Awake, O my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will wake the dawn. (57:9)
Would that music had the power to awaken the light! There is deep darkness in our world as the calendar turns around to another anniversary of September 11, the number of murdered by the dictator of Syria dwarfs the number murdered in the attack on the World Trade Center and the two other hijacked planes.
Would that the harp and lyre had the power to open up the human soul to the power of love and acceptance! Instead, what we see is a growing movement of radical Islamic oppression. The world would live in darkness when the freedom to worship God according to one’s own spiritual path is denied, when one is murdered for worshipping Jesus or denying Muhammad.
Music has the power to bring people together, singing in harmony, but the music of much of the Middle East these days is not an inviting melody.
An old proverb of uncertain origin goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn. A version of this first appeared in print in 1640 in a travelogue by the English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller entitled, A Pisgah-Sight Of Palestine And The Confines Thereof.
How sad that he wrote this when traveling through Israel; and that more than 370 years later, the dark clouds still loom over much of the region.
You keep count of my wanderings; put my tears into Your flask, into Your record. (56:9)
This verse is reminiscent of the central metaphor of Rosh Hashanah – that God keeps a record of our “wanderings.” The Jewish path of behavior is called halakha. I imagine that wandering might represent our straying off the path of halakha.
The High Holiday amidah, in a section called “unetaneh tokef,” suggests that through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and giving, we might lesson the severity of the decree against us. The first two items on the list, repentance and prayer, go hand in hand with tears.
In order to repent properly, one has to virtually break one’s heart. If we have committed some kind of harm against another person, in order to make amends we need to absolutely feel the pain that we caused. An apology should be felt in the kishkas … we have to feel as if we caused a rip in the fabric of another person’s universe, which is precisely what we did when he committed the harm. The tears are the tearing of the fabric of our own universe experiencing the pain of the other.
Prayer is only effective for the purpose of lesson a Divine decree against us when it pours forth from a broken heart. Prayer is meant to be a transformative experience. We ought not to ask for a gift on a silver platter, but rather ask the Divine Blessed One to help us realign ourselves and become the person created in God’s image that we were meant to be. These are the tears that I shed in the process of changing my fate, that I’d like to be entered into the record.
It is not an enemy who reviles me — I could bear that; it is not my foe who vaunts himself against me — I could hide from him; but it is you, my equal, my companion, my friend. (55:13-14)
The most stinging criticism comes from those closest to us.
We expect our foes to hate us. No matter what they say, we know that their words are tainted by their inherent bias against us, and therefore we don’t need to listen to them. But is is true that just because we know they they are unreasonable and twist the truth and that we don’t need to pay attention to them, that their words don’t hurt? No, it’s not true. It does hurt. There are people who hate me, and the thought that they hate me sometimes keeps me up at night. But at least I know that the criticism they have leveled against me is unreasonable.
When those who love us reprove us, it is painful, and because the words are coming from someone who cares, there is no way around the truth of the reproach. The criticism hurts precisely because it is reasonable. Criticism which is true is painful because it strikes at the heart of my personal identity. Those who are closest to us and know us the best know our weaknesses and know exactly where our faults lay.
The hardest thing to do is to really listen to our equals, our companions, our friends, as they share a difficult truth with us. But if we refrain from hiding from their words but rather really listen to them, we have the chance to learn and grow.
O God, deliver me by Your name; by Your power vindicate me. (54:3)
One of the quirks in my personal practice and teaching of Judaism is that I want our behavior to make sense. By this, I mean that the meaning behind what we do should be logical and should make sense in the real world. Certainly, much of religious tradition involves God and I have never been much interested in whether God’s existence can be philosophically or logically proven (or disproven). But I prefer not to engage in a Jewish ritual whose primary purpose is theurgic, an attempt to manipulate God. I find it non-meaningful, illogical, and offensive when we use God’s name or objects inscribed with God’s name for the purpose of ensuring our protection by or from God.
Case in point: the mezuzah. When I teach the mitzvah of mezuzah, I teach what I understand to be the Biblical intention behind writing certain of God’s words on your doorpost – to be reminded that the home ought to be a place in which God’s words are honored. The rabbinic explication of the mezuzah, that we write the mezuzah in the same way that one writes a Torah scroll (same parchment, same ink), reinforces the notion that one should be reminded that the home is a place of Torah.
A commonly offered explanation of mezuzah is that the letter shin and the word Shaddai (a name of God) stand for shomer d’latot Yisrael, guardian of the doors of Israel, and that the primary purpose of the mezuzah is literally to protect the occupants of the home from harm. To my mind, this is utterly nonsensical. It is theurgic and magical. It serves not to elevate religion and elevate the human soul, but rather to debase the name of God.
Note: After completing one entire year of having a Psalm reflection posted every Monday morning, I found myself on vacation having forgotten to post a reflection. It’s not that I think that there are hundreds – or even dozens – of people waiting with bated breath for the next installment. Rather, I do this because it is a spiritual discipline that adds to my personal growth as a Jew and as a human being. Therefore, vacation or not, here is my reflection on Psalm 53:
God looks down from heaven on humankind to find a person of understanding, one who seeks God. (53:3)
This verse reminds me of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who wandered around the streets of Corinth at noon carrying a lantern. When asked what he was doing, why he needed a lantern on a brightly lit day, he said that he was looking for an honest man. Both Diogenes and this Psalmist think that human nature is by default dishonest and corrupt. No surprise that Diogenes was also known as Diogenes the Cynic and is considered one of the founders of the cynic philosophy.
If this verse is to be a driving guidepost in a philosophy of Judaism, then we have to believe not only that God wants us to become understanding God-seekers, but in fact that it is possible for the average person to embody that behavior.
To embody Torah is to internalize the lesson that all people are created in the image of God, as we are pulled between our general responsibilities to humanity, animal life, and planet earth; and our particular responsibility as Jews, kol Yisrael areivim ze la’zeh, all Israel is responsible for one another.
If religion has only one function in our lives, it is to continually remind us of our obligations to other people. The central principle of Torah, according to Rabbi Akiva, is to “Love your fellow as yourself.”