Psalm 87

Indeed, it shall be said of Zion, “Every person was born there.” (87:5)

For every person to be born in Zion either means that the world population shrinks dramatically or the boundaries of Zion, literally or metaphorically, expand to encompass the whole world. Let’s think of a messianic world in which we are citizens of planet earth whose capital is Zion.

If we lived in a truly messianic world in which there were no national conflicts and no meaningful borders between nations, in which people of all religions treated each other with absolute love and respect — wouldn’t that feel as if the messianic City of Jerusalem had expanded  to encompass the entire world?  The whole world would be Israel, a city/land of God.

In this messianic world any Jew living anywhere in the world could claim our birthright – Israeli citizenship and an Israeli passport, fulfilling the Psalmist’s vision, “Every person was born there.” For a host of reasons, this will have to wait until we are significantly closer to peace and stability in the Middle East, but I have a dream! I dream of an expanded Birthright Israel in which Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return is offered to any Jew on the condition that he or she visit Israel once every 5 years and participate in some kind of Israel service program. How many diaspora Jews would make a commitment to participating in the life and development of the Jewish state in exchange for Israeli citizenship? In my dreams, at least, the number is significant.

Psalm 86

I call to You all day long (86:3)

Years ago I met a man named Ken Wells, who used to sit at a table in the front window of a vegetarian restaurant named Gaia’s. Because I saw him every time I went there, morning or afternoon, I thought he owned the place. One day I struck up a conversation with him and found out that he was a local artist and a Buddhist, but he did not in fact own the restaurant. I admired his work, which I found flowing and whimsical, at a couple of bagel places where he was commissioned to do murals on the walls. Ken was my primary source of information on meditation, years before I did any serious learning from Jewish sources.

I invited him to be the primary speaker at an interfaith Thanksgiving service that was held at the synagogue. His message included a reference to his personal meditative practice in which he strove to spend the entire day, every waking moment, in a state of meditation.

At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. My mental image of meditation was of a person sitting in a quiet space emptying his mind of thoughts. How can you drive, have conversations, engage in business, or create art, with an empty mind? Over time I learned more about meditation and began to understand what he meant. Meditation is a “I call to you all day long” experience of being connected and aware of the Divine Presence at every moment. When speaking to another person while in a meditative state, you have total focus on that person and what she is saying as a manifestation of the Divine Image. Safe driving requires a meditative-like awareness of your surroundings and complete focus on the task at hand. Creating art, creative writing, and even engaging in business require a mind which is at once completely focused and at the same time open to unexpected ideas, a state of mind which can existed in meditation.

Thank you Ken Wells, of blessed memory, for sharing this insight with me years before I had the capacity to understand it.

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.