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 67

November 24

May the earth yield its produce; may God, our God, bless us. (67:7)

The American Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance. The cornucopia, a horn overflowing with produce, is a symbol of Thanksgiving. The Jewish holiday of thanksgiving celebrated earlier in the fall, is Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. Notably, while it is a holiday of celebration and harvest, it also contains significant elements acknowledging that no matter how overflowing our pantries, our existence is nonetheless precarious.

We read the Book of Ecclesiastes on Sukkot to remind ourselves that our material possessions come and go, largely out of our control. We pray for rain to remind ourselves that no matter how abundant the current harvest, next year’s success depends on God’s blessing of rain. We eat our festive meals in the Sukkah, whose fragile structure open to the elements under a roof made from branches reminds us to be grateful for every blessing. Easy times and hard times blend together, just as eating at a Sukkah table full of tasty food leaves us open to heat, cold, insects, and rain.

The one line prayer of the Psalmist is a prayer within two realms. May the earth continue to share its bounty with us, and may God bless us with an open heart, able to see the blessing embedded within our troubles. I’ll conclude with the following prayer (author unknown):

May we have enough trials to keep us strong, enough sorrow to keep us human, enough hope to keep us happy, enough failure to keep us humble, enough success to keep us eager, enough friends to give us comfort, enough enthusiasm to make us look forward, enough wealth to meet our needs, and enough determination to make each day a better day than the last.

Psalm 56

You keep count of my wanderings; put my tears into Your flask, into Your record. (56:9)

This verse is reminiscent of the central metaphor of Rosh Hashanah – that God keeps a record of our “wanderings.” The Jewish path of behavior is called halakha. I imagine that wandering might represent our straying off the path of halakha.

The High Holiday amidah, in a section called “unetaneh tokef,” suggests that through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and giving, we might lesson the severity of the decree against us. The first two items on the list, repentance and prayer, go hand in hand with tears.

In order to repent properly, one has to virtually break one’s heart. If we have committed some kind of harm against another person, in order to make amends we need to absolutely feel the pain that we caused. An apology should be felt in the kishkas … we have to feel as if we caused a rip in the fabric of another person’s universe, which is precisely what we did when he committed the harm. The tears are the tearing of the fabric of our own universe experiencing the pain of the other.

Prayer is only effective for the purpose of lesson a Divine decree against us when it pours forth from a broken heart. Prayer is meant to be a transformative experience. We ought not to ask for a gift on a silver platter, but rather ask the Divine Blessed One to help us realign ourselves and become the person created in God’s image that we were meant to be. These are the tears that I shed in the process of changing my fate, that I’d like to be entered into the record.

Psalm 33

Note: My psalm reflection leading into April on Psalm 33 is in honor of the celebration of Pesah. For more information about Pesah, you can download a detailed Guide to Passover from AhavasIsraelGR.org or contact the synagogue office to request that we send it to you, either by email or by regular mail.

For God spoke, and it was; God commanded, and it endured. (33:9)

I learned recently that in the Biblical idiom, “God spoke” or “God said” in Genesis 1 means “God thought.” God’s speech does not need to be audibly pronounced, because speech is a physical human action that involves breath and mouth/nose and teeth and lips pushing and shaping sound. God, lacking human anatomy, does not need to manipulate wind and sound to make something real. A though or an idea, which to us is only a potential reality depending on action to make it concrete, to God is a reality. In the higher world of God’s reality, if something can be thought than it is real.

Told through the lens of God, Passover should therefore have been a quick story. God would needed only to speak/think and the Israelites would been free. The story would have been brief and to the point – Now we’re slaves, <poof>, now we’re free! But the Hagadah doesn’t opens its telling of the story this way because we don’t tell the story of Passover through God’s lens – we tell it through the lens of human experience. Maggid (the storytelling) begins Now we’re slaves – next year may we be free. We human beings don’t transition quickly. Unlike God’s immediate though to action, we need time to adjust from one state to another. We need to draw out the story to give us time to become free, so we have 10 plagues (which in the Rabbinic imagination are multiplied to 50 and 250) to give Pharaoh and ourselves time to prepare.

I shared a d’var Torah recently in which I suggested that a critical component of leadership is presence. One can be a great visionary leader, but only if one also is able to enlist others to fulfill the mission and get the job done. There will be times of crisis during which writing memos and issuing orders will be insufficient. The leader needs to demonstrate presence, that he or she is involved in the process of getting the work done. Enduring visions are those which are sufficiently compelling so that people stick around to do the work and to see what comes next. The story of Passover wasn’t a story of slave people who scattered to the four winds, each in pursuit of their own vision of freedom but rather the liberation of a people who remained together. 3500-some years later, we are still that same enduring people, telling the same story of how God’s plan came to be. Have a happy and kosher Pesah!