Psalm 96

Declare among the nations, “Adonai reigns!” the world stands firm, it cannot be shaken; God judges the peoples with equity. (96:10)

In Kabbalat Shabbat’s Friday evening trip through the week we might remember that on the second day of creation the upper waters and the lower waters were divided by the sky. The world as we know it begins to take shape, although the dry land doesn’t appear until the third day. Most of the time our world stands firm, although it can and does shake when the vast tectonic plates deep under our feet shift. The firm foundation that the Psalmists speaks of is better understood in spiritual/emotional terms than a physical firmness.

The second of the seven sefirot of of God’s attributes is known as Gevurah (power) or Din (Judgement). Our Psalmist asserts that God judges humanity fairly. There is a steadiness and predictability about the way the world works. Even though we don’t yet have the technology to predict when an earthquakes will occur, we know why they happen and can imagine that someday the tools will exist to predict a shift in the earth’s crust. The same might be said for the suffering which afflicts humanity in this world – we don’t yet have the tools or the will on a large scale to alleviate it completely, so we address it as best we are able.

The most powerful message of this verse is rooted in one of the Jewish principles of theology that moves me most intensely, the idea that our role in the world is to be an imitatio dei, an imitation of God. Just as God feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, buries the dead, and visits the sick (all actions of God found in various midrashim), so we are obligated to take care of others. Just as this attribute of God exercises restraint in the use of power and judgement to judge with equity, so too should we.

While in theory I am in favor of the death penalty, in practice I would prefer that it rarely be used, only in cases where there is absolutely no doubt that the convicted murderer had full capacity to understand what he or she was doing and acted with deliberation.

The history of our system of government can been seen as a struggle between those who want to expand and those who want to restrain the power of the Presidency, Congress, or the Supreme court. Power is not inherently dangerous, but power without humility and restraint is.

Psalm 97

Mountains melt like wax at Adonai’s presence, at the presence of the One who controls all the earth. The heavens proclaim God’s righteousness and all peoples see God’s glory. (97:5-6)

This is the third Psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat, corresponding to Tuesday. On the third day of the week, God separated the water from the dry land and created plant life. Over the eons of geological time, the Creator melted and shaped the geographical features of the earth – mountains and valleys, hill-country and the great plains, the rain forests and the deserts and the rivers. Each particular climate supports its own set of grasses, trees, flowers, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Together, it makes up the agricultural eco-system of planet earth.

The heavens look down on the bounteous produce and proclaim it “good” and a testament to God’s glory. In the mystical system of the Zohar, heaven is a symbolic reference to the third sefirah of Tiferet, beauty. Tiferet is the mediating characteristic between love and judgment. A parent should not shower either unrestrained, unlimited love or harsh judgmental punishment on a child. Proper parenting is a mixture of both love and judgment, and thus the mystical tradition understands God’s traits as well.

Perhaps we might read Psalm 97 as a meditation on an incomplete but beautiful stage of creation. On the third day, “God saw that [creation] was good” twice, perhaps reflecting the fact that even without animal life, the earth had a kind of beautiful perfection in its incompleteness. As much as we try each week to achieve something meaningful and lasting, we remember the rabbinic dictum from Rabbi Tarfon (Pirkei Avot 2:16), “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it.”

Psalm 98

Sing to Adonai a new song, for God has worked wonders; God’s right hand, God’s holy arm, has won victory.  Adonai has announced victory, God has revealed triumph in the sight of the nations. (98:1-2)

This is the fourth Psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat, corresponding to the fourth day of the week and to the fourth sefirah (mystical aspect of God) known as Netzah – victory or triumph. In Kabbalah, Netzah implied endurance and patience. It’s opposite, which we’ll address next week, is Hod, majesty or splendor, and represents submission.

On the fourth day of creation, God made the lights in the heavens: the sun, moon, and stars. The brightness of the sun may be seen as a symbol of victory in the Biblical story of Joshua calling upon the sun to stand still (ch. 10).

And now for something completely different …

According to the Zohar (1:123a, page 209 in Daniel Matt’s Pritzker Edition) Psalm 98 was sung by cows!

A passage from the Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 24b) brings up the verse “The cows went straight ahead along the road to Beit Shemesh” (1Sa. 6:12). Since the word “straight ahead” uses letters that also can mean “sing,” the Talmud suggests that the cows sang a song: “The cows sang along the road to Beit Shemesh.” A number of Biblical passages are suggested that might have been sung by cows, but the Zohar chooses Psalm 98. Let’s also note that the story of Joshua calling upon the sun to stand still is described (according to the book of Joshua) in the Book of Yashar (a book which has not be preserved in the Biblical canon). The name Yashar is based on the same word that means “straight ahead.” The name “Beit Shemesh” might be translated, “House of Sun.” The linguistic connections multiply!

The sun is also a metaphor for enlightenment in an intellectual sense. As we recite this Psalm in Kabbalat Shabbat, our meditative kavanah, intention, might focus on the possibility that all of God’s creation, from cows to stars, is part of a glorious song of praise to the Creator. Recall that the mystical aspect of Netzah is patience. We might focus on Wednesday as “hump-day,” the middle of the week when it seems that Shabbat and the weekend will never arrive, and encourage ourselves to patiently work through and appreciate each day of the week for what it brings us.

Psalm 98

Sing to Adonai a new song, for God has worked wonders; God’s right hand, God’s holy arm, has won victory.  Adonai has announced victory, God has revealed triumph in the sight of the nations. (98:1-2)

This is the fourth Psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat, corresponding to the fourth day of the week and to the fourth sefirah (mystical aspect of God) known as Netzah – victory or triumph. In Kabbalah, Netzah implied endurance and patience. It’s opposite, which we’ll address next week, is Hod, majesty or splendor, and represents submission.

On the fourth day of creation, God made the lights in the heavens: the sun, moon, and stars. The brightness of the sun may be seen as a symbol of victory in the Biblical story of Joshua calling upon the sun to stand still (ch. 10).

And now for something completely different …

According to the Zohar (1:123a, page 209 in Daniel Matt’s Pritzker Edition) Psalm 98 was sung by cows!

A passage from the Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 24b) brings up the verse “The cows went straight ahead along the road to Beit Shemesh” (1Sa. 6:12). Since the word “straight ahead” uses letters that also can mean “sing,” the Talmud suggests that the cows sang a song: “The cows sang along the road to Beit Shemesh.” A number of Biblical passages are suggested that might have been sung by cows, but the Zohar chooses Psalm 98. Let’s also note that the story of Joshua calling upon the sun to stand still is described (according to the book of Joshua) in the Book of Yashar (a book which has not be preserved in the Biblical canon). The name Yashar is based on the same word that means “straight ahead.” The name “Beit Shemesh” might be translated, “House of Sun.” The linguistic connections multiply!

The sun is also a metaphor for enlightenment in an intellectual sense. As we recite this Psalm in Kabbalat Shabbat, our meditative kavanah, intention, might focus on the possibility that all of God’s creation, from cows to stars, is part of a glorious song of praise to the Creator. Recall that the mystical aspect of Netzah is patience. We might focus on Wednesday as “hump-day,” the middle of the week when it seems that Shabbat and the weekend will never arrive, and encourage ourselves to patiently work through and appreciate each day of the week for what it brings us.

Psalm 97

Mountains melt like wax at Adonai’s presence, at the presence of the One who controls all the earth. The heavens proclaim God’s righteousness and all peoples see God’s glory. (97:5-6)

This is the third Psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat, corresponding to Tuesday. On the third day of the week, God separated the water from the dry land and created plant life. Over the eons of geological time, the Creator melted and shaped the geographical features of the earth – mountains and valleys, hill-country and the great plains, the rain forests and the deserts and the rivers. Each particular climate supports its own set of grasses, trees, flowers, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Together, it makes up the agricultural eco-system of planet earth.

The heavens look down on the bounteous produce and proclaim it “good” and a testament to God’s glory. In the mystical system of the Zohar, heaven is a symbolic reference to the third sefirah of Tiferet, beauty. Tiferet is the mediating characteristic between love and judgment. A parent should not shower either unrestrained, unlimited love or harsh judgmental punishment on a child. Proper parenting is a mixture of both love and judgment, and thus the mystical tradition understands God’s traits as well.

Perhaps we might read Psalm 97 as a meditation on an incomplete but beautiful stage of creation. On the third day, “God saw that [creation] was good” twice, perhaps reflecting the fact that even without animal life, the earth had a kind of beautiful perfection in its incompleteness. As much as we try each week to achieve something meaningful and lasting, we remember the rabbinic dictum from Rabbi Tarfon (Pirkei Avot 2:16), “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it.”

Psalm 96

Declare among the nations, “Adonai reigns!” the world stands firm, it cannot be shaken; God judges the peoples with equity. (96:10)

In Kabbalat Shabbat’s Friday evening trip through the week we might remember that on the second day of creation the upper waters and the lower waters were divided by the sky. The world as we know it begins to take shape, although the dry land doesn’t appear until the third day. Most of the time our world stands firm, although it can and does shake when the vast tectonic plates deep under our feet shift. The firm foundation that the Psalmists speaks of is better understood in spiritual/emotional terms than a physical firmness.

The second of the seven sefirot of of God’s attributes is known as Gevurah (power) or Din (Judgement). Our Psalmist asserts that God judges humanity fairly. There is a steadiness and predictability about the way the world works. Even though we don’t yet have the technology to predict when an earthquakes will occur, we know why they happen and can imagine that someday the tools will exist to predict a shift in the earth’s crust. The same might be said for the suffering which afflicts humanity in this world – we don’t yet have the tools or the will on a large scale to alleviate it completely, so we address it as best we are able.

The most powerful message of this verse is rooted in one of the Jewish principles of theology that moves me most intensely, the idea that our role in the world is to be an imitatio dei, an imitation of God. Just as God feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, buries the dead, and visits the sick (all actions of God found in various midrashim), so we are obligated to take care of others. Just as this attribute of God exercises restraint in the use of power and judgement to judge with equity, so too should we.

While in theory I am in favor of the death penalty, in practice I would prefer that it rarely be used, only in cases where there is absolutely no doubt that the convicted murderer had full capacity to understand what he or she was doing and acted with deliberation.

The history of our system of government can been seen as a struggle between those who want to expand and those who want to restrain the power of the Presidency, Congress, or the Supreme court. Power is not inherently dangerous, but power without humility and restraint is.

Psalm 95

Forty years I was provoked by that generation; I thought, “They are a senseless people; they would not know My ways.” (95:10)

The next five Psalms (95 – 99) are the first five Psalms in the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Kabbalah Shabbat is a service created in the mid-16th century by the mystical of the Northern Israeli city of Tzvat (Safed). It is structured around a series of seven Psalms from 95 though 99 followed by Psalm 29, leading up to Psalm 92, titled “A song for the sabbath day.” We might imagine that the progression of seven corresponds to the seven mystical sefirot from Hesed (love) to Malkhut (Sovereignty), also known as Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, the feminine aspect of God who we welcome as the Shabbat Queen. We might also imagine that each Psalm corresponds to a day of the week from Sunday through Shabbat.

The intention set by this Psalm is Sunday, the first day of the week, and the Divine quality of Hesed. The speaker in our verse is God, exhibiting patience in the presence of a rebellious people. Actually, 40 years is not such a long time in the existence of God. If “A thousand years is like a day in your sight,” (Psalm 90), then 40 years in God’s time is the equivalent of 57 minutes and 36 seconds in human time. So imagine suffering the presence of a very annoying person for 57 minutes and 36 seconds. Imagine listening to him whine and complain about this injustice or that ache and pain, droning on and on, but continuing to pay attention for the full time. Having patience. This is the lesson from our verse. If God can endure something for 40 years without walking away, I can endure something for just under an hour with a loving smile on my face.

On a calendar directed by Shabbat (such as in Israel), Sunday is a workday. It is also a long time until the restful peace of Shabbat returns. For the next six days, we face all of our problems at work and other weekday problems. Psalm 95 reminds us to swallow a loving dose of patience on Sunday to successfully manage the next six days until Shabbat arrives.

Psalm 94

Rise up, judge of the earth, give the arrogant their deserts! (94:2)

Psalm 94 is recited as the Psalm for Wednesday, the fourth day of the week. As with the other Psalms of the day (except for the Psalm for Shabbat), the Talmud posits a connection between this day’s act of creation and something in the Psalm. In this Psalm, the assumption is that those who are in need of punishment for arrogance are those who worship the sun and the moon, created on the fourth day of creation. Arrogant people act as if they are the center of the world, as if the sun and the moon rotate around them.

I find arrogance to be perhaps the ugliest of the negative character traits. It sometimes masquerades as self-confidence, a positive character trait. The difference is that self-confidence is rooted in the essential core of a person’s identity. Confident people have a strong center because they know who they are and understand their abilities and limitations. Humility and self-confidence are symbiotic traits. When they don’t know or understand something or they fail at some task, they are able to admit their deficiency which enables them to learn and grow.

Arrogant people, on the other hand, are not humble. Arrogance is a shell protecting a weak core identity. To admit failure is to admit that their essential nature is weak. To an arrogant person, projecting an image of strength is critical. When they don’t know or understand something, they are more likely to deny or blame to preserve their strong image, rather than show weakness by admitting ignorance.

It’s easy to see why the Psalmist delights in seeing the arrogant receive their comeuppance. Perhaps if they are punished as they deserve, it will be like receiving a dose of humility that will teach them a more pleasant way of relating to others.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – Summer, 2015

In the almost 125 year history of Congregation Ahavas Israel, many individuals and families have been generous in their financial support of our synagogue. Approximately 25 years ago, Frances Rayden made a significant, unrestricted endowment gift to the synagogue. Recently, Leon Ash has generously offered to match future unrestricted endowment gifts or bequests up to $2 million. We are looking for the next individuals, couples, or families to contribute the next set of gifts to the congregation that will assure our future for the next 125 years. I am grateful to Leon for offering this gift, as well as his wisdom and support as we launch a major endowment campaign this summer.

A synagogue budget covers normal yearly expenses. A synagogue endowment both supports the operating budget (underwriting building, program, and staff expenses) and goes beyond the budget to cover long term support of the building and grounds of the congregation.

Ahavas Israel currently has unrestricted endowment funds totalling approximately $675,000. Our goal over the next ten years is to raise $2 million in endowment funds, matched by Leon Ash’s $2 million, and increase our endowment to $5 million.

Stuart Rapaport and I will be meeting with synagogue members to talk about endowment gifts and planning giving. If you would like to talk about a establishing a fund in memory or in honor of a loved one. Here’s how endowment giving will strengthen Ahavas Israel:

A gift of $1,000,000 could support the Building and Grounds committee, ensuring the long term upkeep of our sacred space. Half of the gift could help fund the maintenance portion of the annual budget, which covers the normal, expected day to day needs of the building and its property. The other half could be used for emergencies or saved for planned major projects.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Funding capital improvements and repairs, such as maintaining the parking lot and replacing the roof.

A gift of $1,000,000 could support the Membership and Religious Life Programming committees, enhancing and expanding our community-building programming. Most of the approximately $50,000 income per year could reduce our dependence of membership dues within the annual budget, thus reducing the cost of membership and making affiliation with Ahavas Israel more affordable. A portion of the income could be given to the Membership Programming Committee and the Religious Life Committee to help build community relationships.

The Membership Programming Committee could strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Arranging for bus trips for Passover Shopping or cultural events in Detroit or Chicago.
  • Enhancing annual meetings with dinners programs.
  • Planning annual dinner/dances with entertainment.

The Religious Life Committee could strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Arranging for an extended Kiddush and lunch every week, sitting at tables and extending Shabbat afternoon together.
  • Offering a small honorarium to authors, rabbis, cantors, and other scholars coming from outside of Grand Rapids for our Shabbat speaker series, expanding the pool of engaging speakers.
  • Offering a stipend to the GVSU Hillel for them to send students to join our Shabbat morning community to lead junior congregation, help with Shabbat preparation, or just enjoy Shabbat morning services.
  • Hiring a student rabbi for the summer to run extra programs and study groups and classes.

A gift of $1,000,000 could help to ensure that the congregation enjoys a professionally trained rabbi. The $50,000 a year income would underwrite approximately half of a typical full-time rabbinic package.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Ensuring religious guidance and clergy duties being filled by a Rabbi who knows the needs of the community.

A gift of $500,000 could ensure the long term stability of our Educational Program. The $25,000 annual income would support the United Jewish School, junior congregation, pay salaries for the adult education program, and fully subsidize the expenses for youth group retreats.

A gift of $1,000,000 would also allow us to subsidize or reimburse young families for tuition to the United Jewish School, thus making affiliation with Ahavas Israel more affordable.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Creating and sustaining educational and social opportunities for our young Jewish community members.
  • Providing financial stability to run the United Jewish School.

A gift of $400,000 could ensure that the congregation can hire a professional cantor for High Holidays and selected other special occasions. The $20,000 annual income would cover the cost of a High Holiday cantor and B’nai mitzvah tutors with a little bit left over for a special music program every couple of years.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Ensuring clergy-led services for large holiday religious events.
  • Providing performance opportunities that could be open to the Grand Rapids public.

Psalm 93

Above the thunder of the mighty waters, more majestic than the breakers of the sea is Adonai, majestic on high. (93:4)

Creation is a thunderous presence. The sound of the big bang can still be hear by radio telescopes. I am fascinated by Stephen Hawking, by black holes, by the formation of matter into galaxies, galaxies into star systems, stars into planets, and planets into the materials that can support life. Time and matter and energy can be quantified and measured in a series of equations. Mostly.

Above and beyond and behind that thunderous presence is another Presence whose existence cannot be measured and determined by anything but the poetry of a religious text.

A spinning earth creates shifting tectonic plates and currents and waves and weather patterns. We’ve gotten pretty good at predicting the weather short term. As long as we can see the weather to the west of us, we know pretty much what we’re going to get. But the farther out we try to predict, the more vague and useless our predictions get. Can I count on good weather for a picnic the day after tomorrow? I’ll trust the meteorologist. Can I count on good weather on a Sunday afternoon two months from now? No one knows. The same goes for predicting shifts in tectonic plates. No one can warn us about earthquakes within anything close to useful precision.

Someday, maybe we’ll be able to predict the weather with pinpoint accuracy more than three to five days in advance. Exerting control over the weather? Science fiction loves that idea, but it is as far beyond my imagination as controlling the movement of the earth’s plates.

Those who believe in God assert that the Majestic Divine Presence is the animating force energizing our universe (as well as any and all parallel universes), above the thunder of the upper waters of the sky, behind the breakers of the lower waters of the oceans.

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.

Text Size

Jewish Date

Facebook Twitter RSS Feed 

Subscribe to our Newsletter
Please wait