Psalm 79

Pour out Your fury on the nations that do not know You, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name. (79:6)

This verse from Psalm 79 was added to the Passover Seder in the Middle Ages, sometime after the ugly series of persecutions beginning with the crusades in 1096 CE. We recite these words as we open the door for Elijah at the time when the Seder begins to come to a close with Messianic overtones of redemption. An early modern addition (probably from the late 19th century) supplies the inverse of our verse, “Pour out your love upon the nations that know you and on kingdoms who call Your name.”

Some liberal-leaning Jews omit the verse from Psalm 79, disliking its violent nature. They might understand it as a Judeo-centric call for God to eliminate all non-Jews from the world, or perhaps they understand it as a verse to protect Jews and Christians but eliminate all others. Perhaps might include Moslems in the “protected” category, reading the verse as a call to eliminate only non-monotheists. In any case, there is a tendency among some religious liberals to eliminate liturgy that they find offensive, and if you read this verse as a call for the wholesale slaughter of groups of people by God, it is certainly offensive.

I read the verse differently, not as a call for God to engage in slaughter or for Jews to do so in God’s name. When reading the verse, I don’t think of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, or followers of non-monotheistic religion, all people who either reject God, are indifferent about God, or envision a different kind of Divine than the one in the Hebrew Bible which guides my life. I think of people who commit atrocities in the name of God. Such people disgrace God’s name. Even though I am fully aware that God is not going to strike out at them with a carefully-directed bolt of lightning, I want it known that the God in whom I believe has nothing to do with the false god in whose name those people murder, rape, steal, cheat, and in other ways subjugate and oppress others. To those who desecrate God’s name by such acts, I avow that God has nothing to do with you.

Therefore, I read this line at the Seder in a loud voice – certainly not in a whisper, as if I’m embarrassed by it. The door is wide open at this point so, symbolically, I am shouting out to the world my desire that God wipe out those evil people who, despite their professed faith, don’t really know God. And, of course, I also read the inverse paragraph praising people who do acts of courage and conviction and love in God’s name.

Psalm 78

We will not withhold from their children down to the last generation, telling of the praises of Adonai, God’s might, and the wonders that God performed. (78:4)

Psalm 78 is a relatively long Psalm, retelling the story of Exodus and trek in the wilderness. Telling the story is a sacred enterprise, relating in prose and poetry to each new generation the tale of what God did for us in Egypt in order to inspire their confidence in God. The telling, however, does not hide the fact that the generation of the wilderness was not inspired. They rebelled and complained and sinned. Why not tell the story a bit more strongly? Why spend so much time on the weakness of the Israelites? Clearly, honesty is important. If our faith in God is based on hiding the truth, it will be think faith indeed. A faith that struggles with God but experiences redemption in the end has been tested and strengthened.

The events that we are relating at the Passover Seder are true, not necessarily in the historical sense, but in the sense that they reflect the truth of the experience of an oppressed people. An oppressed, enslaved people is traumatized. Even after freedom comes to them, they are still largely locked in their slave mentality. It can take generations to overcome the trauma which is transmitted from parent to child through stories. That’s why this Psalm is so important. We’re not telling the story of trauma and victimization. We’re telling the story of faith and redemption.

Psalm 77

Has God forgotten how to pity? Has God in anger stifled God’s compassion? (77:10)

We commonly speak about God with human characteristics and emotions. We talk about God’s fingers, hands, arms, eyes, ears, and even nose, even though God has none of the above. We also commonly speak of God’s happiness, enjoyment, desire for obedience, sadness, regret, and compassion and other such human emotions. The 12th century philosopher Maimonides believed that we should not use such language for God, because to do so places limits on a God who is by definition infinite. However, Biblical literature is rich with anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language for God because it is the only way we have to to communicate our our sense of the Divine.

The Talmud (Sota 14a) suggests what we might learn from language attributing human behavior to God:

What is the meaning of the verse, “Follow none but Adonai your God” (Deuteronomy 13:15)?  Is it possible for a human being literally to follow God?  Rather, we should imitate the attributes of God.

Just as God clothed the naked, as it is written, “And Adonai God made Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21)–so too should you clothe the naked.

Just as God visited the sick –as it is written, “Adonai appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre” [following his circumcision] (Genesis 18:1)–so too should you visit the sick.

Just as God comforted the mourners –as it is written, “After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac” (Genesis 25:11)–so too should you comfort the mourners.

Just as God buried the dead –as it is written, “God buried him [Moses] in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6)–so too should you bury the dead.

The Psalmist hopes that God’s hen, graciousness or pity, and rahamim, compassion, have not disappeared. Because such traits are the central part of what it means to “Love your fellow as yourself,” it is also a reminder to ourselves not to let our anger overwhelm our compassion.

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.

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams grew up with his parents’ expectation that he would serve his country as president. His father, John Adams, took him at the age of 10 to Europe on a diplomatic mission to Paris. He spent his teenage years in France, the Netherlands, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. After graduating from Harvard, he served under President George Washington as Minister to the Netherlands; he served under his father, President John Adams, as minister to Prussia; and he served under President James Madison as Minister to Russia and later to the United Kingdom. He also served one term as a Senator from Massachusetts, and served under President James Monroe as Secretary of State.

With all his training and all these credentials, how was it that he became the worst, most ineffective, president in history? The short answer is that all his education taught him how to relate to the educated elite of society. He was a great diplomat because he spoke many languages and could connect with European royalty and high society. His education taught him to speak to the intellectual elite – he never bothered campaigning or speaking to the common people of the country. As president, he alienated the American people and most of Congress by appearing to make a deal with Henry Clay to give Clay the position of Secretary of State in exchange for Clay’s delegates’ votes for the presidency, thus stealing it from Andrew Jackson, who had won the popular vote for the presidency.

However, after his one term as president, he was given another national political life as an independent member of congress from Massachusetts for 17 years, where he was a defender of justice, winning freedom for kidnapped Africans on the slave ship Amistad. During his time in Congress he learned to connect with people all across the country, bringing their petitions to the floor of the House of Representatives. He fought against slavery and by doing so alienated his fellow House members, who created a new rule that became known as the Gag Rule in order to keep him from talking about slavery. At the end of his career, he finally got the Gag Rule repealed with the help of Abraham Lincoln.

The most important leadership lesson I gleaned from John Quincy Adams is that a leader needs to speak the language of the people. A leader cannot be disconnected from the people that he serves. John Quincy’s ideology disconnected his from most of his fellow representatives, but he was reelected time and again because he spoke the language of and served the abolitionist cause of the people of the northern United States.

Next up: Andrew Jackson

Psalm 75

There is a cup in Adonai’s hand with foaming wine fully mixed; from this God pours; all the wicked of the earth drink, draining it to the very dregs. (75:9)

The topic of this Psalm is a condemnation of arrogance. This particular verse caught my eye for its evocative imagery, but I didn’t immediately understand the point. In ancient times, wine was always mixed with water. This particular cup of wine is foaming – not a word one usually associates with a cup of wine. In fact, the root hamar is found only three other times in the Hebrew Bible, meaning anguish, tumult, and foaming (with rage). The cup of wine that God is serving here, therefore, is questionable. Perhaps the scene is an elegant dinner party at which poisonous wine is served. The wealthy, well dressed, arrogant, guests elbow their way to the front and snatch all of the bubbling, foaming, glasses of wine, leaving the more modest and polite guests with none. They drain the cup to the last drop and die horrible deaths, and finally, the meek inherit the earth (wait — that’s not one of our texts …)!

Leaving aside the question of theodicy, that God literally rewards and punishes, there is a clear truth in the idea that arrogance plants the seeds of its own downfall. An arrogant person will tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, unable to understand that bad outcomes are a result of bad decisions. Those who are humble will examine their behavior for things that they could have done differently. Those who are arrogant will blame their misfortune on the behavior of those around them.

In the end, a person’s arrogance and refusal to change patterns of behavior will lead to his or her downfall. We reap what we sow, and in the end, we drink the cup of wine that we ourselves have mixed and poured.

Psalm 74

It was You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters. (74:13)

In the first Genesis creation story, the universe at the first moment of creation was tohu vavohu, unformed chaos. The enterprise of creation consists of taming or beating back or organizing the chaos. Anything that behaves in unpredictable or dangerous ways, such as a large body of water or a wild sea creature, is a remnant of the unrestrained chaos.

We know from our attempts to clean a house with children or organize our workflow at our job that factors beyond our control (children messing up as we’re cleaning, for example) constantly introduce chaos back into the system. In physics, this is known as entropy, the natural tendency of things to decline into disorder.

No matter how carefully we might plan our day, a customer whose order gets lost by the delivery service, a coworker who doesn’t do his part of the presentation, a supervisor who scheduled a meeting and forgot to send us the notice, reintroduces chaos into a system that we thought had been thoroughly organized.

It is worth remembering that although God drove back the chaos, or perhaps more properly stated organized the chaos, to create the universe, that there is still chaos left in our world. So when we find ourselves in the midst of suffering or disorder, we might remember that it is our opportunity to join with God in driving back the sea of chaos and smashing the monsters of suffering.

Psalm 73

God is truly good to Israel, to those whose heart is pure. (73:1)

I am completely uncomfortable with the notion that God acts better towards Israel than other peoples or religions. Therefore, I read the second half of this verse as an important qualification of the first half of the verse.

In good Biblical poetic form, the second strophe restates the first, but adds something. We can see this more clearly if we write out the verse fully:

“God is truly good to Israel. God is truly good to those whose heart is pure.”

There are two ways of reading this verse. Either the poet is defining Israel as those whose hearts are pure, or God is good only to those among Israel who have pure hearts.

It is impossible, in my opinion, to define any ethnic, religious, social, or national group as a whole as all sharing a single characteristic. Human free will being what it is, it is not possible for a group of people to be united in an attribute such as being pure of heart unless a violation of that standards means automatic disqualification from the group. Since Israel is a designation that transcends disobedience to God, it cannot be that all members of the group Israel are pure of heart.

Therefore, it must be the case that the quality of pureness of heart is a limiting factor. God is not automatically good to all of Israel. Rather, God is only good to those whose heart – actions, thoughts, intentions – are pure.

I suggest that those whose actions, thoughts, and intentions are directed solely to good and noble, deeds and purposes, will be likely to accept and overcome with equanimity the obstacles that life places in their path. The ability to find good and blessing within evil is an admirable quality of Job. It need not be a naive pollyannaish outlook, but rather both a sincere acknowledgment of difficulty and a desire to find some good coming from or associated with the bad.

James Monroe

When James Monroe became president, the Federalist party, that of Presidents Washington and Adams, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, which believed in a strong Federal government and a strong, almost royal, executive, and close ties to Great Britain, was dead. The Republican party (no relationship to today’s Republican party), which believed in States’ rights, a weak Federal government and executive, and close ties to the revolutionary republic of France, reigned supreme. It is worth noting, however, that Monroe continued Madison’s movement of the Republican party closer to the center of the political spectrum. The White House was significantly more formal than it was during Jefferson’s presidency, and while consolidating the United States’ control over a swatch of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, he expanded the power of the Presidency considerably.

Monroe was elected to a second term virtually unopposed. Were it not for one electoral vote for John Quincy Adams, he would have been the second president (after Washington) to have been elected unanimously by the electoral college. We think that the lack of organized opposition would guarantee his ability to get things done. This was not the case. In Monroe’s second term, his cabinet members and congressional leaders were more interested in pursuing their own political agenda than in working with their president. For example, according to Harlow Giles Unger, author of “The Last Founding Father,” Madison’s Treasury Secretary, William Crawford, deliberately misreported the financial state of the government (he reported a surplus, when in fact there was a $5 million deficit) in order to make John Calhoun, Secretary of War, look bad because of the heavy spending on the military.

It turns out that the lack of party politics meant that there was no cooperation to get things done, because there was no opponent against whom to organize. It was every man for himself. A decision making body comprised of people who all think the same has no one to challenge their thinking. A knife needs a sharpening blade, a whetstone, or some other hard substance upon which to grind it in order to keep it sharp. A Board or a Congress without an opposition will similarly lose its sharpness.

This ought to be a lesson for synagogues and other institutions, when recruiting Board members. They shouldn’t look for ideological uniformity, but rather for people who are willing to talk to and learn from those with very different political or religious outlooks.

Next up:  “John Quincy Adams,” by Harlow Giles Unger.

Psalm 72

Let him champion the lowly among the people, deliver the needy folk, and crush those who wrong them. (72:4)

This is the final Psalm of the second (of five) book of Psalms. The subject of this composition is the king.

If we read the Psalm more generally as speaking about any leader (not just a king), the Psalm raises the question of what are the most important qualities in a leader? The quality of this verse is that of fighting on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves. Those without power have virtually no voice. No one listens, because they don’t have the standing to be able to do anything about the injustice they face. The leader is a person people listen to. It’s like the old commercials about E.F. Hutton, in which there is a crowd of people all talking. One person says the words “E.F. Hutton,” and the entire room falls silent. The tag line is, “When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen.” [Here and here are some examples.]

The willingness of a person of great importance to fight on behalf of those whom society has all but forgotten takes humility, another great quality of a leader. Specifically, the ability to admit that a past action or past statement or past proposal was wrong and change one’s behavior or change one’s mind or position takes humility. Sadly, the political world, rather than recognizing this as positive growth, often condemns it as inconsistency, flip-flopping, or even hypocrisy.

If we don’t allow our politicians to change their minds then we are not allowing them to mature as leaders. We ought to expect that 25 or 35 year old politicians will make mistakes that a 50 year old candidate for president would not make. We ought to have the humility to recognize that the people we choose as leaders might change their minds and make as many mistakes as we have, as long as we look at our lives with honesty.

Psalm 71

Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me! (71:9)

The context of this Psalm is a prayer from the Psalmist to God. Bear with me for a moment, because I want to suggest that to understand this verse as a heartfelt plea from an aged individual for God to embrace him and give him strength in old age doesn’t really make sense. Such a plea is whiney and ungrateful.

Aging and failing strength happens to virtually everyone, and when it doesn’t happen, when a person dies at a young age, we consider it an exceptional tragedy. On one hand, most people want to live lot an advanced age, even though they know that as they age, their physical vigor will decline. On the other hand, the same people might bemoan their physical decline.

A spiritually healthy person may not welcome the physical decline, but finds a way to adjust his expectations so that he is not continually frustrated by thinking about what he used to be able to do but can do no longer. As our strength fades, we should not be crying to God, we should be thanking God that we’ve loved long enough to experience the sunset of years.

If we imagine that the Psalmist is addressing his child or other caregiver instead of God, the verse has a very different valence. Gone is the whininess and ingratitude, replaced by the reality that we owe our elders extra care as they enter their advanced years. The speaker is pleading with those around him not to abandon him just because he can no longer keep up physically, no longer see well, especially at night, and no longer hear many of the voices around him.

There ought to be no shame in needed extra help. A spiritually healthy person may not welcome physical decline, but accepts with equanimity the assistance offered to him.

James Madison and Disability

In “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” author Lynne Cheney demonstrates that Mr. Madison’s epilepsy fundamentally affected who he was as a politician. What specifically caught my attention was the connection between his condition and the first amendment to the Constitution.

The “people first” language of the disability rights movement asserts that we are not “handicapped, epileptics,or wheelchair-bound,” but rather a person with a handicap, a person with epilepsy, or a person in a wheelchair. The difference is that first they are people just like any other. Their condition doesn’t define them, but rather gets integrated into their personhood just like a person’s height, hair color, or temperament.

James Madison read widely on the subject of epilepsy, seeking a cause for and hoping to prevent his “sudden attacks.” Christian sources suggested that they a person who exhibited symptoms of seizures was a lunatic, possessed by the devil or a dumb spirit, or sinful. He struggled with this explanation, which didn’t ring true. He found in other books suggestions that regular exercise and sufficient sleep could prevent seizures.

It is likely that Madison used the same investigative logic with which he researched his physical condition to also examine his spiritual condition. Just as he cast aside the notion that Satan was the cause of his epilepsy, he also began to move away from other ideas of traditional religion.

He began to understand that religion, like science and medicine, needs to be tested. In order to test religion, society needs free and open discourse on religion. When government and religion are connected, it is not possible to openly question religious precepts. Thus, there is a direct line from Madison’s epilepsy to his questioning of religious texts to his belief in the separation of church and state as expressed in the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Next up in the presidential biography series: “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness.”

Psalm 70

Let those who say, “Aha! Aha!” turn back because of their frustration. (70:4)

There was a time when it was proper to be gracious both in losing and in winning. Little League baseball players line up after the game to walk past the other team and shake hands. Chess opponents congratulate each other with ‘good game’ after completing a game. I hope this is still the case in youth athletics, but is it the exception rather than the rule in professional sports.

Jim Bouton, former major league pitcher and author of the baseball memoir “Ball Four,” said the following during an appearance on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me:”

I don’t like guys hitting home runs and then raising their arms up like they just discovered a cure for cancer. Hey, look at me. I just hit a home run. In our day, you hit a home run, you put your head down, you ran around the bases, you went into the dugout and you shut up. You know why? Because it’s just a home run. It’s not a religious experience.

‘Aha!’ is a taunt. Taunts are obnoxious, excessive celebrations after scoring are obnoxious. The NFL used to give unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for spiking the ball after a touchdown. Such penalties are still given out for especially egregious conduct, but are increasingly rare. The “touchdown dance” is virtually an expected part of the NFL entertainment experience.

Cultivating the quality of humility does not mean that one may not take credit for one’s professional or personal achievements. Whatever we have achieved, it is likely that we had help. We relied on previous generation’s scientific research. We relied on the support staff. We were helped by our family members.

Humility is a matter of balance and compassion – remembering that we didn’t do it on our own, and having compassion for those who also put in a great effort but fell short.

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