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.

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 40

Your Torah is in my inmost parts. (40:9)

One approach to Torah teaches that the entire purpose of Torah is to transform us into people who see the unity of God everywhere and in everything. This is the approach of “Embodied Torah.” When we carry Torah within us at both an unconscious and conscious level, then we change the nature of our reflexes. No longer do we respond with anger or impatience. No longer do we manifest negative emotions or character traits. Rather, we respond with love and positivity.

One who embodies Torah instinctively knows the right way to react. Rather than reflecting negativity and anger back at the person who is angry at him, he absorbs it like a supersonic stealth aircraft with a radar absorbing coating. Even better, like a science fiction invisibility cloak, he bends the rays of the emotions so they pass around him without touching him in the slightest.

In case you were wondering, I, like virtually every other human being, am far from perfectly embodying Torah in this way. If fact, I am far from imperfectly embodying Torah. But as attributed to Voltaire, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I began this blog because I believe that the internalizing Torah is the ultimate goal, a process that will take a lifetime and likely will never be completed. However, I also believe, like Rabbi Tarfon (Pirke Avot 2:16), that “you are not required to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.”