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.”

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!