Psalm 63

God, … I search for You, my soul thirsts for You, my body yearns for You, as a parched and thirsty land that has no water. (63:2)

Sometimes God’s presence is front and center, and sometimes it is like (as this Psalmist writes) we are in a dry wilderness and God is nowhere to be seen.

My own experience is this — I don’t expect the Presence of God to be visible at all times. I expect that I am pretty much on my own most of the time. The brief moments when I sense the Presence are comforting and gratifying, all the more so for their rarity. My sense is this is the way things are supposed to be.

Years ago, I read in Rabbi David Wolpe’s “Healer of Shattered Hearts” an explanation of theodicy and goodness that has remained with me ever since. If you knew that God was constantly at your side, rewarding you and punishing you at appropriate moments, wouldn’t you be on your best behavior? How many people break traffic laws when they know that a police car is right behind them! Are you being good at those moments, or are you just being smart? Rabbi Wolpe suggests that you are not being good when you are behaving well at moments when you know you are being monitored, you are just being smart.

The fact is that we know good people who suffer and nasty people who prosper. We know both good and evil people are hurt by tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunami. We know that God does not immediately reward and punish. God is not a police officer trailing us night and day. Thus, when we choose to be good rather than bad, we are truly being good, not just smart.

We may long for a more visible and constant and nourishing sign of the Presence of God. At the same time, we need to remember that we are mature, adult, human beings, able to function without constant “parental” supervision.

Psalm 62

Truly, wait quietly for God, O my soul, for my hope comes from Him. (62:6)

Pure silence can be a beautiful thing, although there are various qualities of silence. There is the awkward silence of two people who don’t know each other well and are fumbling for ways to make conversation. There is the uncomfortable silence of walking into a room full of people you don’t know and watching as conversation stops and all heads turn your way. There is the painful silence of encountering someone who is angry with you and isn’t speaking to you. There is the comfortable silence of taking a walk with someone you know well; you can walk together and enjoy the walking and the silence. There is the inviting silence of a good teacher who offers a questions for discussion and waits until someone is ready to offer a contribution. There is the warm silence of a room full of people in silent prayer or meditation together.

Sitting in silence is a practice. Having the patience to wait does not come naturally. We fidget, we look around for something to do, something to distract us from the silence. Some perceive silence as lonely. To this, I offer – you are never truly alone. You are with yourself, and you are with God. If being alone makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself what is it about you that makes it hard for you to be alone with yourself? That’s not to say that one should seek to be alone as much as possible as a primary activity. I only offer that the times that you are alone can be times when you can most clearly hear the voice of God providing direction in your life. Are you alone too much? Pay attention to the Divine voice and embrace the silence. Then seek out a community that can support you in traveling the road that your inner voice tells you to walk along.

Psalm 61

“Appoint steadfast love (hesed v’emet, literally “love and truth”) to guard him.” (61:8)

A hendiadys is a word pair consisting of two nouns (or sometimes a noun and an adjective) joined by a conjunction, in which the two words modify each other. It is a common Biblical form. See here for a further explanation and examples.

Hesed v’emet or hesed shel emet is a term often used to refer to the work of the Hevra Kadisha, the group that prepares bodies for burial by washing and dressing them in linen shrouds. The “truest form of love” is the love you show for a person without expectation that you will receive anything in return. This certainly applies to the mitzvah of taking care of the dead.

In the case of this Psalmist, who is referring to the circumstances of a King, hesed v’emet, steadfast love, refers to the kind of love that is shown by God to human beings, who can never hope to repay the love to a God has no real need for human favor. It is also a model for the love in a human relationship. If we qualify everything we do for someone we love with the condition that we get something in return, the relationship will inevitably deteriorate. This is as taught in Pirke Avot 5:18:

“A loving relationship which depends upon something, [when] that thing is gone, the love is gone. But [a loving relationship] which does not depend upon something will never come to an end.”

Psalm 60

Give those who fear You because of Your truth a banner for rallying. Selah. (60:6)

The words nes l’hitnoses are translated both by the New (1985) JPS translation and by the newer (2007) Robert Alter translation as “a banner for rallying.” The word nes is known from the Hanukkah story to mean “miracle,” but here means a sign or signal. In this Psalm, as elsewhere, it is often used in connection with war, as in rallying the troops at a specific point to engage in battle.

The attitude that those who identify themselves as God-fearers ought to engage in warfare against others in order to spread their truth is a danger to the world. We can clearly see this not only from the turmoil in the Moslem dominated countries in the Middle East, but also from the crusades of the Medieval European church.

However, taking the military connotation out of the word, let’s understand rally in its peaceful political sense. When we, as religious people, believe we know what God wants us to do, we should rally for our cause. If our religious tradition, for example, tells us that equal treatment of all people regardless of ethnicity or skin color is one of God’s values, shouldn’t we rally in support of anti-discrimination laws? If our religious tradition tells us that sexual orientation should not be a barrier to finding a life partner and marrying, shouldn’t we rally under the rainbow flag?

If the answers to these question is yes, then that creates a dilemma. If our religious tradition tells us that marriage is defines solely as a partnership between one man and one woman, then should we not also rally under that flag?

I suggest that the test of whether or not God is “with” either of these two groups happens when they intersect. If the intersection of the two groups results in shouting, hateful speech, ugly confrontations, or violence, then God is not present. If the two groups can rally opposite one another without hating each other, with no one feeling threatened, then God is present in both groups. That would indeed be a nes, a miracle.

And if you ask me how two opposing views can both be true, all I can say is that I believe that God’s truth is far more expansive than your truth or mine.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – October, 2014

I was thinking one morning about why we do the things that we do, and it occurred to me that we can classify three different kinds of motivations:

Some things, we do purely because we want to do them. We might go on a bike ride, go to the beach, go out to dinner with our spouse, or go to a movie simply because such activities give us enjoyment.

Other things, we do only because we have been compelled to do them. Into this category we might put actions like paying taxes, driving the speed limit at all times, and paying for each and every item we put into our shopping cart at the grocery store. We might also add to this category things that we are compelled to do by our biology, like aging, getting sick, or dying.

In between, there are the things that we do because we feel a sense of obligation or duty; we don’t want to do them, but neither is anyone specifically forcing us to do them. This is where we live most of our lives. No one is forcing us to work, but we feel a sense of obligation to provide for our family. Exercise or proper eating, for many people, falls into this category. It’s when you go on the bike ride or the walk or eat your vegetables even when you don’t want to, because you know it’s good for you. No one can force us to make charitable contributions or volunteer our time – we do so because we feel a sense of obligation.

These three categories overlap. There are things we do, such as the act of giving or exercising, that make us feel good while or after doing them.

The number of actions that we are actually forced to do is actually very low – there may be some authority that issues a threat if we take a particular action (speeding), but most of the time we know that we can break the law and not get caught, so it is only our sense of civic responsibility that slows us down.

Where does contemporary Jewish observance fall? I am grateful that it is not in the first category. There are no effective or desirable means to compel Jewish life today, nor should their be. Even our model of synagogue affiliation and dues has moved from the coercive to the voluntary.

What is your motivation for Jewish behavior? What kinds of things do you do purely because they give you enjoyment (Synagogue on Shabbat morning, building a Sukkah)?

What kinds of things do you do our of a sense of obligation (or perhaps guilt)?

If you agree that the pure motivation of desire is a higher level of behavior than the level of obligation; what might you do to elevate your Jewish practices? Can you imagine embracing a fuller Jewish life out of the sheer joy of it? How might you achieve this?