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.”

Psalm 50

For Mine is every animal of the forest, the beasts on a thousand mountains. I know every bird of the mountains, the creatures of the field are subject to Me. (50:10-11)

I recently saw the movie “Noah” starring Russell Crowe as the title character. One of the fascinating aspects of the movie was how it wove in material from two distinct Biblical schools of thought regarding the relationship between human beings and the earth. Genesis 1:28 says, “God said to [the first human beings], “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” Genesis 2:15 says, “The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.” Genesis one believes that nature is subservient to the needs of human beings, while Genesis 2 believes that we a placed on earth to take care of God’s creation.

This Psalmist clearly believes that creation belongs to God, not to human beings. The Biblical verb yada’, “to know,” implies a close, intimate relationship between subject and object. It is a way of saying that God cares about each and every living being in the natural world. By implication, if God cares about the well-being of the animals, God must also care about the well-being of their habitat, our environment.

On a recent visit to Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, I saw this theology in action as I learned about their extensive student-initiated recycling program. Trash cans have been removed from the classrooms because that encourages thoughtless discarding. Instead, they place a trash can in each main hallway next to the recycling bins for glass, metal, paper, plastic, electronics, and a bin for donation items. They aggressively seek to reduce the purchase of items with excess packaging material, and ask students, faculty, and departments to sign a “zero-waste initiative” pledge. Yishar Koah to Aquinas College for living out their faith!

Psalm 49

Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, when his household goods increase. (49:17)

The second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) speaks of material blessings, but typical of such Torah material, it speaks about the recipient of such blessings in the second person plural, rather than singular. The community is blessed with rain and fertility, not the individual. There might be many reasons that an individual may become wealthy: Intelligence, business acumen, hard work, family connections, and just plain good luck. An individual who fails to prosper might be making poor choices or business decisions, might not be working hard enough, or might simply have run into bad luck. It is not the case, nor should it be, that God micromanages the economy so that good people consistently accumulate more wealth than bad people.

Why, though, does the Psalmist say, “Do not be afraid …”? What is there to fear? The Psalmist is sharing with us a very useful tidbit of theology … do not be afraid that your relative lack of prosperity compared with your rich neighbor is a sign that God loves your neighbor and hates you. Individual prosperity or success is not in and of itself a sign of God’s blessing any more than individual poverty or failure is a sign of God’s curse. A world in which one could easily rank people’s relative worth in God’s eyes based on their pocketbooks would indeed be a world to fear. It would be no different than the Nazi’s ranking of people’s relative worth based on the color of their skin and eyes, with blond-haired, blue-eyed aryans on top.

When a person becomes rich, heavy with household goods, that is the time to rejoice in your neighbor’s good fortune and hope that the community, its cultural and religious and social institutions, its hospitals and libraries and schools, and its communal celebrations, are the recipients of tzedakah (charitable) contributions!

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and stronghold, a help in trouble, very near/ever-present. (46:2)

The final phrase in the verse I quoted above is Nimtza me’od. I’m going to give you a brief Hebrew lesson, including some grammar – feel free to skip to the next paragraph is this doesn’t interest you. Nimtza is a passive form of the Hebrew verb “he found,” meaning, “it is found,” or “it is present.” Me’od is is an adverb particle meaning “muchness, abundance,” and often best translated as “very.” Therefore, Nimtza me’od might be translated as, “very present.”

During the course of our days, we waver from being detached from what we are doing to being completely present. When our attention wanders, we are detached. When we look at an incoming email while talking on the phone, we are detached. When we are planning our response while the person to whom we are speaking is still talking, we are detached. The ideal is to be completely present and focused on the interaction at hand. The Psalmist describes a God who is not detached when we are in need, but rather “very present,” completely focused.

Practice being nimtza me’od when you are speaking with your children, your spouse, your customers, your co-workers, and your friends. When you notice the the inevitable interruption of your attention, you need not berate yourself for your lapse of attention. With gentle love, simple guide your attention back to the present interaction.

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.