"My little Shtibl (Yiddish for "little synagogue"; pronounced “SHTEE-bul”) meets each Saturday, and when we take Torah out of the ark, we dance with it in a circle before placing it on a special stand for the weekly reading. Following the reading, we dance again, returning the Torah to its resting place in the ark. The Psalm we sing to return the Torah is this same Psalm we will sing now because it is part of both the Kabbalat Shabbat service (the opening service to welcome Shabbat on Friday night) as well as the Torah service during the Shacharit (morning service) of Shabbat.
This circle we create each week binds our community together. It creates a fabric which keeps us strong – collectively and individually – through celebration and through mourning. Whenever someone leaves the community because they've finished grad school, a job opportunity arises which takes them away from Los Angeles – or in the case of one dear friend, they are no longer in the world – it’s clear to me that although their physical presence won't be with us weekly, a bit of them always remains in our circle. Whatever unique step they brought helped to create the circle and strengthen it, and their after-image is still present in our dance.
And we sing. We sing what is called a “niggun” (you can put the emphasis on either syllable – up front it’s Ashkenazi pronunciation; on the back-end it’s Sephardi). A niggun means “tune” – often without words – so when we are done singing the words of the psalm, we keep singing anyway; it’s the more transcendent part of the experience. A niggun goes around in a circle. A good niggun goes up and goes down and comes back to the beginning. It’s hard to know exactly where it stops. It’s different every time. And it holds you differently each time you sing it and it sings you.
The Psalm we sing when we put the Torah away is about the strength of God’s voice in creation. God’s voice makes the hills skip like rams, God’s voice lights flames of fire, God’s voice causes gazelles to give birth. It’s awesome. No, not that kind of awesome. Actually awesome. And then, one verse near the end has two different translations: God sat enthroned at the flood, or alternately, God turns back the flood. As a former English major, one of my favorite parts of the interpretive Jewish tradition to which I adhere is the idea that the text can mean many things (and even better, sometimes opposite things) simultaneously. I may connect to different parts of the Psalm each time – or different translations or interpretations depending on the context and upon my state. When I get to “Adonai hamabul yashav” – the verse about God and flood – it might be a joyful celebration of order in the universe – or, it might be a consolation for the disorder and shakiness I am feeling in the world. In the moment of singing the niggun in the circle that my community has carefully woven, I realize that in connecting to creation by connecting to one another, we have built a safety net for ourselves and our community (and hopefully the world beyond our small community) which will allow us to weather whatever floods may come our way.
The final verses of the psalm read, “May the Lord grant strength to His people; May God bless His people with Peace.” Again, this verse can have several simultaneous interpretations. We can think about it in its particular sense – either referring to ancient Biblical Israelites or to later Jews who worked it into their liturgical lives in a specific way. We could also think about it in its universal sense: in a psalm about God’s evidence throughout creation, “God’s people” are clearly all people.
With the more universal interpretation in mind, I would like to invite everyone to witness or participate in our niggun and in our dance in whatever way feels comfortable. It might be just to listen to the singing and read what I have written. It might be to stand on the side and watch and clap. Anyone who would like to can come into the circle with us – you can sing with us, just “yi – dee – di” or clap, find your own version of the rhythm, even if you don’t know the words. The tune will come around again, and if it catches you, you can catch it.
This past week, listening to the news from Jerusalem, and also the news from Washington last night, I have been thinking a lot about the Biblical concept of “Cities of Refuge.” The Torah speaks of six cities set up as a way of cutting into the cycle of revenge killings. If a person committed manslaughter, the law of the land was for the family to avenge the blood of the one who had been killed – even if it was unintentional. The cities were mandated, and a law set that the avengee must be allowed to run to one of these cities and once there, the law of vengeance would no longer apply. So I am thinking about what it might mean to revive the idea Cities of Refuge. But in a more general way. How do we create spaces beyond vengeance and beyond fear, where we don’t blindly and instinctively strike back – with words, weapons or actions? Where we can invite people different from us in and harbor them in safety? I do not yet know what the boundaries of this new land are, but I believe its shape will be a circle.
I am grateful to be with you in whatever circle we might be weaving over the course of the weekend and the year. This space feels to me as if we are forging a City of Refuge. I am so looking forward to seeing – and being part of – the community we create together.