Psalm 141

Adonai, set a guard over my mouth, a watch at the door of my lips. (141:3)

Considering all bad habits, the compulsive desire to get in the last word is a tough one to break. It is rooted in a desire to win. The combative spirit bursts forth upon spotting the chance to raise oneself up by correcting, chastising or further clarifying.

Communication ought not be a competitive sport, but even a cursory glance at the comments below published articles often reveals a high level of belligerent language. The character of “Topper” in Dilbert is that guy you avoid speaking to, with his unbelievable ability to turn every statement into a soliloquy about himself.

You say, “I’ve been reading this great book called ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and I’m thinking that most of the misfortune that people experience in their life is connected to their poor choices. What do you think?”

He responds, “Absolutely right, I’ve made great choices and that’s why I just got a promotion, and in my spare time I’ve been writing my own self-help book which will help you get our of the rut you’re in.”

Or the response to “I just got a new dog and I finally trained him to stop peeing in my slippers!” is “Great, my dog barks once when he needs to do #1, twice for #2, and three times when he wants me to change the channel! He hates CNN – much prefers Fox News.”

And then there are the people who can talk in long, multi-page paragraphs without checking to see whether the listener is still listening. But even those of us who want to listen and show sincere interest in the other person find ourselves occasionally responding in ways that are more about our insecurities than about the other person’s needs.

The wise words of the Psalmist remind us that we ought to have a door at our lips that we should regularly close, or a least a filter which regulates how many of our words escape our mouths.

Psalm 140

Let slanderers have no place in the land … (140:12)

I write a weekly column for a Michigan-based website and my local newspaper titled “Ethics and Religion Talk.” Each week I publish three or four responses from different religious traditions to reader questions on ethical or religious issues. I enjoy writing the column and many people enjoy reading it, including a group of people hostile to anything religious who read the column “religiously.” Each week they post sarcastic or just plain hostile comments belittling those who take religion seriously. Worse, they post anonymously. My multi-faith panel of clergy work hard to carefully craft their responses. They stand by what they write, in public, under their own names. It is painful for me and for them to be subject to the criticism of people who make no effort to understand why we say what we say or to find anything positive in our words and hide behind pseudonyms, lobbing verbal grenades.

The difference between gossip and slander is that gossip my be true or false, but slander is a false statement about another person. The literal translation of the Hebrew phrase is “a person of the tongue,” but the translations/commentaries I consulted all agree that the intent is a slanderer. The thing about people who slander anonymously is that they don’t have to worry about thinking deeply and being careful with facts so they can dash off quick comments, while those of us who care about accuracy and stand behind our comments publicly spend more time crafting our words. If I controlled the platform, I would not allow anonymous comments (“have no place in the land”), but alas I don’t. So I choose to rise above their slander and hope that the nature of their communication speaks for itself.

Sometimes, like the Psalmist, the best we can do is hope for a better future. In the meantime, all we can do is model excellent behavior and comport ourselves with dignity.

Psalm 131

Adonai, my heart is not proud nor my look haughty …. (131:1)

It feels good when people praise me. When I teach or write something that elicits positive feedback, I am proud of myself. I have to remind myself, however, that several of the people who have told me that I am the best teacher they have every learned from, the most compassionate listener, the most useful advisor, have later turned out to have had ulterior motives. Our egos love to be stroked, but the people who do the stroking too often have their own agendas. They want something out of us, so their praise comes with strings attached. The moment we no longer serve their purposes, suddenly we are no longer their teacher, advisor, or confidant.

Cultivating humility means keeping one’s ego in check. The more powerful the leadership position, the more advisors one has, the more vulnerable one is to believing the stories that they tell. Remind yourself that no matter how important others make you feel, in the scope of history among the billions of people on earth, you are just a momentary presence. Within a generation or two or three of your passing, you will be forgotten. If you are lucky, one of your descendants, perhaps sharing your name, will happen upon your grave marker and leave a small stone as a token. But the substance of your life, other than your name or a couple of dates, will be gone.

While you exist, your life can have infinite meaning but do not mistake meaning for transcendent importance. Live your life so that you make a difference, but remember that ultimately, the only one who can make a difference, generation after generation, is God.

Psalm 132

Let Your priests be clothed in righteousness .… (132:9)

Would that all religious leaders were clothed in righteousness. The Psalmist hints at a great truth when he expresses himself in the form of a hope. He knows as well as we do that religious leaders are vulnerable to the same human foibles as anyone else. They are often placed in positions of power without sufficient preparation to keep themselves from stumbling. This is partially the fault of the seminaries and yeshivot that insufficiently train those they ordain, but mostly the fault of the clergy themselves who take advantage of their position of power. It may be that 99% are decent people, but it’s the 1% whose sins stain the headlines and damage the reputations of all faith leaders.

Not only clergy, but therapists and politicians and others who have the trust of people over whom they have authority, ought to behave beyond reproach and keep away from even the appearance of impropriety.

Psalm 133

February 29, 2016

Divre Harav – March/16

For almost three years, I have been publishing reflections on Psalms, one a week. In only three months I will have finished all 150 Psalms. I’ve been doing this because the study of sacred literature for the purpose of spiritual development is a key practice of Judaism.There is a wide range of Jewish literature to study along with classical or modern commentaries, such as Torah, Prophets, Psalms, Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, Zohar. I find that the discipline of study opens me up to whatever message resonates when I open up the book and start reading. I think of it as a message from the Divine, plucking at whichever one of my heartstrings that needs plucking at that particular moment. Here is my reflection on a verse from Psalm 133, at three verses, one of the shortest Psalms in the book.

Psalm 133

How good and how pleasant it is that siblings dwell together. (133:1)

This verse is one of the most well known verses of Psalms. Of course, ‘siblings’ (or more literally, ‘brothers’) is meant to be read broadly, as members of a tribe or nation. How wonderful it is when we all get along, and how awful it is when we don’t. Who can forget Rodney King’s plea during the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the wake of the acquittal of four police officers for using excessive force during his arrest, “Can we all get along?”

Since then, St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Minneapolis have also become flash-points in our country’s struggle to create the kind of society Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned, one in which all people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It is true that siblings don’t always get along. We’re not describing a pollyannaish future in which arguments cease to exist and we sit around every evening around the campfire singing Kumbaya. We disagree, we argue, we might even yell at times, but at the end of the day we find a way to come to an agreement.

The Mishnah speaks about disagreements that are “l’shem shamayim,” for the sake of heaven. We reach this point when we understand and appreciate the other person’s perspective, even when we disagree. First, we imagine ourselves in the position of a young black man or woman walking through a store followed by security personnel or being stopped by the police while driving through predominantly white neighborhoods, and appreciate that the color of their skin places them under heightened suspicion. Only after doing this can we engage in a serious discussion on how to alleviate racial tension.

Psalm 134

Lift your hands toward the sanctuary and acknowledge Adonai as the Source of Blessing. (134:2)

Raised hands with clenched fists can be an aggressive gesture, as in a boxer’s posture, ready to fight. Raised hands can be a gesture of surrender, hands far away from a weapon. Raised hands and arms stretched to the sides can be a welcoming gesture, preparing to envelope a loved one with an embrace. The same raised hands and arms extended forward can look more like a gesture of supplication.

Holding one’s hands up as a gesture of prayer is common in some Christian churches, but rarely seen in synagogues. Yet not only do both the Psalmist and Isaiah (1:15) make reference to raised hands as a prayer posture, but also the Priestly blessing (Numbers 6:23-27), known in Hebrew as nesi’at kapayim, raising of the hands, is recited with raised, outstretched hands.

I experience the posture of the priestly blessing as an active posture, channeling God’s blessings through the split fingers of the Kohen, forming the letter Shin for the word Shalom, peace, the most important blessing of all. The posture of prayer with raised hands, on the other hand, feels more passive to me, one’s hands open to receive whatever God choose, or chooses not, to send. I wonder if Jews lost the art of praying with our arms because we who grew to rely on holding books of prayer to formulate our words to God. Thus, our hands were no longer free to engage in prayers and gestures of their own.

Sometimes, during prayer, I put the book aside and allow myself to use my upper body to more fully engage with the words I am saying. I keep in mind, though, that it is the inner kavanah that counts, not the external fervor of the loudness of the voice of the body. Ultimately, the goal is to acknowledge God as the Source of Blessing and express gratitude. Gestures and posture ought to serve that purpose, rather than becoming an end unto themselves.

Psalm 135

Adonai, Your name endures forever, Your fame, Adonai, through all generations.(135:13)

We hope to live our lives so as to make a difference in the world, whether it is by raising children, the work we do professionally, or changing some person’s life (or persons’ lives) through tzedakah work. In ways large and small, obvious and barely noticeable, each one of us will have made a difference through the large number of people whose lives intersected with our own.

However, the number of us who will be remembered beyond one or two generations after we die is very small. Of the 108 billion or so human beings who have lived on this world, how many of them are still remembers 100 years, 500 years, 1000 years, after their death? Think of all of the names in the Bible or other tales of ancient literature. So many are just names, about whom we know nothing.

The name of a mortal human being, his or her fame, no matter how great, does not last. While an individual human life is a brief blip on the timeline, God’s name and God’s renown echo from earliest recorded history through the present and into the future. We may be unsatisfied with the progress of human development, at each minuscule human effort to push humanity forward. However, those who believe in a Divine Power can die knowing that although we are temporary actors playing a brief part in a very long play, our life, full of sound and fury though it may be, contra Macbeth is nonetheless deeply significant because we link our name with God’s name.

Divre Harav – April/16

One of the findings from last summer’s congregational survey and the ongoing strategic planning process is a desire for more social connections within the congregational family. When people walk into a synagogue for a service, a class, a program, or a party, they want to feel connected to the other people in the room.

All Jewish holidays, Shabbat, and Passover in particular, are appropriate times to reach out and extend hospitality to another person or family in the congregation or beyond. I know that many families already do this, but I want to throw out a challenge. If you invite the same people year after year, I’d like you to consider the fact that every congregation changes over time. Some people leave, and new people come in. For Ahavas Israel to be as warm as welcoming as we know we can be requires that each of us periodically break out of our closed groups and welcome in someone new. I challenge you to invite someone you’ve never had over to your home. If you need a hand finding someone, let me know. I can connect you with a more recent member, potential member, individual or family.

I saw a beautiful story about the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who founded a synagogue in Berkeley during the 1960’s in order to reach out to the many young Jews who had drifted away from Jewish tradition. He named it “The House of Love and Prayer.” In the summer of 1967, he was asked to explain his vision for this synagogue.

He answered: “Here’s the whole thing, simple as it is. The House of Love and Prayer is a place where, when you walk in, someone loves you, and when you walk out, someone misses you.” 

Our synagogue is named “The Love of Israel.” How powerful would it be if each of us embraced the idea that love is a fundamental part of our identify as a congregation, the core of our mission statement! The essential meaning of Passover is tied up with the idea of transformation, from slave to free person, from a loose collection of individuals to a community. I wish you and your families a Passover of blessing and liberation from all that enslaves you.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • SederOrder. The Passover meal is so named because of the well defined order of the ritual.
  • SiddurPrayer book, so named because of the useful arrangement of prayers within each service.
  • Mazhor – Best known as a High Holiday prayer book, but also can refer to a special prayer book for Festivals. From the root hazar, meaning return, referring to the calendar cycle.
  • MitzrayimEgypt, from the root Metzar, meaning a narrow place, so named because of the narrow habitable area surrounding the Nile river. In addition, Mitzrayim in the Bible is a symbol of narrowness, oppression, and slavery.

Psalm 136

Praise Adonai; for God is good, God’s steadfast love is eternal. (136:1)

An honest theology acknowledges that God, creator of a world in which both good and bad happen to every person, perforce must be the cause of both good and bad things. As Detero-Isaiah says, “I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil.” (45:7) Nonetheless, we also tend to believe that ultimately, the sum of our life experience, with all of its trials and travails, is beneficial. To put it another way, better to be born than never to have existed. Despite the suffering that we experience, the majority of our lives are pleasant, enjoyable, fulfilling, and peaceful. For this, we should be thankful.

The lesson embodied in this verse is to be grateful for the good, even if the good is not complete. Do not be the kind of person who looks for what is missing. There is always something missing. You can always find the imperfection if you look hard enough. If you are the kind of person who does this, ask yourself why you have this compulsive need to find the faults. If you choose, you can be the kind of person who looks at a bad situation and finds something positive. What lesson can I learn from this difficult situation? How can it make me a better person? How can I avoid getting entangled in this difficulty in the future?

Who would you rather spend time with – the person who finds the silver lining in the storm clouds, or the person who obsesses about the one cloud on an otherwise perfectly sunny day?

Psalm 137

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour. (137:5-6)

I love Jerusalem because it is the center of the Jewish world. I love Jerusalem even though the religious perspective of many Jerusalemites is anathema to my world view. I love Jerusalem because that is where I was introduced to the power of Torah. I love Jerusalem even though to many of its residents I am a complete puzzle whose religion bears little resemblance to Judaism. I love Jerusalem because it is a thoroughly Israeli city built on top of 3000 years of Jewish history. I love Jerusalem because it is also a city built on top of 2000 years of Christian history and 1400 years of Moslem history.

Jerusalem is religiously complicated, historically rich, at once ancient, medieval, and modern. I love Jerusalem both for what it represents and what it is – Judaism deeply rooted in Torah and a diversity of Jewish practice unimagined by ancient Israel. In a perfect world, Jerusalem would be the center of all religious practice. All people, of all faiths, would make pilgrimage there to offer of themselves to God. In a not-yet-redeemed world, the “city of gold” is a place of great joy and also a symbol of an imperfection and brokenness.

In the Bible, the right hand symbolizes strength. In Kabbalah, the right side symbolizes love. Without Jerusalem in my life, I would be weakened and my love of God and Torah would be less developed.

Psalm 138

All the kings of the earth shall praise You, Adonai, for they have heard the words You spoke. (138:4)

No person is too powerful or too important to be above cultivating the character trait of humility. Religious leaders, business leaders, politicians, media figures, sports figures, and celebrities can all benefit from learning what it means to be humble. One of the most important lessons that a religious life should teach its followers is that no matter how powerful or famous one might be, ultimate power resides with the Blessed Holy One.

Donniel Hartman argues in “Putting God Second” that religion itself contains the potential to sow the seeds of arrogance. He calls it “God Intoxication” and “God Manipulation.” God-infused people who believe that they know God’s will and are personally charged with carrying it out can be dangerous. Certain that they know God’s desire, they act with no regard for others’ spiritual paths.

Our verse suggests that the result of hearing (or reading) the words of God should first and foremost direct a person to praise God. To acknowledge God is to cultivate a posture of humility. Only within humility can a person take wise action.

In fact, the very act of hearing God’s words takes humility. More often than not, we hear what we want to hear because our ego interferes with the pathway between the ear and the brain. In order to hear what is actually being said we need to focus on the text or the person speaking and set aside our instinctual response. When we truly hear God’s words, we hear words not only directed towards ourselves, but also towards others as well. And when we put others’ needs alongside our own, we have begun to understand what it means that no matter how powerful, one is always less powerful than God.

Psalm 139

It was You who created my kidneys/conscience; You fashioned me in my mother’s womb. (139:13)

When your conscience tells you that you have done something wrong, where is the feeling located in your body? For me it is usually deep in my belly, but I can image that it is sometimes deep enough that it could be considered to be within my lower back, approximately around my kidneys where the Biblical writers imagined it to be. The human body is a miraculous organism. We are neither solely body nor solely mind, but a complex interaction of both. While Judaism absorbed the notion of an eternal soul, it never gave up on the sanctify of the embodied human being.

Being both soul and body, resurrection became a central tenet of Jewish thought. A body without a human soul is less than an animal, incapable of communication and emotion and connection to the world around it. A soul without a body could not exist. The Zohar envisions supernal bodiless angels dressing themselves in flesh as they descend into the world because things in this world need flesh to function.

At conception, a midrash teaches, the soul is placed in the fertilized drop. Over the next 40 weeks, the container for that soul is slowly built until it can survive independent of its mother. Over the next 25 years it continues to develop, first body and then finally brain, until it is physically mature. Over the next 60, 80, 100+ years the body slowly ages but the soul continues to grow. Sometimes the progression of death blocks the expression of the soul and sometimes body and soul continue to nurture each other right up until the moment that the heart stops beating, the lungs stops breathing, and the body “gives up the ghost,” to use the King James expression for the soul departing from the body.

Your body may be yours alone, physically disconnected from all others, but your soul is a part of the soul of all humanity. Lead a soulful life and when humanity is in pain, you will be in pain. Nourish your body with good nutrition and nourish your soul with an intellectual and spiritual life. Exercise your body and challenge your soul by struggling to understand something completely new to you. Lead a soulful life and when any portion of creation is shining brightly your being will shine as well.

Psalm 138

All the kings of the earth shall praise You, Adonai, for they have heard the words You spoke. (138:4)

No person is too powerful or too important to be above cultivating the character trait of humility. Religious leaders, business leaders, politicians, media figures, sports figures, and celebrities can all benefit from learning what it means to be humble. One of the most important lessons that a religious life should teach its followers is that no matter how powerful or famous one might be, ultimate power resides with the Blessed Holy One.

Donniel Hartman argues in “Putting God Second” that religion itself contains the potential to sow the seeds of arrogance. He calls it “God Intoxication” and “God Manipulation.” God-infused people who believe that they know God’s will and are personally charged with carrying it out can be dangerous. Certain that they know God’s desire, they act with no regard for others’ spiritual paths.

Our verse suggests that the result of hearing (or reading) the words of God should first and foremost direct a person to praise God. To acknowledge God is to cultivate a posture of humility. Only within humility can a person take wise action.

In fact, the very act of hearing God’s words takes humility. More often than not, we hear what we want to hear because our ego interferes with the pathway between the ear and the brain. In order to hear what is actually being said we need to focus on the text or the person speaking and set aside our instinctual response. When we truly hear God’s words, we hear words not only directed towards ourselves, but also towards others as well. And when we put others’ needs alongside our own, we have begun to understand what it means that no matter how powerful, one is always less powerful than God.

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