Wide Open Spaces

Photo by the author, Sandia Peak, Albuquerque, NM, 12/25/2019

Originally presented as a d’var Torah at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, 2 Elul 5780/August 22, 2020

Had I known, a year ago during Elul, what I know now, I would not have prayed so fervently, shivti b’veit Hashem kol y’mei chayyai – “Let me dwell in the house of Hashem forever” (Psalm 27:4, recited morning and evening from the beginning of Elul until Hoshana Rabba).  Had I known that I would spend the last five months largely confined to my house, and the last several days confined to my bedroom and bathroom, I’d have taken greater care what I prayed for.  For at the moment, this single room is the house of Hashem – I pray here, learn Torah here (through a closed door with my son), and before I get out of here will resume healing the sick and comforting the mourners from here.

The 27th psalm also says, ki avi v’imi azavuni – my father and mother have left me.  This is not figurative, but literal, for thousands of families in our community and millions around the world – and in my case you can throw in my wife and kids as well.  They have not abandoned me, but rather been forced away, because I have a pestilence.  We’re only missing the black-robed physician in the bird-beak mask, like in the live-action Beauty and the Beast, telling Belle and Maurice they must leave Paris at once before the plague gets them, too.[i]

So when, on the same day that we begin saying the 27th psalm, we also say Hallel, I latched onto another well-known line, Psalm 118:5: Min ha-metzar karati Y-ah, annani ba-merchav Y-ah – From the narrow place I called to you, God, answer me, God, in the wide-open space.  Or, in the words of Eric Burdon and the Animals’ classic, “[I] gotta get outta this place, if it’s the last thing [I] ever do!”

The day after Rosh Chodesh, we read Parashat Shoftim, which ends with a tragedy in the wide-open space.  A person is found dead in an open field, far outside of any of the nearby towns.  The people who find the body determine which town is closest, and the elders of that town to bring a calf to a dry wadi and break its neck, reciting the formula:

Yadeinu lo shafchu et ha-dam ha-zeh, v’eineinu lo ra’u.

“Our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see.”

These words would seem to be a denial of wrongdoing, but several commentators, including Rashi, ibn Ezra, and Chizkuni see in it an admission of guilt.  As Chizkuni explains, the traveler is assumed to have been in that nearby town, seeking shelter, and the town failed to provide it.  The word shafchu in the text, which should end with the letter vav, ends curiously with a heh instead, which Chizkuni takes as a hint at the number 5, the gematria value of this letter.  There are five things a host is supposed to provide for a traveler: food, drink, a small parting gift, a bed if he wants to spend the night, and accompaniment on the first part of his journey.  He reasons that the formula is an admission that this person needed shelter, “But our eyes did not see him, and our hands did not do what they should have done for him.”

The commentators even theorize as to how he might have ended up dead – maybe he was hungry from having been denied food in the town, so he tried to take some from a passer-by, got into a fight and was killed.  The elders are denying that it was they who did this to him, and yet, as the elders in the town, it is their job to ensure that no one, no traveler and no citizen, is invisible.  No one in need should be unseen, and this is the reason they need to make atonement with the sacrifice of the calf.

Which brings me back to the metzar, and my own narrowest of narrow places.  The commentator Alshich reads Psalm 118:5 as something David wrote while hiding from Shaul, in caves and other narrow places, but also coming to the realization that he could not hide any longer.  He was praying, not to be let out of his confinement, but rather for God to protect him in the merchav, to be with him when he came out into the dangerous open space, where Shaul still sought to kill him.  My friend Rabbi Michael Werbow, of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Washington, DC, spoke a few weeks ago about how, once we make the hard decision to be in a metzar, a narrow place, everything else is easy.  We are safe, secure, and have a limited range of choices over which to agonize.  When we make the easier choice, to move freely in the merchav, everything becomes fraught with anxiety over what might happen to us as a result.

But the anxiety is not just for ourselves, as it was for David.  In a pandemic, our anxiety is actually for people like the unnamed traveler found dead in the merchav.  I was away on vacation when I learned I might have been exposed to coronavirus; my family stealthily left our lodging by the widest of merchavim, the ocean, and assiduously avoided any human contact for seven hours until we reached our metzar.  Over the next few days our supposed exposure tested negative – but I did not.  Purely by chance, I had removed myself, the dangerous one, from the public sphere, and now removed myself from the family circle as well.  Not to protect myself, but to protect others – very possibly saving the life, or at least preserving the health, of people I might never know or see, but who would have been exposed to me had we stayed put in the merchav.  It is impossible to know all the things that didn’t happen, after all.

So I turn to a different interpretation of merchav, which I first heard during the pandemic and comes either from Rabbi Naomi Levy’s book Einstein and the Rabbi, or from the teaching of one of my own rabbis, Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, during the time we have spent in narrow spaces.  “I called to you from my narrowness” – the narrowness of my own soul, preoccupied with my own needs – “answer me with merchav, with expansiveness” of my soul.  Widen my vision, broaden my perspective, so that I do not become like those elders who do not see the traveler until he is found dead in the field.

Psalm 27:4 begins with the words Achat sha’alti me’et Hashem – “One thing I ask of God.”  I was sure, when I began to write, that I was going to say that my “one thing” was to be released from my metzar and go back out in the merchav.  But that’s not it.  My one thing that I ask this year, as we enter the season of teshuva, repentance, is for merchav, expansiveness of vision, to see those who are in need but who cannot ask me, to anticipate the dangers that face those I cannot “see,” and to understand the broad effects of my own actions on those I will never meet, during this pandemic and beyond.

[i] Lest anyone worry, as I write I actually feel pretty well and the few symptoms I had are improving.  The only thing not getting better is the cabin fever.

About the Author
Jonathan Weinkle MD, FAAP, FACP is a primary care-physician in a community health center in Pittsburgh. He is not a rabbi, though he has often been accused of being one. He is an amateur singer-songwriter, teaches at both Chatham University and the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of the book Healing People, Not Patients.
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