Psalm 80

You plucked up a vine from Egypt; You expelled nations and planted it. You cleared a place for it; it took deep root and filled the land. (80:9-10)

The theology of this verse reminds me of the comment on the first verse of Genesis by the medieval French commentator Rashi, in which he explains that the purpose of beginning Torah with creation, rather than with the first mitzvah given to Israel in Exodus 12, is to remind us that the world belongs to God. In this Psalm, God is a gardener and the world is God’s garden.

I know some transplanted species do very well in a new location, taking over the land and crowding out the native species. Typically, we call those kinds of plants “invasive.” This does not seem to be the image that the Psalmist is drawing. Rather, he is describing a Gardener who very carefully prepares the soil by clearing away the plants currently growing in the new location as if they were weeds. Only when the area is empty and ready for a new planting does the gardener take the vine that had been growing in Egypt and transplant it to its new location.

The vine takes to the new location as its native habitat, flourishing, sending its roots deep into the ground and spreading out to fill the land. The vine doesn’t own the land any more than the plants who preceded it owned the land. The vine lives off the land, depending on the owner of the land to sustain it. This Gardener is not typical of those who take care of small farms and landscapes. This Gardener not only fertilizes the soil and trims the vine, but also controls the water and the sunshine that nourish the vine.

Although the Psalmist speaks as if the vine is the only thing growing, we know that a healthy ecosystem supports a variety of plants. To conclude on a messianic note: just as the vine shares the land with a different kinds of fruit trees, vegetables, grains and and flowering plants, so too may the people Israel someday share the land in peace with a diversity of other peoples.

Psalm 79

Pour out Your fury on the nations that do not know You, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name. (79:6)

This verse from Psalm 79 was added to the Passover Seder in the Middle Ages, sometime after the ugly series of persecutions beginning with the crusades in 1096 CE. We recite these words as we open the door for Elijah at the time when the Seder begins to come to a close with Messianic overtones of redemption. An early modern addition (probably from the late 19th century) supplies the inverse of our verse, “Pour out your love upon the nations that know you and on kingdoms who call Your name.”

Some liberal-leaning Jews omit the verse from Psalm 79, disliking its violent nature. They might understand it as a Judeo-centric call for God to eliminate all non-Jews from the world, or perhaps they understand it as a verse to protect Jews and Christians but eliminate all others. Perhaps might include Moslems in the “protected” category, reading the verse as a call to eliminate only non-monotheists. In any case, there is a tendency among some religious liberals to eliminate liturgy that they find offensive, and if you read this verse as a call for the wholesale slaughter of groups of people by God, it is certainly offensive.

I read the verse differently, not as a call for God to engage in slaughter or for Jews to do so in God’s name. When reading the verse, I don’t think of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, or followers of non-monotheistic religion, all people who either reject God, are indifferent about God, or envision a different kind of Divine than the one in the Hebrew Bible which guides my life. I think of people who commit atrocities in the name of God. Such people disgrace God’s name. Even though I am fully aware that God is not going to strike out at them with a carefully-directed bolt of lightning, I want it known that the God in whom I believe has nothing to do with the false god in whose name those people murder, rape, steal, cheat, and in other ways subjugate and oppress others. To those who desecrate God’s name by such acts, I avow that God has nothing to do with you.

Therefore, I read this line at the Seder in a loud voice – certainly not in a whisper, as if I’m embarrassed by it. The door is wide open at this point so, symbolically, I am shouting out to the world my desire that God wipe out those evil people who, despite their professed faith, don’t really know God. And, of course, I also read the inverse paragraph praising people who do acts of courage and conviction and love in God’s name.

Psalm 78

We will not withhold from their children down to the last generation, telling of the praises of Adonai, God’s might, and the wonders that God performed. (78:4)

Psalm 78 is a relatively long Psalm, retelling the story of Exodus and trek in the wilderness. Telling the story is a sacred enterprise, relating in prose and poetry to each new generation the tale of what God did for us in Egypt in order to inspire their confidence in God. The telling, however, does not hide the fact that the generation of the wilderness was not inspired. They rebelled and complained and sinned. Why not tell the story a bit more strongly? Why spend so much time on the weakness of the Israelites? Clearly, honesty is important. If our faith in God is based on hiding the truth, it will be think faith indeed. A faith that struggles with God but experiences redemption in the end has been tested and strengthened.

The events that we are relating at the Passover Seder are true, not necessarily in the historical sense, but in the sense that they reflect the truth of the experience of an oppressed people. An oppressed, enslaved people is traumatized. Even after freedom comes to them, they are still largely locked in their slave mentality. It can take generations to overcome the trauma which is transmitted from parent to child through stories. That’s why this Psalm is so important. We’re not telling the story of trauma and victimization. We’re telling the story of faith and redemption.

Psalm 77

Has God forgotten how to pity? Has God in anger stifled God’s compassion? (77:10)

We commonly speak about God with human characteristics and emotions. We talk about God’s fingers, hands, arms, eyes, ears, and even nose, even though God has none of the above. We also commonly speak of God’s happiness, enjoyment, desire for obedience, sadness, regret, and compassion and other such human emotions. The 12th century philosopher Maimonides believed that we should not use such language for God, because to do so places limits on a God who is by definition infinite. However, Biblical literature is rich with anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language for God because it is the only way we have to to communicate our our sense of the Divine.

The Talmud (Sota 14a) suggests what we might learn from language attributing human behavior to God:

What is the meaning of the verse, “Follow none but Adonai your God” (Deuteronomy 13:15)?  Is it possible for a human being literally to follow God?  Rather, we should imitate the attributes of God.

Just as God clothed the naked, as it is written, “And Adonai God made Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21)–so too should you clothe the naked.

Just as God visited the sick –as it is written, “Adonai appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre” [following his circumcision] (Genesis 18:1)–so too should you visit the sick.

Just as God comforted the mourners –as it is written, “After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac” (Genesis 25:11)–so too should you comfort the mourners.

Just as God buried the dead –as it is written, “God buried him [Moses] in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6)–so too should you bury the dead.

The Psalmist hopes that God’s hen, graciousness or pity, and rahamim, compassion, have not disappeared. Because such traits are the central part of what it means to “Love your fellow as yourself,” it is also a reminder to ourselves not to let our anger overwhelm our compassion.

Psalm 76

God curbs the spirit of princes, inspires awe in the kings of the earth. (76:13)

Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Powerful leaders need constant reminders that their power does not entitle them to do and take anything they want. This is the basis for a philosophical argument for a monotheistic God. Were there more than one creator/power in the universe; or if there were no power above human power, there would be no basis for asserting universal, non-relative, moral authority.

In a polytheistic system, the gods are in conflict. There is no absolute authority, and therefore no absolute right or wrong. Any position that I might take, appealing to the voice of a specific god, can be contradicted by the voice of an opposing god. The sun god dries up the water god, but the storm god blows clouds to cover up the sun god and produce more water. The sea god has no power inland, where the goddess of crop fertility reigns. And so on.

In a non-theistic system, we have to trust the human system to create systems of morality. The problem, though, is that every human created system can be modified or suspended by a person with sufficient power. The Constitution of the United States provides protection for its citizens, but Congress has passed laws abridging our rights when it feels that it is necessary.

A monotheistic system has a God at the top of the system whose authority (in theory, and usually in practice) cannot be altered by human beings. It’s answer to Lord Acton is that since human power is limited by God, then a human leader who is curbed by a belief in God and held in awe of God will never be corrupted, and certainly never be corrupted absolutely.