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?

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – September, 2014

My apologies – I forgot to post this at the beginning of September!

“Is it hard to be Jewish in Grand Rapids?” was one of the questions that one of our Israeli Scout guests asked as we were eating breakfast. Yes, it can be difficult. Acquiring kosher food can be a challenge, especially meat. One or two days, 2.5 – 4.5 hours, a week of Jewish education for children is barely enough to scratch the surface, much less teach serious Hebrew and the richness of Jewish literature, calendar, prayer, and other daily practice. There is a growing disconnect between the American Jewish community and Israel, as supporters of Israel find themselves having to work hard to overcome apathy at best, and to justify even the existence of the State of Israel at worst.

On the other hand, for those who want to support and/or participate in a serious Jewish community, Jewish behavior is as natural as breathing. Rarely do I feel that it is an effort or a burden to be Jewish – celebrating Shabbat in the Ahavas Israel community, being aware of how I give my Tzedakah dollars and what food I put into my body, helping staff our Family Promise shelter dates, and learning and teaching Torah, this is what sustains me.

As we approach the fall of the year and our High Holidays once again, I encourage you to use the time of teshuvah to consider how you might enliven your Jewish souls. Our Scholar in Residence weekend this month, featuring Dr. Yael Aronoff of MSU, will answer many of your questions (or the questions your friends or co-workers might throw at you) on Israel. Let the return of our religious school students to class be a reminder that Judaism is not (just) for children – you, too, can find ways to learn Torah and Rabbinic literature both locally and online. You can find my weekly reflections on Psalms at embodiedtorah.wordpress.com – read Psalms along with me and add your own reflections in the comments.

May your new year be sweet and give you many opportunities to nourish your soul.