Psalm 40

Your Torah is in my inmost parts. (40:9)

One approach to Torah teaches that the entire purpose of Torah is to transform us into people who see the unity of God everywhere and in everything. This is the approach of “Embodied Torah.” When we carry Torah within us at both an unconscious and conscious level, then we change the nature of our reflexes. No longer do we respond with anger or impatience. No longer do we manifest negative emotions or character traits. Rather, we respond with love and positivity.

One who embodies Torah instinctively knows the right way to react. Rather than reflecting negativity and anger back at the person who is angry at him, he absorbs it like a supersonic stealth aircraft with a radar absorbing coating. Even better, like a science fiction invisibility cloak, he bends the rays of the emotions so they pass around him without touching him in the slightest.

In case you were wondering, I, like virtually every other human being, am far from perfectly embodying Torah in this way. If fact, I am far from imperfectly embodying Torah. But as attributed to Voltaire, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I began this blog because I believe that the internalizing Torah is the ultimate goal, a process that will take a lifetime and likely will never be completed. However, I also believe, like Rabbi Tarfon (Pirke Avot 2:16), that “you are not required to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

Psalm 36

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.

Psalm 28

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.

Psalm 27

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.”

Psalm 24

Psalm 24 is sung in our services on weekdays and Shabbat afternoons (and on weekday Festivals) when we put the Torah away. It’s a beautiful, short psalm that begins by reminding us that God is the Creator and in order to deserve a home on this world, we have to treat the landLord and the rest of God’s creatures with respect.

Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in God’s holy place? — One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life or sworn deceitfully. (24:3-4)

Of course, there is no one who has not missed the mark at some point in his or her life. No one’s behavior is unblemished, and no one heart is (i.e. thoughts are) absolutely pure. If thoughts of sin were equal to sin (not true in the Hebrew Bible), most people would be in deep trouble! Judaism has been accused of being so mired in a legal system that recovery is impossible – this is a misunderstanding of Jewish tradition.

In order to ascend the mountain and stand in the presence of God, we need to do the proper work. There is no shortcut up this mountain, there is no tram that takes you up without effort. The work isn’t hard, but it has to be done. Bad habits need to be considered and dismantled. We need to watch our patterns of speech, be careful how we speak about others. Lashon Hara, evil, reputation destroying gossip, will trip us on our journey up the mountain.

I am reminded of a deep Biblical teaching from the beginning of Leviticus, which presents a series of offerings, each of which purify the one who brings it. Large animals, small animals, birds, and grain – each accomplish the same end. The ritual of repentance is open to all, the path up the mountain is fully accessible, regardless of one’s economic power. Judaism has embraced that principle and continued to democratize itself. Judaism is not a race, it is no a closed tribe, it is a way to live your life according to Torah. It is not punitive – it provides a way to clean one’s hands. In the end, we believe that God, the righteous judge, is a loving and merciful God.