Unpacking: Dr. Rick Chess

Questions for the One Who Waits

I wait only for you.
Psalm 27, translated by Norman Fischer

Psalm 27 is read by Jews from the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul through the Jewish High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a psalm about how fearlessness and fearfulness come and go and how during fearless times one feels with absolute certainty God’s protection and during fearful times one cries out to God for God’s protection, certain or not, that sooner or later, it will come.

A standard translation of the final lines of the psalm are “Place your hope in Adonai. / Be strong and take courage and place your hope in Adonai” (Siddur Lev Shalem, a prayerbook published by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement of Judaism in 2016).

Norman Fischer, a prolific poet, writer, and teacher, Zen priest and Jew, translated a selection of the psalms collected in Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms. His translation for Psalm 27, the psalm for this penitential season, concludes with the lines “I wait only for you / With strength and good courage— / I wait only for you.”

In the translation, the speaker of those lines seems to be the psalmist. As part of my Elul practice, I’ve been reading different translations of Psalm 27 every morning. Occasionally, I read the psalm in Hebrew, too. The morning that the concluding lines of Norman’s version of Psalm 27 called out to me, I chose them for my morning meditation. As I began repeating the lines internally, openly, receptively, I suddenly had the sense that the speaker wasn’t human, a man or woman stating that he or she is waiting for “you” or God. Rather, I felt that the lines were being spoken by God and addressed directly to me! It was a powerful, extraordinary moment of listening to what I was hearing as “God” telling me that God was waiting for me, only me!

The questions that follow, with occasional responses, are inspired by the experience of waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Inspired, too, by the questions of who is waiting and waiting for whom.

How long have you been waiting?

I wait and I wait.

How long will you wait?

I will wait and wait.

How do you pass the time while you are waiting?

I watch time.

Would you like an estimate of how long your wait will be?

Do you want me to believe? Do you want me to believe my wait will, one day, one decade, one millennium, come to an end? I am strong. I will not succumb to your seduction. I will not be a believer. I will wait. I wait.

The door opens, but you are not yet waved in. The doctor is in, but not ready for you. The marriage proposal made. The application submitted. Up, down, the button on the elevator pressed, now illuminated from within. The release date for the new phone announced. The woman in labor. The MRI finished.

When, to put yourself through college, you were a waiter, did you ever think it would come to this, a life of waiting?

When you created the garden, when you banished us from the garden, when you stationed a flaming sword at its entrance to prevent our return, did you think you would have to wait this long for us to find the means of creating our own garden flourishing with peace and plenty?

Look! Everyone is rushing to defend democracy! Don’t you think you should give up on your waiting and join them? How would you feel if I abandoned you to your waiting so I could sign the petition, march, and demand justice and liberty for all?

The rabbis are restless. They interpret and interpret and interpret your words. Will their endless interpreting ever cease? Will it ever lead them to you? Are you waiting for them at the end of their interpreting? Is that where they will find you? Or have you been waiting for them all along within their acrobatic feats of exegesis? Is that why, dazzled by their ingenious interpretations, they keep missing you?

For the gas tank to fill, for the prescription to be ready, for the tea kettle to boil, for the storm to pass, for the next election, for the nurse, the anesthetist, the surgeon, for the holidays, for the new season, for the dry cleaning, for the certificate of occupation, for common sense, for compassion, for inspiration: I am waiting and I wait, I wait and I will wait, no matter what else could be done while I am waiting, I will only wait, with strength and good courage, I wait only for you.

What if you exist only when I am waiting for you?

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Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the DoorpostTekiahChair in the Desert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish PoetryBearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies, as well as Chair of UNC Asheville’s English Department. You can find more information at www.richardchess.com