One thing I ask of the Lord; I will seek it:
To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
It is the season of t’shuva, commonly translated as repentance but really meaning “returning.” Starting on the first of Elul—the Hebrew month before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year—we hear a daily wakeup blast from the shofar, and we recite Psalm 27, including the lines above. And I ask myself: what does it mean to live in God’s house? Not in some hoped-for afterlife, but here and now, all the days of my life?
A few weeks ago, commenting on a different psalm, I wrote that for me, dwelling in God’s house “would mean being fully present in the world and in my life—inhabiting myself fully. You could call that mindfulness. You could call it being myself, truly myself, the person I am meant to be.”
In this season of t’shuva, I seem to be surrounded by other people’s thoughts on the subject, which interweave with my own.
Twenty-five years after she wrote it, I caught up with Rabbi Margaret Wenig’s sermon depicting God as an old woman—our mother or grandmother—waiting for us to come and visit. Waiting for us to return home to the house where we were born. “Do not be afraid,” God tells us. “I will be with you. … I gave birth to you, I carried you. I will hold you still. Grow old along with me.”
Then I read separate messages from Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman and Rabbi Yael Levy, pointing out that the Hebrew word Elul forms an acronym for ani l’dodi v’dodi li: “I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me.” Those words of love from the Song of Songs teach us that this month of soul-searching is not a time for harsh self-judgment, but for “radical self-compassion,” Zimmerman writes: “imagine that in that House of Wholeness, we are totally accepted and loved and taken in.” Even as we strive to do better and be better, she says, “the Holy One accepts us back with love—just as we are, despite our imperfection.”
Self-compassion, self-acceptance, coming to terms with my own imperfection (and other people’s as well)—these are my themes for Elul. They have been my themes for 5775, the Jewish year that we are closing out. They will continue to be my themes for 5776.
The Hebrew word translated as “dwell” can also mean “sit.” And indeed, one of my lessons on this midlife journey is the importance of sitting: learning how to be without needing to do. Sitting in God’s house can mean sitting, humbly but compassionately, with my whole self, imperfections and all. By extension, I can strive to welcome other people into my life as they are, imperfections and all.
At the same time, this act of dwelling is a journey, not a destination. My yearning is not for a static location but for a path. Horeini Adonai darkekha, Psalm 27 says: “teach me your way, Lord.”
The path of return can be easy to identify, but so hard to travel. Sometimes it’s fear that holds me back: fear of failure, fear of being hurt. Sometimes it’s a feeling that I don’t deserve the things that will help me feel like myself—listening to music, reading a novel, taking a walk in the woods—at least not until after I’ve done enough for other people.
But I’m coming to see that when I truly return to myself, that is also when I can connect with others. That is when I travel God’s path and dwell in God’s house. That is when I feel at home.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.