Psalm 93

Above the thunder of the mighty waters, more majestic than the breakers of the sea is Adonai, majestic on high. (93:4)

Creation is a thunderous presence. The sound of the big bang can still be hear by radio telescopes. I am fascinated by Stephen Hawking, by black holes, by the formation of matter into galaxies, galaxies into star systems, stars into planets, and planets into the materials that can support life. Time and matter and energy can be quantified and measured in a series of equations. Mostly.

Above and beyond and behind that thunderous presence is another Presence whose existence cannot be measured and determined by anything but the poetry of a religious text.

A spinning earth creates shifting tectonic plates and currents and waves and weather patterns. We’ve gotten pretty good at predicting the weather short term. As long as we can see the weather to the west of us, we know pretty much what we’re going to get. But the farther out we try to predict, the more vague and useless our predictions get. Can I count on good weather for a picnic the day after tomorrow? I’ll trust the meteorologist. Can I count on good weather on a Sunday afternoon two months from now? No one knows. The same goes for predicting shifts in tectonic plates. No one can warn us about earthquakes within anything close to useful precision.

Someday, maybe we’ll be able to predict the weather with pinpoint accuracy more than three to five days in advance. Exerting control over the weather? Science fiction loves that idea, but it is as far beyond my imagination as controlling the movement of the earth’s plates.

Those who believe in God assert that the Majestic Divine Presence is the animating force energizing our universe (as well as any and all parallel universes), above the thunder of the upper waters of the sky, behind the breakers of the lower waters of the oceans.

Hag Sameah!

Hag Sameah, Happy Shavuot! The Asaret Ha’dvarim (Decalogue) were read yesterday, but if you hurry and get to the synagogue this morning, you can catch the second day service, including the book of Ruth, Hallel, and Yizkor. Have a joyous festival!

This note was set up before Shabbat and Yom Tov and auto-published by the WordPress server, which has no obligation to refrain from working on Yom Tov. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel right about publishing a Psalm reflection on Yom Tov. Look for the reflection on Psalm 93 tomorrow, Tuesday morning, at 8:00 am.

Psalm 92

A righteous person flowers like a date-palm, grows like a cedar in Lebanon. (92:13)

Good behavior is contagious. Unfortunately, so is bad behavior, but the Psalmist and I would rather focus on the power of goodness to multiply. The metaphor in our verse has at multiple layers of meaning.

First, just as a date-palm produces many dates and a cedar tree produces many branches and leaves, a righteous person will have many children. This layer of meaning may not always prove itself to be true. Either because of infertility or by choice, some wonderful and giving people might not have children, or might only have one or two.

Second, just as both a date-palm and a cedar tree grow straight and tall, so too a righteous person stands tall and walks a straight path. By definition a righteous person follows a straight path as long as we define this to mean that such a person lives according to their principles. Great practitioners of civil disobedience like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks lived precisely according to their sense of justice, even when it meant disobeying the law. Humility is also a significant value, so one can proudly stand up for one’s convictions while also avoiding the sin of arrogance.

Third, the fruit, branches, and leaves on the trees can also be understood as the good deeds of the righteous person. Just as the trees sweeten the world with the smell and taste of their products, so too do the actions of a good person make the world a sweeter place.

Psalm 92, with its focus on the victory of joy, faithfulness, and righteousness, is also known as the Psalm for Shabbat. The actions of righteous people bring the world closer to “a day which is all Shabbat,” one of the Jewish expressions for the messianic era.

Psalm 91

A thousand may fall at your left side, ten thousand at your right, but it shall not reach you. (91:7)

It shall not reach you.” It is both strange and significant that the ‘it’ is not explicitly named, either in this verse or in the following verse, “You will see it with your own eyes ….” In the binding of Isaac narrative, Isaac asks his father, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Isaac was holding the wood; his father was holding the fire and the knife, but Isaac doesn’t mention the knife, clearly the most important and the most frightening object of the three. (Gen. 22:6-7) Based on the context, the thing-that-is-not-named is the plague, the trap, the terror, the arrow, and the scourge, harm and disease — in other words, death.

I associate this Psalm with the end of Shabbat and with funerals. We read it while carrying the casket to the grave, and we read it shortly before Havdalah. Liminal moments are moments of transition and passage – Shabbat to weekday, life to death. In a religious or anthropological context, these kind of threshold moments are times of danger.

Shabbat time is stable; weekday time is stable. The moments in between the two represent unstable and unprotected time. Therefore, the liturgy includes Psalm 91, a Psalm speaking of shelter, refuge, and protection.

An unburied body brings us uncomfortably close to death. In older times (and still in many Israeli funerals today), the body is not enclosed in a casket, it is simply laid on a bier and covered. Therefore, Psalm 91 is recited, a prayer of protection from death.

We all know that life is a terminal condition. Death is unavoidable,even though Jewish tradition envisions a messianic era in which we have conquered death. Eventually, we will succumb to the inevitable. I remind myself periodically that life is not a race. The one who reaches the finish line more quickly does not get a prize! We all get to the end sooner or later, but the goal of life is to slow down and pay attention to the experience along the way.

Psalm 90

The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness. (90:10)

The title of this Psalm is “A Prayer of Moses.” According to Deuteronomy, Moses lived to the age of 120. Although he had his share of aggravation, dealing with a sometimes uncooperative Israelite people, to characterize the best of his years as “trouble and sorrow” is pessimistic, to say the least.

Were I to write a Psalm imagining Moses contemplating his life and speaking with God, my Psalm would focus on the miracles and the redemption from Egypt. “You give life to human beings, nurture and sustain us in the desert of our lives; when all seems bleak, you are a source of blessing, comfort, and strength.”

The historian Salo Baron argued that the age of the “Lachrymose view of Jewish history” is over. No longer should we write history from the perspective that “gentile persecution and Jewish suffering have been the shaping forces of Jewish history.” Rather, as he said in a 1975 interview, “suffering is part of the destiny’ of the Jews, but so is repeated joy as well as ultimate redemption.” The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia has an article entitled “Optimism and Pessimism” arguing that optimism is a fundamental Jewish value.

Moses died a hero, so much so in fact that the Torah deliberately obscures his burial place lest it become a place of pilgrimage and Moses take the place of God as a focus of worship. Moses died with his zest for life intact (Deuteronomy 34:7). Many of us, perhaps most of us, will experience significant physical infirmity at the end of our lives. However, isn’t it a worthy goal to remain positive and energetic to the best of our physical ability right up to the moment we die?

Whether we live through the century mark or whether our years number only 70 or 80, let us live them in the light of optimism, rather than the darkness of pessimism. Our years might fly by, but let us notice and celebrate the moments of joy as they come – the births, the b’nai mitzvah, the high school and college graduations, the weddings, the birthdays and anniversaries and other celebrations.