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 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.

Psalm 66

O peoples, bless our God, celebrate God’s praises; the One who has granted us life, and has not let our feet slip. (66:8-9)

Several years ago I met Rabbi Ronnie Cahana while visiting Camp Ramah in Canada. He serves a congregation in Montreal. Our paths crossed because his daughter was in the same age group as my sons. He was warm and friendly. I enjoyed the few days I spent getting to know him, and remembered the encounter. Just a couple years after that meeting, in 2011, he had a stroke. He was paralyzed from just below his eyes down. His mental faculties were intact – a condition known as “locked-in syndrome.” His daughter Kitra recently gave a very powerful TED talk describing how she and the rest of his family transcribed his communication through blinks, which allowed him to continue to share his Torah and his poetry with his congregation and on his web site, rabbicahana.com.

I watched the video of Kitra’s talk . The next day, I received an email from Pam, a college friend whose mother suffered a major stroke early in October. She wrote that she was away from home with her mother for nearly five weeks, taking care of her throughout her recovery and the search for a facility that will be able to take care of her after Pam returned home to her family. Her mom is mostly cognitively intact and cannot move the right side of body, but because she suffered the stroke about 36 hours before she was found and treatment could begin, she will not recover fully.

“Bless God … who has not let our feet slip.” From the first moment that he could communicate, Rabbi Cahana comforted his family and his congregation, assuring them that his experience was a blessing, that he found God within the silence of his body. He continued to teach Torah, he continued to counsel members of his congregation, while in a condition that most of us would have found intolerable.

“Bless God … who has not let our feet slip.” Pam found spiritual comfort in some of my Psalm reflections and other blog posts, but I find spiritual comfort in hearing about the love and strength she exhibits in the face of tremendous hardship. Away from her husband and children, she was willingly taking on the task of caring for the mother who embraced her and cared for her.

I have long disliked the aphorism, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Most of us handle whatever we need to handle, but some of us, overwhelmed, do not handle things well at all. For me, a theology that suggests that God “piles it on” for those who can handle it is perverse. Rabbi Cahana is standing firm and my friend Pam is standing firm; both under very trying circumstances. “Thank God … they have kept their footing.”

Psalm 64

Hide me from a band of evil men, from a crowd of evildoers, who whet their tongues like swords; they aim their arrows — cruel words — to shoot from hiding at the blameless man … They arm themselves with an evil word … (64:3-6)

These verses have a very first world flavor to them. Many times, the Psalmist writes of being under physical attack. There are many people in this world who suffer the very real fear of physical danger. For many of us in the US and other Western, developed countries, our physical safety is not the primary question. Although we are aware of school shootings and violence in our cities, for many people, myself included, such incidents feel far away. There is no question that they are real problems, but the fear that feels most real to those who lives their lives in relative safety are from those who use words, not weapons, as threats.

It is not true that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Aggressive words do hurt. The modern workplace and modern politics may have no place for duels, or stepping outside and settling our disputes like gentlemen by beating each other up, or a good old fashioned sword fight. Rather, we see verbal attacks, condescension and ridiculing comments. We see people working (or playing?) on their devices during meetings, pointedly ignoring the person making a presentation. In schools, despite workshops and assemblies on bullying, we see closed cliques of teens deliberately shutting out those who don’t dress or speak or fit in the right way.

Email, texting, social media posts, all provide a forum to attack. We might even long for the simpler days of the Psalmist when the evildoers had to put quill on parchment to pen an insulting letter, or at least go out into the public square and show their faces if they wanted to engage in a verbal assault. There were no anonymous comment streams at the end of newspaper columns, behind which the cowards could spew their venom.

All who have been in the crosshairs of a barrage of hostile, violent, words have uttered words to whatever Higher Power we appeal to, “Protect me from this cruel assault!”

Psalm 61

“Appoint steadfast love (hesed v’emet, literally “love and truth”) to guard him.” (61:8)

A hendiadys is a word pair consisting of two nouns (or sometimes a noun and an adjective) joined by a conjunction, in which the two words modify each other. It is a common Biblical form. See here for a further explanation and examples.

Hesed v’emet or hesed shel emet is a term often used to refer to the work of the Hevra Kadisha, the group that prepares bodies for burial by washing and dressing them in linen shrouds. The “truest form of love” is the love you show for a person without expectation that you will receive anything in return. This certainly applies to the mitzvah of taking care of the dead.

In the case of this Psalmist, who is referring to the circumstances of a King, hesed v’emet, steadfast love, refers to the kind of love that is shown by God to human beings, who can never hope to repay the love to a God has no real need for human favor. It is also a model for the love in a human relationship. If we qualify everything we do for someone we love with the condition that we get something in return, the relationship will inevitably deteriorate. This is as taught in Pirke Avot 5:18:

“A loving relationship which depends upon something, [when] that thing is gone, the love is gone. But [a loving relationship] which does not depend upon something will never come to an end.”