Achat Sha'al'ti: One Thing Do I Ask, To Live in God's Presence Forever

September 16th: Ki Tetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the most ambivalence-producing passages in the whole Torah comes in this week’s portion. In Deuteronomy 21.18, we read what to do when a child’s misbehavior gets totally out of control: “If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.”

Why the ambivalence? Because parents struggling to control/influence their children have been quoting this as a possible course of action for some 3000 years. Something about it is strangely appealing…. But, of course, no one can imagine actually doing such a thing. Indeed, the commentators are quick to point out that it was never necessary. Did the threat work, or was no one ever that bad?

Even in terrible conflict, the parent-child bond is very strong, and the strength of the relationship has gotten many families through some very difficult times. But, what if the embrace of familial love were to be broken? What if a child were to be abandoned by his/her parents?

This terrible scenario is considered by the Psalmist in Psalm 27, a psalm traditionally read during the season of repentance (Elul through Shemini Atzeret). Most of us know this psalm as the source of the song, Achat Sha’al’ti, which we usually sing during the High Holy Days:

אַחַת ׀ שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת־יְהֹוָה אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ

שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית־יְהֹוָה כָּל־יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם־יְהֹוָה וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ:

Achat sha’alti me’et-Adonai otah avakesh.
Shiv’ti b’vayt-Adonai kol-y’may chayai,
lachazot b’no’am-Adonai ul’vaker b’haychalo.
“One thing I ask of the Lord, only this do I seek:
To live in the House of the Lord, all the days of my life.
To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to frequent God’s Temple.”

 The Psalm approaches our relationship with God in a kind of melodramatic duality: we take great delight in God’s Presence, and we desperately fear God’s absence. Within this trepidation and bolstered by our faith, we are reminded that God is with us no matter what!

 That is where the fear of parental abandonment comes in. If the absolute worst thing were to happen—if our parents were to abandon us, God would still be our support and comfort. God will never abandon us. Never!  Here is the whole psalm. It is a worthy meditation for us at this time of year:

“The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; whom should I dread?
When evil assails me—to devour my flesh,
It is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall.
Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear;
Should war beset me, still would I be confident.

One thing I ask of the Lord, only this do I seek:
To live in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life.
To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to frequent God’s temple. 

On evil days, God’s holy pavilion will give me shelter,
Granting me protection in the holy tent, raised high upon a rock.
My head will be held high, though my enemies are round about;
I will sacrifice in God’s tent with shouts of  joy, singing and chanting hymns to the Lord.

 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me.
My heart cries out and says, “See me, Lord, I truly seek Your face.”
Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger;
You have ever been my help.
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God, my Deliverer.

 Though my father and my mother abandon me, God will take me in.
Show me Your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path safe from my foes.
Do not give me over to the will of my foes,
Those false witnesses and unjust accusers who appear against me.
What would I do if I did not have faith—faith in God’s goodness in the land of the living?
Look to the Lord, be strong and of good courage? O look to the Lord!”

 Look to the Lord. Look to the relationship we can have with the Lord. Look to the Lord and the closeness we can feel when we gather for our High Holy Days.