From Narrow Places to Wide-open Spaces

מִן הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ:

“I called on Yah in my distress;
Yah answered me with largesse.”

I love that verse; I love that melody. Thanks for singing it with me.

I love the singable translation, too. But I want to offer a few other possibilities, by way of helping us all come to a shared understanding of what the original Hebrew is trying to say. One contemporary translator, Pamela Greenberg, renders it this way: ”From a place of constriction, I called to you, and you answered with an expanse of heavenly presence.” Martin S. Cohen has, “From dire straits I called out to Yah, who answered me with the generosity of Yah.” I think my favorite might be that of Norman Fischer, whose Zen-inspired translation reads, “In my despair I called on you/And you answered me like the sky.” And of course, there’s the rendering from the passage we shared earlier in our service, Victor Frankl’s memorable recollection of that springtime day in 1945:

One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky – and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world – I had but one sentence in my mind – always the same: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me the in freedom of space.”

How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.

The call goes from a constricted, dire, desperate, narrow, distressed place.  The answer comes, and these are transformed. The world becomes expansive, generous, sky-like, and free. We become more fully human.

We’ve talked about the meaning of metzar and merchav; let’s turn now to the question, Who’s doing the calling? Our Jewish tradition offers several answers. Some of our commentators understand the voice to be that of the Jewish People, collectively, calling out from their galut, their Exile. Exile constricts us, beats us down; the hoped-for return is liberating. Other commentators, drawing on the tradition which understands the Book of Psalms to be the work of King David, imagine the words as relating to some moment in his life, perhaps as he hid from Saul in a dark and narrow cave, or maybe as he trembled in fear, his chest tight and his breath shallow, standing in Goliath’s shadow. Still others imagine the verse in the mouth of Joseph, who was cast into a pit by his brothers, into prison by Potiphar, each time emerging from distress to experience ever greater largesse.

The verse’s place in the Book of Psalms, as part of a section called Hallel that poetically retells the Exodus story, suggests yet one more way of thinking about the narrow and the broad. Perhaps metzar, that narrow place, is mitzrayim, Egypt, and the merchav, the wide open space, is the wilderness in which we made that generation-long journey toward freedom. If you have an ear for the Hebrew, you may have already picked up on the similarity of the words metzar and mitzrayim, or “Egypt.”

Joseph. The Israelites leaving Egypt. David. The Jews in exile, at every turning point, with each remembered moment of wound and healing. And the collective force of these diverse interpretations serves to help us hear the “I” in yet another way: Each one of us can be the “I” of the verse. 

Now a community as large as this one has people at every point along the way on that journey. Some of us, perhaps, have been lucky thus far. We’ve been spared the trials that hem people in and make them feel like there’s no way out of the despair. Others are in the narrow place right now; it’s hard for us to imagine feeling otherwise as we grieve the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a tough spot in our careers. Others, perhaps, are able to look back and say: It was awful, that diagnosis, that caregiver’s journey, that career crossroads, that relationship that died. And, I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not experienced it.

Victor Frankl experienced so much. That passage from the prayerbook, which you also have on your handout, comes from a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl lived through the horrors of the Shoah, surviving the Nazi death machine that claimed the rest of his family. In his book he introduced the world to a school of psychotherapy known as logotherapy, built upon the premise that the search for meaning is intimately bound up with the will to live, and that meaning may be discovered in creativity, in relationship…and yes, in suffering.

On that third path to meaning, he is quick to add (and I’ll let him speak for himself),

[i]n no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering – provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological, or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.

With that all-important caveat ever in force, I am drawn to the teaching of the Imrei Emet, an early twentieth-century Chasidic Rebbe who found the key to understanding our verse in its very first word: min. From. We call out from the narrow place. Which means, we don’t deny its truth. Indeed, we lean into it. The redemptive moment follows the constrained and desperate one, but only if we are willing to remain uncomfortable in that narrow place, to see what it has to teach. Elsewhere in our new prayer book we’ll encounter that lesson with these words: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Feeling that discomfort is part of the work of this festival, which we call yom teruah, a day of the shofar blast. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav taught that the very shape of the shofar teaches us this lesson. Here’s how he says it: “The wide part of the shofar is at the top, and the narrow part is at the mouthpiece…we place the narrow end of the shofar to our mouths. We speak from our pain, and the very act of speech creates a new, broader truth – an expansiveness unimaginable just a moment before.”

A friend of mine, reflecting on a pregnancy that ended before her child could be born, described her journey as one “from heartache, to healing, and finally, hope.” In her words I hear the voice of the shofar speaking the new and expansive truth into being, as the breath moves from narrow place, to wide-open space.

From darkness to great light, from degradation to exaltation, from slavery to freedom…and from the narrow place to the wide open space. From constricted to expansive: it’s the picture I’ve tried to paint in this d’var torah, and the one we’re going to explore together in each d’var torah in the coming days.

  • Tomorrow morning we’ll look at the narrow boundaries that are too often drawn when it comes to discourse within our Jewish community. I will try to make the case against drawing narrowly construed red lines, of reading people out of the whole merely because we disagree with them. I believe with all my heart that doing so impoverishes us as a people, and makes us less secure.
  • On Kol Nidrei night, we’ll look at how min hameitzar plays out in the life of the individual, as we overcome constraint and imagine possibility, becoming the people we are meant to be.
  • Finally, on Yom Kippur morning, we’ll turn our attention to voting rights, an issue that has been at the forefront of our Reform Movement’s efforts over the last several weeks and will continue to be so until November 8 and beyond. What does a narrow electorate look like? A broad one? And what might we do to become part of the answer for those who call out from the straits today?

We each have our own meitzarim: narrow places, constrained and desperate. Our willingness to recognize them for what they are and to make them our teachers instead of our masters, is liberating. The narrowness of Egypt, of the pit, the prison, felt as a tightness in our bodies, is replaced by the wide-open space of expanded heart and mind: victory, promise, redemption. We begin to know what’s possible. Step for step we progress, becoming ever more fully human.

May this be our blessing, in this New Year.

Amen.

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