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A prayer to breach the shuttered soul

Where do we find God on days when people are killed in houses of worship?

When I heard the devastating news about the synagogue shooting in San Diego, I was shaken to my very core. Through waves of grief, one of my first lucid thoughts was, “I’m glad I chose to not go to shul to today.” How sad that this has become an understandable response for a person of faith, to consider self-isolation in the face of a hateful, murderous attack upon sisters and brothers, fellow human beings.

We’re living in a world where we just don’t know if we’ll make it through the day while doing regular things. Going to the supermarket, going to synagogue, to school. It’s terrifying. The reality of the violence in our world makes us feel vulnerable and fragile and small. On these days it’s hard to know where our protection actually comes from.

Should we homeschool our children? Never go shopping for fear of contracting measles? Shutter our windows and just shut the world out?

And where does God fit when we go to this place of fear, when there’s no space for the light? When our hearts are full of fear, full of real doubt, those emotions overtake other ones like hope, faith, and love. Positive emotions can often evaporate in the face of fear. And as they become smaller, we might wonder: Where does God go on days when people are killed in houses of worship?

God must be within, because in these terrible moments, it is so very hard to see God on the outside. We have to choose to search for God, which means seeking within.

Why does this matter? Because we are not meant to shutter our windows and hide. We are meant to live and be joyous, to give light and love to each other, and to rise above.

Legend has it that King David wrote the words “Lev Tahor/A pure soul” (Ps. 51:12) during a time when he was frightened and alone, filled with sorrow and cut off from his own inner light. In these deeply personal and thoroughly prophetic words, he expresses all the reasons why he should be seen as worthy by God.

A pure soul was given to me,” he sang, reminding God (and himself, deep down) of his own merit, the soul being a gift from God. These words sum up a universal human resume – no person is unworthy. All of us were given the gift of a pure soul and a chance to do the right thing in this world.

King David continued, “and a prepared spirit You renew in me.” It must have been clear to him, as it is to so many of us today, that spiritual energy can be misused and can run out. We can become exhausted by the pain in the world. Sometimes we look beyond ourselves and cry out: “renew me, because I just can’t do it alone anymore.”

Then, there is a radical additional statement from elsewhere in King David’s holy writing. “Don’t cast me away from being near to You, and do not remove Your Holy Spirit from me.” (Ps. 71:9)

These are not simple continuations of the earlier thoughts. It is one thing to affirm the purity of God’s ongoing gifts, and quite another to demand God’s intimacy. King David might have experienced deep despair, but he did not forget the power of prayer to hold God close – and accountable. “Don’t let me Go, God…”

Friends, we have many songs of celebration, many songs of hope, and many songs filled with pleading prayers. Today, I feel our world needs new songs, where we can feel and hold many swirling emotions and intentions at once. Songs for the times we no longer have the strength or hope to pray; songs for the times we feel forgotten, fearful and cast aside. And we need melodies and prayers that inspire us to be our highest selves, to be brave enough, to be enraged enough, to be strong enough to scream for and create change. Maybe finding these prayers, learning to hold it all and still singing is our way forward.

In this spirit, I offer this piece to you — a new musical interpretation of King David’s prayer called “Don’t Let Me Go.”

While recording it, I felt both deeply lost and fragile and more empowered than ever before. It felt right to cry out, to allow myself to fall apart while also urgently demanding that God hear my voice and change the outcome. Feeling these truths in the same moment was overwhelming, and I remain humbled by the experience.

We must not choose to stay home and shutter our souls, as the world experiences such deep pain, loss, and sadness. Anyone satisfied by the way things are must wake up. We are called for a more elevated way of life, which points the way to a world where senseless violence is no longer commonplace. We must help to bring about a time of increased light and awareness.

I bless us all with the courage to create, own and taste new prayers.

I bless us to raise our voices to demand, with integrity, the renewed world that our children so deserve.

I bless us to not give up, to not let go.

About the Author
Neshama Carlebach is an award-winning singer, songwriter and educator who has performed and taught in cities around the world. A six-time entrant in the Grammy Awards, Neshama has sold over one million records, making her one of today’s best-selling Jewish artists in the world. Neshama recently released her tenth recording, “Believe.”
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