Taking Refuge, Making Justice

Iyyun Tefilah, Judea Reform Congregation, February 16, 2018…

Seven days a week, Jews pray the hashkiveynu prayer as evening falls: “Grant, O God that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, our Guardian, to life renewed; spread over us the shelter of Your peace.”

Many of us learned this prayer in Hebrew School from teachers who said something along the lines of, “Imagine what it must have felt like hundreds of years ago, when this prayer was written. There were no light switches. Nighttime was so dark and scary. The fear our ancestors felt, and the need to find a sense of safety amidst that fear, is why this prayer was composed.”

I wonder if we aren’t doing ourselves a disservice by emphasizing the prayer’s roots in an earlier, scarier time. Because let’s face it: If hashkiveynu weren’t already a prayer, would our generation not need to invent it? It may not be as hard to see in the dark as it once was, but the darkness is no easier to look upon. “Defend us against enemies, illness, war, famine, and sorrow,” our ancestors prayed. Is this not our hope, our prayer, too, we who can’t look at a screen or open a newspaper without being confronted with all those things in abundance? “Shield and shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings,” they prayed. Is refuge not among our deepest desires, as well?

In hashkiveynu, we invoke God as Shelter and Refuge, imagery found in the psalms as well. In a moment, we’ll pray a sort of alternative hashkiveynu prayer, in the form of a rhymed and metered rendering of the twenty-third psalm written by the eighteenth- century English preacher Isaac Watts. Like so many of our contemporary settings of hashkiveynu, this one is set in ¾ time, and has the feel of a lullaby. The words track very closely to the message of the original Hebrew, portraying God as faithful Shepherd, caring for the flock.

Songs Ascending is a new commentary on the Book of Psalms written by one of our Reform Movement’s great scholars and leaders, Rabbi Richard Levy. Of Psalm 23, he writes:

[The psalm] encourages us to be in touch with the lamb within us, with our weakness, with our need sometimes to put all our trust in God, to imagine in times when we want most to be cared for, that God is laying us down too in sweet, unmown pastures thick with grass. [It] encourages us to put aside our wrestling with whether we have the courage or the wisdom to do justice, and let the words of God guide us to give tzedakah without fear that we will give away too much, to extend hospitality without the anxiety that we will be taken advantage of, to fight for the poor and the homeless and the war-torn without the terror that we will lose our job or lose our standing in the community. “You lead me serenely in paths of justice” — let us allow God to do that.

Yancheyni b’ma’aglei tzedek l’ma’an sh’mo. “You lead me serenely in paths of justice, to glorify your name.” In the face of enemies, illness, war, famine and sorrow, the capacity to do justice bravely and wisely, and without fear, is a worthy aspiration indeed.

The Psalm ends with the hope that God’s house be our home. About which, Rabbi Levy asks:

What would it feel like for us to “abide in God’s house”? What does that house look like? How would we need  to renovate our homes to turn them into God’s house—a house where we would know always that we were in the presence of God? Would we need to behave differently toward those we love, become more in tune with the beauties of nature and other human beings? How would we need to change our workplaces so that they too could become God’s house? And how can we transform the places where we pray into vessels for the presence of God?

Our homes, our workplaces, our prayer spaces, and God knows, our schools—all of these cry out for the renovations that will make them more habitable, more safe, less scary. Even as we take refuge in God’s sukkat shalom (“shelter of peace”), may we never be complacent about the work that needs doing. May we never stop shining a bright light into the darkness…


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