Sunday, September 16, 2012

God will gather me in?

From the first day of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashana, until the end of Sukkot, Psalm 27, also known by its first word, "L'david" (for [King] David, the supposed author of the Psalms), is added to the morning and evening services. This addition results in an yet another Mourner's Kaddish, recited after L'david. This ups the total number of daily kaddishes from 8 to 10.

Psalm 27 is one of the most moving of the psalms. Toward the end of the psalm, the following verses appear, "Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger. You have been my help, do not abandon or forsake me.  For when my father and mother abandon me, You will gather me in."

I've looked at several translations of this last verse, which can also be read as "if my father and mother abandon me" or "though they have abandoned me" or "when they abandon me."

The idea of a parent abandoned you is troubling. What kind of abandonment is the psalmist getting at? Some parents do actually abandon their children, either by being physically or emotionally absent. In these cases, the best reading of the verse is "if" my parents have abandoned me.

But in the end, I think that "when" is the best translation, for all parents eventually abandon their children, by dying. God knows they don't mean to. For my mother, and probably for most parents, the most difficult thing about dying was leaving behind her children and grandchildren and not being there for them in their hours of need and joy.

But the Psalmist promises that a substitute parent awaits: God. God as parent, a difficult religious concept. True, the prayers often speak of God as "our father" but there it seems more as an additional, not a substitute, parent.

Can God really be your parent? Perhaps here's a way to look at it: that the parent's nurturing will be provided in some measure by God's representatives on earth, the community, other people, your family. You are not made whole again after your parent dies, but it's not a total loss. God tries to make sure that some part of your loss is mitigated.

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