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Going It Alone

The first king of Israel, Saul, was threatened by the brash and charismatic upstart, David and so he did what kings frequently do. Saul tried to kill him and chased David into the wilderness. There, in hiding, David found sanctuary in the beautiful and majestic oasis of Ein Gedi. And there, alone and afraid, he composed the psalm’s words:
My soul is depressed, for they set a trap to ensnare my feet; they even dug a pit to capture me, but they themselves, fell into it, selah.
My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready; I shall sing and chant hymns of praise.
Awake, my glorious soul. Awake, lute and lyre, for I shall awaken the dawn.
I shall acknowledge You among the nations, Adonai; I shall sing of You among the peoples of the world. (Psalm 57)
Sometimes the most heartfelt, and beautiful, prayers are composed in moments of existential crisis. Spiritual longing is often solitary. The quest is singular.

David is terrified Saul is going to kill him and attempts to prepare himself for death. “I am ready.” But then he finds strength. “I shall sing.” He suggests an antidote to his fears. “Awake, my glorious soul. Awake, lute and lyre, for I shall awaken the dawn.”

I often visit Israel during the hottest days of July. Hiking along Ein Gedi’s paths the heat starts to get to the better of me and I can imagine David’s fears. When I finally reach what is now called David’s Waterfall, my exhaustion finds relief. The fear dissipates. The waterfall’s cool mist tempers the heat. My spirit is restored.

Awake, my glorious soul.

More words of David’s poems come to mind:
O God, You are my God and thus shall I be first every morning to seek You out.  
My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You as though I were parched in an arid land, as though I were exhausted in a land without water.
Surely I have seen You in the sanctuary; I have merited to see Your power and glory. 
And, as Your mercy is better than life itself, my lips shall always praise You.  (Psalm 63)
If not for David’s fears, and angst, if not for his journeys into the wilderness, I might not have these words on which to cling. “My soul thirsts for You.” Artists, and spiritual seekers, need to be alone with their thoughts. They need to work through their challenges, and difficulties; they need to confront their demons, and enemies. There they discover poetry and song, music and art. We become the beneficiaries of their struggles.

And yet Judaism does not want to leave us alone. It counsels us that our best prayers are those said in community. The kaddish is to be said with a minyan of ten people. The tradition exclaims, “It is not good to mourn alone.”

But that is exactly when we confront those anxieties and fears. The thoughts of longing most often occur when alone. We cannot help but think of those we mourn when by ourselves. Are we never to be left alone? Are we always to be surrounded by friends and community? Can a spiritual quest ever be in the singular?

The Torah responds: “If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord, then he shall abstain from wine…” (Numbers 6) And what is a nazirite’s vow? No drinking of wine. No cutting the hair. And what does Judaism say about this? Narishkeit! Foolishness. We no longer make such vows. We don’t believe that an individual can get closer to God in this way.

The tradition shouts: “Never go it alone.” On Yom Kippur, the community fasts together. Only together can we get closer to God. Even David’s eloquent words are inserted into the Rosh Hashanah prayers. They are not to be said without others. It is as if the tradition states, “Don’t get any ideas about making a pilgrimage to Ein Gedi standing under the waterfall by yourself and reciting David’s words there."

And still, I am left wondering. What about the creative energies that come from personal existential angst and fears?

I turn to another poet. I turn to Rainer Maria Rilke:
I would describe myself
like a landscape I’ve studied
at length, in detail;
like a world I’m coming to understand;
like a pitcher I pour from at mealtime;
like my mother’s face;
like a ship that carried me
when the waters raged. (The Book of a Monastic Life)
I require the poems of the individual (and lost) spirit. I need the songs of the community’s (landed) prayers.