Psalm 52

Your tongue devises mischief, like a sharpened razor that works treacherously. (52:4)

Our contemporary inability to communicate kindly is not a modern invention. Back in the days when writing was new, I suppose Oggita wrote a note on a cave wall to her girlfriend Uggah, “Og wears stinky hides.” And Og scratched out, “Grogg can’t hit the side of an Elephant with a rock.”

I, like the Psalmist, find it discouraging when people use their power of speech as a weapon. When I read online posts and comments claiming with all seriousness that Israel is responsible for a Holocaust of the Palestinian people, I am horrified that people have so little regard for history and for truth. Easily verifiable facts are simply invented – one can find it stated that Gaza is the most densely populated area on earth, when in truth Gaza is 4 times bigger than Manhattan with about the same population. Truth doesn’t matter when one’s goal is to demonize.

In the online world, debate is not about laying out facts and seeing who can present the most persuasive case. It should be – but too often it is about sarcasm and attacks and making up the facts as one goes along.

The goal in peace negotiations is about coming to a consensus that both sides can live with. The goal in online conversations is about making the most outrageous claims, making the other side look foolish, having the last word.

Facebook as a forum for comments on articles is no paragon of virtue, but the fact that most users are identified by their real name causes most users to moderate their comments, at least on articles posted by a friend. However, when NPR or the HuffPost posts a controversial story which receives hundreds or thousands of comments, the sheer volume of comments seems to provide a layer of anonymity that invites meanness.

Websites which allow anonymous comments are the best example that the speech the Psalmist wrote against thousands of years ago has not changed. Speech was, continues to be, and probably always will be used by some as a weapon.

Psalm 45

… ride on in the cause of truth and meekness and right; and let your right hand lead you to awesome Torah. (45:5)

I love that the Psalmist suggests that the cause of truth (literally?) goes hand in hand with the quality of meekness. In fact, reading the Psalm a bit creatively, I would turn this into a mathematical formula:

Truth + Meekness = Right (= Justice, Correctness)

Straying just a bit further away from the literal meaning of the Psalm, I would also suggest that approaching Torah will the quality of humility is essential to finding awesome Torah. If you know the truth and approach Torah with the intent of proving that you are right, you might do so, but your Torah will not be awesome. Torah is only earthshatteringly awesome when you approach it with humility, when you say, “I think I know the truth but I am not sure. Let me absorb some Torah and see what it tells me.” It is only with this attitude that you can be surprised by what Torah is telling you.

This is a problem with many of the political right or left – they search sacred texts for verses proving that their position is correct, rather than entering the text with a blank slate, completely open to whatever wisdom presents itself.

This is a variation on the teaching of Rabbi Tzadok in Pirke Avot 4:5, “Do not make [Torah teachings] a crown with which to glorify yourself or a spade with which to dig.”

In other words, don’t use Torah to prove you are right or your positions are correct. Rather, let your mind be open to whatever Torah wants to give you.

Psalm 44

… God knows the secrets of the heart. (44:22)

The image of God knowing all of my secrets, knowing everything I have done wrong down to the last sordid embarrassing detail, is not comforting. Instead, I understand this verse in the light of a story told about the Hasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Leib.

R’ Moshe Leib used to tell his hassidim that he learned what it means to love a fellow Jew from two Russian peasants. Once he came to an inn, where two thoroughly drunk Russian peasants were sitting at a table, draining the last drops from a bottle of strong Ukrainian vodka.

One of them, in a slurred drunken drawl yelled to his friend, “Igor! Do you love me?” Igor, somewhat surprised by the question answered, “Of course Ivan, of course I love you!”

“No no”, insisted Ivan, “Do you really love me, really?!”

Igor, now feeling a bit cornered, assured him, “What do you think? I don’t love you? Of course I love you. You’re my best friend Ivan!”

“Oh yes, yes?” countered Ivan. “if you really loved me … then why don’t you know what hurts me and the pain I have in my heart?”

Reb Moshe Leib is speaking about a kind of knowing that implies a close, caring connection between two people. This is the kind of knowing that I prefer to read into the verse from Psalms – that God knowing all of my secrets means that God knows what hurts me. When I am hurting, I am never hurting alone. God shares my pain; God suffers with me. Pain that is shared does not hurt as much as pain is suffered alone.

When I am in terrible emotional pain, I sometimes use a practice that I learned in interfaith dialogue with Christians, who know a lot about a theology of a suffering God. Jews know suffering; Christians know a God who knows suffering.

My Christian friends taught me how to offer up my pain to God. Essentially, the practice is to share the pain and its causes with God; to talk to God about the hurt, what I did to cause it and what I can do to relieve it. The practice is to lift off the burden of the pain through honest prayer and share it with the Holy Blessed One.

It may not remove the pain entirely, but putting it into words and offering it up can be, at least for me, a kind of healing ritual.

Psalm 43

Send forth Your light and Your truth; they will lead me; they will bring me to Your holy mountain, to Your dwelling-place. (43:3)

The least pleasant conversations on religion that I have had are those with people who are certain beyond a shadow of doubt that they have seen the light and know the Truth. If I may slightly mangle the lyrics from a song in “The Music Man,” — that’s Truth, with a capital T and that stands for Trouble.

The Psalmist wants certainty. Don’t we all sometimes want to know for certain whether we are making the right decision? He can ask all he wants, but he can’t and shouldn’t have it. Certainty – Truth – is one of God’s names in Jewish tradition. Truth belongs to God. I think we can come close to truth, I think we can search for truth, but I don’t think we were ever meant to capture truth. For one thing, people who think they have the truth are insufferable. How can they not be, when they are right and everyone who disagrees with them are wrong!? It is impossible to have a conversation with someone who is convinced that he/she has a lock on the truth. There is no shared learning, there is only the conversational equivalent of the attempt to open up my head, pour information (the truth) in, shake, and bake for an hour at 350 until my head feels like it is about to explode.

Will the truth lead you to the holy mountain? Only if the holy mountain is Everest. If you stay up on that mountain too long your lungs will starve for oxygen and you’ll freeze to death. Rather, it is the search for truth (not truth itself) that leads you to the holy mountain. As long as the search never ends, you can stay on the holy mountain indefinitely. This holy mountain is Zion, not Everest. At the top of the mountain was a place of searching for God’s name, a place where we tried to care for the elusive presence of God.

Back to the Psalmist — If truth is like the light of the sun, we can see it and feel it, but we can never capture it, contain it, and keep it. Keep searching for enlightenment, search all of your life, and you will behold the light of truth.

Psalm 42

Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God; my soul thirsts for God, the living God; O when will I come to appear before God! (42:2-3)

The human desire to form a relationship with a creator is natural, although the new generation of atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, see it as a delusion. We are constantly trying to make sense of the complicated world in which we live by using the scientific method of identifying cause and effect. Every object was created through some process, and if we trace the creation of the object back far enough, we can discover how the object functions. We identify the rules by which the object was created and continues to operate in the world. We might even identify the original purpose of the object, and its original creator or designer.

By understanding the world, we think we can improve it. The desire to understand, to fix, to improve, is part of the same internal soul-inclination that directs so many of us to want to be in a relationship with God, or that directs some of us to loudly and angrily deny that such a relationship can ever exist.

My support of same sex relationships is based on the idea that the desire to be in relationship is a fundamental human need. We need parents and teachers to nurture us as children, we need siblings or friends to teach us about peer relationships, and for many, the desire to marry and possibly produce a new generation of children is our ultimate goal in forming relationships.

I affirm the possibility of reading Leviticus 18 either as a limited prohibition on same sex sexuality or as no longer halakhically applicable, based on a paper by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, and Avram Reisner; or as argued in a paper by Rabbi David Greenstein, or in a book by Rabbi Steven Greenberg. The powerful image of a soul thirsting for the presence of God is no less true with respect to a human relationship. To deny a gay or lesbian individual the opportunity to have intimate partnership is to sentence him or her to live without the fulfillment of a fundamental human need.