Psalm 35

All my bones shall say, “Adonai, who is like You?” (35:10)

This verse from Psalms reminds us that our whole body can be engaged in prayer. Prayer need not be merely an intellectual exercise or even just an emotional experience. Prayer can also be a physical experience. We can pray while we move our bodies – “shuckeling” is the Yiddish term for the quintessentially Jewish back and forth swaying motion of traditional prayer. We can pray while we walk. A walking meditation typically invites us to focus on our breath and balance and body movements. A long distance runner might experience a “runner’s high,” that point when the exhausted body releases endorphins. It might feel like God breathed out a healing breathe.

On another level, prayer should never only be petitionary. If prayer is only about asking, then God is reduced to a vending machine. Prayer should also be about cultivating goodness. Prayer should affect my bones, my body. If prayer has not transformed my very being into a different person, then it has not truly been prayer (I should add here parenthetically that I believe most prayer, including my own, is very rarely true prayer). It is only when “all my bones/my essence” are involved in the experience that we achieve a complete connection with the Divine.

Finally, God is unique. That is the essential proclamation of the Shema.. This psalmist asserts that God is entirely Other, that no one and nothing is like God. This particular statement would seem to exclude the Hasidic/panentheistic view that God’s uniqueness is manifested by virtue of God infusing all reality – “There is no place free from God’s presence.” However, the beauty of Biblical theology through a Jewish lens is that it does not present a single monolithic view of God, so we can certainly also find support for the notion that God’s oneness means that nothing is separate from God.

Psalm 33

Note: My psalm reflection leading into April on Psalm 33 is in honor of the celebration of Pesah. For more information about Pesah, you can download a detailed Guide to Passover from AhavasIsraelGR.org or contact the synagogue office to request that we send it to you, either by email or by regular mail.

For God spoke, and it was; God commanded, and it endured. (33:9)

I learned recently that in the Biblical idiom, “God spoke” or “God said” in Genesis 1 means “God thought.” God’s speech does not need to be audibly pronounced, because speech is a physical human action that involves breath and mouth/nose and teeth and lips pushing and shaping sound. God, lacking human anatomy, does not need to manipulate wind and sound to make something real. A though or an idea, which to us is only a potential reality depending on action to make it concrete, to God is a reality. In the higher world of God’s reality, if something can be thought than it is real.

Told through the lens of God, Passover should therefore have been a quick story. God would needed only to speak/think and the Israelites would been free. The story would have been brief and to the point – Now we’re slaves, <poof>, now we’re free! But the Hagadah doesn’t opens its telling of the story this way because we don’t tell the story of Passover through God’s lens – we tell it through the lens of human experience. Maggid (the storytelling) begins Now we’re slaves – next year may we be free. We human beings don’t transition quickly. Unlike God’s immediate though to action, we need time to adjust from one state to another. We need to draw out the story to give us time to become free, so we have 10 plagues (which in the Rabbinic imagination are multiplied to 50 and 250) to give Pharaoh and ourselves time to prepare.

I shared a d’var Torah recently in which I suggested that a critical component of leadership is presence. One can be a great visionary leader, but only if one also is able to enlist others to fulfill the mission and get the job done. There will be times of crisis during which issuing memos and barking orders will be insufficient. The leader needs to demonstrate presence, that he or she is involved in the process of getting the work done. Enduring visions are those which are sufficiently compelling so that people stick around to do the work and to see what comes next. The story of Passover wasn’t a story of slave people who scattered to the four winds, each in pursuit of their own vision of freedom but rather the liberation of a people who remained together. 3500-some years later, we are still that same enduring people, telling the same story of how God’s plan came to be. Have a happy and kosher Pesah!

Psalm 32

Many are the torments of the wicked, but one who trusts in Adonai shall be surrounded with favor. (32:10)

Why do Jews ask me if Jews believe in Hell? Do they not know what they believe in? It seems clear that if they believed in Hell, they would not need to ask me – they would know that they, full fledged dues paying members of the Jewish community, believe in Hell and therefore Jews believe in Hell. They do not believe in Hell, and are asking me if Jews other than themselves, any other Jews, believe in Hell. Are they afraid that their non-belief might jeopardize the quality of their Jewishness? If I tell them that certainly Jews believe in Hell, would they suddenly change their minds and begin believing?

In fact, I don’t think that this Psalmist believes in Hell. It is far more likely that his theology assured him that goodness and evil carry their own rewards and punishments in this world, not in a future world.

The evil that you do will come back at you. It will torment you. It will catch up to you. it will turn you into a frightened, suspicious, bitter, dried up soul. On the other hand, the good things that you do will keep you fresh and vibrant. You will smile and others will return the favor. You will see the good in people, as they will see the kindness in you.

I believe in Heaven and in Hell, although I don’t really know what heaven and hell means or what it looks or feels like. I also believe that you make yourself into the kind of person you want to be, and you see yourself and your attributes reflected around you. When I am happy, I see the blessings and favors around me; when I am unhappy, I see the curses and burdens around me. I am happier when I am happy, so therefore I choose to be happy.

Psalm 31

Into Your hand I entrust my spirit; You redeem me, Adonai, faithful God. (31:6)

The final stanza of the well known hymn Adon Olam is based on this verse, “Into God’s hand I entrust my spirit; when I sleep, I shall not fear.”

Fortunately, I sleep well most of the time. I don’t sleep enough, but that is because I stay up later than I should. Most of the time when I settle in with my head on the pillow ready to sleep, I am asleep within 5-10 minutes. I am thankful that I don’t have trouble falling asleep, because when I do have trouble, or when I wake up in the middle of the night and am unable to sleep, I am filled with anxiety. I worry that I am going to be too tired to function the next morning if I don’t get enough sleep, and the worry causes me not to be able to sleep. I begin thinking about the various things I have to do the next day, and either I am eager to get started (and thus cannot sleep) or I worry that I’ll forget something on the list before the next morning (and thus cannot sleep).

When this happens to me, I turn to techniques of meditation. I focus on my breath, and try to imagine my thoughts as puffs of vapor that arise and disappear, arise and disappear. I try not to allow myself to be seduced by a thought – to chase it around, to follow it as it leads me down the pathways and through the meadows of my mind towards other thoughts. I think about this verse, imagining that I am handing over all of my thoughts, plans, and items on my to-do list to God. I entrust not only my spirit but also my thoughts and memories to the repository of the Holy Blessed One, trusting that I will get them back safely the next morning.

Psalm 30

What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the Pit? Can dust praise You? Can it declare Your faithfulness? (30:10)

I am always struck by the difference in tone between Jewish and Christian obituaries in the Grand Rapids Press. Most often, the obituaries of faithful Christians speak about the joy of going to be with Jesus or God, a sentiment that is rarely, if ever, found expressed in a Jewish obituary.

One of the questions at the center of the difference between the two types of obituary is whether salvation is the primary goal of the religious life. For Christians, salvation achieved through belief in Jesus is the starting point for one’s religious behavior. The reward of salvation is union with God/Jesus. For Jews, one’s behavior with respect to the system of mitzvot (Divine commandments) is the goal of a religious life. The Psalmist reflects the belief that the ability to praise God or serve God through mitzvot ends with one’s death; therefore, the union with God after death ironically ends one’s ability to serve God.

Judaism and Christianity, each in its own way, encourage the individual to live a life of service to others and service of God. The path, though, are dramatically different. Christianity starts with belief, asserting that a sincere belief in Jesus go hand in hand with adherence to a Jesus centered set of behaviors. Judaism starts out with a detailed set of behavioral expectations, believing that adherence to mitzvot will nurture a relationship with God.