In our sanctuary at Temple B’nai Israel there is a piece of artwork on the right side of the bimah as you look toward it. It comprises a series of Hebrew letters which are a bit difficult to sort out at first However, if you look at it closely, it turns out to be a familiar phrase taken from the book of Psalms, “Hinei mah tov umah na-im shevet achim gam yachad.” You may recognize it as a song we all sang in youth groups and at camp. Set to music, we danced to it in a circle. We’ve done it as call and response. We’ve sung it to a dozen different tunes.
It happens to be the opening verse of Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together.” That’s the translation by the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks as it appears in the new Koren Tanakh, actually linked by a dash to verse 2. The Jewish Publication Society translation is similar, but reads, “How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together.” Artscroll wants to make sure you don’t miss either the words “hinei” or “gam,” or that you make “shevet” into a verb “dwell” rather than a noun or gerund “dwelling,” so they translate rather clumsily, “Behold, how good and how pleasant is the dwelling of brothers, moreover, in unity.” Robert Alter in his edition of the Tanakh, translates this verse more felicitously as, “Look, how good and how pleasant is the dwelling of brothers together.” That translation accounts for “hinei,” using “look” instead of the more formal “behold,” though, I’m not sure what to make of the extra word “gam,” which usually means also. The Daat Mikra Bible explains “gam” as emphasizing the unity in the word “yachad.” This Hebrew commentary also mentions at least one other place where the addition of “gam” serves to emphasize the word that follow it. Perhaps, some suggest, that small word indicates that when we live together in unity, then gam, God also, dwells in our midst. The commentators remind us that not everything that is “good” for us is “pleasant” and likewise not everything that is “pleasant,' may be “good” for us either. Pleasant sweets are not that good for us in quantity while bitter medicine may be very good for us even if unpleasant. However, here we have something which is both good and pleasant as well.
It seems there is no unity among translators. Everyone has his or her own way of expressing in English that which we have received in Hebrew. But such variation is not only to be found in Jewish Bibles, but we can find it elsewhere as well. So for fun, I checked out four non-Jewish translations and found them all somewhat different also. In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), we find, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” That is a reminder that we don’t need to translate Hebrew’s collective nouns in the masculine necessarily, just because that’s the convention in Hebrew. In the Revised English Bible, it reads, “How good and how pleasant it is to live together as brothers in unity!” The New American Bible has, “How good it is, how pleasant where the people dwell as one!” - avoiding the gender issue. And finally a fourth translation included in the “Complete Parallel Bible,” is taken from the New Jerusalem Bible, there I find, “How good, how delightful it is to live as brothers all together!” You may take your pick of the translations. They are all somewhat similar. The point seems to be that it’s great when folks can get along with one another and enjoy one another’s company.
I am just back, Wednesday evening, from four days away in St. Louis at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention. This international gathering of Conservative/Masorti Rabbis hasn’t met in the last couple of years due to Covid and I myself have not attended in quite a while before that for various other reasons. However, this year, with it being so close, I decided to participate once more. I must say, honestly, that I had a great time. The verse from Psalms that I’ve been struggling to translate here was most appropriate to the occasion. There was such a sense of being together with “brothers” (and sisters and others), “kindred” “the people” “folks,” who welcomed one another into their presence and were just happy to be together. It was good, pleasant, even delightful, to share with my colleagues, mostly younger people I’ve never met before, as well as a number of others whom I have known for years, some of whom I had never really sat down to talk with before. We were together as one. If I may say so, there was not the kind of division that I have known in past conferences when important, controversial issues were discussed, sometimes heatedly. This year there was a sense of unity. How good and how pleasant it was, indeed.
Of course, we know the old saying, “Two Jews – three opinions.” That’s often true, but one can disagree without being disagreeable. But this time, it seemed like most everyone just went with the flow. If the prayer leader was doing something “too creative” that wasn’t your style, so what? Let it go, sit back and enjoy. How good and how pleasant it was just to be there, breathing in the atmosphere of fellowship, learning together, praying together, sharing together..
It seemed like everywhere I went at this convention there was an emphasis on “Mindfulness.” No, we did not spend the whole time meditating, but that concept kept reappearing in different contexts throughout the conference. Some of the prayer leaders, asked us to focus on our breathing at the start of a service and began prayers with slow, repetitive, melodies that called on us to reflect on what we were saying and to feel a sense of connection to the spiritual and not merely to recite a bunch of familiar words. Most notably, I found, was a melody, still stuck in my head, for the opening and closing lines of the Ashrei, the three verses not a part of Psalm 145, but appended to this psalm which is recited twice in the morning services and provides the opening words of the afternoon service as well. “Ashrei yoshvei veitecha, od y’hal’lucha selah.” Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they will ever praise You, Selah! (Psalms 84:5) “Ashrei ha-am shekacha lo, ashrei ha-am she-Adonay Elohav.” Happy the people who have it so; happy the people whose God is the Lord.” (144:15) The word “yoshvei” translated as “dwell” can literally mean to sit, like “shevet’ in our Psalm. Here we were, sitting (most of us). In God’s House? Well in a large hall, but where is it not God’s house? We were a group of some 200 rabbis, wrapped in tallit and tefillin; it sure felt like God’s house. Breathe in, breathe out, notice your breath, “nishmat kol chai,” the breath of all the living. As we breathe, we offer praise. Silently reciting Psalm 145 and tacking onto the end, “Va-anachnu n’varech Yah mei-atah v’ad olam Hal’lelu-Yah!” We will bless the Lord, now and forever, Hal’lelu-Yah! (Psalm 115, from the Hallel prayers). Breathe in, breathe out. Praise the Lord!
The organizers set up a choice of 14 small groups called “mishpahot,” families, and I chose one entitled, “Time for Listening and Compassion/TLC.” It, too, was devoted to mindfulness. Most of the time we sat in chairs or on the floor, eyes open or closed, and again, breathe in, breathe out, let go of the rushing around of everyday life and even the continuous schedule of events at the convention and take time to breathe and to share and to listen. The leader used her budget creatively and we all went home with blankets and little ottomans, and we can continue to breathe in and to breathe out at home, and recall “dwelling in God’s house,” “dwelling as brethren together in unity.”
Even some of the programs included a moment of mindfulness, breathing, reflecting, dwelling together as one. Mindfulness has become a kind of byword connected with spirituality. It is not a concept foreign to our tradition, though it has often been identified with Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism. Yet you don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate, you just have to breathe, to connect with everything and everyone around you. Not easy for a talker like me, but I'm working on it.
Yes, we did more than breathe and enjoy varied and delicious kosher meals under the O-V supervision. Not O-U, but the local St. Louis Vaad HaIr. The O-V is a symbol I learned about fairly recently when a product came into our Temple kitchen with that heksher on it. In addition, to praying and eating, typical Jewish pastimes, there were all kinds of Torah study opportunities and sessions for professional development, because dwelling together includes learning together as well. There was also a major program on race relations where we heard from local clergy, Jewish and Christian, about some positive connections that came out of their shared concern over the Ferguson incident several years back as well as how they have dealt with areas of conflict among them. It was heart-warming to hear how these local leaders came together and became such close friends, as they got to know one another. “Hinei mah tov umah na-im....”
There was a fascinating and thought-provoking session as well on how one leads an organization in what was called a “liminal season,” a period we all seem to be in these days, both in Jewish and non-Jewish institutions, when the old way of doing things is no longer working, but a new way forward is not yet clear. Rev. Susan Beaumont, who has written on this topic and has lectured extensively on it for many groups, helped us to understand where we are now and how, even if we are unsure where we are heading next, we might still lead with hope, agency, and purpose. She shared a personal story of how sometimes just a break for prayer can be helpful. Naturally, we stopped to daven mincha. Breathe in, breathe out. Mindfulness can help us as we look for the path into the future.
Before leaving St. Louis, about 100 rabbis still around in the last hours of the convention, attended a local rally protesting Missouri's harsh laws limiting reproductive freedom. Several of our leaders spoke and made it very clear that holding strong religious views does not equate with a ban on abortion. We Jews have a more nuanced position and are unequivocally in favor of trusting women to make the appropriate and, usually, very difficult and painful choices regarding their own bodies without outside interference by government authorities. We believe, that laws such as those triggered in Missouri following the recent Supreme Court decision, which fail to take into account the particular circumstances of any pregnancy, also impinges upon our religious freedom under the First Amendment. Here, too, we were united as an organization of religious leaders and we wanted the world to know about it. Dwelling together in unity is not just a matter of feeling good together, but includes acting together to support causes we hold dear and to protest when our values are ignored.
When we come together to pray, it should be seen as preparation to act. Yes, it is good and pleasant to be together, to eat together, to learn together, to sing together, but we also need to act together, that too ultimately leads to pleasant outcomes among people and in our communities. It is a season for mindfulness, for unity, for thoughtfulness. So, now when we enter the sanctuary, and we look up at the brass letters on the wall up front, opposite the menorah, we too might breathe in and breathe out, pay attention, be mindful of our breath, every breath, in and out, a gift of the divine and recognize that we are sitting in God’s house, wherever we may be, and that we too might feel this sense of unity, of connection with one another, with God, with ourselves, as we breathe in and breathe out, in and out. As for us, we will praise Yah, praise the Lord, from now and forever, Hal’lelu-Yah!
How good and how pleasant it is for us all to dwell together as one, to feel that sense of unity, of being part of God’s creation, being part of a group, of a congregation, of a community. Hinei mah tov umah na-im shevet achim gam yachad.