr 23/Fri Apr 24 עַמִּ֥ים  amim peoples
16 Fri Apr 24/Sat Apr 25 אֱלֹקִ֑ים  Elo(k)im God
17 Sat Apr 25/Sun Apr 26 י֝וֹד֗וּךָ  yodukha gratitude
18 Sun Apr 26/Mon Apr 27 עַמִּ֥ים  amim peoples
19 Mon Apr 27/Tue Apr 28 כֻּלָּֽם kulam everyone
20 Tue Apr 28/Wed Apr 29 יִֽשְׂמְח֥וּ  yisme’khu rejoice
21 Wed Apr 29/Thu Apr 30 וִֽירַנְּנ֗וּ  viran’nu sing
22 Thu Apr 30/Fri May 1 לְאֻ֫מִּ֥ים  l’umim nations
23 Fri May 1/Sat May 2 כִּֽי ki because
24 Sat May 2/Sun May 3 תִשְׁפֹּ֣ט  tishpot govern
25 Sun May 3/Mon May 4 עַמִּ֣ים  amim peoples
26 Mon May 4/Tue May 5 מִישׁ֑וֹר  mishor upright
27 Tue May 5/Wed May 6 וּלְאֻמִּ֓ים  u-l’umim nations
28 Wed May 6/Thu May 7 בָּאָ֖רֶץ  ba’aretz land
29 Thu May 7/Fri May 8 תַּנְחֵ֣ם  tan’kheim lead
30 Fri May 8/Sat May 9 סֶֽלָה selah selah! exalt!
31 Sat May 9/Sun May 10 יוֹד֖וּךָ  yodukha gratitude
32 Sun May 10/Mon May 11 עַמִּ֥ים  amim peoples
33 Mon May 11/Tue May 12 אֱלֹקִ֑ים  Elo(k)im God
34 Tue May 12/Wed May 13 י֝וֹד֗וּךָ  yodukha gratitude
35 Wed May 13/Thu May 14 עַמִּ֥ים  amim peoples
36 Thu May 14/Fri May 15 כֻּלָּֽם kulam everyone
37 Fri May 15/Sat May 16 אֶ֭רֶץ  eretz land
38 Sat May 16/Sun May 17 נָתְנָ֣ה  nat’na giving
39 Sun May 17/Mon May 18 יְבוּלָ֑הּ  ye’vulah bounty
40 Mon May 18/Tue May 19 יְ֝בָרְכֵ֗נוּ  ye’varkheinu blessing
41 Tue May 19/Wed May 20 אֱלֹקִ֥ים  Elo(k)im God
42 Wed May 20/Thu May 21 אֱלֹקֵֽינוּ elokeinu our God
43 Thu May 21/Fri May 22 יְבָרְכֵ֥נוּ  ye’varkheinu blessing
44 Fri May 22/Sat May 23 אֱלֹקִ֑ים  Elo(k)im God
45 Sat May 23/Sun May 24 וְיִֽירְא֥וּ  v’yir’u awe
46 Sun May 24/Mon May 25 אֹ֝ת֗וֹ  oto him/it
47 Mon May 25/Tue May 26 כָּל kol all
48 Tue May 26/Wed May 27 אַפְסֵי afsei ends of 
49 Wed May 27/Thu May 28 אָֽרֶץ aretz land
Days 1-7, Cyndee Levy

Opening verse, Cyndee Levy

The first week has passed, so instead of word-by-word/day-by day, this first week of seven days consists of one reflective essay.

אֱלֹקִ֗ים יְחָנֵּ֥נוּ וִֽיבָרְכֵ֑נוּ יָ֤אֵ֥ר פָּנָ֖יו אִתָּ֣נוּ סֶֽלָה 

God be gracious to us, and bless us; let your face shine upon us. Selah.

The Psalmist echoes Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing found in Numbers 6:23-27. This verse calls upon and trusts in the intimate relationship that we have with the Divine and all that comes from a relationship that is strong, caring, and a source of blessing. It speaks of the human understanding that we are not indiscernible faces in a crowd, and each of us relates to the Divine in a singular way. When this verse is said with kavanah (intention), we are placing ourselves before God with a recognition that God is present with us and watching over us; we are connecting to God as a conscious choice. In that consciousness, we are asking God to “shine” God’s light upon us, to surround us and fill us with that light as a source of blessing. In a time of darkness, when we feel scared, worried, alone, and longing for comfort, this verse can serve as a pathway for opening one’s heart to the “light” as a source of blessing.

Visual arts and imagery are often powerful spiritual pathways for me. My favorite painting is Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1630.

Rembrandt paints a downhearted, weary Jeremiah, sitting with his head in his hand.  He is alone and surrounded in darkness, as the flames of the destruction of Jerusalem, which he had prophesied, can be seen in the far background. The most amazing element of the painting is the light that glows upon him. When I visualize this painting, I see the light of God’s graciousness shining upon Jeremiah. God is with the prophet in his darkest hour, in the depths of his sorrow. God’s face is shining upon him, he is not alone.

The word that ends the verse – Selah – appears seventy-one times in the Psalms, yet its meaning is elusive. As the psalms are often chanted, it may be a musical notation – a pause in the music or an indication to raise the voice at the end of the verse. I like the idea of the direction to pause and contemplate the verse. In my Omer counting this year, I am heeding the call to pause and contemplate…Selah: what can I learn; what new truth is there for me in this time?

As I mark each day in this time, the darkness feels heavier than ever before. I find that these seven words serve as a source of comfort and blessing by helping me to appreciate and draw strength from the sources of great blessing and goodness in our world, which can be found everywhere by simply looking into the faces of others, all those that give with open hearts in so many ways: generously donating funds, making masks for health care workers, reaching out to the most vulnerable in our communities, singing from balconies, comforting the weary, tirelessly searching for healing treatments and vaccines, kindnesses great and small. God’s face is surely turned toward us; we are being showered with God’s blessings in this time. We are not alone. 

Cyndee Levy is the Director of the Center for Jewish Learning at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the Director of the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library. She is a certified facilitator of Mussar.  

Day 8: KNOW, Katie Rice-Guter

Thursday, April 16, and Friday, April 17

לָדַ֣עַת      KNOW

In late December, I spotted a 2020 calendar near the checkout line at the grocery store. The colors were cheerful, and each month had an inspiring message like, If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit. I tossed it in my cart, brought it home, and used a fine-tipped permanent marker to note all the details I knew about the months ahead: a writing conference in San Antonio, a visit to my spouse’s family for Passover, my graduation festivities in mid-May. When I look at the calendar now, each of those plans has been scratched out delicately in that same permanent ink. Oh, how little I knew.

I’m acquainting myself with the idea that I still know just as much about the future as I ever did before. Which is to say: nothing. These times, these headlines, the worrying text messages that arrive periodically from family and friends—they all just put too fine a point on it. Now I know I don’t know what’s ahead.

I have started making a little ink drawing each night before bed, training my focus on something in my home. A stack of books, a small geode, a lemon. Maybe it’s a mistake to seek comfort in the domestic, the tangible, but I find myself absorbed trying to capture the way shadows play across the curves of a wine glass or an egg. It’s been years since I looked this closely at anything. When finally I lie down in bed, I feel an unusual awareness of my breath, gratitude bordering on guilt. I feel the air gather behind my sternum, into my ribs, expanding in my throat. I count as I breathe in, and I count as I breathe out. When there’s little I know for sure, I take comfort in the noticing.

Katie Rice-Guter serves on the board of Ashreinu, a spiritual community. She is an MFA candidate and creative writing instructor at Washington University in St. Louis. She is at work on her first book, a memoir of finding her way to Judaism.

Day 9: LAND, Rabbi Scott Slarskey

Friday, April 17, and Saturday, April 18

בָּאָרֶץ     LAND

“Faith in God is the soil in which all values of life blossom,” taught Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. 

God help us see and root out degradation of our land and our faith.  May it be your will that we hone incisive and heart-wise understanding of the ways in which our land has been bought and sold, degraded, commodified, and cheapened.  May it be your will that today we turn to Torah to reclaim and to heal our land. Further, may we merit to heal the soil of our faith, by connecting across the full universe of our diverse faith and wisdom traditions. 

Master of the Universe, give us strength to plant the values of our lives we would see blossom:

Our coarsest and our finest,  

Our Aspens and our Black Eyed Susans,

Our Honeysuckle, our Echinacea, and our Purple Sage,

Our fruit trees and our heirloom grains.

May we, today, embark on developing the purity of faith characterized by Rav Kook, ”A person in whom faith appears in its purity will love all people, without any exception, and his concern will focus primarily on how to improve and perfect them and the ways in which he will seek to perfect them will abound in morality and equity, in accordance with the depth of faith that pervades his heart.”

Rabbi Scott Slarskey is the Director of Jewish Life at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community Center. He is a mentor teacher in the Legacy Heritage Teachers’ Institute for the Arts and enjoys playing banjo, fishing, and crocheting. 

 

Day 10: PATH, Jason Sommer

Saturday, April 18, and Sunday, April 19

דַּרְכֶּ֑ךָ     PATH

THE EXPEDITION

Beyond the failure to return at all,
or having managed bare survival,
addled past reliable report,

always the chance you would have come up empty,     
back to the surface and from afar     
with nothingness to show, never

in your lifetime to know
that what you’d done had been of use
to you or anyone, nothing   

transformed but moments that made hours,
years, your record for persistence
evidence to doubt your skill.

And yet that final route you took
would seem the selfsame one once traveled by
the greatest of the journeyers

whose names at least remain to us,
signed in their own hands—manifest
and log—claims made on their behalf,

the truth of certain ancient maps, borne out.

Your sketches over photographs
sought to recover only outlines
but make inspired sense to those
who read phrenology on ocean floors,
who see in shadowed dents and mounds

within the clean geometry
of precincts—tomb and temple and palace—
a perimeter of habitation, houses

vanished, even their middens carried off
on the tiny motions of the sand.

The trove-sites emptied long before

the land’s descent and sea’s rise,
other raiders leaving precious laden,
not having to ration time by air

or flee that temblor that brought you up
so quickly when whatever might
have been went down toward center Earth.

The one shapely stone in your clutch
the whole way back, so like a figurine,
with suspect crosshatch scratching also,

was never artifactual enough.
Too long turned in the lathe of the sea to trust.
Still, your account alone inclined 

so many to belief that you must be
allowed as having had a sighting,
albeit, as it must be, unconfirmed.

Jason Sommer’s fifth poetry collection, entitled Portulans, from which “The Expedition” comes, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in 2021. His last book, The Laughter of Adam and Eve, from Southern Illinois University won the Crab Orchard Review Prize. He has held fellowships from Stanford University and the Whiting Foundation, as well as from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writer’s conferences. Among other awards, he has been recognized with an Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for poems about the Jewish Experience and read his work at the National Holocaust Museum’s program, “Speech and Silence: Poetry and the Holocaust.”

Day 11: ALL, Sarah Zoller Levinson

Sun Apr 19/Mon Apr 20

b’khol בְּכָל.    ALL

We’re all connected. It was true before a global pandemic turned our worlds upside down, and it is even more palpable now.

All, we pray, are doing our best to mitigate the spread of the virus.

All, we pray, are considering the safety and well-being of ourselves and our neighbors.

All, we pray, are seeking and finding the assistance and supports that we need to make it through this challenging time.

All, we pray, will live through and learn from this experience to create an even brighter future for all.

Sarah Zoller Levinson is Manager of St. Louis NORC, a program of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. She believes in the beauty and power of intergenerational relationships and is committed to ensuring that people of all ages and stages feel valued and have meaningful opportunities to connect, learn, share, and grow.

Day 12: NATIONS, Ron Fredman

Mon Apr 20/Tue Apr 21

Goyim גּ֝וֹיִ֗ם    NATIONS

I have never met you, my friend.
But these words are for you.
You and I are holy,
distinct as rays of light splitting
into the dew into rainbows upon
a leaf rainbows that crisscross
back to white light,
‘all of us’ light.

The shadows of the sun slide
across a forest floor prodding
the leaves to mulch to shed
their molecules ion by ion, like
flour and yeast baking into bread,
like salt crystallizing from brine.

We become bread and salt holy.
Now, we are the crumbs of bread and salt.
We are the never left behind,
We are always on the move,
sojourning into the moment.

We are like mobile fossils artifacts
from an ancient museum. We collect
words, easy to hide, transport effortlessly,
worth their weight in gold. We thread stories,
one word at a time.

I am with you, my friend.
I will always be with you
as the wind carries me
to the brine, or to field of wheat,
anywhere.

Ron Fredman is on the Board of Fredman Bros Furniture and is Manager of Uncle Dave’s Mattresses & More in Collinsville, IL. He serves on the Executive Board of the St. Louis Poetry Center and is Co-Founder and Secretary-Treasurer of Minds of Peace (mindsofpeace.org).

Day 13: SALVATION, Dr. Will Soll

Tue Apr 21/Wed Apr 22

Yeshuatekha    יְשׁוּעָתֶֽךָ

SALVATION

Miles Coverdale’s 1535 English translation of the Book of Psalms has been a fixture in the prayer books of the Church of England and the Episcopal Church for centuries.  Coverdale was no Hebraist but he made a few interesting choices. The Hebrew word chesed, variously translated as “love,” “faithfulness,” “mercy,” is so steeped in the idea of “covenant” that no one English word will really serve.  Coverdale tried his best, though, and coined the word “lovingkindness” to convey the concept: it had never occurred in English before.  

Today’s word is yeshuatekha ישׁועתךָ, the noun yeshuah ישׁועה plus a suffix meaning “your.” yeshuah is traditionally rendered “salvation” (in context, “That Thy way may be known upon earth, Thy salvation among all nations,” 1917 JPS).   Coverdale generally translated yeshuah with “salvation,” but in Psalm 67 he rendered verse 3, “That Thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations.”  Perhaps he chose the phrase “saving health” because the verse clearly speaks of a salvation “on earth,” not salvation from damnation after death.

Even the more modern translations, “deliverance, rescue,” beg the question: rescue from what? deliverance from whom?”   We are a species that preys on its own, and usually when the psalms employ this verb it envisions deliverance from another person, tribe or nation.  But here in this psalm, the context is universal. And today in this time of pandemic, all nations are in the same boat. “Saving health” is exactly what we need.  Deliverance as shalom.  

Dr. Will Soll is one of St. Louis’ most passionate and prolific exponents of klezmer and Yiddish music. He performs in numerous ensembles, including Will Soll and the Youngers of Zion.  He currently serves as worship leader and Torah teacher at Congregation Neve Shalom.  

Day 14: GRATITUDE, Carol Rose

Wed Apr 22/Thu Apr 23

יוֹד֖וּךָ   Yodukha

GRATITUDE

a friend shared her insights with us
she hoped we’d gather gratitude from grief

she wanted us to ground our issues, express them,
name what it is that we miss, what we long for

she wanted us to shout out the sadness, to cry
she wanted us to name the terror, stamp out the anger,

the impotence … she wanted us to scream
she wanted us to move our thoughts
from the prefrontal cortex

to get the blood flowing, to clear the mind
she wanted us to acknowledge, to“grok,”

to understand, define, to know
she wanted us to feel 

oh, how she wanted us to feel
to conjure gratitude 

for the breath, for the life, for the word

Carol Rose is a writer, spiritual counselor, and educator. She holds an MA in Theology, as well as degrees in Religion and Cross Cultural Studies. She received certification as Mashpi’ah (Spiritual Director) and Maggid (Preacher) from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and trained with psychologist, Madame Colette Aboulker-Muscat in the use of mental imagery techniques for healing, self-awareness, and personal growth. Carol’s poetry and essays appear in literary journals and anthologies in the United States, Canada, and Israel.

Day 15: PEOPLES, Dr. Wendy Love Anderson

Thu Apr 23/Fri Apr 24

Amim  עַמִּ֥ים

PEOPLES

There are three words for “peoples” or “nations” in Psalm 67, and in most of the Hebrew Bible they are used almost interchangeably: עמים/amim, גויים/goyim, and לאוםים/le’umim. (Am also carries the additional meaning of “[paternal] relative” in some places.) In modern Hebrew, the three terms developed into quite different meanings: an am is a “people” or an ethnic identity, a le’um is a modern nation-state, and a goy refers to a non-Jew. If you want to know more, there’s an excellent post on the Hebrew-language blog Balashon.

I mention all of this because today is a perfect day to think through relationships between peoples, especially paternally related ones. In the Jewish calendar, today is Erev Shabbat and the fifteenth day of the Omer, but it’s also the first of two days of Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the lunar month of Iyyar. In the Muslim calendar, today is – give or take a day, depending on community norms – the beginning of the lunar month of Ramadan, devoted to fasting and spiritual reflection. On the fifteenth day of this year’s Omer count, then, Jews and Muslims around the world will be united in praising God and in looking forward to a joyful meal after sunset. Community iftar meals are only one of many things we will miss this year, but I take comfort in knowing that, in spite of everything, the hopeful vision of Psalm 67 is coming just a little bit true today. Shabbat shalom!

Dr. Wendy Love Anderson is Assistant Director of Academic Programs at Washington University’s Center for the Humanities, where she is also affiliate faculty in Religious Studies. She loves teaching and learning about how religious communities and religious identities interact with one another.

Day 16: GOD, David Margolis

Fri Apr 24/Sat Apr 25

Elo(k)im אֱלֹקִ֑ים     GOD

The angst of Psalm 67 takes on special meaning as we grapple with the tribulations of the coronavirus. Just as the ancient Israelites feared for their harvest, we too fear for our lives and our livelihoods, and turn to God for succor.

Some will praise God, believing that His great power will defeat the evil that has brought us this scourge. Others will appreciate His comfort during this time of dread and loneliness, as we view loved ones only through Zoom. Another group will thank Him for his mercy, believing that their sins and the sins of humanity are responsible for this affliction, while still others accept that God’s will is mysterious, and humans will emerge from this trial enriched by the experience.

Lastly, there are those that hope there might be a god, a spirit, or the ineffable, though they have doubts about a sea splitting in half or a burning bush that talks, and have no inkling about their existence after death. But my God, something or somebody put us on this earth as sentient human beings, so if you’re capable of hearing us, we’d like to express our gratitude for the good fortune that we’ve had so far, and if you do exist and have some influence in the world, could you please find a cure or a vaccine for Covid19 so we can get on with our lives.

Some days, I belong to the last category.

David Margolis’ stories and poems have appeared in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, JAMA: Internal Medicine, Missouri Medicine, Long Story Short, Still Crazy, and The Jewish Light of St. Louis. He’s published three novels, “The Myth of Dr. Kugelman”, “The Plumber’s Wrench,” and “The Misadventures of Buddy Jones” which won an eLit award for humor and was presented at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. He’s also written a book of short stories: Looking Behind: The Gaseous Life of a Gastroenterologist.

Day 17: GRATITUDE, Carol Rose

Sat Apr 25/Sun Apr 26

יוֹד֖וּךָ   Yodukha    GRATITUDE

 

these are the words

I meditate upon.

i want to understand

what matters, what truly counts

in these weeks of considering.

i find myself asking (as the poet has for years)

“how do i love Thee, let me count 

the ways”.  perhaps it’s how 

we dedicate ourselves? perhaps

it’s simply noticing, attending to what 

needs to be cleared, what requires repair?

perhaps it’s who we Zoom to our tables? who we invite

into our conversations? who we reach out to 

in their loneliness – or our own.  what are the fears

what are the joys that we now can admit to ourselves

& to those we love? how do we carry this weight, 

this burden? how do we balance our lives … laugh, 

offer gratitude, chant blessings & songs

of thanksgiving for daily signs of life 

just outside our window,  the promise  

of Spring … a painful, beautiful sigh.

Carol Rose is a writer, spiritual counselor, and educator. She holds an MA in Theology, as well as degrees in Religion and Cross Cultural Studies. She received certification as Mashpi’ah (Spiritual Director) and Maggid (Preacher) from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and trained with psychologist, Madame Colette Aboulker-Muscat in the use of mental imagery techniques for healing, self-awareness, and personal growth. Carol’s poetry and essays appear in literary journals and anthologies in the United States, Canada, and Israel.

Day 18: PEOPLES, Larisa Klebe

Sun Apr 26/Mon Apr 27

עַמִּ֥ים  Amim

PEOPLES

Essential workers, who must go into work every day with little to no protection and inadequate pay despite the enormous risk, are a people.

Healthcare workers, who are on the frontlines of this pandemic and don’t have the protective gear they need to do their jobs safely, are a people.

The currently unemployed are a people.

The currently uninsured are a people.

Parents, who are navigating remote work and caring for their children simultaneously, are a people.

Women, who are bearing the brunt of increased housework and childcare duties, are a people.

Teachers, who have been thrown into online teaching with very little guidance and enormous pressure, are a people.

People of color, who are more likely to live in locations and housing situations that put them at increased risk of infection from coronavirus, and to experience discrimination within our healthcare system, are a people.

Those who have what they need are a people.

Those who do not have what they need are a people.

We’re all experiencing this pandemic differently based on our personalities, our identities, our roles in society, and our varying degrees of power and privilege—together we are peoples, but we are not all treated the same.

Injustice for some is injustice for all.

If you have the ability to do something to make things better for someone: to provide money or supplies, to advocate for someone’s rights, to call out inequality or injustice, do it.

Together, we are peoples.

Larisa Klebe is the Director of Nishmah at the J. She is a Jewish educator, historian, and feisty Jewish feminist who is passionate about women and girl’s empowerment. Larisa lives in University City with her husband Brian, and their dog, Oreo. 

 

Day 19: EVERYONE, Shaked Birenboim

Mon Apr 27/Tue Apr 28
Yom Hazikaron

kulam   –   כֻּלָּֽם    EVERYONE

אַךְ נִזְכֹּר אֶת כֻּלָּם 

We shall remember all of them (the fallen) 

We are everyone. We are together and also apart. 
Today, in Israel, everyone gathers together to grieve and to celebrate.

On the same day, two opposites join together to reflect a nation’s reality, everyone’s reality. Everyone in Israel feels the grief and the pain on Memorial day, Yom Hazikaron. We do it together, in ceremonies as a united nation and people, and apart, with our loved ones who are no longer with us, the sacred and private ceremony everyone does of commemorating the heroic fallen soldiers.    

It is very symbolic that the word “KULAM”  is on Yom Hazikaron, for it strengthens the importance of this day and shows that in the end, kulam – כֻּלָּם – everyone – experiences the same things in life, and we all know sorrow and pain. In Israel, when we have, in my opinion, the biggest transition that can be from Yom Hazikaron to Yom ha’Atzmaut –  on the same day – we all know how to rise and to celebrate together; to see the good and also to celebrate life; to know how to cherish the ones who are no longer with us and to give thanks to them that we are alive and have the State of Israel.  

Another thing that makes the fact that the word kulam – כֻּלָּם –  is on Yom Hazikaron even more meaningful is the quote that is said on the Israeli Memorial Day:  

אַךְ נִזְכֹּר אֶת כֻּלָּם 
we shall remember all of them (the fallen) 

Shaked Birenboim is St. Louis’ Shinshinit. She has been working in congregations Shaare Emeth and Kol Rinah in the Shinshinim program, which is a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and four local congregations. She is from Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek (from the Partnership region in the North of Israel). 

To learn more about CJL’s Shinshinim program: JFedSTL.org/Shinshinim.

 

Day 20: REJOICE, Andrew Warshauer

Tue Apr 28/Wed Apr 29

Yismechu – יִֽשְׂמְח֥וּ     REJOICE

Rejoice. The word feels distant. Like an old friend I caught a glimpse of from across a crowded room. When I try to think of what to rejoice, one of two moods takes over.

In my darker moods, I only come up with “At least it’s spring.” The very real and difficult fact is that people are dying, and they are dying because our leaders failed to do everything they could to keep us safe.

In my brighter moods, I’ve settled on the fact that we still have plenty to celebrate. Our connections, our care, our memories. Our resilience, our strength, our will. Our adaptability, our zest, our humanness. I can rejoice in the kindness on display today.

Our rejoicing doesn’t stop us from being critical. As we always have, we must work towards building a better world. One that is just, and kind, and holy to all of its inhabitants. But, our insistence that things be better doesn’t stop our ability to celebrate what is good. Rejoice in the holiness of care and rejoice in the sanctity of healing

Bolstered by our joy, we must use that energy to support each other. It is our duty to repair the world.

Andrew Warshauer is a founding board member of MaTovu and serves as the Director of Marketing & Communications for the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. He recently released an EP of songs about grief called Cover the Mirrors under the name Peacebath.

Day 21: SING, Rabbi Tracy Nathan

Wed Apr 29/Thu Apr 30

Viran’nu – ‘וִֽירַנְּנ֗וּ      SING


There was a Magrefa in the holy Temple that had ten holes, each of which produced ten different kinds of songs – others say it produced 1000 songs (Talmud Bavli Arachin 10b-11a). According to Rashi (11th century), the Magrefa was a shovel used in the daily Temple ritual of Terumat Hadeshen, in which the ashes on the altar were gathered and removed. 

The Piacezna Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, asked: Why does an implement used for moving ashes need to sing? He explained that the purpose of the music and singing in the Temple was “to raise a clamor on high.” Drawing on a kabbalistic tradition, he saw the ashes as representing earthly indifference, which cannot be elevated to God in holiness. Once the ashes were disconnected from their spiritual source, however, they were filled with longing: “The reawakening of the awareness of loss arouses salvation…” Out of the disconnection, there is a longing for union, and a song issues directly from the pain of separation. (Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942 – 9780765762177, pp. 262-267)

Perhaps this is why there has been so much poetry and singing during this time of pandemic – singing from balconies, awkward attempts at collective singing online, and artful attempts to mimic that communal singing. We sing over the loss; we sing out of our yearning; we sing to bridge the painful social distance. 

John Berger writes that the labour of poetry “is to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart…it can repair no loss, but it defies the space that separates…Poetry renders everything intimate…There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring…To break the silence of events, to speak of experience however bitter or lacerating, to put into words, is to discover the hope that these words may be heard, and that when heard, the events will be judged. This hope is of course at the origin of prayer…. (from And Out Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, pp. 96-98). 

Sing, pray, write and recite poetry. They are instruments of hope. 

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is Senior Educator, Center for Jewish Learning at Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and Director of Melton-St. Louis. 

 

Day 22: NATIONS, Dr. Warren Rosenblum

Thu Apr 30/Fri May 1

לְאֻ֫מִּ֥ים l’umim    NATIONS

In your dream of universal justice and dignity, how is it achieved? Is it through nations, with their particular laws and customs, who extend the privilege of true citizenship to all their subjects (black and white, Muslims and Hindus, Palestinians and Jews)? Or must we all first be converted to a great supranational ideal of human rights, accepting guidance from universal standards and global institutions.

America was born schizophrenic on this question. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal” and “endowed…with certain inalienable rights,” and yet he accepted the reality that some men (and women) in this country will be inferior in status because history and custom decreed it so – until further notice. Sovereignty, in other words, trumped even the most beautiful and “self-evident” moral principles.

By invoking the nations, the psalm seems to underscore the inevitable persistence of sovereignty. Perhaps we must always look to our nation to find safety, security, comfort and belonging. And yet the nations on earth would “be glad and sing for joy,” we are told, at being governed by a “righteous judge.” The psalm asks us to imagine a time when nations willingly hew to a universal standard and accept guidance from an external force. Perhaps our very definition of nation can expand and become more generous, more inclusive than the tribal loyalties and customs that laid its foundation. And this will even make us happy.

Well, amen to that!

Dr. Warren Rosenblum is Chair of the History, Politics, and International Relations Department at Webster University. In the coming academic year, he will be a Fulbright fellow at the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium.

Day 23: BECAUSE, Jennifer Baer

Fri May 1/Sat May 2

כִּֽי ki     BECAUSE

As a parent, there was comfort in being able to answer many of the questions my children used to ask me: The flower grew because it had water and sunlight.

Ultimately, the questions got more complicated, and more often than not I don’t know the “because,” especially now…

Because life seems to resemble a strange mad lib where there are no good words to fill in the blanks.

Because sometimes none of us have the answers; because there aren’t answers to give.

Because no amount of disinfectant will cleanse what has been taken away.

Because pivoting, recalibrating, adapting, or any other movement should not replace moments of stillness where we simply acknowledge that we are unsure of the path ahead.

Because we can feel afraid and still continue forward.

Because an invisible enemy may be able to separate us physically, but we will not let it triumph over the strength of the human spirit.

Because now we don’t take even the simplest touch for granted.

Because each life is more than a statistic.

Because it’s ok to grieve what was lost and still look ahead with optimism for the future.

Because even though we may be physically distant we are still connected.

Because maybe, from a distance, we can come together in ways we never dreamed possible.

Because as long as the sun comes up each morning there is hope in the new day ahead.

Because we may not ever be able to look back with answers, but we will be able to look back- because this will one day be our past and not our present.

Because gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass, but may we never forget the lessons we learn.

Because after each storm, the sun will shine again, and one day, the flowers will grow.

Jennifer Baer, MSW, is the Director of Family Engagement at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and has worked in the nonprofit sector for 20 years. She is a passionate connector of ideas, people, and organizations, and she credits her kids for bringing daily doses of humor to her life and endless crumbs to her car.

Day 24: GOVERN, Benjamin D. Singer

Sat May 2/Sun May 3
תִשְׁפֹּ֣ט – Tishpot    GOVERN

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” -Benjamin Franklin

The United States has more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than anywhere else in the world. Many people, myself included, believe this is partly due to the rights we are blessed to have in this country. Those personal rights make it more difficult for our government to impose draconian lockdowns, compared to China and elsewhere. The choice, however,  is not black-and-white: even in the above quote, Benjamin Franklin was advocating for taxing land in Pennsylvania to pay for the cost of defending it in the French & Indian War.

What does Torah teach us about this communal tension between Liberty and Safety?

Judaism approaches government from a different, elegant, perspective. The Torah does not focus on “inalienable rights” endowed by our Creator, as Dr. Warren Rosenblum quoted Thomas Jefferson on Day 22.  Quite the opposite. The Torah gives us opportunities for holiness if we accept commandments, or “responsibilities”: towards fellow humans, Hashem, animals, even fruit trees. For example: the Torah does not give the widow, orphan, and stranger the “right” to be well-fed. Instead, God commands landowners to leave some crops unharvested, so that those without land may come and eat.

In practical terms, this is brilliant government. After all, giving someone a “right” does not create a mechanism to provide for it. On the other hand, “responsibility” puts the onus on us to take action, or be held accountable.

The dichotomy of government based on “rights” versus “responsibilities” offers insight into America’s ongoing tension with “Safety” and “Liberty.” Yes, we have a right to free enterprise, which has made America prosperous. But we also have responsibilities, like taxes and, now, staying at home, to prevent devastation.

It is a balance. So tonight, for Havdalah, let’s raise a glass of grape immune support vitamin water: to life, and to our rights and responsibilities in America.

Benjamin D. Singer is the Managing Director of Show Me Integrity, Missouri’s cross-partisan movement for a more ethical, effective government of, by, and for the people. In his spare time, he serves on the board of Kol Rinah Congregation and enjoys organizing wedding flash mobs.

Day 25: PEOPLES, Scott Berzon

Sun May 3/Mon May 4
עַמִּ֣ים  – Amim    PEOPLES

Harvesters

Five Haiku

The tomatoes turn

ready for the gardener.

Nothing like the corn.

 

                *

She can catch a fly

(and the maple samaras)

with little effort!

                *

Of all blueberries,

this one, a prized possession

for the stray cat’s paw.

                *

A new morning sound:

Some chickens far from their coop?

A turning engine?

                *

Uncurling a hose

he has never used before

on the empty street.

Scott Berzon earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan. He is the recipient of the Frank Vincent Memorial Prize, the Meader Family Award, and the Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship, all for poetry. Scott has taught a variety of creative writing courses to both undergraduate and graduate students and currently serves as the Business Operations Director for Congregation Shaare Emeth.

Day 26: UPRIGHT, Kalanit Chappell

Mon May 4/Tue May 5

מִישׁ֑וֹר misho    UPRIGHT

Mishor is a word that has many implications. It is often translated as justice, equity, uprightness, righteousness, and sometimes even concord or harmony. It also has a geographical connotation, “level ground,” which could suggest that the land is uncomplicated to navigate and easy to travel upon.

Figuratively, it implies an ease from obstacles or free from difficulty.

I have found that this extended home-time provides me with the opportunity to turn my focus inward, to use this time to self-connect. I don’t have in-person shul events to plan, I don’t have to drive my older daughter to school, and I have no homeschool field trips with my youngest. Looking inward helps me to see the obstacles I may place in front of myself during the day-to-day of interacting in the world. It gives me the opening to make sure my path is level, simple to navigate. Faster-paced life does not always afford me this opportunity. I might even suggest that this is part of G-d’s sense of righteousness – to make sure we take moments to focus on ourselves, and therefore, be better able to connect with the Source of It All.

Kalanit Chappell owns a forensic engineering firm, works as the Programming & Engagement Coordinator for Bais Abraham Congregation, and is her youngest daughter’s homeschool teacher. She is actively involved with the St. Louis Mikvah Project through Nishmah, and her 13-year chavurah.

Day 27: NATIONS, Moriah Lotsoff

Tue May 5/Wed May 6 
וּלְאֻמִּ֓ים    u-l’umim     NATIONS

When the last bell rang on March 12, no one thought that the class we had just finished would be the last one we would attend inside the school. No, we were focused on our spring break plans and how we hoped they wouldn’t get cancelled. We were thinking that if they did get cancelled, it wouldn’t be the end of the world because we could hang out with our friends instead. We had no idea.

I had heard about China and the death and destruction the Coronavirus had brought. I had read many articles about Italy and Spain and how hospitals were lined with sick or deceased bodies. I had empathy for the people in those situations, but I didn’t understand how bad it actually was. It seemed so far away. Even when it came to the United States, to Missouri, to St. Louis, and even to my neighborhood, it still seemed unreal, like somehow my life, my community was untouchable.

But then it started. The common understanding between neighbors walking our dogs that eventually one of us would have to cross the street. The struggle to find toilet paper in the supermarket when just weeks before, the aisle was stocked to the brim.

The lines that our world leaders drew which separate our countries didn’t stop the virus. The borders of a nation don’t make an impact on where the virus attacks; it has no preference of victim. When I was thinking about how the virus was still so far away and that I had no direct connection, I was wrong. Because although the virus took longer to get to my nation, it still attacked my species, human. No matter how we identify ourselves as a nation, we are still connected as a whole.

Moriah Lotsoff is a graduate of Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School and currently attends Clayton High School. She is an Editor on her school’s newspaper, the Globe, and she is a member of her school’s Water First Club. Moriah enjoys cooking for her family and playing with her four dogs.

Day 28: LAND, Scott Berzon

Wed May 6/Thu May 7
ba’aretz – בָּאָ֖רֶץ     LAND

Ode to the Land

You are the momentus blooming

of the peach and pear trees.

You are the swaddler of the aged

river as it curlicues

into the seams of your banks.

You are the great believer that we

continue to believe in you.

Outside the window is a busy

unburying, and I’m trying

to count the creatures carefully,

all of which are yours, in a way.

You are skilled at correcting

imprecisions, even mine

just now about the scampering

things, so you nudge the Skylark

skyward, with humility.

I will add this gesture to my field

notes and thank you with words,

that which we use for grounding.

And I will try to convince you

that most of us are benign players,

light in touch. For every Devil’s

Hand and Voodoo Lily we’ve named,

there are Hot Lips and Darwin’s

Slippers to express our compassion.

Scott Berzon earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan. He is the recipient of the Frank Vincent Memorial Prize, the Meader Family Award, and the Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship, all for poetry. Scott has taught a variety of creative writing courses to both undergraduate and graduate students and currently serves as the Business Operations Director for Congregation Shaare Emeth.

Day 29: LEAD, Brian Herstig

Thu May 7/Fri May 8
Tankheim – תַּנְחֵ֣ם    LEAD

What does it mean to lead in a time of crisis? Not just any crisis, but a world-wide, never before seen shutdown. A crisis that will likely change the way we approach life after in fundamental and profound ways?

While the crisis might be unique and unprecedented, we have examples to draw on. The 1918 influenza pandemic was far more severe – killing 20 to 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans. The 9/11 attacks forced us to reexamine safety and security procedures, which we all live with today.

So examples exist in response, but what can we learn about LEADING? These are the lessons I have taken and that we are using at the Federation today to deal with the novel Coronavirus:

Take action – you won’t always be right, but in times like this taking action is paramount and movement forward is better than sitting still.

Be consistent – have a set of principles to guide your actions and always go back to them.

Communicate, communicate, communicate – these are uncertain times and more is better than less, whether it is information, updating, or temperature taking.

Empower others – this is not a situation where one person or organization can do it all or do it alone. We are a community and rely on one another, especially at times like this.

Focus on what is necessary, not what is nice – there are times to be concerned with people’s feelings, but this situation demands us to think of the greater good. That may come into conflict with individual needs/desires.

Find time for yourself – one of the most important things we can do as leaders in this crisis is recognize that we need to recharge our own batteries – mental, emotional, or physical. We are no good to others if we are drained.

To lead means to be out front. It means we make hard decisions, we communicate them to everyone, and we own up to the shortcomings inherent in them. It means thinking about the long-term at a time when immediate needs exist. It means being compassionate in the face of adversity. To lead means to forge the new path no one ever considered and bring people with you down it.

Brian Herstig is the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. He has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than fifteen years. Brian holds two master’s degrees – one in Non-Profit Management, and the other in Jewish Communal Service – both from Brandeis University, and graduated from The Ohio State University, magna cum laude, with a degree in Social Work. He is married to Barb Herstig and has three children.

Day 30: SELAH!, Val Toskin

Fri May 8/Sat May 9 
סֶֽלָה     SELAH!

Still, We Sing…

Selah “a technical musical term probably showing accentuation, pause, interruption.”

Source: Open Scriptures on Github

Music is such a powerful force.  It can move us and make us move.  It led slaves to freedom.  It heals the soul.  It can make us cry.  It unites us in chant and prayer.  Music connects us to one another, to worlds unknown, to our ancestors, and to our communities.  Music is indeed a powerful force.

Meditations are led with niggunim.  The Belgian Revolution started with a mob of theater goers having just watched the “La Muette de Portici”.  Parents soothe their little ones with calming lullabies.  Melodies of childhood remain anchored in our brain long after all memories are lost.  Quarantined neighbors in Italy intone traditional tunes to join with one another.

Yet music is not just the notes, not the words, not the rhythms, not the sound of the voices or the instruments.  No…  music is in “Selah”… a pause…an interruption…a breath, as Debussy so elegantly stated “music is the silence between the notes.”

May we all on this day take a breath, pause, listen, and hear each other’s and G-d’s song.

Val Toskin is a Judaics teacher at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. She is a permanent explorer who is currently focusing on studying Talmud with SVARA, practicing meditation, and throwing pottery.

Day 31: GRATITUDE, Kathy Schmeltz

Sat May 9/Sun May 10 
Yodukha-  יוֹד֖וּךָ        GRATITUDE

When I was given the opportunity to participate in the Counting the Omer reflections, I chose “gratitude” as my word because honestly it’s something I really struggle with at times.

I was raised in a family dynamic that did not practice gratitude. The messages I received were:  Life isn’t fair. Why did this happen to me? I deserve that, not them.  I wish I had a nicer car. The focus was on what we didn’t have, what didn’t work out, etc.

As I got older, I observed others who practiced gratitude. I realized that gratitude is a choice. Life isn’t always easy; sometimes it is VERY difficult.  Each day I can choose to make the decision to be thankful and express appreciation for what is good in my life. Some days it may just be that the sun is shining and I had a great cup of coffee and that is something.

By choosing gratitude, I see the world through a different lens. I see the possibilities, the joy, and appreciate what is in my life.  I am grateful for so many things right now.  I list them in a journal as a reminder on a day that I am struggling.

I choose to focus on gratitude. Though this is a weird and challenging time for all of us, I pray each and every one of you find gratitude in your way each day.

Kathy Schmeltz is a Resource Assistant with the Center for Jewish Learning at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. She lives in Chesterfield with her husband, Steve, and their dog, Lexi.

Day 32: PEOPLES, Dr. Elai Rettig

Sun May 10/Mon May 11
Amim   –  עַמִּ֥ים      PEOPLES

In his memoir from 1958, “Vision and Redemption,” Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, pondered the connection between the Jewish people and its homeland, and his words resonate with me still today:

“The only loyal ally we [The State of Israel] have is the Jewish people. The War of Independence and the Sinai Campaign aroused Jewish pride and raised the status of Jews among the Jewish people and in the whole world. But the State of Israel was not created to be a Jewish Sparta, and it is not by military heroism that it will win the admiration of the Jewish people. Only by being a model nation, of which every Jew, wherever he is, can be proud, shall we preserve the love of the Jewish people and its loyalty to Israel. Our status in the world, too, will not be determined by our material wealth or by our military heroism, but by the radiance of our achievements, our culture and our society – and only by virtue of these will we acquire the friendship of the nations. And although there is no lack of shadows – most of them heavy in our lives today – we have sufficient grounds for the faith that we have it in our power to be a model people.”

In my two years living in the United States as a lecturer in Israeli studies, I try to follow Ben-Gurion’s words. I believe that our strength as a people, and our ability to connect to other peoples, is by radiating light and compassion.  Especially in these trying times, our never-ending desire to be a model people is what connects us and makes us stronger, even if we miss the mark at times.

Dr. Elai Rettig is the Israel Institute Teaching Fellow for Israeli and Environmental Studies at Washington University in St Louis.

Day 33: GOD, Guy Nachum

אֱלֹקִ֑ים    Elo(k)im     GOD

God is a big word/thing

God has a different definition for each one of us.

God is something that gives you hope.

God is something that everyone talks about.

God has no gender.

God always makes you think

God means a lot for some and means less for others

God has a big meaning

God.. God.. God..

God describes mostly something huge, which people don’t know how to describe.

It’s an angle or a “thing” that lives above us and he or she is the one who controls the world.

There are a lot of people that like to say that God does not exist but there are a lot that insist that he does.

But when you talk about the word God, you can find a lot of definitions.

One of them is, of course, the God who created this world..

But “God” is more than that.

You can describe God as faith.

You can describe God as unbelievable

You can describe God as lover

You can describe God as hater

You can describe God as something that gives you strength

You can describe God as something that makes you scared

You can describe God – however you want.

In my eyes it’s a beautiful thing that each one of us takes God differently.

I can talk about myself for example.

I like to talk to God as someone who can help me, listen to me, teach me, gives me hope and more… it’s something super mysterious.

I want you to read a song about God that I grew up on:

רציתי שתדע

אלוהים שלי, רציתי שתדע

חלום שחלמתי בלילה במיטה

ובחלום ראיתי מלאך

משמיים בא אלי ואמר לי כך

באתי משמיים, עברתי נדודים

לשאת ברכת שלום לכל הילדים

לשאת ברכת שלום לכל הילדים

וכשהתעוררתי נזכרתי בחלום

ויצאתי לחפש מעט שלום

ולא היה מלאך ולא היה שלום

הוא מזמן הלך ואני עם החלום

אלוהים שלי, רצית שתדע

חלום שחלמתי בלילה במיטה

ובחלום ראיתי מלח

ממצולות הים עלה ואמר לי כך

באתי מן המים, ממצולות הים

לשאת ברכת שלום לילדי כל העולם

לשאת ברכת שלום לילדי כל העולם

וכשהתעוררתי נזכרתי בחלום

ויצאתי לחפש מעט שלום

ולא היה מלח ולא היה שלום

הוא את הבשורה לקח ואני עם החלום

אלוהים שלי, רציתי שתדע

שהחלום הזה נשאר לי כחידה

אלוהים שלי, רציתי שתדע

על החלום שלי רציתי שתדע

אלוהים שלי, רק רציתי שתדע

English:

I WANTED YOU TO KNOW

Oh my God, I want to let you know

A dream I dreamt at night in my bed:

In the dream I saw an angel,

From heaven he came to me, and said so:

I came from heaven, a long wandering,

To bring a blessing of peace to all the children,

To bring a blessing of peace to all the children

When I awoke I remembered the dream,

And went out to seek for a little bit of peace,

But there was no angel, there was no peace.

He went away long ago, and I am here with my dream.

Oh my God, I want to let you know

A dream I dreamt at night in my bed:

In the dream I saw an angel,

From the deep he arose, and said so:

I came from the water, from the deep,

To bring a blessing of peace to the children of all the world,

To bring a blessing of peace to the children of all the world

When I awoke I remembered the dream,

And went out to seek for a little bit of peace,

But there was no angel, there was no peace.

He took away the blessing, and I am here with my dream.

Oh my God, I want to let you know

That this dream remained a riddle to me.

Oh my God, I want to let you know

About my dream, I want to let you know,

Oh my God, I want just to let you know.

When I read or sing this song, it brings me back to my childhood, it makes me feel like a kid again.

I remember I was singing this song when I was six in my village. Just love it.

This innocence makes my heart melt every time.

“Everyone had a God inside themselves; each of is different”

Guy Nachum is one of St. Louis’ Shinshinim. He has worked with Congregations B’nai Amoona and United Hebrew in the Shinshinim program, which is a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and four local congregations. He is from a Moshav close to Jerusalem, has been a gymnast since he was seven years old, and loves to sing and travel.

To learn more about CJL’s Shinshinim program: JFedSTL.org/Shinshinim.

Day 34: GRATITUDE, Michelle Rubin

י֝וֹד֗וּךָ   Yodukha    GRATITUDE

Most of life is grey, not simply black and white. We become programmed into thinking of things in absolutes. One of the dichotomies often mentioned is that every thought or action stems from either love or fear. This one or the other thinking actually seems to have some merit. It isn’t grey at all, the idea is clear. And once we have this awareness then of course we want to switch our thoughts, beliefs and actions to love.

Gratitude is such a simple, effective way to activate love energy. Recognize what you are grateful for, both big and little things. People often immediately say they are grateful for big things like their family, health, food, shelter. Those are wonderful things to be thankful for, but it’s so meaningful to think of the more specific things too. Be thankful for the phone call from your sister to just say hi. Be thankful your healthy body was able to take a walk around the block. Feel gratitude for your morning cup of coffee and for the big bath towel you splurged on when last buying new towels.

Judaism already had gratitude figured out. It’s not a new, psychological trend. Jewish tradition has gratitude built into everyday. We say the Modeh Ani prayer upon waking, thanking God for returning our souls back to us to live another day. We are supposed to say 100 prayers of gratitude a day for everything from being able to go to the bathroom, to seeing a beautiful person, or the special sight of a rainbow.

Fill yourself with every shade of grey in the gratitude spectrum. Being grateful for anything big or small will shift you to feelings of love and push away feelings of fear. Embrace gratitude.

I am thankful to the Center for Jewish Learning for asking me to write this piece as we count the Omer. I am thankful to anyone who is reading this. Sending you light and love.

Michelle Rubin is mother to two daughters and two furry pups and is married to Mark; she is a community volunteer, loves Jewish learning, and teaches gratitude most days as a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher.

Day 35: PEOPLES, Shira Berkowitz

Wed May 13/Thu May 14
עַמִּ֥ים – Amim     PEOPLES

As we prepare to slowly reemerge, pause to take a breath. 

Let memories flood the spaces on the outside: the roads, the park, the trees, the pond, the blanket, the picnic, the friends.

I remember when I realized the notion of place was made by memories of particular people deeming it meaningful. Places then, are the spaces occupied by memories we’ve had with people who mean(t) the most. Peoples, then perhaps, are what give value to every space that we occupy – from the moments we have internally alone to those we experience as collectively together as possible. Memories have that confident way of creating collective histories that bring us to our peoplehood. But in a simpler way, bring us to the everyday places that create the best pizza in the city, the best hill to bike down in the park, the best night of soccer we ever played. Slowly, there is infinite room for memories.  

Shira Berkowitz is a founding member of MaTovu and serves as the chair of Community Impact’s Israel & Overseas committee at the Federation. They are the Communications Manager for PROMO, Missouri’s LGBTQ equality organization, and teach art history and printmaking at STLCC.     

Day 36: EVERYONE, Sam Gittleman

Thu May 14/Fri May 15
Kulam –  כֻּלָּֽם     EVERYONE

The word kulam triggers a specific memory of mine: I’m dancing on a bench and screaming the words to Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu — it’s the first day of Herzl Camp and with cheers for peace we’re welcoming our campers into our magical summer community as they step off of the busses, pillows their parents couldn’t quite squeeze into their overstuffed suitcases clutched between their hands.

Od yavo’ shalom aleinu

Od yavo’ shalom aleinu

Od yavo’ shalom aleinu

V’al kulam

Peace will come upon us

Peace will come upon us

Peace will come upon us

And upon everyone

Devastatingly, the busses of nervously excited campers won’t roll into a first day of camp this summer. We won’t dance and scream on benches. Won’t spend infinite nights under the stars and around proudly made fires. Won’t jump in the puddles together when it heavy dews instead of hiding from the rain. Won’t immerse in the wonderful absurdities of 500 kids in an enclosed space. Won’t get to escape parents and norms and pressures and screens in the woods of Webster, Wisconsin, when we all need that escape more than ever. Hearts ache across the Midwest (and beyond).

The great tragedy is that this isn’t a unique experience. Everyone has lost a camp, sport season, graduation, job, or even a loved one. Everyone’s in need of the hug they can’t receive. While utterly terrible, it has forced us into a position of global empathy. To see and feel daily hurt. Once the camps and schools and barbershops and restaurants reopen, I hope we won’t forget those feelings. For tragedy existed long before this pandemic and will long after. Maybe, COVID will help us see what we might have tuned out before. To act so people don’t have to feel the terrible way we do now.

Peace will come upon us. With empathy and care, we can help it come upon closer to everyone.

Sam Gittleman is a recent graduate from Washington University in St Louis, where he studied Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology and played ultimate frisbee. Originally from Minneapolis, he attended Beth El Synagogue, participated in USY, and is a longtime Herzl Camper.

Day 37: LAND, Adina Levy

Fri May 15/Sat May 16
אֶ֭רֶץ  – Eretz   
LAND

The Land of Israel. The homeland of the Jewish people. The holy land. 

For nine years, I learned about the land of Israel; the beauty, the significance to the Jewish people, the language, the food, the music, the dancing, and the love that I should have as a Jew for this land across the ocean. 

And I did love the land. Or at least I thought I did. 

In January, I travelled to Israel with the Hillel at my university. Of course, I had fun and made wonderful memories with new friends. But something else really profound occurred for me. 

On a Wednesday afternoon, after spending several days up north in the rain, my Birthright group went to the holy city of Jerusalem. As much as I’m a sucker for a cliche, the sun was shining and the birds were quite literally chirping. Our day began by meeting several other groups of college students in an area overlooking the entire old city. After a few moments of admiring the view the air was filled with the sounds of drums and shofars. The music of the Jewish people echoed, and it felt like the entire city was dancing with us. 

I felt free. 

Free to be a Jew. 

I felt proud. 

Proud to dance to the words “Am Yisrael Chai” with 100 other Jews. 

I’ve always been proud of my Jewish identity and talk about my religion openly but for the first time, I wasn’t thinking about being Jewish as a unique part of my identity. It united all of us, rather than drawing me out from the rest of the group. 

This was when I learned that I never really did love the land of Israel. 

I understood it. I appreciated it. I saw it. 

But now I love it. 

Because that land is my home. I may not live there, and I may not ever live there or even want to live there. But it will always be the place where my Jewish heart can dance in the streets and sing at the top of my lungs, “Am Yisrael Chai” 

Now more than ever, it’s hard to feel free. It’s hard to feel at peace. It’s even hard to feel safe. 

So when you feel scared, uncertain, or like you may never feel at peace again, close your eyes, take a deep breath and bring yourself to your place of peace and freedom. 

And maybe one day, we’ll be dancing in the streets of Jerusalem together. 

In the holy land. The homeland. Our land. 

Adina Levy is studying Elementary Education at the University of Kansas. She is involved with Chabad and Hillel on campus, as well as Greek life. She loves to bake, play games with her family, and most of all, spend time with her three-year old niece. 

Day 38: GIVING, Joanie Terrizzi

נָתְנָ֣ה  – Natna     GIVING

What is true giving? 

When I teach mindfulness to children, I ask them to raise their hands if they have ever given something to someone else because they were told to do so.  I ask them how that feels.  Then I ask them to raise their hands if they have ever given something to someone else because they wanted to.  I ask them how that feels.

This discussion takes the course that you might expect: when we are authentically generous, we feel good; when we are pretending to be generous to fulfill the demands or ideas that other people hold for us, we feel drained – regardless of our age.

So again: what is true giving?

We are deeply interconnected, and in some of the roles we hold we might find ourselves doing more giving than receiving. We might find ourselves being generous to uphold an image, and unfortunately, we might find ourselves having no choice but to enact a giving role when others don’t rise to their responsibilities, perhaps intentionally putting us in a position to carry more than our fair share.  We may have become separated from the parts of ourselves that know when we are giving authentically and when we are giving inauthentically.

Close your eyes.  Take a deep breath.  Think about something you would like to give – to someone else, to yourself, to the Earth – and notice how it feels in your body when you even just imagine giving as an expression of what feels deeply “right” to you.  Listening to our internal “yes” and “no” can help repair our relationship with ourselves and our authenticity, and to feel good when we give.  

The verse in Psalm 67 reads: “ The earth has yielded her produce.”  The Earth is authentically intended to give produce to the world; she gave what she was put here to give.  What are you authentically intended to give to the world?  What are you put on this planet to give?

Joanie Terrizzi is a Mindful Schools-trained educator with more than a decade of experience working in schools and with children. She is on the faculty of Project Presence by Family Integrated Consulting and Resources, INC, and she is pursuing a doctorate in Mind-Body Medicine from Saybrook University where she also serves as a teaching assistant.

Day 39: BOUNTY, Rabbi Neal Rose

Sun May 17/Mon May 18
יְבוּלָ֑הּ  Yevulah       BOUNTY

 

The Bountiful Scream

Psalm 67 occupies a special place in my spiritual practice.  It is what I have called my ‘glowing psalm’.

Its radiance comes from references to God’s smile and to the Divine light that this promises to the world.

In my Sephardic prayer book, this particular psalm is printed in the form of a seven-branched menorah, and each time it is chanted, I imagine its mysterious luminosity .

When I was invited to comment on one of the 49 words that comprise the Menorah Psalm, I was attracted to the word Ye-vu-lah, bounty, as it is found in v. 6 of the psalm-“the earth (eretz) shall yield her increase/bounty … may our God bless us”.

What more, I wondered, can be said about the Hebrew expression ye-vu-lah other than that it means increase or bounty of the earth? So I did the scholarly thing, and I began a word search – hunting  for other possible meanings. I came upon the idea that this word, bounty, may also be related (at its root, yud -vet- lamed) to the Hebrew word for ram; possibly suggesting the ram’s horn, or the shofar.  

Ever since discovering this connection, whenever I meditate on the menorah-shaped psalm, I also imagine hearing the earth’s (eretz) soulful cry, as though it were the sound of the ram’s horn –  the broken call of she-va-rim.

The psalm now carries another contrasting message for me. It is as though, along with God’s smile, I am also hearing the earth’s plaintiff cry

  “I am dying”, it says.

   “We are disappearing …

    Awaken, Awaken”

Rabbi Neal Rose serves the St. Louis Jewish community as a counselor, spiritual director, family therapist, and adult educator. He held the position of Professor of Religion and Rabbi at the University of Manitoba in Canada. He was the first Spiritual Director of The Simkin Centre – the Jewish community’s long-term care home in Winnipeg. He currently serves as Adjunct Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona and as a Community Chaplain with Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

Day 40: BLESSING,Caroline Kessler

Mon May 18/Tue May 19
יְ֝בָרְכֵ֗נוּ  Yevarkheinu     BLESSING

With a friend who I have been sharing meals with, I make a blessing over the full plates. I say, “Thank you earth, thank you plants, thank you universe, thank you to the people who made this meal possible.” On Shabbat, I say the traditional blessings in Hebrew over candles, wine, hand washing, and challah.

I say this improvised English blessing in an attempt to slow down, a reminder to be grateful for all that I have. Sometimes we look at the food before we eat, just taking in the small details of a cauliflower that looks like a miniature tree, or the way a mound of rice resembles a snow-covered hill. Sometimes I go into autopilot on the blessing, or feel too tired to make it…that is the reality of this time, and I nod to that tiredness inside myself. 

When that happens, I focus on the smallest thing I can to make the blessing, the most minute detail that can be a meditation in itself, to hone in on the gratitude and take the ‘overwhelm’ down to just ‘whelm.’ 

Caroline Kessler is a poet, editor, and co-founder of Ashreinu, a spiritual community in St. Louis. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Washington University in St. Louis and is currently based in Oakland, CA. Caroline is the co-creator of The 18 Somethings Project, a virtual writing adventure, and the author of Ritual in Blue (Sutra Press, 2018). Her work has been published in The McNeese Review, Superstition Review, Letters, Rivet, and elsewhere.

Day 41: GOD, Dr. Howard Schwartz

Tue May 19/Wed May 20
אֱלֹקִ֥ים  Elo(k)im     GOD

For every word that God utters, an angel is created—

angels of the presence and angels of sanctification, 

angels of fire, and angels of winds, 

angels of clouds and angels of darkness, 

angels of snow and hail and angels of thunder and lightning.

When two friends meet, an angel is born. As long as they are together, the angel flourishes. But if they are separated more than a year, the lights above that formed the angel grow dim, and the angel begins to waste away. To revive a languishing angel, say this blessing: Blessed is he who revives the dead.

Every good deed creates an angel. But if the deed is imperfect, so is the angel. What a disgrace to be served in paradise by such an angel!

Dr. Howard Schwartz is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an internationally celebrated and award-winning writer and poet. He won the National Jewish Book Award three times and was also a winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award. He has written and edited dozens of works in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

 

Day 42: OUR GOD, Jody Gerth

Wed May 20/Thu May 21
Elo(k)einu – אֱלֹקֵֽינוּ     OUR GOD

Our God

God of our ancestors

God of the sky

God of the Earth

Our God

Your God

The same God

God is one

Yet God is all

Our God is the warm rays of sunshine touching your face

Our God is love, ahava

Our God is everything

Every grain of desert sand, every insect in the rainforest

Our God is the crashing of the waves in the sea,

The hush of the city at night

Our God has no gender

But God is a mother

Mother Earth, Mother Nature

And God is a father

Avinu Malkeinu

Adonai Eloheinu

Hashem

The holiest of holies

Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu

Adonai Echad

Jody Gerth works in the Israel Center at Jewish Federation coordinating the Passport to Israel Program, Travel Grants and Scholarships, and the Israel Bound Teen Trip. Jody was a participant on the first Israel Bound Trip in 2008 when she was 16. She has led the Israel Bound trip since 2018 and loves connecting teens to Israel. In her spare time, Jody loves to workout, do art projects, and study Hebrew.

Day 43: BLESSING, Dr. Koach Baruch Frazier

 יְ֝בָרְכֵ֗נוּ  Yevarkheinu
BLESSING

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the many definitions of bless is to invoke divine care for someone or something. And at this moment in time where fear, anxiety, trauma and all of their varied responses are bubbling up for healing and transformation, I wish to invoke divine care for all of us. 

may G!d bless us

with comfort as we mourn the thousands of friends and family we have lost and the many worlds they each represent

may G!d bless us

with ease as we transition to this new world that replaces the normal that wasn’t working for most of us

may G!d bless us

with the warmth of love when we haven’t been able to experience the consensual affection we desire

may G!d bless us

with the righteous anger that moves us to build a world that works for all of us

may G!d bless us

with the space and time to grieve the loss of routines, employment, graduations, weddings, funerals and the disruption in all of the varied ways we mark transitions in our lives

may G!d bless us

with the courage to speak the truth of our being, when the world, our families, the media, and whoever else(including ourselves!) has made their way into our consciousness, spews lies of inadequacy, inferiority and scarcity.

may G!d bless us

with resilience and the strength to reach out for help when the places where we are quarantined have

been unsafe 

and may G!d bless us

with the deep, belly of the soul knowing, that freedom is our birthright and liberation is an inside job. 

Dr. Koach Baruch Frazier is an audiologist, musician, co-convener of the Tzedek Lab, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the rabbinical intern at MaTovu in Saint Louis, MO. A collaborative leader, rooted in tradition, curiosity and love, Koach strives to dismantle racism, actualize liberation and transform lives both sonically and spiritually. 

Day 44: GOD, Russel Neiss

Fri May 22/Sat May 23
אֱלֹקִ֑ים Elo(k)im    GOD

In his seminal work, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides codifies the prohibition and punishment for erasing even a single letter of one of the holy names of the Divine. According to Maimonides, writing and erasing the ineffable name (Yod, Heh; Vav, Heh) or any of the forms of Adonai, El, Elohah, Elohai, Shadai, Tzivaot or Elohim, could subject you to flogging. While nowadays, few of us fear a beating from our rabbis, many of us keep a form of this custom by hyphenating the English “G-d.”

When computers first came into widespread use, there was a question as to whether or not this prohibition of writing and erasing included typing on a computer screen. The general consensus was that since there is no intention for words typed on a computer screen to be permanently fixed in place (as the pixels are constantly shifting and changing) there was no issue.

As a software engineer who builds interfaces for learning Torah that I hope have a lasting impact, this admittedly never sat well with me.

Computer Science has a concept called “Regular expressions” which describe patterns used to match character combinations in strings. These are helpful when you want to find phone numbers, email addresses, etc in a large block of text. The one below finds all of the potential forms of אלהים Elohim with or without vowels or trope marks and with all the alternate endings.

elokaiRegEx  = /([\s.,\u05BE;:'”\-]|^)([ו]?[\u0591-\u05C7]*[משהוכלב]?[\u0591-\u05C7]*)(א[\u0591-\u05AF\u05B1\u05B5\u05B6\u05BC-\u05C7]*ל[\u0591-\u05C7]*ו?[\u0591-\u05C7]*)([הק])([\u0591-\u05C7]*)((י[\u0591-\u05C2\u05C4-\u05C7]*)?[ךיוהםן][\u0591-\u05C2\u05C4-\u05C7]*|(י[\u0591-\u05C7]*)?נ[\u0591-\u05C7]*ו[\u0591-\u05C7]*|(י[\u0591-\u05C7]*)?כ[[\u0591-\u05C2\u05C4-\u05C7]*[םן])(?=[\s<\[\(.,;׃:'”\-]|$)/g;

If only it was that easy to find G-d in a world that is constantly shifting and changing.

Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist, and activist who builds critically acclaimed educational apps and experiences used by thousands of people each day. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Atlantic, CNN, Teen Vogue, the Jewish Telegraph Agency, and other media outlets. Russel is a Software Engineer at Sefaria

Day 45: AWE, Sharon Weissman

V’yiru  וְיִֽירְא֥וּ     AWE

Attuning ourselves to Wondrous Enlightenment

The flowering of the red bud

The flowing of these days

A visit from a small child and

 her mother

 

Terror giving way to acceptance

Questions giving up to sunshine

The earth’s warmth

Clouds floating above

 

Nature’s bounty

Allow my soul to open to

hidden feelings of joy

 

Counting the days on this journey

My gratitude deepens for

    The blessings of this life       

 

Sadness, anger and despair

Have diminished

Allowing more room for loving

          Learning

                Listening

                    longing

 

Awe and amazement

Flood my being

As I walk toward the future

Awaiting my Life Lessons

 

From my

Beloved Teacher.

Sharon Weissman is a retired chaplin and social worker. She is a member of two choirs: Kolot, the St. Louis Jewish Women’s Choir, and Pathways Hospice’s Comfort Singers, who sing at the bedside of those who are terminally ill. She is a volunteer Shabbat service leader at Covenant House, and co-facilitates Wise Aging groups at Shaare Emeth. 

Day 46: OTO, Dr. Nancy E. Berg

Sun May 24/Mon May 25
Oto   אותו

The Hebrew word אותו/oto means it or him, but it also means the same or that as in the same day, that one. 

It is spelled with the first letter in the alphabet (alef) and the last (tav) and twice vav, the letter that alternately sounds like the vowel O or means “and” joining two words – names, ideas, actions, descriptors – together.

The word אותו suggests a paradox of sorts, as it is a word used both to express similarity (the same day) and difference (that one, and not another one). The word אותו contains a significant aspect of the season in which we count the omer: the play of similarity and difference.

The counting of the omer expresses sameness – each night we recite the same formula – and difference – each night is assigned a different number, one more than the night before. This dance between similarity and distinction begins with Passover, the holiday where we famously ask “why is this night different?” even as we recite the same prayers in the same way in the same order as in previous years.

We count the omer the same way for each of the days, making a distinction without a difference. 

This year, of course, is different from any other. This year our days bear more likeness one to the other than we are used to, even as the time in which we live is more different from any other that we have lived or imagined. A sameness that flattens the difference, a difference without distinction. 

The sameness of each of our days of the omer, of each of our days in quarantine or self-isolation, in lockdown or safer-at-home, is what makes this time more distinct.

And so we count. We count to keep a record of same and of different, of that one and of another one.

And just as the counting of the omer brings us surely and steadily toward Shavuot, toward the giving of the Torah/toward our celebration of the Torah, of that which defines us and makes us different from others, so too our days in quarantine, in lock down, in shelter-at-home or safer-at-home will lead us out of the desert.

Dr. Nancy E. Berg is professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Washington University. She recently coedited What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew (and what it means to Americans) with Naomi Sokoloff, which won a 2019 National Jewish Book Award. 

Day 47: ALL, Dr. Harold Braswell

Kol כָּל

ALL

I was very struck by the use of the word “all” in this psalm. It’s a word that, I’ve learned to think, is, well, “problematic,” both in general and, particularly, with regard to Jewish identity. 

With regard to the general context, the use of the word “all” is viewed with suspicion because of the fear that it would exclude or undermine the particularity of the different groups to whom it putatively refers. Think: “All lives matter” being criticized (justly, in my view) for its neglect of the specific ways in which racism devalues the lives of African Americans.  

One could have similar concerns with regard to the obfuscation of the Jewish context. But there seems to me to be at least another wrinkle—and probably many more. The status of Jews as members of a tribe would seem to pit us, in a matter both essential and chosen, against being incorporated into everyone. This has been the longstanding fear of assimilation, and suspicion—to varying degrees historically justified—of universalizing projects such as Christianity, the Enlightenment, Communism, and (one hears increasingly nowadays) even liberalism. This resistance to universalism would seem to be further ballasted by the Jewish status of chosenness, which elevates particularism to a matter of divine selection. 

I’m not sure what I think of any of this. But, in thinking about it—as I sometimes do—I was struck by the simplicity and beauty of this psalm’s call: all nations recognize God, all nations praise. It is a word that seems to come from another time. And in a way it does. But that makes it more powerful, and perhaps relevant, today.

Dr. Harold Braswell is Assistant Professor of health care ethics at Saint Louis University, and the author of The Crisis of US Hospice Care: Family and Freedom at the End of Life  (Johns Hopkins University Press.)

 

Day 48: ENDS, Dr. Jesse Kavadlo

Tue May 26/Wed May 27
Afsei – אַפְסֵי      ENDS

It seems fitting that the final clause of the passage should refer to the end. There’s no better way to signal the end of a story than by announcing it, which is why so many classic movies end with “THE END.” And yet, this end is part of a phrase, “the ends of the earth,” a figure of speech that, ironically, suggests the end of ends, a lack of limits—everywhere, everyone stands in awe—rather than any literal end. After all, the Earth is a sphere, with no end, and no beginning. Any attempt to reach the end will only send you, eventually, back to where you began. Time has the same problem. We can talk about the end of the day, and the end of the year, but these ends are equally figurative, as much a linguistic construction as the ends of the earth. We need these ends to make sense of our space and our time. Otherwise, we’re caught in the same endless, relentless middle—surely something that, in our current COVID sheltering in place, we’re learning too well. And yet, this too will, must, eventually end, at least so that we can go back to the beginning. Next year around this time, we can read this portion, and tell this story, once again.  

Dr. Jesse Kavadlo is a Professor of English at Maryville University.

 

Day 49: LAND, Rabbi Tracy Nathan

Wed May 27/Thu May 28
אָֽרֶץ   Eretz       LAND

The philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset is quoted as saying: “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” 

Although the land of Israel is intimately connected to our Jewish spiritual lives, I would suggest that it is the midbar, the wilderness, that tells the Jewish people who they are.  

We have been counting the days of our journey of return to the moment of revelation at Sinai, which we celebrate on Shavuot. What is the significance of the landscape in which the Torah was given? 

We are told that God purposefully led the Israelites into the wilderness after their liberation from Egypt.  A midrash teaches that God thought, “If I lead them on the short route, each person will take hold of his field and vineyard and will neglect Torah. Instead I will lead them through the wilderness, and they will eat the manna and drink the water of the well, and Torah will settle into their bodies.” (Mechilta Beshalach 1) 

The wilderness is hefker, ownerless. The Israelites had forty years to define themselves through all things other than possessions. They were taught about the dangers of acquisitiveness, for they were given enough manna for one day, and anything they hoarded would rot. Torah would have a chance to settle into their bodies, and they would learn to be a people who carried a message of gratitude, humility, and faithfulness, whether they were settled in or uprooted from their land. 

Another midrash teaches that we ourselves are to become hefker in order to receive Torah: 

“Those who do not make themselves like an ownerless wilderness are unable to acquire wisdom or Torah.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) 

To hear the divine voice and acquire wisdom, we need to listen with openness and humility; we need to throw our minds open, letting go of entrenched ideas and beliefs, however attached we are to them. 

As we journey through this liminal time and discern how to live under the threat of a coronavirus, may we also make ourselves like a hefker midbar, an ownerless wilderness, listening for the voice that will guide us in how to live in the promised land so that everyone might receive its blessings. 

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is Senior Educator and Director of Melton-St. Louis at the Center for Jewish Learning of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. She received her rabbinic ordination through the Jewish Theological Seminary and studied Folklore and Folklife and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a Master of Arts degree.