You keep count of my wanderings; put my tears into Your flask, into Your record. (56:9)
This verse is reminiscent of the central metaphor of Rosh Hashanah – that God keeps a record of our “wanderings.” The Jewish path of behavior is called halakha. I imagine that wandering might represent our straying off the path of halakha.
The High Holiday amidah, in a section called “unetaneh tokef,” suggests that through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and giving, we might lesson the severity of the decree against us. The first two items on the list, repentance and prayer, go hand in hand with tears.
In order to repent properly, one has to virtually break one’s heart. If we have committed some kind of harm against another person, in order to make amends we need to absolutely feel the pain that we caused. An apology should be felt in the kishkas … we have to feel as if we caused a rip in the fabric of another person’s universe, which is precisely what we did when he committed the harm. The tears are the tearing of the fabric of our own universe experiencing the pain of the other.
Prayer is only effective for the purpose of lesson a Divine decree against us when it pours forth from a broken heart. Prayer is meant to be a transformative experience. We ought not to ask for a gift on a silver platter, but rather ask the Divine Blessed One to help us realign ourselves and become the person created in God’s image that we were meant to be. These are the tears that I shed in the process of changing my fate, that I’d like to be entered into the record.
It is not an enemy who reviles me — I could bear that; it is not my foe who vaunts himself against me — I could hide from him; but it is you, my equal, my companion, my friend. (55:13-14)
The most stinging criticism comes from those closest to us.
We expect our foes to hate us. No matter what they say, we know that their words are tainted by their inherent bias against us, and therefore we don’t need to listen to them. But is is true that just because we know they they are unreasonable and twist the truth and that we don’t need to pay attention to them, that their words don’t hurt? No, it’s not true. It does hurt. There are people who hate me, and the thought that they hate me sometimes keeps me up at night. But at least I know that the criticism they have leveled against me is unreasonable.
When those who love us reprove us, it is painful, and because the words are coming from someone who cares, there is no way around the truth of the reproach. The criticism hurts precisely because it is reasonable. Criticism which is true is painful because it strikes at the heart of my personal identity. Those who are closest to us and know us the best know our weaknesses and know exactly where our faults lay.
The hardest thing to do is to really listen to our equals, our companions, our friends, as they share a difficult truth with us. But if we refrain from hiding from their words but rather really listen to them, we have the chance to learn and grow.
Note: After completing one entire year of having a Psalm reflection posted every Monday morning, I found myself on vacation having forgotten to post a reflection. It’s not that I think that there are hundreds – or even dozens – of people waiting with bated breath for the next installment. Rather, I do this because it is a spiritual discipline that adds to my personal growth as a Jew and as a human being. Therefore, vacation or not, here is my reflection on Psalm 53:
God looks down from heaven on humankind to find a person of understanding, one who seeks God. (53:3)
This verse reminds me of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who wandered around the streets of Corinth at noon carrying a lantern. When asked what he was doing, why he needed a lantern on a brightly lit day, he said that he was looking for an honest man. Both Diogenes and this Psalmist think that human nature is by default dishonest and corrupt. No surprise that Diogenes was also known as Diogenes the Cynic and is considered one of the founders of the cynic philosophy.
If this verse is to be a driving guidepost in a philosophy of Judaism, then we have to believe not only that God wants us to become understanding God-seekers, but in fact that it is possible for the average person to embody that behavior.
To embody Torah is to internalize the lesson that all people are created in the image of God, as we are pulled between our general responsibilities to humanity, animal life, and planet earth; and our particular responsibility as Jews, kol Yisrael areivim ze la’zeh, all Israel is responsible for one another.
If religion has only one function in our lives, it is to continually remind us of our obligations to other people. The central principle of Torah, according to Rabbi Akiva, is to “Love your fellow as yourself.”
A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had come to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, as befits Your faithfulness; in keeping with Your abundant compassion, blot out my transgressions. (51:1-3)
When President Clinton was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as the question of impeachment was swirling around and before the President had made any statement of contrition, the Reverend Billy Graham famously appeared on the “Today” show and said, “I forgive him.”
The Clinton/Lewinsky story resonates with the Biblical story of David and Batsheva, in which David slept with Batsheva, then married to Uriah, and upon discovering that she was pregnant, brings Uriah back from a battle to sleep with his wife and thus cover up the adultery. Uriah refuses to sleep with her, saying “[Your soldiers] are camped out in the open, how can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife?” Thereupon, David sends him back to the battle with a note to the general to place Uriah in the front line, and then fall back and let him be killed. David was later told by his prophet Nathan that God would forgive him, but only after Nathan condemned him for what he had done and David, as related in 2 Samuel 11 and in this Psalm, acknowledged his guilt.
I have always been troubled by the fact that the Rev. Graham forgave the President even before he admitted that his actions were wrong. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, on the other hand, didn’t come out publicly in support of the president for several more days, until the president’s “I have sinned” speech. The example of King David demonstrates that one needs to fully acknowledge one’s guilt before the process of repentance and restoration can begin.
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.”