Psalm 61

“Appoint steadfast love (hesed v’emet, literally “love and truth”) to guard him.” (61:8)

A hendiadys is a word pair consisting of two nouns (or sometimes a noun and an adjective) joined by a conjunction, in which the two words modify each other. It is a common Biblical form. See here for a further explanation and examples.

Hesed v’emet or hesed shel emet is a term often used to refer to the work of the Hevra Kadisha, the group that prepares bodies for burial by washing and dressing them in linen shrouds. The “truest form of love” is the love you show for a person without expectation that you will receive anything in return. This certainly applies to the mitzvah of taking care of the dead.

In the case of this Psalmist, who is referring to the circumstances of a King, hesed v’emet, steadfast love, refers to the kind of love that is shown by God to human beings, who can never hope to repay the love to a God has no real need for human favor. It is also a model for the love in a human relationship. If we qualify everything we do for someone we love with the condition that we get something in return, the relationship will inevitably deteriorate. This is as taught in Pirke Avot 5:18:

“A loving relationship which depends upon something, [when] that thing is gone, the love is gone. But [a loving relationship] which does not depend upon something will never come to an end.”

Psalm 60

Give those who fear You because of Your truth a banner for rallying. Selah. (60:6)

The words nes l’hitnoses are translated both by the New (1985) JPS translation and by the newer (2007) Robert Alter translation as “a banner for rallying.” The word nes is known from the Hanukkah story to mean “miracle,” but here means a sign or signal. In this Psalm, as elsewhere, it is often used in connection with war, as in rallying the troops at a specific point to engage in battle.

The attitude that those who identify themselves as God-fearers ought to engage in warfare against others in order to spread their truth is a danger to the world. We can clearly see this not only from the turmoil in the Moslem dominated countries in the Middle East, but also from the crusades of the Medieval European church.

However, taking the military connotation out of the word, let’s understand rally in its peaceful political sense. When we, as religious people, believe we know what God wants us to do, we should rally for our cause. If our religious tradition, for example, tells us that equal treatment of all people regardless of ethnicity or skin color is one of God’s values, shouldn’t we rally in support of anti-discrimination laws? If our religious tradition tells us that sexual orientation should not be a barrier to finding a life partner and marrying, shouldn’t we rally under the rainbow flag?

If the answers to these question is yes, then that creates a dilemma. If our religious tradition tells us that marriage is defines solely as a partnership between one man and one woman, then should we not also rally under that flag?

I suggest that the test of whether or not God is “with” either of these two groups happens when they intersect. If the intersection of the two groups results in shouting, hateful speech, ugly confrontations, or violence, then God is not present. If the two groups can rally opposite one another without hating each other, with no one feeling threatened, then God is present in both groups. That would indeed be a nes, a miracle.

And if you ask me how two opposing views can both be true, all I can say is that I believe that God’s truth is far more expansive than your truth or mine.

Psalm 56

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.

Psalm 55

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.

Psalm 53

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.”