What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the Pit? Can dust praise You? Can it declare Your faithfulness? (30:10)
I am always struck by the difference in tone between Jewish and Christian obituaries in the Grand Rapids Press. Most often, the obituaries of faithful Christians speak about the joy of going to be with Jesus or God, a sentiment that is rarely, if ever, found expressed in a Jewish obituary.
One of the questions at the center of the difference between the two types of obituary is whether salvation is the primary goal of the religious life. For Christians, salvation achieved through belief in Jesus is the starting point for one’s religious behavior. The reward of salvation is union with God/Jesus. For Jews, one’s behavior with respect to the system of mitzvot (Divine commandments) is the goal of a religious life. The Psalmist reflects the belief that the ability to praise God or serve God through mitzvot ends with one’s death; therefore, the union with God after death ironically ends one’s ability to serve God.
Judaism and Christianity, each in its own way, encourage the individual to live a life of service to others and service of God. The path, though, are dramatically different. Christianity starts with belief, asserting that a sincere belief in Jesus go hand in hand with adherence to a Jesus centered set of behaviors. Judaism starts out with a detailed set of behavioral expectations, believing that adherence to mitzvot will nurture a relationship with God.
The voice of Adonai breaks cedars; Adonai shatters the cedars of Lebanon … The voice of Adonai kindles flames of fire; the voice of the LORD convulses the wilderness … the voice of Adonai causes hinds to calve, and strips forests bare ….” (Psalm 29:5, 7, 9)
I am fascinated by the description of God’s voice – the power of a tremendous thunderstorm, causing the mightiest of trees to lose branches and even topple over. Not only thunder but lightening as well, so loud that the sound can be felt in one’s core even more than by one’s ears. I’m not sure if the hind (deer) gives birth prematurely out of fright, or whether this is a reference to some other biological phenomenon – but the image is of God’s voice stripping both animal and vegetable bare.
Psalm 29 is sung liturgically twice – during the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service to welcome to Sabbath, and on Shabbat mornings when processing around the congregation and putting the Torah away.
The pairing of this Psalm with the Torah service makes a kind of sense, but is a bit backwards. God’s thunderous voice is associated with revelation of Torah. It would make more sense if we chanted these words when removing the Torah from the ark rather than after. The verses we chant when carrying the Torah in procession at the beginning of the Torah service focus on God’s majesty and beauty, which could just well be chanted when putting the Torah away as a response to revelation.
The Kabbalat Shabbat service is a serious of seven Psalms, once for each day of the week, followed by Lekha Dodi, a song welcoming the Sabbath queen. I wonder if the series of Psalms leading up to Shabbat is intended to build up to the revelation of the Divine Presence, which would explain why Psalm 29 immediately precedes Lekha Dodi. However, I have never really understood the progression of Kabbalat Shabbat Psalms (except for Psalm 92, the Psalm for Shabbat, right after Lekha Dodi), so my conjecture might be completely off base. If you have other ideas, I’d love to read about them in the comments on my blog at EmbodiedTorah.Wordpress.com.
Deliver Your people, bless Your heritage; shepherd them and raise them forever. (28:9)
In Hebrew, this verse has exactly 10 words. Because of an odd Jewish bias against counting people, this verse is often used on traditional settings to count people to determine whether a minyan is present. The bias comes from to main places in the Bible:
Exodus 30, where a half shekel ransom is taken along with a national census, possible to “atone” for taking the census.
Samuel 24, where King David took a census and as a result 70,000 people died of a plague.
Counting people or possessions was seen as dangerous, lest it attract the evil eye and cause death. In addition, there is something distasteful about assigning people numbers. Number are dehumanizing (e.g. Holocaust tattoos), and because they are associated with value, numbers may imply that some people have higher value than others. Therefore, Exodus 30 takes a coin from each person and counts the coins, rather than counting the people directly.
So, back to our verse, rather than counting a minyan by number people in the room, you might assign each person a word from the verse:
Hoshia et amekha, u-varekh et nahalatekha; ur’em v’nas’em ad olam.
Of all the verses that have exactly 10 words (I haven’t counted them, but I imagine there must be a good number), this is the one that has become popular. Perhaps because the verse is a plea for deliverance, and if we are going to do something as dangerous and dehumanizing as count human beings (even indirectly), we ought to do it with a prayer for their safety and deliverance, calling upon the shepherd God who takes care of the flock. You hear a popular melody of this verse here.
One thing I ask of Adonai, only that do I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of Adonai, to frequent God’s temple. (27:4)
This verse brings out a particular religious tension for some. The question is to what extent should a religious tradition encourage its followers to seek complete union with the Divine at every moment such that one is living one’s life entirely in God’s house; versus encouraging its followers to live their lives in service to their fellow humans. At first glance, the Psalmist seems to be living on the side of withdrawal from the world in favor of exclusive union with God.
I learned many years ago from a kind and gentle Buddhist named Ken Wells that this is a needless dichotomy. One can be in meditation all day long while at the same time engaging with one’s job, one’s family, and all of the other tasks of one’s life. Being in intimate awareness of God does not preclude also being intimately aware of human needs.
Not that I have even come close to mastering what I need to do to maintain a meditative mind while taking phone calls, answering email, studying Torah, and taking care of a family. But periodically I come back to this verse, especially to a beautiful melody by Yoni Ganout (you can hear several versions here), and use it as a way to refocus myself when I feel myself becoming distracted and and impatient.
When we begin losing our equilibrium and becoming flustered or angry, taking a breath and narrowing our focus can help. “Just one thing do I ask. I am not asking for help juggling the dozen tasks and concerns on my plate – just help me with one thing. Help me to remember that God’s presence is at the center of everything I do. Help me to remember that the world I am living in is God’s house and the people who are demanding things of me are God’s people. Help me to remember that it is X days until Shabbat, when for 25 hours I can step away from many of the demands on my life and hang out for a few hours at shul among people whom I like.”
Probe me, Adonai, and test me, test my kidneys and my heart; (26:2)
When you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder whether the Psalmist is having a wry chuckle at your expense. At that point in your life, when the main social event of your week is visiting another doctor’s office, when every organ and orifice is being poked and prodded and tested and medicated, it’s hard to believe that the Psalmist is seriously and happily inviting God to get in line and take a turn!
Though amusing it would be, happily is not the case. God leaves the poking and prodding to human doctors. In the Biblical idiom, kidneys referred to the seat of strong emotions, and the heart referred to the seat of the intellect. A less literal and far more accurate translation of the verse would therefore be, “Probe me, Adonai, and test me, test my feelings and my thoughts.”
The Psalmist is challenging God to examine the purity of his actions, down to the last intention. A Midrash teaches that the Ark of the Covenant was covered in gold both outside, where it’s beauty could be seen, and inside, where it would never be seen, to remind us that we too should be the same outside and in. Our actions should be positive as should our motives. We should be truthful both to others and to ourselves. We should be the same person when we deal with friends and strangers, family and outsiders, members of our tribe and foreigners, alike. Ironically, the outside of the ark was rarely if ever seen – it was kept in the most sacred of places, and visited but once a year on Yom Kippur by the High Priest. Our additional challenge is strive for purity of actions and motives even when we know that no one is watching, that no one will ever see or know what we have done – except, of course, the Blessed Holy One, who we invite to keep an eye on us to help keep us honest.