Torah/Life Writings

Rabbi Shifrah Tobacman and Rabbi Chaya Gusfield have been studying sacred texts from Torah, Psalms, liturgy or whatever strikes our fancy, and creating writings inspired by our explorations. This has been a life-enhancing project for us, so we have called it Torah/Life Writings.

Rabbi Shifrah’s writings can be found below.
Rabbi Chaya’s writings can be found at
https://chayasgarden.wordpress.com/category/torahlife-writings/

For Ibrahim
Like many of us who have been befriended by Ibrahim Baba, I have been pulled to thinking of and praying for him as he and his family deal with a major health crisis. This interpretation of the first stanza of Psalm 119 came to me as a gift for him.

Thinking of Ibrahim Baba
Psalm 119:1-8, the stanza for the letter “א”

1. All whose ways are good to others are happy. They walk the talk of Holiness.

2. All those who witness Holiness, who seek it with all their hearts, they are happy, too.

3. Aromatic is the scent they follow, the scent of Divine goodness.

4. Attending to Your ways is what You ask of us.

5. Assiduously following what You have laid out for us – how I wish to be that able.

6. After all, there is much to do. I get discouraged, disheartened, tired.

7. Always, in all ways, it is the full intention of my heart – to learn more, to love justice more, to love You more, to love.

8. Activate my heart. Activate my breath. Activate my very being. Hold my life dear.

–Shifrah Tobacman, 2016

PSALM 119
Over the last several weeks, I have found Psalm 119 to be very engaging. Some poetry has come to me in the process, and the first example is below. It seems worth explaining a little about how I got to this being a poem about different types of love though, because if you look at Psalm 119, it may not be obvious how the poem relates to the psalm. So for those of you anxious to get to the poetry, here it is. A more in depth explanation follows.

ALONG THE WAY
A spiritual trek inspired by Psalm 119:161-168

I keep an eye on Your rules and decrees, the psalmist said,
for all my paths are laid out before of You.

I don’t understand.

In the end You seem to be saying
it comes down to love.

Love as connection,
interconnection,
compassion.

Love as friendship, intimacy,
desire for goodness.

Love as wholeness and peace,
as passion for Life.

Love as learning.

Love found in stone,
in impenetrable but necessary boundaries,
in deep un-knowable places.

Love disguised as hatred
or masquerading as fear.

Love as blue-green water reflecting onto sandy beaches,
as jagged mountains poking up on the horizon,
as tall thick forests gleaming up toward the sky
reaching for the sunlight, finding it, or not,
reaching for water, finding it, or not,
reaching, reaching, reaching.

What do I find at the far edges of my own fingertips,
the far reaches of my mind’s eye?

You. Your promise streaming towards me.
Your love. Your peace.

I understand the psalmist now.

–Shifrah Tobacman, 2016

Psalm 119 focuses on the support, grace, love and sustaining quality found in learning and following torotekha (תורתך), “Your torah.” The word “torah” can refer to a specific teaching, or to all the sacred scriptures we know today as “Torah”, or to all the teaching found in the sacred writings. However we choose to think of it, it was clearly important to the author of Psalm 119. The word torotekha appears 25 times in this psalm. For me, the psalm is a reminder to love the unfolding of life and the teachings that come from it, wherever they may be found, and however difficult it may seem.

The psalm is structured as an acrostic in which every stanza is comprised of eight verses, and each verse of a single stanza begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So the first stanza has eight verses beginning with the letter א, the second stanza has eight verses beginning with the letter ב, etc. There are traditions related to healing in which a person recites the stanza associated with the first letter of their name. I love that there is a custom in Jewish tradition of using the poetic language of the Psalms in this way, to help us through difficult times.

The first letter of my name is ש. The psalm says, “Princes (שרים) have pursued me in vain.” For me, this speaks both to the external and internal forces that I may fear, but when I think about it, or when I ask for help, I have the skills and the knowledge to deal with these. It also speaks to our collective ability to challenge unjust power structures. I especially feel this way when I approach life’s challenges from a place of love and joy, and/or with a determination to continue learning. The stanza ends with the phrase, “for all my paths are before You.” (Ki khol darchai negdekha.) This made me wonder what it means to continue on one’s path, even against the odds. For the psalmist, it was about following the rules and precepts found in Torah. For me, as someone who tends to bristle at strict rules, or even the implication of them, I also bristled at that aspect of the psalm. Still, I love Torah, and learning. I recognize and deeply respect how following spiritual guidance can buoy us up and sustain us, even when it seems against our nature. I honor the deep devotion that, for the psalmist, follows from his loving adherence to the essential truths of Torah.

Honoring Leadership

The most recent text Rabbi Chaya and I studied for our joint project is Psalm 20. On the surface, it seems to celebrate military victory by honoring a military leader. I don’t generally like the militaristic aspect of some psalms, seeing as how I tend to be anti-militaristic overall. But sometimes these texts just reach out and grab me. In this case, when I started to do my own translation of the Hebrew, I saw in it a celebration of wise leadership and perseverance, even against the odds, and of having faith in the process. It made me think of my wife Ruth, who has served for many years as an elected official in the small city where we live. It takes a lot of gumption, tenacity and integrity, and she has all of these. The role of mayor rotates among the City Council members once a year, and she has just finished her term as mayor. It’s been an eventful year, and I found myself wanting to honor her leadership, much like David did for a different kind of leader so many centuries ago. The “psalm” I wrote is below, along with my translation of Psalm 20.

Psalm 20 – An Interpretive Translation

For the One Who Overcomes Adversity and Helps Others Do the Same:
A Song of David

May the Source of Life (YHVH) answer
on days when you are troubled.

May the Name of the Holy One that protected your ancestors
also protect you, have your back, send aid from a holy place.
May it sustain you.

May what you have sacrificed along the way
be accepted as a gift – a gift from you and for you,
given without expectation on your part of it being returned.
May you pause to notice.

May the Source of Life offer the blessings
for which your heart longs.
May all the wisdom you share with others be acted upon,
so that the longings of their hearts are fulfilled as well.

We will celebrate your success gleefully,
adorned with holy delight.
May the answers to your prayers give us reason to rejoice.

It is clear to me now, the delivery of your message will be protected from the Holiness of Life’s unknown realms,
the messengers saved from harm by Its impossible tenacity.

Some will say it’s other things that save us – our
ingenious technology or a nimble escape plan;
but we will remember – it’s none other
than the Source of Life that makes our lives possible,
again and again.

Driven by unchecked ego,
they will ultimately stumble,
be cut down to size.
We will stand up, and be restored.

May the Source of Life raise us up, carry us, keep us from harm.
May we be skillfully guided on the day we call.

For Ruth on the Occasion of Her Last Day as Mayor:
A song from Shifrah, inspired by Psalm 20

It’s troubled you at times, and annoyed, and irritated.
I suppose it’s the nature of this endeavor.

Still there are times it full-fills you,
swells you with satisfaction,
and it’s delightful to behold
how you’ve led our small city
with quiet even-tempered tenacity.

You’ve extolled the virtues of community,
and forged the way to create places and spaces
where young and old can live and learn
and play together – parks and housing,
re-designed schools, a multi-generational center
of community life.

You’ve long believed in social justice,
that stable work and good wages
beat waging war or seeding animosity,
so you led the way for a higher minimum wage,
rallying the power of your office
in measured negotiation, to change municipal law,
then brought the power of your activist voice
to a regional rally and national effort –
the Fight for Fifteen.

You’ve allowed your intelligent mind
and emotional intelligence
to keep one another in check, again and again,
holding the gavel with a firm hand,
while keeping the other hand open.

Your friends and family are proud, I am proud,
knowing your unique legacy is, in some small way,
mine as well, all of ours, and yet
only you could have made it.

Celebrate! Take it in!

If not now, when?

–Rabbi Shifrah Tobacman, 2015

WRESTLINGS WITHIN
Poems based on Gen. 25:22-34, Rivkah gives birth to Esau and Jacob

NARRATIVE 1: FIRST PERSON PRESENT TO ANCIENT SECOND

I am like all of you.

Esau, your name from assah, to do,
are the part of me that likes to get things going,
to serve, to teach, to write,
to complete a task, or attain a goal.
You are the clean competitive edge I dislike in myself,
that I shun and try to hide, preferring the softer edges
of cooperation, shared accomplishment,
discernible but still malleable borders.

And Jacob, the dreamer
who got your name by holding onto the akeiv, the heel,
of your twin, finding your way out of the birth canal
only to be accused of purposeful deceit,
which to some extent you grew into – expectations
being hard to avoid. You offered your hungry brother soup
in exchange for his birthright, then later
allowed your mother to uphold the bargain
when she sent you to your father’s deathbed
for blessing instead of your brother. I am like you
when I exploit another’s weakness,
or allow myself to be exploited
for the sake of a treasured vision.

And Rivkah, your name like rabak, to tie fast,
you who held the twins together in the womb
and cut the cord at birth, then bound them to continue
the wrestling that had started in your belly.
I am like you, birthing the doer and the dreamer
within, again and again, refining each time,
hoping, no, longing, to birth a new self
fully formed, fully loving, fully human,
mistakes and all.

I am you, Rivkah,
you, and your twins.

 

NARRATIVE 2: FIRST PERSON PLURAL, PRESENT

This is how the story goes
for so many of us
so much of the time.

Love is natural,
and hard to learn well.

Esau learned certainty first,
and the discipline of the hunt,
eagerness, enthusiasm,
bursts of flavor popping
in his mouth when he ate.
Jacob learned pondering,
slow cooking, low heat, high reward.
Twin sides of their parents’ longings,
they couldn’t bear each other when young.

Love came later

after Jacob had set his head on a stone pillow
and his daydreams matured into visions
of a timeless ladder bearing many generations
of angels, with much needed messages
for those in his time, our time, any time.

Love came later

after Esau accumulated wealth,
won and lost and won, forever fighting
to be first again, then found his brother
had been missing, as if his heart was perpetually
skipping a beat, and he had only just noticed.

Love came later

when they embraced
in the rocky field
then continued on their journeys
inextricably entwined.

–Rabbi Shifrah Tobacman, 2015
Rabbi Chaya Gusfield’s writing on this topic can be found at
https://chayasgarden.wordpress.com/category/torahlife-writings/

 

Dusky Futures
A poem inspired by Genesis 24:57-67
Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening. He looked up, and saw the camels approaching. Rebekah looked, saw Isaac, and fell from the camel. ‘Who is that coming toward us?’ she asked.

Look up toward the setting sun
like Isaac, and expect the unexpected
coming toward you on the horizon,
soft-vivid evening unmistakably coloring
your grief-filled sight.

Look down from the height
of your precarious ride
like Rebekah,
as you sit there surrounded
by friends and guides
yet still alone on your journey,
and find your head swimming
with awe at the approaching form
of someone, or something,
you think you might love
to know, but can’t possibly fathom
this as truth, not yet knowing
exactly what is dazzling its way
through the dusky sky

so find yourself leaning,
squinting, trying to see,
then falling, into a shared future
for better and worse. Tomorrow
it’s a new day.

–Rabbi Shifrah Tobacman, 2015
Rabbi Chaya Gusfield’s writing on this topic can be found at
https://chayasgarden.wordpress.com/category/torahlife-writings/

 

Sevens
A poem inspired by Rashi’s commentary on Kohelet/Ecclesiastes (1:2)
Utter futility! – said Koheleth – Utter futility! All is futile! (JPS translation)

Seven havelim, the commentator said,
seven instances of vapor-like essence.

Seven days – six for labor, one for rest,
seven years, six for planting, one for reprieve,
six for debt, one for relief.

Breathe.

Seven qualities of the Divine
grace our counting of the days
from liberation to revelation
during the time of spring harvest.

Seven iris bulbs
are planted in the yard, perfectly imperfect,
placed with great care, loving hands and song,
unneeded mulch I later clear away,
and perhaps too little space for roots
to grow outward in the drought-hardened soil.

Prayer.

Seven times the women circled
dancing with timbrels at the Reed Sea.

For their sake
may our labors not be for nothing,
our celebrations forgotten,
our earth strained beyond reclamation,
our useful debts unpaid

because Kohelet was right, it doesn’t matter,
doesn’t change a thing, except
that it always does.

–Rabbi Shifrah Tobacman, 2015
Rabbi Chaya Gusfield’s writing on this topic can be found at
https://chayasgarden.wordpress.com/category/torahlife-writings/

 

Shema Koleynu – Hear Our Voice Inside
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”   (Rabindranath Tagore)

What do you dream about
in the stillness of night, when you are lucky enough to sleep
and the wings of the Shekhina, of Divine Unfolding
carry you to understandings
you could never understand otherwise,
and you are blessed with the gift
of remembering?

What do you wish for
as you go through your days
understanding little of what is there
to be understood, and even less of the wisdom
in another person’s story?

What do you pray for, when the earth
seems to spin too fast, and its tears
break your heart?

Ask.
Yes, now, in the middle of everything
when it seems impossible, hold out your hands
as a gift, and receive the calling
of your own joyful heart.

— Rabbi Shifrah Tobacman, 2015
Rabbi Chaya Gusfield’s writing on this topic can be found at
https://chayasgarden.wordpress.com/category/torahlife-writings/