From the beginning of Elul through the last day of Sukkot we end morning and evening services with Psalm 27.
I want to take a look this morning at verse 4 of that Psalm:
דאַחַ֚ת | שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהֹוָה֘ אוֹתָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵֽית־יְ֖הֹוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַֽחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֜הֹוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֽוֹ:
“One thing I ask of Adonai -- for this I yearn:
To dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life --
To behold God’s beauty, to pray in God’s sanctuary.”
This is the way the Psalm is translated in our daily Siddur and as many of you have heard me say on more than one occasion, translation is an art and not a science. If you look at the last two words of the line in Hebrew, it says “u’l’vaker b’heichalo” which if we were trying to translate with word-for-word accuracy actually means “to visit in His (God’s) sanctuary.”
At morning minyan at Adas Israel in DC around thirty years ago, I heard Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg give a brief drasha on this line. He was the first person to point out to me the literal translation of the last two words as “to visit in God’s sanctuary” and pointed to a seeming internal contradiction in the verse. We are asking to dwell in God’s house all the days of our life but then we are asking to “visit” there. “Which do you want? Do you want to live there or do you want to be a visitor?”
The key to understanding the verse is that while our observances should be regular and constant we should approach them spiritually as if they are new every day. If our observances are merely rote or on autopilot then we are not doing the spiritual work necessary as we approach the High Holy Days.
Rabbi Wohlberg subsequently was elected president of the Rabbinical Assembly and, as you may recall, spoke at my installation as rabbi of Kehilat Shalom. His brief drash on this verse in many ways symbolizes the goal of Conservative Judaism. Our unofficial motto is “Tradition and Change” which, if you think about it, are as much opposites as living somewhere and visiting there. Our goal should be to perpetuate the living core of our tradition while keeping it fresh and relevant. This task is made more difficult the last year and a half by the need to transmit traditional ideals and practices by means of novel technologies. It is a challenge but one, I think, which is worthwhile.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at email@example.com or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian