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.

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 52

Your tongue devises mischief, like a sharpened razor that works treacherously. (52:4)

Our contemporary inability to communicate kindly is not a modern invention. Back in the days when writing was new, I suppose Oggita wrote a note on a cave wall to her girlfriend Uggah, “Og wears stinky hides.” And Og scratched out, “Grogg can’t hit the side of an Elephant with a rock.”

I, like the Psalmist, find it discouraging when people use their power of speech as a weapon. When I read online posts and comments claiming with all seriousness that Israel is responsible for a Holocaust of the Palestinian people, I am horrified that people have so little regard for history and for truth. Easily verifiable facts are simply invented – one can find it stated that Gaza is the most densely populated area on earth, when in truth Gaza is 4 times bigger than Manhattan with about the same population. Truth doesn’t matter when one’s goal is to demonize.

In the online world, debate is not about laying out facts and seeing who can present the most persuasive case. It should be – but too often it is about sarcasm and attacks and making up the facts as one goes along.

The goal in peace negotiations is about coming to a consensus that both sides can live with. The goal in online conversations is about making the most outrageous claims, making the other side look foolish, having the last word.

Facebook as a forum for comments on articles is no paragon of virtue, but the fact that most users are identified by their real name causes most users to moderate their comments, at least on articles posted by a friend. However, when NPR or the HuffPost posts a controversial story which receives hundreds or thousands of comments, the sheer volume of comments seems to provide a layer of anonymity that invites meanness.

Websites which allow anonymous comments are the best example that the speech the Psalmist wrote against thousands of years ago has not changed. Speech was, continues to be, and probably always will be used by some as a weapon.

Psalm 45

… ride on in the cause of truth and meekness and right; and let your right hand lead you to awesome Torah. (45:5)

I love that the Psalmist suggests that the cause of truth (literally?) goes hand in hand with the quality of meekness. In fact, reading the Psalm a bit creatively, I would turn this into a mathematical formula:

Truth + Meekness = Right (= Justice, Correctness)

Straying just a bit further away from the literal meaning of the Psalm, I would also suggest that approaching Torah will the quality of humility is essential to finding awesome Torah. If you know the truth and approach Torah with the intent of proving that you are right, you might do so, but your Torah will not be awesome. Torah is only earthshatteringly awesome when you approach it with humility, when you say, “I think I know the truth but I am not sure. Let me absorb some Torah and see what it tells me.” It is only with this attitude that you can be surprised by what Torah is telling you.

This is a problem with many of the political right or left – they search sacred texts for verses proving that their position is correct, rather than entering the text with a blank slate, completely open to whatever wisdom presents itself.

This is a variation on the teaching of Rabbi Tzadok in Pirke Avot 4:5, “Do not make [Torah teachings] a crown with which to glorify yourself or a spade with which to dig.”

In other words, don’t use Torah to prove you are right or your positions are correct. Rather, let your mind be open to whatever Torah wants to give you.

Psalm 44

… God knows the secrets of the heart. (44:22)

The image of God knowing all of my secrets, knowing everything I have done wrong down to the last sordid embarrassing detail, is not comforting. Instead, I understand this verse in the light of a story told about the Hasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Leib.

R’ Moshe Leib used to tell his hassidim that he learned what it means to love a fellow Jew from two Russian peasants. Once he came to an inn, where two thoroughly drunk Russian peasants were sitting at a table, draining the last drops from a bottle of strong Ukrainian vodka.

One of them yelled to his friend in a slurred drunken drawl, “Igor! Do you love me?”

Igor, somewhat surprised by the question answered, “Of course, Ivan, of course I love you!”

“No, no”, insisted Ivan, “Do you really love me, really?!”

Now feeling a bit cornered, Igor assured him, “What do you think? I don’t love you? Of course I love you. You’re my best friend Ivan!”

“Oh yes, yes?” countered Ivan. “if you really loved me … then why don’t you know what hurts me and the pain I have in my heart?”

Reb Moshe Leib is speaking about a kind of knowing that implies a close, caring connection between two people. This is the kind of knowing that I prefer to read into the verse from Psalms – that God knowing all of my secrets means that God knows what hurts me. When I am hurting, I am never hurting alone. God shares my pain; God suffers with me. Pain that is shared does not hurt as much as pain suffered alone.

When I am in terrible emotional pain, I sometimes use a practice that I learned in interfaith dialogue with Christians, who know a lot about a theology of a suffering God. Jews know suffering; Christians know a God who knows suffering.

My Christian friends taught me how to offer up my pain to God. Essentially, the practice is to share the pain and its causes with God; to talk to God about the hurt, what I did to cause it, and what I can do to relieve it. The practice is to lift the burden of the pain through honest prayer and share it with the Holy Blessed One. It may not remove the pain entirely, but putting it into words and offering it up can be, at least for me, a kind of healing ritual.