Psalm 33

Note: My psalm reflection leading into April on Psalm 33 is in honor of the celebration of Pesah. For more information about Pesah, you can download a detailed Guide to Passover from AhavasIsraelGR.org or contact the synagogue office to request that we send it to you, either by email or by regular mail.

For God spoke, and it was; God commanded, and it endured. (33:9)

I learned recently that in the Biblical idiom, “God spoke” or “God said” in Genesis 1 means “God thought.” God’s speech does not need to be audibly pronounced, because speech is a physical human action that involves breath and mouth/nose and teeth and lips pushing and shaping sound. God, lacking human anatomy, does not need to manipulate wind and sound to make something real. A though or an idea, which to us is only a potential reality depending on action to make it concrete, to God is a reality. In the higher world of God’s reality, if something can be thought than it is real.

Told through the lens of God, Passover should therefore have been a quick story. God would needed only to speak/think and the Israelites would been free. The story would have been brief and to the point – Now we’re slaves, <poof>, now we’re free! But the Hagadah doesn’t opens its telling of the story this way because we don’t tell the story of Passover through God’s lens – we tell it through the lens of human experience. Maggid (the storytelling) begins Now we’re slaves – next year may we be free. We human beings don’t transition quickly. Unlike God’s immediate though to action, we need time to adjust from one state to another. We need to draw out the story to give us time to become free, so we have 10 plagues (which in the Rabbinic imagination are multiplied to 50 and 250) to give Pharaoh and ourselves time to prepare.

I shared a d’var Torah recently in which I suggested that a critical component of leadership is presence. One can be a great visionary leader, but only if one also is able to enlist others to fulfill the mission and get the job done. There will be times of crisis during which issuing memos and barking orders will be insufficient. The leader needs to demonstrate presence, that he or she is involved in the process of getting the work done. Enduring visions are those which are sufficiently compelling so that people stick around to do the work and to see what comes next. The story of Passover wasn’t a story of slave people who scattered to the four winds, each in pursuit of their own vision of freedom but rather the liberation of a people who remained together. 3500-some years later, we are still that same enduring people, telling the same story of how God’s plan came to be. Have a happy and kosher Pesah!

Psalm 25

After a year in which all of the holidays have been “early,” we finally arrived at the month of Adar on February 1. In order to adjust the calendar so that Passover will fall in the Spring, this year is a leap year. This means that the month of Adar is doubled, and Purim is celebrated in the second month of Adar. Passover will begin on April 15. I guess we can all start complaining that the holidays are late again!

There are 150 chapters in the book of Psalms. I have now finished 1/6 of the book, 25 Psalms. The structure of Psalm 25 is an alphabetical acrostic; the theme is that of sin and forgiveness.

Let me know Your paths, Adonai; teach me Your ways; guide me in Your true way and teach me … (25:4-5)

Where do we look for wisdom? How do we know what God wants of us? There is no simple guidebook for life, easily searchable. There is no Siri for life, to whom we can ask, “Should I tell my boss I am not willing to be less than 100% honest with our customers if it might mean losing my job?” “Can I lie to get out of jury duty?” “Is it OK to choose not to aggressively treat my terminal cancer?”

For Jewish wisdom, we have Torah, Tanakh, and all of the literature of commentaries and Midrash and Mussar (ethical training) and ritual, civil, and criminal law that for centuries has grappled with such issues. Nonetheless, it is not as easy as finding a simple and direct answer in a book. The instruction to “Do what is right and good in the sight of Adonai” (Deut. 6:18) means that we ought to life a life of good character; engage in acts of hesed (love); celebrate the Jewish calendar; eat holy food; and continually engage in study of Torah.

It is the last item, Talmud Torah, Torah study, that is the key to the rest. It is a mitzvah to learn. Through learning in its broadest sense, we catch glimmers of wisdom that will serve to center us as we encounter the questions of life. We will have the wisdom and skill to examine the questions with equanimity, to analyze, to hear and learn from the sacred texts, find answers that we might ultimately reject. We will discover the values that inform our decision making, and use them to find a path illuminated by God’s ways.

Psalm 20

How much has the world changed in the last 2013 years? How much has it changed in the last 5744 years? Is there anything that has existed for the entire timeline of recorded history?

My friend and colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg wrote recently that what is possibly the oldest living culture, the Australian aborigines, is about 60,000 years old (see his writings at neohasid.com). That’s pretty old, possibly as old as the earliest development of symbolic culture and language. For the rest of us, our religion, culture, traditions, laws, and rituals are a whole lot younger. Still, our cultural and religious systems provide a measure of stability and continuity over time. The Psalmist, in Psalm 20, reflects on what is temporary and what is permanent.

 

They [call] on chariots, they [call] on horses, but we call on the name of Adonai our God. They collapse and lie fallen, but we rally and gather strength. (20:8-9)

When you get down to brass tacks (what does that really mean, anyway), what do you find at the core? The Psalmist presents two contrasting world views, that of gashmiyut vs. ruhaniyut — materialism vs. spiritualism.

All material objects are temporary. Living creatures eventually die, and their (our) bodies disintegrate, slowly turning back into more basic elements.

I remember flying in and out of New York, looking at all of the buildings and thinking that even such enormous structures cannot last forever. I used to try to imagine Manhattan tens of thousands of years in the future, the buildings covered with vines, slowly eating away at the material, slowly crumbling. I never imagined that the end of the two most imposing towers at the South end of the island would be so dramatic as the one we witnessed in horror on September 11, 2001.

Gashmiyut, materialism – Horses and chariots, mortal beings and material objects, will all eventually collapse and disappear. Everything that we create will ultimately be destroyed.

Ruhaniyut, spiritualism – The existence of a Divine realm over and above us assures us that there is the possibility of a transcendent set of values and meaning for our existence. We can gather together in community and call upon the name of God, we can find strength in rallying together under a banner of a religious community whose purpose is to do good in the world.

Psalm 16

Much ink (including mine, last summer) has been spilled noting that Hanukkah has not been as early in the solar year as it is this year for 125 years. The articles stating that Hanukkah will coincide with Thanksgiving again in 70,000-some years assume that the growing error between the Jewish year and the solar year will never be corrected. Were that to be the case, in 35,000 years we would be celebrating Rosh Hashanah in April and Passover in September. The problem is that the Jewish year is corrected to match the Julian year. We follow the Gregorian calendar, which corrected a very slight error in the length of the year. At some point, when Passover is projected to fall too late in the Spring, the calendar will be corrected so the celebration of Thanksgivakkah or Hodunakkah may very well happen again, although not necessarily in our lifetime.

I bless the LORD who has guided me … (16:7)

The Hanukkah story is an example of how we use a religious myth – the myth that God’s guiding hand can be seen in history.

The first sentence was deliberately provocative, in that it used the word ‘myth’ in a way that is likely to be misunderstood to mean ‘a made up story, one that is not true.’ In fact, a myth may or may not be a historically true story, but it is definitely a true story in that it teaches significant truth. The most accurate definition of ‘myth’ is a narrative that provides a meaningful framework for our lives. The Exodus story is the backbone of the Torah. The principles derived from the experience of the transition from slavery to Mount Sinai, such as the obligation to take care of the weak and vulnerable in our society, are the most important principles of the Torah. Tzedakah and Shabbat, for example, are explicitly linked to the Exodus.

The way we tell the Hanukkah story reinforces the idea that our successes, our victories, are directly linked to acting on our faith in God.

An objective telling of the Hanukkah story might focus on military acumen, the wisdom of fighting a guerrilla war against the Syrian army rather than confronting them in the conventional face to face battle. The Syrians, fighting on behalf of Greek values, were a powerful army, but not particularly committed to the ideology for which they were fighting. They could be worn down over time, and that’s what the Mattathias and his five sons did.

The theological story of Hanukkah emphasizes the victory of the few against the many, the weak against the powerful, an event that could only have happened with God’s intervention. This story is the one told by the al ha-nissim prayer, inserted into the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon on Hanukkah.

An even more extreme story is told by the Talmud to explain the 9 branched Hanukkah menorah. The 8 day celebration of Hanukkah, we are told, is only indirectly connected to the Maccabee’s victory. Rather, we are celebrating the miracle that the last vial of consecrated oil, uncontaminated by Syrian idolatrous hands, burned for 8 days, until new oil could be pressed.

The dreydel, with its four letters representing “A Great Miracle Happened There,” is ambiguous. Which miracle are we talking about – the military victory, the oil, or both? It doesn’t really matter – both stories illustrate “I bless the LORD who has guided me …”, seeing the hand of Divine providence in the critical events of our history.

Psalm 11

Rabbi Jack Moline, in my opinion one of North America’s wisest rabbis, once shared that when he writes a sermon or a d’var Torah, his first intended audience is himself, so that when he listens to himself delivering it, he’ll learn something that he needs to learn. If anyone else listens and learns from it as well, so much the better.

Well, having completed almost three months of Psalm blogging, that’s about how I’m feeling. A systematic consideration of Psalms is helping me think through some issues that come before me, but I’m wondering how many others find it useful. A blog is a conversation – I invite you to share your thoughts on what I write each week. If you are so inclined, please go to embodiedtorah.wordpress.com and leave me a note or a reflection on the week’s Psalm.

 

“When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous man do?” (11:3)

We live our lives based on a set of core assumption and beliefs about the world. Most of the time we don’t question or explore those basic principles, and in fact we might not even know what they are. Now and then, however, something happens to make us notice one of our foundational beliefs and either reject it, modify it, or conform to it.

Our core belief might be that if I treat other people right, I will always be treated well. This principle is shaken when we find ourself being mistreated for no apparent reason, perhaps by people we don’t even know! We might conclude that we should reject the core belief, and from that point on not care about how we treat others. Preferably, we might decide to modify the core belief and conclude that regardless of how others treat me, I am going to treat people well.

Another core belief might be that Judaism directs me to care for the environment and all who live in it, both human and animal. This principle is tested when I learn more about food production and the damage done to the environment by pesticides and the raising of animals for food. I might commit myself to conform to my principle and change my diet; or I might decide that other principles of Jewish eating allow me to lesson my commitment to this core value as long as I hold onto other principles of kashrut.

In order to live a life of righteousness, it is important to examine, preserve, maintain and live by one’s foundational principles.