Though my father and my mother forsake me,
The Lord will gather me in.
These plaintive lines help usher in Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year. As we prepare for the new year through reflection and self-examination, we recite Psalm 27 daily. It’s a masterpiece of hope and yearning and soul-rattling fear, bravely masquerading as faith.
Five years ago, Elul arrived just two weeks after my father’s sudden death. Those lines evoked my pain, my feeling of abandonment.
In the past couple of years the bereftitude receded, and I could focus on other parts of the psalm. But I knew that eventually, my mother would also have to leave the land of the living.
That time came this summer.
It was not so very long ago — just nine years — that we gathered to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. On that day, I quoted one of my other favorite verses from Psalms: Zeh ha-yom asah Adonai; nagila v’nismicha vo. “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.” In the synagogue, we recite these lines only on holidays, as part of a special, festive addition to the liturgy. But I love this verse because it suits any day I call it to mind. This is the day. This one, right here.
Elul is not traditionally a time of rejoicing. It’s a time for introspection. We search out the ways in which we have strayed from our intended path, and we return to it — a path of love and compassion, a path of awareness, of paying attention and aligning ourselves with what we need and what the world needs.
Still, there is joy in this practice, as well as heartache.
I began this post last week, after a months-long drought in my blogging. Amid my mother’s illness and death, amid my own chronic illness, I have fallen behind on everything. I’m trying to catch up without pushing too hard. Trying to focus my infection-addled brain and nerves while still taking care of myself. Trying to live the Mary Oliver words that inspired me to create this blog: “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Loving what I love means spending time with Oliver’s poetry. It means spending time with the words of another of my virtual teachers, Rabbi Yael Levy, who writes of Elul:
By examining ourselves with honesty, compassion and love, we are able to see more clearly how we have fallen short and how we can make amends, repair relationships and return to what we most value and cherish.
We engage in this practice so we can feel present and able to participate in the fullness of life.
In other words, so we can love what we love — even when it breaks our hearts.
I started off today feeling physically sick: backache, neck ache, headache. As I dwelt upon the words of Psalm 27, I also felt my heart ache with the grief of my father and my mother leaving me. And yet, at the same time, I felt the urge to return to writing this post.
Why? Because prayer is another way that I let myself love what I love. So is writing. In Rabbi Levy’s words, these practices help me “feel present and able to participate in the fullness of life.”
Teach me your ways, Lord, and guide me on the path of integrity. …
If only I had the faith to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of life.