I know what Transgression says to the wicked; he has no sense of the dread of God … (36:2)
Transgression personified is seductive. Transgression is that little voice inside our head whispering to us, that no one will every know that we have taken the unwise action that we are contemplating. Transgression urges us to break down the filter that a wise person places between his thoughts and his actions; between her emotions and her mouth. Transgression urges us towards impulsive behavior – sometimes it is only fear of discovery, fear of shame, fear of God that holds us back.
The meditative mind responds to Transgression: I am not going to act in the moment – I am going to sit on my impulses and live with my strong emotions until they quiet down. Only then will I be able to hear the other voice whispering inside my head, urging me towards equanimity, the calm, measured emotions of the wise, clear seeing person.
This internal dialogue is ongoing. It does no good to try to shut off the transgressive voice – it will not be denied. It does no good to try to shout at it, drown it out with counter arguments, it will just shout louder and longer. The only way to respond to it is by hearing the voice and letting it go. By giving it attention, you give it substance and reality. By embracing the path of equanimity, you choke off the source of its strength. The voice has no power. It is smoke. The slightest puff will dissipate it.
All my bones shall say, “Adonai, who is like You?” (35:10)
This verse from Psalms reminds us that our whole body can be engaged in prayer. Prayer need not be merely an intellectual exercise or even just an emotional experience. Prayer can also be a physical experience. We can pray while we move our bodies – “shuckeling” is the Yiddish term for the quintessentially Jewish back and forth swaying motion of traditional prayer. We can pray while we walk. A walking meditation typically invites us to focus on our breath and balance and body movements. A long distance runner might experience a “runner’s high,” that point when the exhausted body releases endorphins. It might feel like God breathed out a healing breathe.
On another level, prayer should never only be petitionary. If prayer is only about asking, then God is reduced to a vending machine. Prayer should also be about cultivating goodness. Prayer should affect my bones, my body. If prayer has not transformed my very being into a different person, then it has not truly been prayer (I should add here parenthetically that I believe most prayer, including my own, is very rarely true prayer). It is only when “all my bones/my essence” are involved in the experience that we achieve a complete connection with the Divine.
Finally, God is unique. That is the essential proclamation of the Shema.. This psalmist asserts that God is entirely Other, that no one and nothing is like God. This particular statement would seem to exclude the Hasidic/panentheistic view that God’s uniqueness is manifested by virtue of God infusing all reality – “There is no place free from God’s presence.” However, the beauty of Biblical theology through a Jewish lens is that it does not present a single monolithic view of God, so we can certainly also find support for the notion that God’s oneness means that nothing is separate from God.
Taste and see how good Adonai is; happy the one who takes refuge in God! (34:9)
I was listening to a “How Stuff Works” podcast recently on synesthesia. Synesthesia is the blending of the senses, when, for example, music or language is experienced as color or taste or smell. I am fascinated by people with this ability (my wife and daughter among them). The hosts of the podcast kept referring to synesthesia as a ‘disorder,’ which really bothered me. It is better described as a neurological condition, one which potentially can give the affected person a level of creativity and insight that amazes us neurotypicals. Jimi Hendrix, David Hockney, Billy Joel, Duke Ellington are just a handful of the artists and musicians blessed with synesthesia.
The Psalmist’s suggestion that one might taste God’s goodness, like the suggestion that the Israelites saw the thunder of the Sinai revelation (Exodus 20:18), suggests that at least some of the Biblical writers appreciated the ability to perceive the world in non-standard ways.
All language about God is metaphorical. I understand how to take refuge in a basement against a tornado. I don’t really understand how to take refuge in God – it is certainly not a literal image. But we all use such language all the time, and if I don’t think about it too carefully I know exactly what it means to take refuge in God, just as I instinctually know how to taste goodness.
The Passover Seder bridges the gap between the symbolic and the actual by inviting us to eat ritual foods which transport us back to our time as slaves and experience the bitterness, the tears, and the oppression of bondage. Thus, even those of us who are neurotypical can engage many of our sense, tasting and smelling, hearing and seeing, in the Passover experience.
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 writing memos and issuing 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!
Many are the torments of the wicked, but one who trusts in Adonai shall be surrounded with favor. (32:10)
Why do Jews ask me if Jews believe in Hell? Do they not know what they believe in? It seems clear that if they believed in Hell, they would not need to ask me – they would know that they, full fledged dues paying members of the Jewish community, believe in Hell and therefore Jews believe in Hell. They do not believe in Hell, and are asking me if Jews other than themselves, any other Jews, believe in Hell. Are they afraid that their non-belief might jeopardize the quality of their Jewishness? If I tell them that certainly Jews believe in Hell, would they suddenly change their minds and begin believing?
In fact, I don’t think that this Psalmist believes in Hell. It is far more likely that his theology assured him that goodness and evil carry their own rewards and punishments in this world, not in a future world.
The evil that you do will come back at you. It will torment you. It will catch up to you. it will turn you into a frightened, suspicious, bitter, dried up soul. On the other hand, the good things that you do will keep you fresh and vibrant. You will smile and others will return the favor. You will see the good in people, as they will see the kindness in you.
I believe in Heaven and in Hell, although I don’t really know what heaven and hell means or what it looks or feels like. I also believe that you make yourself into the kind of person you want to be, and you see yourself and your attributes reflected around you. When I am happy, I see the blessings and favors around me; when I am unhappy, I see the curses and burdens around me. I am happier when I am happy, so therefore I choose to be happy.