Psalm 54

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.

Psalm 53

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.”

Psalm 52

Your tongue devises mischief, like a sharpened razor that works treacherously. (52:4)

Our contemporary inability to communicate kindly is not a modern invention. Back in the days when writing was new, I suppose Oggita wrote a note on a cave wall to her girlfriend Uggah, “Og wears stinky hides.” And Og scratched out, “Grogg can’t hit the side of an Elephant with a rock.”

I, like the Psalmist, find it discouraging when people use their power of speech as a weapon. When I read online posts and comments claiming with all seriousness that Israel is responsible for a Holocaust of the Palestinian people, I am horrified that people have so little regard for history and for truth. Easily verifiable facts are simply invented – one can find it stated that Gaza is the most densely populated area on earth, when in truth Gaza is 4 times bigger than Manhattan with about the same population. Truth doesn’t matter when one’s goal is to demonize.

In the online world, debate is not about laying out facts and seeing who can present the most persuasive case. It should be – but too often it is about sarcasm and attacks and making up the facts as one goes along.

The goal in peace negotiations is about coming to a consensus that both sides can live with. The goal in online conversations is about making the most outrageous claims, making the other side look foolish, having the last word.

Facebook as a forum for comments on articles is no paragon of virtue, but the fact that most users are identified by their real name causes most users to moderate their comments, at least on articles posted by a friend. However, when NPR or the HuffPost posts a controversial story which receives hundreds or thousands of comments, the sheer volume of comments seems to provide a layer of anonymity that invites meanness.

Websites which allow anonymous comments are the best example that the speech the Psalmist wrote against thousands of years ago has not changed. Speech was, continues to be, and probably always will be used by some as a weapon.

Remarks at the Grand Rapids Solidarity for Israel Rally

Friends, this rally is about peace and I am standing before you to offer a prayer for peace. Peace has a price. Peace means compromise. Peace means that neither side gets all that they want, but they agree to live and let live, to prosper and marry and raise children side by side in safety.

Peace means that the State of Israel is here to stay; otherwise, there is no peace, only devastation.

For over 3000 years, Judaism and Israel have been intertwined. For 2000 years, the heart of the Jewish community yearned to be a free people in its own land once again. For 66 years, we have lived in our homeland and created a proud, moral State that has fulfilled Isaiah’s vision of being an or goyim, “A light among the nations.”

I am here today to say to the anti-Israel protestors, chanting “End the occupation,” chanting “Free Palestine,” that we can talk, peace is within our grasp, as long as you accept reality — Israel exists, and we will not apologize for the fact that Israel is here to stay!

I am here today to say to the terrorist Hamas regime who says that the missiles will stop when the occupation – of 1948 – is over, I say that is not peace. That is a threat against my family, and my family does not take threats lightly.

Here’s the simple recipe for peace, in the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu: “The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war.”

I dream of a day when Lo Yisa Goy el Goy Herev, lo Yil’medu od Milhama, nation will not take up arms against nation, when they will no long experience war; when they will no longer teach hatred to their children, when they will no longer send their children strapped with explosives to murder themselves and others, when they will no longer dig tunnels, marvels of engineering, in order to kidnap and kill our citizens. On that day, there will be peace, and for this we pray:

May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease,
When a great peace will embrace the whole world.
Then nation will not threaten nation,
And [humanity] will not again know war.
For all who live on earth shall realize
We have not come into being to hate or to destroy.
We have come into being
To praise, to labor, and to love.
Compassionate God, bless the leaders of all nations
With the power of compassion.
Fulfill the promise conveyed in Scripture:
I will bring peace to the Land,
And you shall lie down, and no one shall terrify you.
I will rid the Land of vicious beasts
And it shall not be ravaged by war.
Let love and justice flow like a mighty stream.
Let peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea.
And let us say: Amen.

Psalm 51

A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had come to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, as befits Your faithfulness; in keeping with Your abundant compassion, blot out my transgressions. (51:1-3)

When President Clinton was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as the question of impeachment was swirling around and before the President had made any statement of contrition, the Reverend Billy Graham famously appeared on the “Today” show and said, “I forgive him.”

The Clinton/Lewinsky story resonates with the Biblical story of David and Batsheva, in which David slept with Batsheva, then married to Uriah, and upon discovering that she was pregnant, brings Uriah back from a battle to sleep with his wife and thus cover up the adultery. Uriah refuses to sleep with her, saying “[Your soldiers] are camped out in the open, how can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife?” Thereupon, David sends him back to the battle with a note to the general to place Uriah in the front line, and then fall back and let him be killed. David was later told by his prophet Nathan that God would forgive him, but only after Nathan condemned him for what he had done and David, as related in 2 Samuel 11 and in this Psalm, acknowledged his guilt.

I have always been troubled by the fact that the Rev. Graham forgave the President even before he admitted that his actions were wrong. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, on the other hand, didn’t come out publicly in support of the president for several more days, until the president’s “I have sinned” speech. The example of King David demonstrates that one needs to fully acknowledge one’s guilt before the process of repentance and restoration can begin.