A Soul's Natural Habitat


(photograph by the author)

This week, following yet another survey of the people, family by family, chieftain by chieftain, the focus of the structuring instructions in our biblical book of Numbers shifts, from the people and the encampment to the calendar -- from structure in space, to order in time.

Day by day, Sabbath by Sabbath, festival by festival, the ceremonies for the ancient rites are spelled out. So long as one does not think about them from the perspective of the sacrificed animals, the repetitive rhythms are somehow soothing, the specificity and the measured order in the offerings is comforting and reassuring.

Just about each year at the start of August, I take part in a retreat out in the countryside, where I usually teach a course on some topic in the vast field of Jewish textual sources, either whatever happens to be engaging me when the annual call comes for teachers to volunteer or a subject I have particularly enjoyed exploring at some point during the intervening year.

This time around, I happen to be getting ready to teach a course on the Psalms; and one Psalm in particular -- the eighty-fourth in the biblical Psalter -- is serving in my mind as something of a setting of the scene.

In the synagogue rite of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (a liturgy of which I am particularly fond) this 84th Psalm is recited at the very start of afternoon prayers. For a long time, I puzzled over the selection.

There is a sort of superficial or obvious reason, one that may ring a bell for those practiced in the Jewish prayer book upon hearing Psalm 84, inasmuch as one of its key lines traditionally serves as the introduction to another Psalm (the Hundred-and-Forty-Fifth), which, in turn, is prescribed by Talmudic tradition for thrice-daily recitation, the third occurrence being at the start of afternoon prayers. But that's not so much a reason as a technicality or a curiosity (and do not worry at all if this excursus on the matter is obscure).

The better and poetic reason seems to be that the 84th Psalm is about being at home. Just as swallows and sparrows find their nesting places, the person to whom this poem rings true feels at home in the sanctuary, and returns to the sacred space again and again as a place that feels instinctually natural.

Devotion at dawn is one thing. There is a discipline, not to say a self-forced march, to getting up for morning prayers. But the devotee of the afternoon service, perhaps something of a die-hard, says: I am still here. This is where you'll find me, again and yet again, in this meeting place where sacred rituals occur.

Whether or not the synagogue ever feels that way to you, chances are there is some point of convergence -- be it a place in physical space, or a recurring phenomenon in time, a family table, or a regular reunion of some kind, a lab bench, a potter's wheel, or a spot in the woods -- that brings on for you a feeling of being spiritually at home. You know the spot because in it you feel so truly in your place, or in your element, that if you imagined inscribing a return address on an expression of your soul, this would be where to find you.

The way back to such a venue and a feeling -- across the distance on a map, or the hours in a day, or the days of a year -- is not always easy. Sometimes, in between times, one may have a sense of being so far away, or so adrift, or so separated by obstacles that return may seem uncertain. But knowing that one has such a place, and that it exists somewhere, makes the journey to finding it again and again a homing -- and part of oneself, perhaps, is always there.

In that sense, in the feeling of recognition upon rediscovering the spot, the return or the discovery anew of such a place is really a reunion with oneself. You know that you have such a place if the sense you have upon finding it is not just 'here it is,' but 'here I am.'

What a blessing when such a point of convergence feels like a place of meeting with the Divine. How good it is to trust that there can be such a place. Or, in the words of the Eighty-Fourth Psalm -- For the Chief Musician, on the Lyre from Gath, a Song of the Sons of Korach -- as I will translate and interpret the composition for this moment:

O this love of your dwelling places, Yah of Legions,
My soul yearns and dies for the courtyards of Yah,
My heart and flesh sing to the living God.

Even a sparrow finds a home, a swallow makes her nest,
Where she can set her chicks.
So I by your altars, Yah of Legions, my Sovereign and my God.

The fortune of those who dwell in your house--again they will praise you.
The fortune of one whose strength is in you--
Such ones have pathways in their hearts.

Travelers through the valley of tears,
Who see it all endless floodwater--and yet know:
The early rain brings blessings, too.

Such ones shall go from stronghold to stronghold,
Appear before God at the pilgrimage's destination.

Yah, God of Legions, hear my prayer.
O listen, God of Jacob.

Our Shelter--see, O God,
And look upon the face of the one you have anointed.

For one day in your courtyards is better than a thousand other days.

I choose to crowd at the threshold of my God's house,
Over dwelling in the tents of evil.

For Yah God is sunlight and shield,
Yah gives grace and glory--
Will not withhold good from those who walk in wholeness.

Yah of Legions, fortunate is one who trusts in you.