Psalm 85

Love and truth meet; justice and shalom kiss. (85:11)

Sometimes, love and truth conflict with one another. “I love you and want to say only good things to you and about you. I don’t want to tell you the truth, because the truth will hurt you.”

Justice might demand a disruption in the status quo. Rosa Parks sought justice in being able to choose where to sit. Martin Luther King, Jr., sought a just society in which the color of one’s skin wouldn’t prevent one from exercising the right to vote. Non-Orthodox Jews in Israel want the same right to communal worship at the Kotel, the Western Wall, as Orthodox Jews. Gay and lesbian people want fair and just marriage equality so their partnerships and families have the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual partnerships and families. Each of these demands have created tension in society. Sometimes, justice and shalom temporarily contradict each other.

We all look forward to times when everyone is happy and there is no strife. However, an organization or a society does not mature during those times. It is only at times when a problem comes up and the organization has to struggle with questions of self-identity in order to find a solution that the organization can potentially become stronger. On a micro level, that’s how muscles work as well. When we exercise, we are breaking muscle tissue which then repairs itself and grows stronger. On a macro level, if the organization takes the conflict seriously, which means examining the root of the conflict and deciding which potential solution is most in line with its mission, then it will heal the wounds of the conflict and becomes stronger as a result. Organizations which make decisions opposed to their mission for the sake of expediency or making people happy have not wrestled with the difficult issues, and subsequently will be weakened.

When we tell the truth in a loving way we temporarily break society for the sake of justice but find shalom in a new status quo. In a world where two men or two women can go to the courthouse and get a marriage license without anyone raising an eyebrow, we would look back on a past when this was not so and wonder how people could ever have been so narrow minded.

Psalm 84

They go from rampart to rampart (or “from strength to strength”), appearing before God in Zion. (84:8)

“May you go from strength to strength” was part of a speech of congratulation of my childhood rabbi. It sounded so rabbinic, mostly because it was not at all clear to me what he meant. Did it mean “may you go from success to success,” a wish that would make sense given that he might be offering congratulations for an accomplishment? Of course, he might also be offering congratulations for a marriage or the birth of a child. We won’t know for some years whether the marriage is successful, and while the child may be successfully delivered, the larger task of actually raising the child has barely begun!

As a rabbi myself, I figured I needed to be able to give the phrase a plausible explanation and I did so as follows: “may you go from the strength that it takes to do what you did to the strength that it will take to do the next big thing.” A confession, though — prior to reading Psalm 84, I never knew where this phrase came from. Now that I know where it came from, my 26 word explanation of four Hebrew words seems a bit wordy.

The context in Psalm 84 is a description of a person engaged in a pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem, going along the highways, passing through a valley, and finally traveling me’hayil el hayill. Are we envisioning the pilgrim climbing the ramparts on the walls of Jerusalem on the final leg of his journey? I think it more likely that the weary pilgrim would have completed the journey on the streets into the city rather than on the walls around the city. Perhaps a better understanding would be “from effort to effort,” summarizing the long journey as a series of discrete efforts, each of which needed to be accomplished in order to complete the task.

“May you go from [this] effort to [another] effort” doesn’t sound as good as “from strength to strength,” but I think that’s what what my childhood rabbi intended. Each time we complete something, whether it be graduation from high school, a wedding, birth of a child, a new job, we praise the effort that went into the accomplishment. We praise the effort that went into the completion, not the quality of the final product.

What do you call a medical student who graduated last in his class?’ goes the old joke.  Doctor! While there is much to be said for the marathoner who runs to Jerusalem with a world-record breaking time, when all is said and done the plodder who also arrives in the holy city has done the pilgrimage mitzvah just as well.

Psalm 83

O God, do not be silent; do not hold aloof; do not be quiet, O God (83:2)

Some Psalms do not speak to me. This is one of them. The language is powerful, it evokes the image of glorious battles of the past in which our enemies were vanquished, but I find it disturbingly passive. Shall we sit back and wait for God’s voice to thunder from the mountain top? Should we wait for God’s right arm to smash our enemies and correct the injustices of society? Ought we expect that the power of nature – wind, fire, storms – will protect us and destroy them?

Do I show a lack faith when I say no, we should not sit back and wait for God, whining about God’s non-appearance?

When Selma led to the passing and signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that was the voice of God. It was also the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of demonstrators. The racial injustice we still experience is not caused by God’s aloofness. It is the responsibility of those of us who carry around prejudice in our hearts.

To blame God for human failings is an act unworthy of a mature adult. God created us with the potential for greatness, and when we fail it is our failure, not God’s.

Psalm 82

They neither know nor understand, they go about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth totter. (82:5)

Our Psalm is identified by the Talmud as the Psalm to be recited on Tuesdays because on the third day, God separated water from dry land. In other words, God created the foundation of the world on which human beings live. The connection between Tuesday’s act of creation and Psalm 82 is found in our verse, which says that those among the court of divine judges who are ignorant shake the very foundation of the earth. The Psalmist suggests  that if we allow judges to pervert justice, the fabric of creation can unravel.

The first century Rabbinic work Pirke Avot understood that government, which includes a judiciary system, is necessary for the stability of society:

Rabbi Chanina taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive.” (Avot 3:2)

On the other hand, Pirke Avot also was caution about the capricious nature of the leadership of the Roman empire:

Rabban Gamliel taught: “Be wary of the government, for they get friendly with a person only for their own convenience. They look like friends when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a person when he is in need.” (Avot 2:3)

It is true that our government has not always protected those in need. We have just passed the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” on which over 600 non-violent protesters were viciously attacked by Alabama State troopers as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. President Obama shared the following words:

Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?

Voting is a privilege and a sacred obligation. Collectively, we are responsible for maintaining a stable society by choosing our elected representatives wisely. Please take your obligation seriously.

Psalm 81

God feeds them the finest wheat, “I will satisfy you with honey from the rock.” (81:17)

The Me’or Eynayim, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (c. 1739 – 1797, Ukraine) teaches that any food we eat comes to us by means of the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, garbed in various proximate causes (from a translation by Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Institute for Jewish Spirituality). In other words, we might buy the food at a restaurant, we might buy it at the supermarket and prepare it for ourselves, it might be served at a meeting, we might receive it in the form of a restaurant gift card, we might eat it at Kiddush, we might receive it from a food pantry. No matter what the food, from the richest, most elaborately prepared gourmet meal to the simplest microwave ready entree, it is God who is feeding us.

We might dream, with the Psalmist, of the finest food, but the Me’or Eynayim cautions, “Our sages teach that eating is a time of battle, that we must fight the yetzer hara, the selfish inclination, when we eat, especially when we are eating something we enjoy.”

Typically, I am not a mindful eater. My yetzer urges me to eat more and more, faster and faster, as if this might be my last chance to eat for a very long time! For several years, each time I would see my doctor for an annual physical he would note that I weighed a pound or so more than the previous year. A pound is not much, but over 20 years it would add up.

On rare occasions when I am relaxed and totally focused on the food and not distracted, I slow down and really think about what I am eating. I taste the food and feel the energy contained within it being broken down and absorbed by my body. For the past few years I have been working on being more mindful with both my eating and my physical activity. At my yearly visit with my doctor my weight has been stable or even a pound or so less than the previous year.

I love eating a fresh baked hearty roll and a slice of delicious honey cake, but the Me’or Eynayim’s lesson is to be equally satisfied with a simple peanut butter sandwich on plain bread. Remember, the Shekhina is equally found in all types of food.