In my wallet, tucked behind my driver’s license, is a little sheet. It’s small, handwritten, and crumpled like the prayer parchment in a mezuzah. I find it very useful and powerful.
Jotted down in my handwritten note are short passages from psalms and prayers, passages that encapsulate something essential – a plea for help, a note of gratitude, a lightspeed instant connection to the divine.
I chant them as I walk, hike, or jog, or even work out at the gym (outdoor gyms have generally stayed open through the pandemic in California). Before an important meeting, for instance, I might chant for its success, using the words from Hallel (Psalm 118), “Ana Adonai / hatzlichah na” (“Please Lord, grant us success”), and if it went well – or even if it didn’t, accepting the result – I can express my gratitude with “Eli Atah v’odeka / Eli Atah v’arommeka” from the same psalm (“You are my G-d, and I will thank You and praise You.”)
Amulet with a Psalm 23 excerpt © Lane Igoudin, 2021
And if another meaningful quote crosses my path while reading or praying, especially if it’s imbued with a poetic rhythm, it will likely find itself on my wallet sheet.
This is my version of gerushin – a Jewish mantra tradition, which goes back at least two millennia. Verses from the Bible, Talmud, Zohar, or just the phrase “Ribbono Shel Olam” (“Master of the Universe”) as suggested by Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, could be used for repetitive recitation.
Aryeh Kaplan, in his authoritative guide to Jewish meditation, describes gerushin as “a way of opening the mind in order to enter into conversation with God. . . Besides bringing the meditator into a higher state of consciousness, [it can] provide him with deeper insight into the verse itself. As he repeat[s] the verse, it would eventually appear as if the verse itself were telling the initiate its meaning. Rather than studying or analyzing the verse, the meditator would then be communing with it.”
So how do you do it? Read or memorize a meaningful phrase or verse. Say it slowly – out loud, under your breath, or to an improvised chant. Repeat the words until you feel their meaning, until they truly connect with your consciousness. Stay with it, and you may even feel that the words spin off into space repeating themselves, turning into a visual experience.
The chanting tradition also exists in the Mussar tradition, where focusing on a ‘soul phrase’ is one way to capture the essence of a soul trait the practitioner is working on. When repeated regularly throughout the day, it conditions the mind and becomes a pathway to penetrate and expand one’s higher consciousness. In the words of a Mussar master, Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz, "chanting lifts the fog and chases away the clouds. A clear light, the light of wisdom, shines before us, and we see a new world, a different reality.”
Here is a selection of verses which help me see this light.
“Accounting of the Soul (Cheshbon Ha’Nefesh) Practice.” (2020). Pathway to the Inner Life. The Mussar Institute.
Kaplan, Aryeh. (1985). Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide. New York: Schocken Books.
All psalms quoted and transliterated above can be found on Sefaria.org.
Lane Igoudin, M.A., Ph.D., blogs for Applied Jewish Spirituality and produces Blessing the Sea, a monthly newsletter on Jewish mindfulness. He is a member of Temple Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Long Beach, California, and of Zen Center of Los Angeles. For more information, please visit his website.