For Mine is every animal of the forest, the beasts on a thousand mountains. I know every bird of the mountains, the creatures of the field are subject to Me. (50:10-11)
I recently saw the movie “Noah” starring Russell Crowe as the title character. One of the fascinating aspects of the movie was how it wove in material from two distinct Biblical schools of thought regarding the relationship between human beings and the earth. Genesis 1:28 says, “God said to [the first human beings], “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” Genesis 2:15 says, “The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.” Genesis one believes that nature is subservient to the needs of human beings, while Genesis 2 believes that we a placed on earth to take care of God’s creation.
This Psalmist clearly believes that creation belongs to God, not to human beings. The Biblical verb yada’, “to know,” implies a close, intimate relationship between subject and object. It is a way of saying that God cares about each and every living being in the natural world. By implication, if God cares about the well-being of the animals, God must also care about the well-being of their habitat, our environment.
On a recent visit to Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, I saw this theology in action as I learned about their extensive student-initiated recycling program. Trash cans have been removed from the classrooms because that encourages thoughtless discarding. Instead, they place a trash can in each main hallway next to the recycling bins for glass, metal, paper, plastic, electronics, and a bin for donation items. They aggressively seek to reduce the purchase of items with excess packaging material, and ask students, faculty, and departments to sign a “zero-waste initiative” pledge. Yishar Koah to Aquinas College for living out their faith!
Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, when his household goods increase. (49:17)
The second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) speaks of material blessings, but typical of such Torah material, it speaks about the recipient of such blessings in the second person plural, rather than singular. The community is blessed with rain and fertility, not the individual. There might be many reasons that an individual may become wealthy: Intelligence, business acumen, hard work, family connections, and just plain good luck. An individual who fails to prosper might be making poor choices or business decisions, might not be working hard enough, or might simply have run into bad luck. It is not the case, nor should it be, that God micromanages the economy so that good people consistently accumulate more wealth than bad people.
Why, though, does the Psalmist say, “Do not be afraid …”? What is there to fear? The Psalmist is sharing with us a very useful tidbit of theology … do not be afraid that your relative lack of prosperity compared with your rich neighbor is a sign that God loves your neighbor and hates you. Individual prosperity or success is not in and of itself a sign of God’s blessing any more than individual poverty or failure is a sign of God’s curse. A world in which one could easily rank people’s relative worth in God’s eyes based on their pocketbooks would indeed be a world to fear. It would be no different than the Nazi’s ranking of people’s relative worth based on the color of their skin and eyes, with blond-haired, blue-eyed aryans on top.
When a person becomes rich, heavy with household goods, that is the time to rejoice in your neighbor’s good fortune and hope that the community, its cultural and religious and social institutions, its hospitals and libraries and schools, and its communal celebrations, are the recipients of tzedakah (charitable) contributions!
We meditate, O God, upon Your love. (48:10)
The word translated as ‘meditate’ also carries the meaning of ‘to be silent.’ My process in writing these Psalm reflections is to read the Psalm in Hebrew and in at least one English translation. I keep looking at the verses, reviewing the words and phrases for as much time as it takes for one of the verses to jump out at me. I then sit quietly with that verse until it tells me why it has captured my attention. Meditation can be a process of clarifying one’s intentions.
The mind is normally very active. Every though leads to another thought, and when an idea strikes us, we pursue that idea until it leads to some sort of action, until it begin to bore us, or until another thought hijacks our attention, and the process begins again.
Meditation is a practice of not chasing the thoughts. When you give thoughts attention, they becomes like toddlers, demanding more and more attention. When you imagine the thoughts like puffs of smoke, with no attention they drift away and evaporate (note that this should be treated as a practice of meditation, not child-rearing!). In the stillness of a mind that ceases to chase its own tail, so to speak, the message that is the most beloved, the closest to God’s love, will expand.
There is no magic in this practice. There are no hidden, secret messages from God being revealed from a Divine external source. You already know the answer, just as you already have experienced moments of God’s love. The practice of silence and meditation is merely a means of opening you up to wisdom that you have had all along.
All you peoples, clap your hands, raise a joyous shout for God …. Sing, O sing to God; sing, O sing to our king. (47:2, 7)
Prayer is supposed to be a joyous, energy-filled experience. Shabbat, weekday minyan, any time when people gather together for a service (other than a Shiva minyan, of course) should be an opportunity to be enthusiastic. We shouldn’t sit back or stand in the back of the room disengaged and waiting for others to finish so we can leave. We also shouldn’t mistake enthusiasm racing through prayers as quickly as we can – that’s not necessarily enthusiasm, that is trying to get in and out as quickly as possible. In both cases, your body may be counted in the minyan, but your lack of attention and participation in the communal experience is sucking the energy out of the room.
Enthusiasm is connecting with the other people in the room and helping to carry their voices and prayers with yours, at the same time as they are enthusiastically lifting your words up with their own. Enthusiasm doesn’t simply multiply the energy in the room, it amplifies it exponentially. Enthusiasm involves using your breath, your mind, and your heart to express an emotion or an idea. One is Dale Carnegie’s guiding principles is, “If you act enthusiastic, you will be enthusiastic!” Your behavior can change your emotional state, and it is contagious. There is nothing quite like an entire room full of people using nothing but their voices and their clapping hands to sing a joyful song.
Next time you are in a religious service, try an experiment. Raise your output just a notch (making sure that you are singing with the people around you, not against them), and see how you experience prayer differently.
My 17 year old son Solomon arrived in Israel today, about 4 hours before Israeli soldiers found the murdered bodies of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel in a field less than 12 miles from the place from which they had been kidnapped 18 days ago. They had apparently been shot soon after being taken captive. Solomon is participating in the Ramah Israel Seminar, and I should have no worries about his safety in Israel – Ramah is fanatical about the safety of participants on their programs. Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel a twinge of worry. Israel is going to respond, and the response has to punish not only the two Hamas members responsible, but also others involved in covering up their actions and hiding them. I am distressed that Solomon’s Israel experience will be scarred not only by tremendous sadness, but also by the military response that is bound to occur.
This is not the blog post I had intended to write today. I had intended to write about the experience of sending a blind son on an Israel program, with lavish praise for the Ramah Israel Seminar and the director, Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, for making it happen. That post will have to come later. Today’s emotions are distress, disappointment, anger, and despair.
I am deeply disappointed that despite the horrific nature of the crime (and the fact that one of the boys is American as well as Israeli), it took President Obama nearly 7 hours to make a statement; and while he “strongly condemned” the murders, he also called upon the Israeli government to refrain from taking “steps that could further destabilize the situation.” What steps should be taken against people who kidnapped and tied up three boys, shot them, and left them half-buried under some rocks in a remote Wadi? Is there any way to take even the justified step of finding and arresting the suspects without “further destabilizing the situation?” The President offers US help in finding the perpetrators of this crime (although I wonder how US forces can be more effective than Israeli forces), and says that Israel has the full support and friendship of the US government, but doesn’t want Israel to take steps that might destabilize a situation that cannot reasonably be described as anything resembling stable.
To my Presbyterian friends – do you realize that while your national organization was passing a resolution of boycotts and sanctions against Israel, shortly after the Palestinian Authority was creating a unity partnership government with Hamas, three teenage boys were being murdered? When will we see you call for sanctions again those who perpetrate and support such a crime? Are you as angry as I am at the ineptitude of your leadership’s moral judgement?
Finally, as a person who still wants to believe that it will be possible to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians in my lifetime, I begin to despair that I will ever see Israeli and the Palestinian areas coexisting in security and prosperity.
May the families of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach be comforted among the mourners of Zion, and may their memories be for a blessing.