Psalm 63

God, … I search for You, my soul thirsts for You, my body yearns for You, as a parched and thirsty land that has no water. (63:2)

Sometimes God’s presence is front and center, and sometimes it is like (as this Psalmist writes) we are in a dry wilderness and God is nowhere to be seen.

My own experience is this — I don’t expect the Presence of God to be visible at all times. I expect that I am pretty much on my own most of the time. The brief moments when I sense the Presence are comforting and gratifying, all the more so for their rarity. My sense is this is the way things are supposed to be.

Years ago, I read in Rabbi David Wolpe’s “Healer of Shattered Hearts” an explanation of theodicy and goodness that has remained with me ever since. If you knew that God was constantly at your side, rewarding you and punishing you at appropriate moments, wouldn’t you be on your best behavior? How many people break traffic laws when they know that a police car is right behind them! Are you being good at those moments, or are you just being smart? Rabbi Wolpe suggests that you are not being good when you are behaving well at moments when you know you are being monitored, you are just being smart.

The fact is that we know good people who suffer and nasty people who prosper. We know both good and evil people are hurt by tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunami. We know that God does not immediately reward and punish. God is not a police officer trailing us night and day. Thus, when we choose to be good rather than bad, we are truly being good, not just smart.

We may long for a more visible and constant and nourishing sign of the Presence of God. At the same time, we need to remember that we are mature, adult, human beings, able to function without constant “parental” supervision.

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 58

The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. (58:11)

Really? What a horrible image! I can’t imagine what terrible things this Psalmist experienced that caused him to rejoice in revenge.

To most moderns, revenge is an evil word – we prefer justice. Revenge is loaded with passion and anger, revenge is something we do to satisfy an emotional need to get back at someone who wronged us.

The better word is justice. Justice is fair, balanced, unemotional. Justice has no anger. In fact, justice can and should be mixed with mercy. Justice is something that should be dealt out only reluctantly.

What is wrong with the speaker in this Psalm, what trauma did he endure in his life? Apparently, he has been badly abused and understandably sees the people who abused him as irrevocably evil. He wants so badly to believe in a just God, but the only way that will work for him is if he personally witnesses the suffering of the wicked.

This kind of faith in God is doomed. If you only believe in a God who visibly punishes, you are likely to go through life unsatisfied and angry. Rather, I suggest envisioning God as compassionate, giving every person the chance to transform.

Virtually every person who has done wrong as the potential to change. If human beings didn’t have the free will to be evil and then turn away from their evil nature and embrace goodness, they were never good to begin with. The only way to truly be good is to know that one could be evil, and make the choice not to.

God’s compassion understands that the person who bullied you in grade school may very well have been acting out of a behavior learned at home. The person who behaves badly at work, criticizing, condemning, complaining, taking without giving, may very well have been taught a twisted sense of human relations principles from his or her parents. We do well to learn God’s compassion and act with it in our own lives. Don’t embrace the anger of this Psalmist – embrace the compassion of God instead!

Psalm 54

O God, deliver me by Your name; by Your power vindicate me. (54:3)

One of the quirks in my personal practice and teaching of Judaism is that I want our behavior to make sense. By this, I mean that the meaning behind what we do should be logical and should make sense in the real world. Certainly, much of religious tradition involves God and I have never been much interested in whether God’s existence can be philosophically or logically proven (or disproven). But I prefer not to engage in a Jewish ritual whose primary purpose is theurgic, an attempt to manipulate God. I find it non-meaningful, illogical, and offensive when we use God’s name or objects inscribed with God’s name for the purpose of ensuring our protection by or from God.

Case in point: the mezuzah. When I teach the mitzvah of mezuzah, I teach what I understand to be the Biblical intention behind writing certain of God’s words on your doorpost – to be reminded that the home ought to be a place in which God’s words are honored. The rabbinic explication of the mezuzah, that we write the mezuzah in the same way that one writes a Torah scroll (same parchment, same ink), reinforces the notion that one should be reminded that the home is a place of Torah.

A commonly offered explanation of mezuzah is that the letter shin and the word Shaddai (a name of God) stand for shomer d’latot Yisrael, guardian of the doors of Israel, and that the primary purpose of the mezuzah is literally to protect the occupants of the home from harm. To my mind, this is utterly nonsensical. It is theurgic and magical. It serves not to elevate religion and elevate the human soul, but rather to debase the name of God.

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.”