Probe me, Adonai, and test me, test my kidneys and my heart; (26:2)
When you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder whether the Psalmist is having a wry chuckle at your expense. At that point in your life, when the main social event of your week is visiting another doctor’s office, when every organ and orifice is being poked and prodded and tested and medicated, it’s hard to believe that the Psalmist is seriously and happily inviting God to get in line and take a turn!
Though amusing it would be, happily is not the case. God leaves the poking and prodding to human doctors. In the Biblical idiom, kidneys referred to the seat of strong emotions, and the heart referred to the seat of the intellect. A less literal and far more accurate translation of the verse would therefore be, “Probe me, Adonai, and test me, test my feelings and my thoughts.”
The Psalmist is challenging God to examine the purity of his actions, down to the last intention. A Midrash teaches that the Ark of the Covenant was covered in gold both outside, where it’s beauty could be seen, and inside, where it would never be seen, to remind us that we too should be the same outside and in. Our actions should be positive as should our motives. We should be truthful both to others and to ourselves. We should be the same person when we deal with friends and strangers, family and outsiders, members of our tribe and foreigners, alike. Ironically, the outside of the ark was rarely if ever seen – it was kept in the most sacred of places, and visited but once a year on Yom Kippur by the High Priest. Our additional challenge is strive for purity of actions and motives even when we know that no one is watching, that no one will ever see or know what we have done – except, of course, the Blessed Holy One, who we invite to keep an eye on us to help keep us honest.
After a year in which all of the holidays have been “early,” we finally arrived at the month of Adar on February 1. In order to adjust the calendar so that Passover will fall in the Spring, this year is a leap year. This means that the month of Adar is doubled, and Purim is celebrated in the second month of Adar. Passover will begin on April 15. I guess we can all start complaining that the holidays are late again!
There are 150 chapters in the book of Psalms. I have now finished 1/6 of the book, 25 Psalms. The structure of Psalm 25 is an alphabetical acrostic; the theme is that of sin and forgiveness.
Let me know Your paths, Adonai; teach me Your ways; guide me in Your true way and teach me … (25:4-5)
Where do we look for wisdom? How do we know what God wants of us? There is no simple guidebook for life, easily searchable. There is no Siri for life, to whom we can ask, “Should I tell my boss I am not willing to be less than 100% honest with our customers if it might mean losing my job?” “Can I lie to get out of jury duty?” “Is it OK to choose not to aggressively treat my terminal cancer?”
For Jewish wisdom, we have Torah, Tanakh, and all of the literature of commentaries and Midrash and Mussar (ethical training) and ritual, civil, and criminal law that for centuries has grappled with such issues. Nonetheless, it is not as easy as finding a simple and direct answer in a book. The instruction to “Do what is right and good in the sight of Adonai” (Deut. 6:18) means that we ought to life a life of good character; engage in acts of hesed (love); celebrate the Jewish calendar; eat holy food; and continually engage in study of Torah.
It is the last item, Talmud Torah, Torah study, that is the key to the rest. It is a mitzvah to learn. Through learning in its broadest sense, we catch glimmers of wisdom that will serve to center us as we encounter the questions of life. We will have the wisdom and skill to examine the questions with equanimity, to analyze, to hear and learn from the sacred texts, find answers that we might ultimately reject. We will discover the values that inform our decision making, and use them to find a path illuminated by God’s ways.
Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of Adonai for many long years. (23:6)
Psalm 23 is one of the most well know and often quote of the Psalms. The words feel comforting, as long as don’t consider them too deeply. Take the opening line, for example: “The Lord is my Shepherd ….” What does a shepherd do for his flocks? Sure, he takes care of them and protects them from predators. But he also sheers them and occasionally slaughters them for food!
Is verse 6 of this Psalm, quoted above, a description of the life of a faithful member of God’s flock? It seems unlikely. Who among us experiences only good, loving events over the course of his life? Who among us never feels the cold hand of hatred, racism, anti-semitism, discrimination? Who among us is treated only fairly, never gets the short end of the stick?
I prefer to understand the verse above as a prayer – “May goodness and steadfast love pursue me all the days of my life, and may I dwell in the house of Adonai for many long years.” I acknowledge that my life is not going to be full of perfection and light, but I will keep working to find the greenest of pastures, the purest of water to rest by.
Psalm 23 has traditionally been associated not only with funerals, but also with the end of Shabbat. As we eat our final Shabbat meal and the emotional peacefulness of the day draws to a close, I read this Psalm as a prayer that I might hold onto the taste of the messianic olam haba, the world to come, for just a bit longer.
May we someday experience a world in which no one lacks the basic necessities of life.
Because of You I offer praise in the great congregation; I pay my vows in the presence of His worshipers. (22:26)
The movement of “Spiritual But Not Religious” defines itself as a search for spiritual growth and fulfillment without attachment to a specific religious community. On the contrary, I believe that the highest spiritual growth can only occur within a community. The Psalmist believes that both celebrations ought to be held within a congregation, and the duties that one owes ought to be paid within a community.
One’s spiritual peak by definition ought to be the negation of self, subsuming oneself into the larger body of being and energy of the community, the world, the universe. Arriving at a radical understanding of unity means that not only God is one, but that God, the universe, and one’s life are bound together in a singular unity. Nothing we do is in a vacuum. Every action we take has repercussions that echo around us.
Doing spiritual work on one’s own is the ultimate focus on oneself, making oneself the center of the universe. Rather than humbling the self, this tends to inflate the ego. Placing oneself in community, for work, worship, study, and celebration, forces a person to look at other’s needs alongside or above his or her own. It is a reminder for us that we are not the center of the universe.
You have granted him the desire of his heart, have not denied the request of his lips. (21:3)
Wanting is encoded into our DNA. Rabbinic thought teaches that the human being is created with two inclinations – the Yetzer Hatov (altruistic inclination) and the Yetzer Hara (selfish inclination). The rabbis said that were it not for the Yetzer Hara, a person would not marry or build a home. Our impulse towards wanting our needs to be taken care of is built into us from birth. A baby wants to be fed, warm, and dry. A baby learns that certain behaviors cause mom and dad to pay more attention – both crying and looking adorably cute seem work well – and he uses those behaviors at will until his wants and desires are satisfied. Over time, a toddler learns that other people also have needs, and her wants sometimes need to wait. She learns patience. She learns that how she asks for something is important – omitting the magic word please and not using the pleasant tone of voice results in not getting what she wants. Over time, a child learns the pleasures of taking care of someone else, drawing pictures, giving gifts to Mom and Dad. He learns that sometimes, no matter how nicely he asks, there are some things that he wants that he is not going to receive. A young adult learns that no one gets everything they want. Everyone yearns and desires and asks, and more often than not, does not receive.
The wise person learns pay attention to one’s wants, to examine whether they are truly needs, or just the hard to control impulses of the Yetzer Hara. The wise person asks for things that are beyond physical whims, things prompted by an enduring need. The wise person asks for things that are within his power to achieve.
The wise person filters out those things that are motivated by the selfish desires of the Yetzer Hara. The prayers and requests of the wise person, therefore, are directed by the Yetzer Hatov, and are largely motivated by a desire to relieve the suffering of others. May such prayers never be denied.