I was reading personal correspondence from Rabbi Sue Fendrick about a verse from the evening prayers,“for in Your hand are the souls of the living and the dead, ki b’yadcha nafshot ha-hayyim v’ha-metim.”
Sue also mentioned what we say of a deceased person, “May their soul be bound up in the bond of life, the tz’ror ha-hayyim.”
She wrote that this image comes from the ancient world, when shepherds kept stones wrapped up in a cloth, to review, one by one, as the animals returned from pasturing. I had never heard of this mnemonic device, so it sparked curiosity. I thanked Sue for the inspiration, and thought about the memorial service, Yizkor, that I was slowly beginning to prepare for the Fabrangen community.
In past years several Fabrangen service leaders brought stones to the Yizkor ritual. Each mourner could choose a stone to hold in memory of someone, and release it again before the end of the service. It was a group ritual echoing the custom of a mourner leaving a stone at the gravesite to mark the visit. I did not plan to bring stones this year, but Sue’s comments inspired further thoughts about the metaphor of God as a Shepherd.
The idea of God as a Shepherd appears during memorial services in Psalm 23, and also in the words of the Unetaneh Tokef on the afternoons of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“All who have entered the world
pass before you like a flock of sheep.
Like a shepherd who takes account of his flock,
causing each one to pass beneath his staff,
so you review, recount, and appraise
the life of every living being.
You set a limit for every creature’s life
and determine each one’s destiny”.
[Musaf service, p. 297 and p. 583 Machzor Hadesh Yameinu, Renew Our Days, Edited, translated, and © 2001 by Rabbi Ronald Aigen.]
I think those words are supposed to remind us that God has compassion to remember and care for each one of us. Maybe if I looked at how shepherds do that for their flocks it could help me prepare a Yizkor service. I get used to the same ideas year after year, and lose touch with the feelings. This year I wanted to preserve the spark of wonder that rose up in me when I read about the strange bundle of stones. I wanted to share that feeling with others.
I also feel wonder and mystery during the Zikhronot service on Rosh Hashanah. Our New Year Day is also called Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. Once again the theme is that God remembers all of us with compassion, no matter what. Every year I still wonder what it means to say that God remembers. Such a limitless memory can hold the problems I can’t understand or resolve. And the shofar cries out about all of it in sounds beyond words.
The rest of the year many things cause me to ask questions about what it means for God to remember. For example, what about the suffering of children who are abused or neglected by parents? And if those children are Jewish, how can they keep the commandment to honor their parents? And what sort of Yizkor service would help them? In the prayerbook that Fabrangen uses most often for Shabbat morning services, this commentary appears under the first blessing of the Amidah prayer, for ancestors.
“V’zokher chasdey avot ve’imot / mindful of the loyalty of Israel’s ancestors. The Hebrew phrase can also be translated, “who remembers the love of parents.” The legacy each generation gives to its children inevitably contains within it pain and hurt, a sense of inadequacy and of task unfulfilled. Some children are hurt when parents are taken from them too early, others by parents who did not know how to show their love. We say that God “remembers the love of parents;” God is the one who sees to it that the love as well is remembered, even when parents are unable to transmit it.”
[commentary of Daniel Kamesar, p. 296, Shabbat Amidah, Kol Haneshemah, Shabbat v’ Chagim, ©1994 by The Reconstructionist Press, Wyncote, PA.]
I pulled out my Tanakh to explore the full verse that contains the words that brought to mind an ancient bundle of shepherd’s stones, the bond of life, the tz’ror ha-hayyim.”
“And if anyone sets out to pursue you and seek your life, the life of my lord will be bound up in the bundle of life in the care of the LORD; but He will fling away the lives of your enemies as from the hollow of a sling”.
[ I Samuel 25:29, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, © 2000.]
And then I imagined a shepherd carrying a bundle holding pebbles, one pebble to count for each animal. It was a quick way to tally if one went missing, the same way camp counselors or teachers might count and recount large groups of children on field trips. I saw the shepherd also carried a sling, and a few sharp stones, to drive away predators. The sling seemed like a bundle of life too, because it could also be used to protect the lives of the flock. It reminded me of an account of my father’s skill at making sling-shots. During the Great Depression my father and his brother were young boys living on a dairy farm and herding cows. I looked for the passage in the book my uncle wrote about their small town of Vilas, South Dakota.
“To make a decent sling-shot one had to have access to good, tough, springy rubber. In the 20’s and 30’s that was easy. All auto tires had rubber tubes inside the tire – a kind of donut shaped balloon – which was a separate item that made it possible for the clumsy tires of that time to hold air. The rubber in them was wonderful. It was not hard to find old rubber tire tubes – every home had tubes that were blown out or so badly damaged, they could not be patched and re-used. . .
…one began with a good wooden “Y” crotch from a tree that was tough, stringy wood that would stand pressure without breaking… de-barked with a pocket knife and carefully trimmed to get down to the bare wood. Rubber bands were cut from the tubes, from about three to five-eights of an inch wide. It was important to cut the rubber band carefully so there were no nicks or cuts along the sides and so that the width was even for its whole length. Two notches, the width of the rubber band, were cut on each of the two prongs of the crotch and carefully trimmed down to be smooth. A leather patch was cut from an old leather glove or from the upper of an old shoe. Holes were cut in either side of it. The rubber bands were slipped through and securely tied with a strong string – shoemaker’s linen or good grocer’s string – that had been waxed with bee’s wax or paraffin.
Choosing smooth stones of the right size and weight became an art for sling-shooting. Smooth rocks fly more reliably and straight or true. The weight of the stone had much to do with the distance it would go – heavier stones would carry better and farther. To pick good rocks, one would need to go to a gravel road to walk along picking up stones with a practiced eye. Smooth rocks of uniform size were easier to load into the leather sling and could be shot faster.
My brother was a master sling-shot maker. He not only made them according to the fundamentals described above, but he carved the crotches in many artistic ways and sand papered and soaked them in linseed oil until they became genuine works of arts. He produced sling-shots in great volume and gave them to the neighborhood kids, who never seemed to rise to his level of creative design,… They worked wonderfully well to equip young boys with a hunting weapon, as a device for target practice and for general plinking. They could even serve as a protective device to discourage an aggressive dog or drive off small wild animals that became intrusive.
. . . Learning to shoot a sling-shot came only with long continuous practice… very useful in herding cows for one could keep a critter from wandering off by peppering her with stinging rocks. One could manage other animals the same way.”
[pp.62- 63, Old Days on the Prairie, by Tom Kilian,
Pine Hill Press, Sioux Falls, SD ©2007 ]
I paused to think about countless times I watched my father make artworks or fix things around the house or garden with his hands. He retained the ability to do fine work with his hands past the age of 90. My hands look just like his hands. He taught me to enjoy working with my hands and making art. That’s one of the gifts I continue to receive from my father now, as I prepare for the first Yom Kippur since my uncle and I buried him. Reading about his creativity gave me another spark, a personal connection to a sense of what life was like before my own era. Thinking of farm boys of Vilas summers, with sling-shots handy in the back pockets of their overalls, I read the full chapter that surrounds the verse, I Samuel 25.29.
The verse appears in a story about a tense situation in the life of David. David and his army are out in the country at a relatively safe distance from King Saul. The prophet Samuel has died, the same one who anointed David. So David feels he might be in danger, because Saul’s paranoia causes him to shift wildly between fondness and hate: Saul sees David as a rival to his throne.
Out in the country there’s a shearing festival. David’s men need some supplies. David sends some men to tell the wealthy rancher, Nabal of Carmel, that David’s men have been protecting all his servants and possessions, and to ask Nabal to be generous in return, by providing for their needs. Nabal refuses and makes insulting remarks about servants who run away from their masters. He says things like “David who, from who knows where?” Nabal makes it clear that he dismisses David as nothing but riff-raff, a common outlaw who has run away from King Saul. This turns out to be the wrong sort of message to send a person seeking help in a desperate situation.
David’s men report back to David, who becomes angry and sets off with his army to kill Nabal and all his men. The shepherds warn Nabal’s wife, Abigail. Abigail goes out to stop disaster by meeting David with carefully prepared words and a large offering of food. She rides out on a donkey, behind a couple of young men to manage donkeys loaded with food. So Abigail goes out to meet four hundred hostile warriors with nothing but words, and two hundred loaves of bread, two jars of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of parched corn, one hundred cakes of raisin, and two hundred cakes of pressed figs! One of the things she says to David when they meet on the trail is the verse about the bundle of life.
And it struck me that Abigail spoke to David in a shepherd’s terms: a bundle of life and a sling. What better way to establish immediate rapport in a touchy situation, than to use terms so familiar to a man from his boyhood? And the sling she mentions can also be understood as a reference honoring David’s fame. David is a legend in his own time. He was an unknown shepherd boy God gave the power to slay the mighty man, Goliath, with only a stone from a sling. God sent the prophet Samuel to single David out for greatness. Abigail continues to speak, and even repeats the prophecy, that David will one day be the king.
Abigail’s words and actions placate David, and convince him to ignore her husband Nabal. Her words remind David that God helped him when he was in danger, and God will continue to provide whatever he needs. David blesses Abigail for preventing unnecessary bloodshed. Abigail returns home to find Nabal feasting and drunk, so she doesn’t tell him anything.
“The next morning, when Nabal had slept off the wine, his wife told him everything that had happened; and his courage died within him, and he became like a stone. About ten days later, the LORD struck Nabal and he died.”
[ I Samuel 25:37-38, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, © 2000.]
David proposes marriage to Abigail, she becomes one of David’s wives, and David later becomes king.
In a tight spot, David was reminded that God would not forget him, and that God always cared for him, even when he appeared to be unimportant and vulnerable in the eyes of others. We all want someone who cares enough to notice if we get lost or in trouble. Fear and anger are natural reactions when we are threatened. We all have highly evolved responses to stress to help us survive. They prepare us to freeze, fight or flee. Even an infant will freeze in the presence of danger, since fighting or fleeing is impossible at that age. When an adult freezes up like that it is known as “a panic attack.”
So, we’re born with these response mechanisms, but sometimes they are not wise. Sometimes we become carried away by our reactions to stress. We try to numb ourselves, or freeze, perhaps with drugs, or anything else we find intoxicating. Or we lash out and fight. Or we run away from overwhelming challenges. It’s easy for these actions to lead us to do harmful things that aren’t necessary, because we’re constantly surrounded by stressful situations or reminders of them.
We need to practice pausing long enough to see ourselves from the point of view of a compassionate Shepherd. We need to see ourselves with that same compassion and forgiveness. Then we have a chance to see others with compassion and forgiveness. We can imagine a Shepherd who never forgets or gives up on any one of us. We can take the time to calm down, and avoid causing unnecessary harm. And we can learn to pause again, no matter how many times we find ourselves frozen, enraged, or running ourselves ragged.
This is part of what we are trying to do between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For thousands of years Jews have passed along the wisdom of these holy days. We remind ourselves to pause and imagine a Shepherd measuring us with the tally of the bundle of life. If we go missing God will not lose count.
I like to pray with different prayer books to keep routine from settling into a rut. The words of Psalm 147 in this beautiful translation describe my idea of God as Shepherd.
“He gathers the scattered exiles of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He counts the number of the stars, calling each by name. Great is our LORD and mighty in power; His understanding has no limit.”
[p. 74, Shacharit, The Koren Siddur, translation, commentary and © 2006, 2009
by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers Jerusalem.]