Ps. 139: Merkaz HaHayyim (The Center of Life)
Rabbi Minna Bromberg, PhD is a singer, songwriter, voice teacher, and fat activist. Her twin passions are teaching people how to use their voices in leading prayer, and empowering everyone to compassionately smash the idolatry of weight stigma wherever we find it in ourselves and our communities. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children. You can learn more about her work at minnabromberg.com and fattorah.com
In the summer of 1916, a young Jewish woman named Rachel Katznelson was in a quandary. Should she stay in Palestine where she felt called to do her work in the world? Or should she return to Europe, where she'd grown up and where her husband-to-be was? It was the middle of "the war to end all wars." If she went to Europe would she and her beloved ever make it back to the Land of Israel?
She brought her concerns to A.D. Gordon, an important mentor to many of the young Jews who had come to Palestine in the first decades of the 20th century. Gordon was also new there, but he was older than most and was looked to as an educator, philosopher, and community leader. His response to Katznelson's inquiry is striking. "Life's center," he wrote in his August 1916 letter, "is neither there nor here, but within you -- in your 'I,' your 'ani.'" He went on to emphasize that this is a principle that she must stand by if she "wants a life that unifies action with thought and, it goes without saying, a life of creativity."
I found his words breathtaking when my friend and teacher Naama Shaked first shared them with me. They feel even more relevant now, in this time when so many of us are struggling with both upheaval and stuckness, forced to make choices we wish we didn't have to make and deeply unsure of which path is the right path.
I started writing a song setting Gordon's words as the chorus and I was immediately reminded of verses 7-10 of Psalm 139 on God's presence. No matter where we may try to go--even if we try to flee--the Divine Hand will hold us. These verses make up the song's verses.
Pairing them with Gordon's advice to that young woman so unsure of what her next steps should be helps me read the Psalmist's words as a reminder to continually seek our own center, to connect with our own inner essence -- which is itself a spark of the Divine -- no matter where we lay our heads.
אָ֭נָ֥ה אֵלֵ֣ךְ מֵרוּחֶ֑ךָ וְ֝אָ֗נָה מִפָּנֶ֥יךָ אֶבְרָֽח׃ אִם־אֶסַּ֣ק שָׁ֭מַיִם שָׁ֣ם אָ֑תָּה וְאַצִּ֖יעָה שְּׁא֣וֹל הִנֶּֽךָּ׃
Ana elekh merukhekha? V’ana mipanekha evrakh? Im esak shamayim sham ata v’atzia she’ol hineka.
Where can I go from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I descend to Sheol, You are there too.
מרכז החיים הוא לא שם ולא פה כי אם בך ב״אני״ שלך
Merkaz hakhayim hu lo sham v’lo po ki im bakh ba’ani shelakh.
Life’s center is neither there nor here but within you, in your “I.”
אֶשָּׂ֥א כַנְפֵי־שָׁ֑חַר אֶ֝שְׁכְּנָ֗ה בְּאַחֲרִ֥ית יָֽם׃ גַּם־שָׁ֭ם יָדְךָ֣ תַנְחֵ֑נִי וְֽתֹאחֲזֵ֥נִי יְמִינֶֽךָ׃
Esa kanfei shakhar eshkena be’akharit yam, gam sham yadkha tankheni v’tokhazeni y’minekha.
If I take wing with the dawn to come to rest at the ends of the sea, even there Your hand will be guiding me, Your right hand will be holding me fast.