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.”
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.
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.