יום שבת, נובמבר 11, 2006

 

Twice in as many weeks and two memories

I could really get used to this. For the second time in as many weeks, I had the pleasure of being called up to the bimah with a group of congregants to receive the priestly benediction. Last Friday night it was to bless those with birthdays or anniversaries coming up in November, but because we October folks got preempted by the High Holidays, we got to be included, too. Then this past Friday night it was part of the welcome of new members to the synagogue. I was impressed by how many new members there are! (I don't really feel like my wife and I are "new" members anymore, given that we have been attending now for almost ten months. One member of the congregation even commented, with an ironic tone, as I walked back to my seat: "You aren't a new member." The entire experience was very welcoming, and I will gladly accept the priestly benediction any time!)

There are not many things from my former days as a (Trying-to-be-) Lutheran that I remember very fondly, but now that I am a (Working-on-becoming-) Jew, two things in particular have connected me to those earlier days. One is the priestly benediction. Back in those days, so many years ago, when I would attend Lutheran services with my mother, I always enjoyed any occasion in which I would get to hear the pastor give someone the benediction. (I like it even better in Hebrew, especially with our cantor's stirring voice!)

The other item from those Lutheran services so long ago that I loved, and that stayed with me even through my years wandering in the spiritual wilderness as a (maybe-but-never-fully-) atheist, was Psalm 23—in particular the line in the middle of the second verse:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;



but also the famous opening line:


The Lord is my shepherd...



I am not even sure now, so many years later, what captivated me about this psalm; it is very powerful, but why this and not any other specific passage that I might have heard at various times in my childhood? I do not know. But the most recent experience I had with this psalm was its inclusion in the yizkor service that concluded Sukkot on Shemini Azeret. In the warm and welcoming company of our typically small and intimate (non Bar/Bat-Mitzvah) Saturday morning group of regulars, reciting this passage in memory of those close to us who are no longer on this earth, the impact was intense. I know it was not only the words of the psalm, nor was it only the memory of my mother; it was the two together, because many years ago, when I tried (and failed) to accept my mother's religion, I used to recite this psalm with her. She was very much with me on Shemini Azeret. I sure hope she approves of my becoming a Jew. I am pretty sure she does.


**
Above, I quoted the line, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil," which is how I remember it. That's the King James version. However, it is interesting to see the many variations in the translation.

In particular, the new New JPS translation reads:

Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm...


Is that more true to the Hebrew? I must admit, I always felt moved by the imagery of the "valley of the shadow of death." I suppose the New JPS version calls our attention to situations well short of death when things seem hopeless. Compare the Contemporary English Version:

I may walk through valleys
as dark as death,
but I won't be afraid.


In any of these versions, it is a stirring passage, always has been for me, but was especially so on Shemini Azeret.

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