The Slonimer rebbe, R Shalom Noach Barzovsky, writes about Psalm 27, the psalm we recite from a month before Rosh Hashanah until the end of Sukkot. It is familiar to many people from the section that is often sung, that starts “achat sha’alti me’eit Adonai…”—“one thing I ask from Hashem, that I seek-that I may dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life, to see loveliness of Adonai and to visit His Temple.…”
The sages asked why we are to recite this psalm in particular during this time of year. The siddur of Rabbi Shabtai, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, taught that it is because Psalm 27 mentions the name of G-d the yod heh vav heh, 13 times, corresponding to the 13 qualities of compassion that are shining at this time. So, Psalm 27 can be seen as a pathway for the flow of compassion.
How does this work? The Slonimer teaches that the words are our guide in this process. Psalm 27:1-3 read: “Adonai is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? Adonai is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened?When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me-they stumbled and fell. If a camp encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; if a war should rise up against me, in this I trust.” The Slonimer teaches that certainly there are times that our adversaries are (at least figuratively) rising up to eat our flesh. And in those situations, there certainly is plenty to fear. But, verse 1 asks—“Adonai is the stronghold of my life, from whom shall I be frightened?” No matter what is going on, we can draw on the power of trust, in hebrew, bitachon. Even when prayer and crying out for help don’t work, the Slonimer tells us, it always helps to have trust in G-d, to lean on the Holy One.
The Slonimer tells a story from the Midrash on Psalms to explain this concept—Once there was a traveller who found himself at the king’s city, and spent the night outside. The king’s guards found him, and began to strike him. He said to them “Don’t hit me, because I am a child of the king’s household. When the guards heard this, they stopped beating him, and guarded him til morning, at which time they brought him before the king. The king said to him, “My son, do you recognize me?” The traveler said “No”. The king said “If not, then how is it that you are a child of my household?” The traveler answered “In supplication to you. I am not a child of your house, and I have never seen you before, but I trusted in you, that if I said I am one of the children of your household, you would certainly have compassion on me.” The king said “Since he trusted in me, release him”. The Slonimer teaches that when we have trust like this, and lean on Hashem, that in itself turns judgment/din to compassion/rachamim. When Hashem is our stronghold, there really is nothing to fear.
This is a very deep teaching. The Slonimer is telling us that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, it draws out compassion in Hashem, and, I would say, compassion in others. When I read this story, it reminded me of something that happened years ago. I was working at a crisis center in a not very safe area of Boston. My coworker, Gary, was a small Jewish guy with glasses. One evening, he went out to get everyone donuts, and on his way back, a mugger started coming at him. Gary ran, tripped on the curb, and fell down. Donuts rolled all over the street. The mugger ran up, and…started picking up the donuts and putting them back in the bag for Gary. He said to Gary: “You have enough trouble.” It was clear to Gary that the would-be mugger was really touched by his total vulnerability. He could have done anything to him in that moment, and what he chose, was to help him.
We may not all be this lucky in our interactions with other humans, or animals. But in G-d’s eyes, we are all little klutzes tripping on the curb and spilling our donuts everywhere. When we openly express our awareness that we are not in control of our lives, somehow compassion is aroused.
But that is not the end of the story. The Slonimer teaches that even though trust in G-d is always good advice, it is also among the hardest things to attain. We all know that we can’t count on getting what we ask for. We all suffer, we all lose loved ones; we all die. As the High Holiday mussaf prayers expresses our situation:
“The foundation of humanity is from dust, and its end is in dust. At the risk of our lives we earn our bread. We are like broken pottery, like grass that withers, like a flower fading, like a passing shadow, like a cloud that vanishes, like a wind that blows, like dust that floats, like a dream that flies away.”
We certainly can’t trust that Hashem will do what we want, or prevent difficulties. So then what does it mean to trust in G-d?
Trust usually implies that the one we trust cares about us. I do believe G-d cares about each and all of us, but this means something different when we have an expanded sense of what the self is that is cared for.
Several years ago, I wrote to my friend Nancy, whose brother had died the year before, and who at the time had metastatic breast cancer (she died a few years later). I asked her what she thought about divine providence. She wrote:
It was really my brother’s illness and death that started working on my
perception of the divine. I got it really early on that what was happening wasn’t an emergency. It was just life. We live and we die. That’s how it goes. Different for all of us, but the same. Especially the same in the suffering. I remember going for a walk one day not long after he died. I was feeling really sad and alone and I walked down to the cliffs where there were scores of people walking. As i entered the fray, I realized that everyone there had or would feel what I was feeling. I felt more a part of the big blob of living and suffering and loving and losing and ebbing and flowing and dying than I’d ever felt. It felt like a gift. Not my brother’s dying. I could have done without that. But I really got it that part of what makes love so sweet is the knowledge, whether we acknowledge it or not, that we will lose everything we love. That’s what the songs are all about, no?
My experience of “god” is that it is what binds everything together, the sticky web, the inseperableness of everything. If I’m connected to everything, then I have everything I need. I lack for nothing. Even in sickness. Maybe even especially in sickness, as the boundaries that my mind creates to make things look and feel separate are more permeable. I don’t experience my illness as something personal. I don’t feel like “why me?” It’s more like “what? me?”
What I learned from her is that trust in G-d makes sense when we see ourselves as part of the ebb and flow of life. As Nancy wrote, “If I’m connected to everything, then I have everything I need.” And, so strikingly— “I don’t feel like “why me?” It’s more like “what? me?””
What me? Indeed.
What Nancy experienced in loss and illness is very much like what the Slonimer writes next about Psalm 27. He says that in order to attain bitachon—trust—we need to fulfill the words of another psalm, very close in the book of Psalms to #27. In Psalm 25, it says “To You, Adonai, I lift up my soul”. That is, says the Slonimer, in order to attain trust, we need to nullify ourselves completely, turn ourselves over to Hashem. To nullify the self—that does not mean to destroy ourselves. My teacher Reb Zalman calls bittul hayesh, what usually gets translated as self nullification, as becoming transparent. We need to become transparent to the Source. The Slonimer cites Rabbi Levi Itzchak of Berdichev, the Kedushat Levi, who taught that Yom Kippur does not atone except for one who has nullified themselves completely to Hashem, as nothing and complete zero. This is the foundation of the power of trust. Trust flows from depending completely on Hashem, attaching ourselves completely, feeling, as Nancy wrote, part of the “big blob of living and suffering and loving and losing and ebbing and flowing and dying”. Reaching the awareness of not “why me but what me”.
Psalm 27 continues:
“One [thing] I ask of Adonai, that I seek-that I may dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life, to see the loveliness of Adonai and to visit His palace. He will hide me in His sukkah on the day of calamity; He will conceal me in the secret mystery of His tent…”
The Slonimer comments, we ask to dwell in G-d’s house—that is, we ask that our house be G-d’s house, that we should make a dwelling place of the sacred here with us. And, we ask to be sheltered in a sukkah, graced by the shade of the divine hand, under the wings of the Shechinah, the divine presence. In that place there is nothing to fear, we are at one with G-d.
The imagery here, of hiding in a secret covered place, evokes the process of self-nullification, of becoming transparent. In the dark shelter of divine presence, the boundaries that seem so clear to us in the light become blurred. In the dark, it is easier to understand and experience that all is one; that boundaries are not fixed, that we are truly part of something much bigger than we usually imagine. And that, says Psalm 27, is the safest, most trustworthy place we can be.
This is part of why we recite Psalm 27 during sukkot. Our own sukkah becomes the secret mystery of the divine tent. We dwell in it, and are graced with the awareness of being part of the flow of life.
And this is why the focus of Yom Kippur, in the Torah reading and the mussaf service is on entering the Holy of Holies. We study it in the Torah service, and then in mussaf we enact the process. Aaron makes a cloud of incense—a cloud of unknowing, of indeterminacy, in the deep darkness of the enclosure of the holy of holies. This is the only place where the mystery of the Name that means Is-Was-Will Be can be pronounced. And the sound of the name of all that is, pouring out from the cloud of incense, caused us to fall to the ground, to prostrate ourselves fully, and feel our boundaries melt into the earth. Prostration is one of the easiest ways to to feel ourselves leaning on the source of life, to feel transparent to all that is.
And, as R. Alan Lew, wrote, at the center of the holy of holies “is precisely nothing—a vacated space, a charged emptiness, mirroring the charged emptiness that surrounds this world, that comes before this life and after it as well.” And, I would add, there is a charged emptiness, a nothingness, that is within us as well. As the Kedushat Levi puts it, in order to receive atonement “one must cleave to the quality of nothingness.”
On Yom Kippur, we fast, we wear white, which is really not even a color, we become transparent, we become empty. And this opens a space within us, it makes us a vessel for the flow of life, for the flow of compassion.
Years ago, my kabbalah teacher Robert Haralick, who is also an electrical engineer, taught me that a tube, or a pipe, if it is very wide at the inlet and narrow at the outlet, will burst. That is, we cannot receive more than we give—we cannot hold it all. Yet, if the pipe is narrow at the inlet and wide at the outlet, giving more than it receives, it will become depleted. But if the pipe is equally open at both ends, it can get wider and wider and more and more energy can flow through it. Once we have made ourselves empty, we can open ourselves wide, and let compassion flow through into the world.
And this takes us back to the concept of trust, in Hebrew bitachon. The root of the word is bet tet chet.
The word b’tach shares the same root. It means a “hollow column-like receptacle of rain water ” . So bitachon, trust, comes when we are a b’tach, an empty vessel, ready to receive and pour forth the rain of blessings, the flow of life that we are always a part of. When we let ourselves be empty, when we become transparent, when we become aware that we are part of the ebb and flow of all that is, we can lose our fear, and know that we are sheltered in the divine mystery. And from that place, we can open to receive and give compassion.
 Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature
by Marcus Jastrow