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.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – May, 2015

Every 7 – 10 years, every cell in our body will have died off and been replaced. This means that on a cellular level, you are a completely different person – the old you has died off and been replaced. Yet, somehow, the patterns of memory that give us our identity are preserved.

On an institutional level, Congregation Ahavas Israel is the same organization it has been since 1937, when Ahavas Achim rejoined Beth Israel after having broken away 36 years earlier. As a congregation, we trace our sense of identity and our place within Grand Rapids history back to the founding of our first predecessor congregation in 1892. Some families and a few individuals have been continuous members for 80, 90, 100 years or more, but most of us came much later. The congregational body, unlike the human body, does not have a genetically influenced end of lifetime. If we care about it and put time, energy, and money into its upkeep, it can survive and thrive indefinitely. The congregation needs you who care enough about it to be members, to sustain it.

As a religious organization, the most consistent heartbeat of activity can be found in our services: shabbat, festival, and weekdays. Every Wednesday and Thursday morning, groups gather for prayer in the chapel. Perhaps this is a place where you can help sustain the congregation – can you help ensure weekly minyanim by committing yourself to morning prayer once or twice a week or twice a month?

The festival of Shavuot is approaching. We’re gathering on the first night for a program that is part social and part educational – a Tikkun Leil Shavuot study session. If you’ve never participated, perhaps this year you’ll try it out. It’s an informal gather at my home (2021 Michigan St. NE) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 23. The Shavuot morning service the next morning reenacts the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai; the second day of the festival is both Memorial Day on the secular calendar and a day on which we recite Yizkor on the Jewish calendar. The ritual of remembering connects us personally and institutionally, as Jews and as Americans, to those who gave us our identity and to whose lives made it possible for us to live in freedom. Our two identities also intersect at the Ahavas Israel and Greenwood cemetery, where we gather twice a year to place flags on the graves of veterans. We’ll meet at Ahavas Israel Cemetery at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 17 to place flags for Memorial Day.

Shavuot makes the beginning of summer on the Jewish calendar. During the summer months, make it a point to spend a Shabbat once or twice a month (or more!) with us. Your presence will help the heart of Ahavas Israel beat more strongly.

Psalm 89

How long, Adonai, will you hide your face forever; will your fury blaze like fire? (89:47)

The final Psalm in Book 3 of the Psalms, at 53 verses, is the third longest Psalm. It concludes with a doxology typical of the final verse of each book of Psalms, “Blessed is Adonai forever, Amen and Amen.” When I embarked on this project to write a reflection on each of the 150 Psalms, one per week, a nearly three year project, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to maintain the discipline. That’s the funny thing about long-term projects. You begin with the best of intentions, but at a certain point it seems like they’re going to take forever to complete. Forever is a long time. Something which takes forever is never completed.

The JPS translation of our verse, paying careful attention to the punctuation of the verse, reads three distinct questions:

How long, Adonai; will you hide your face forever, will your fury blaze like fire?

The first question, “How long,” is a general cry for God’s presence. It is followed by two specific question. To paraphrase, “Will I never see you again?” and “Are you very angry?”

Rabbi Benjamin Segal, in his masterful book “A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature” translates the verse differently by putting moving the word “forever” from the middle of the verse, where it is found in the Hebrew, to the end of the verse:

How long, Adonai, will you hid your face; will your fury blaze like fire forever?

Rabbi Segal’s translation, reads the verse as two questions — “How long will you remain distant?” and “Will you be angry forever?”

I’ve chosen a different way to understand the verse. The Psalmist asks, “How long will you hide your face?” but embedded in the verse is the word ‘forever,’ a word which indicates what he’s afraid of. I’ve translated this verse to emphasize the writer’s sense of uncertainty and contradiction. The Psalmist asks “how long?” but answers that God’s face will be hidden forever, that God will never appear to him again.

Time is relative. One minute standing in silence, as Israelis do as part of their Memorial Day observance, seems like an eternity. On the other hand, one minute on a rollercoaster is over in a flash. When we’re feeling abandoned, time crawls. When we’re having a good time, time flies. Three-fifths of the way into my journey though the Psalms, I, like the Psalmist, sometimes wonder if I’ll make it to the end. It seems far away. As we finish Book 3 of Psalms, I pause to acknowledge God, the source of blessing, and to thank God for giving me the mental strength and discipline to push on and finish what I began.