Psalm 50

For Mine is every animal of the forest, the beasts on a thousand mountains. I know every bird of the mountains, the creatures of the field are subject to Me. (50:10-11)

I recently saw the movie “Noah” starring Russell Crowe as the title character. One of the fascinating aspects of the movie was how it wove in material from two distinct Biblical schools of thought regarding the relationship between human beings and the earth. Genesis 1:28 says, “God said to [the first human beings], “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” Genesis 2:15 says, “The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.” Genesis one believes that nature is subservient to the needs of human beings, while Genesis 2 believes that we a placed on earth to take care of God’s creation.

This Psalmist clearly believes that creation belongs to God, not to human beings. The Biblical verb yada’, “to know,” implies a close, intimate relationship between subject and object. It is a way of saying that God cares about each and every living being in the natural world. By implication, if God cares about the well-being of the animals, God must also care about the well-being of their habitat, our environment.

On a recent visit to Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, I saw this theology in action as I learned about their extensive student-initiated recycling program. Trash cans have been removed from the classrooms because that encourages thoughtless discarding. Instead, they place a trash can in each main hallway next to the recycling bins for glass, metal, paper, plastic, electronics, and a bin for donation items. They aggressively seek to reduce the purchase of items with excess packaging material, and ask students, faculty, and departments to sign a “zero-waste initiative” pledge. Yishar Koah to Aquinas College for living out their faith!


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 51

A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had come to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, as befits Your faithfulness; in keeping with Your abundant compassion, blot out my transgressions. (51:1-3)

When President Clinton was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as the question of impeachment was swirling around and before the President had made any statement of contrition, the Reverend Billy Graham famously appeared on the “Today” show and said, “I forgive him.”

The Clinton/Lewinsky story resonates with the Biblical story of David and Batsheva, in which David slept with Batsheva, then married to Uriah, and upon discovering that she was pregnant, brings Uriah back from a battle to sleep with his wife and thus cover up the adultery. Uriah refuses to sleep with her, saying “[Your soldiers] are camped out in the open, how can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife?” Thereupon, David sends him back to the battle with a note to the general to place Uriah in the front line, and then fall back and let him be killed. David was later told by his prophet Nathan that God would forgive him, but only after Nathan condemned him for what he had done and David, as related in 2 Samuel 11 and in this Psalm, acknowledged his guilt.

I have always been troubled by the fact that the Rev. Graham forgave the President even before he admitted that his actions were wrong. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, on the other hand, didn’t come out publicly in support of the president for several more days, until the president’s “I have sinned” speech. The example of King David demonstrates that one needs to fully acknowledge one’s guilt before the process of repentance and restoration can begin.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior Tagged: Monica Lewinsky, President Bill Clinton, Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 48

We meditate, O God, upon Your love. (48:10)

The word translated as ‘meditate’ also carries the meaning of ‘to be silent.’ My process in writing these Psalm reflections is to read the Psalm in Hebrew and in at least one English translation. I keep looking at the verses, reviewing the words and phrases for as much time as it takes for one of the verses to jump out at me. I then sit quietly with that verse until it tells me why it has captured my attention. Meditation can be a process of clarifying one’s intentions.

The mind is normally very active. Every though leads to another thought, and when an idea strikes us, we pursue that idea until it leads to some sort of action, until it begin to bore us, or until another thought hijacks our attention, and the process begins again.

Meditation is a practice of not chasing the thoughts. When you give thoughts attention, they becomes like toddlers, demanding more and more attention. When you imagine the thoughts like puffs of smoke, with no attention they drift away and evaporate (note that this should be treated as a practice of meditation, not child-rearing!). In the stillness of a mind that ceases to chase its own tail, so to speak, the message that is the most beloved, the closest to God’s love, will expand.

There is no magic in this practice. There are no hidden, secret messages from God being revealed from a Divine external source. You already know the answer, just as you already have experienced moments of God’s love. The practice of silence and meditation is merely a means of opening you up to wisdom that you have had all along.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Prayer - Using one's being to connect with God Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 47

All you peoples, clap your hands, raise a joyous shout for God …. Sing, O sing to God; sing, O sing to our king. (47:2, 7)

Prayer is supposed to be a joyous, energy-filled experience. Shabbat, weekday minyan, any time when people gather together for a service (other than a Shiva minyan, of course) should be an opportunity to be enthusiastic. We shouldn’t sit back or stand in the back of the room disengaged and waiting for others to finish so we can leave. We also shouldn’t mistake enthusiasm racing through prayers as quickly as we can – that’s not necessarily enthusiasm, that is trying to get in and out as quickly as possible. In both cases, your body may be counted in the minyan, but your lack of attention and participation in the communal experience is sucking the energy out of the room.

Enthusiasm is connecting with the other people in the room and helping to carry their voices and prayers with yours, at the same time as they are enthusiastically lifting your words up with their own. Enthusiasm doesn’t simply multiply the energy in the room, it amplifies it exponentially. Enthusiasm involves using your breath, your mind, and your heart to express an emotion or an idea. One is Dale Carnegie’s guiding principles is, “If you act enthusiastic, you will be enthusiastic!” Your behavior can change your emotional state, and it is contagious. There is nothing quite like an entire room full of people using nothing but their voices and their clapping hands to sing a joyful song.

Next time you are in a religious service, try an experiment. Raise your output just a notch (making sure that you are singing with the people around you, not against them), and see how you experience prayer differently.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Prayer - Using one's being to connect with God Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Sending a 17 Year-Old Child to Israel

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My 17 year old son Solomon arrived in Israel today, about 4 hours before Israeli soldiers found the murdered bodies of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel in a field less than 12 miles from the place from which they had been kidnapped 18 days ago. They had apparently been shot soon after being taken captive. Solomon is participating in the Ramah Israel Seminar, and I should have no worries about his safety in Israel – Ramah is fanatical about the safety of participants on their programs. Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel a twinge of worry. Israel is going to respond, and the response has to punish not only the two Hamas members responsible, but also others involved in covering up their actions and hiding them. I am distressed that Solomon’s Israel experience will be scarred not only by tremendous sadness, but also by the military response that is bound to occur.

This is not the blog post I had intended to write today. I had intended to write about the experience of sending a blind son on an Israel program, with lavish praise for the Ramah Israel Seminar and the director, Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, for making it happen. That post will have to come later. Today’s emotions are distress, disappointment, anger, and despair.

I am deeply disappointed that despite the horrific nature of the crime (and the fact that one of the boys is American as well as Israeli), it took President Obama nearly 7 hours to make a statement; and while he “strongly condemned” the murders, he also called upon the Israeli government to refrain from taking “steps that could further destabilize the situation.” What steps should be taken against people who kidnapped and tied up three boys, shot them, and left them half-buried under some rocks in a remote Wadi? Is there any way to take even the justified step of finding and arresting the suspects without “further destabilizing the situation?” The President offers US help in finding the perpetrators of this crime (although I wonder how US forces can be more effective than Israeli forces), and says that Israel has the full support and friendship of the US government, but doesn’t want Israel to take steps that might destabilize a situation that cannot reasonably be described as anything resembling stable.

To my Presbyterian friends – do you realize that while your national organization was passing a resolution of boycotts and sanctions against Israel, shortly after the Palestinian Authority was creating a unity partnership government with Hamas, three teenage boys were being murdered? When will we see you call for sanctions again those who perpetrate and support such a crime? Are you as angry as I am at the ineptitude of your leadership’s moral judgement?

Finally, as a person who still wants to believe that it will be possible to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians in my lifetime, I begin to despair that I will ever see Israeli and the Palestinian areas coexisting in security and prosperity.

May the families of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach be comforted among the mourners of Zion, and may their memories be for a blessing.


Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Embodied Torah Tagged: Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, Hamas, Israel, kidnapped boys, Naftali Frenkel

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.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and stronghold, a help in trouble, very near/ever-present. (46:2)

The final phrase in the verse I quoted above is Nimtza me’od. I’m going to give you a brief Hebrew lesson, including some grammar – feel free to skip to the next paragraph is this doesn’t interest you. Nimtza is a passive form of the Hebrew verb “he found,” meaning, “it is found,” or “it is present.” Me’od is is an adverb particle meaning “muchness, abundance,” and often best translated as “very.” Therefore, Nimtza me’od might be translated as, “very present.”

During the course of our days, we waver from being detached from what we are doing to being completely present. When our attention wanders, we are detached. When we look at an incoming email while talking on the phone, we are detached. When we are planning our response while the person to whom we are speaking is still talking, we are detached. The ideal is to be completely present and focused on the interaction at hand. The Psalmist describes a God who is not detached when we are in need, but rather “very present,” completely focused.

Practice being nimtza me’od when you are speaking with your children, your spouse, your customers, your co-workers, and your friends. When you notice the the inevitable interruption of your attention, you need not berate yourself for your lapse of attention. With gentle love, simple guide your attention back to the present interaction.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

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, in a slurred drunken drawl yelled to his friend, “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?!”

Igor, now feeling a bit cornered, 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 is 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 off 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.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 41

Adonai, God of Israel, is the source of Blessing from the eternal universe to the eternal universe. Amen and Amen. (41:14) End of Book One of Psalms.

The book of Psalms is divided into five parts, just like the Torah. Each part ends with a verse of praise (or in the case of the conclusion to Book Five, an entire Psalm of praise). The word ‘amen,’ signifying affirmation or agreement, is found in the statements of praise which end the first four books of Psalms.

The word olam denotes endlessness in both the dimension of space and the dimension of time. It’s hard to capture the sense of the word in English – universe captures only the physical dimension, and eternal captures only the temporal dimension. The opening word of the Hebrew, barukh, is also tricky to translate. I’m never sure what is meant by the phrase, “blessed is God.” Surely it cannot be meant in the sense of “May God by blessed,” for I cannot imagine that human beings can bless God. It must be meant to say that “God is the One from whom blessings flow.” The word barukh is similar in sound to the word b’reikha, which means “pool,” as in a pool of water. Thus, when I think of the phrase barukh ata Adonai (which except for the word ata, “you,” is the same as the opening words of verse 14), I associate it with an image of God being a spring of blessing which gushes fourth in the form of animating energy onto the world.

This article not only represents the conclusion of 1/5 of the books of Psalms, but also the final bulletin article for the first year of Psalm Reflections. If I am able to keep up the pace of one Psalm a week, I will finish all 150 Psalms in a little under three years. I intend to keep writing and posting over the summer. You can follow the reflections either at AhavasIsraelGR.org or directly from the blog site, EmbodiedTorah.WordPress.com.

Are you engaging in daily and/or weekly Jewish devotional learning or practices? If not, I encourage you to find something to connect you to your Judaism on a regular basis, to nurture your Jewish soul. Read Jewish books, learn Jewish texts, help out at a synagogue minyan or come to Shabbat services. Enjoy the summer, and make Ahavas Israel a part of it!


Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 42

Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God; my soul thirsts for God, the living God; O when will I come to appear before God! (42:2-3)

The human desire to form a relationship with a creator is natural, although the new generation of atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, see it as a delusion. We are constantly trying to make sense of the complicated world in which we live by using the scientific method of identifying cause and effect. Every object was created through some process, and if we trace the creation of the object back far enough, we can discover how the object functions. We identify the rules by which the object was created and continues to operate in the world. We might even identify the original purpose of the object, and its original creator or designer.

By understanding the world, we think we can improve it. The desire to understand, to fix, to improve, is part of the same internal soul-inclination that directs so many of us to want to be in a relationship with God, or that directs some of us to loudly and angrily deny that such a relationship can ever exist.

My support of same sex relationships is based on the idea that the desire to be in relationship is a fundamental human need. We need parents and teachers to nurture us as children, we need siblings or friends to teach us about peer relationships, and for many, the desire to marry and possibly produce a new generation of children is our ultimate goal in forming relationships.

I affirm the possibility of reading Leviticus 18 either as a limited prohibition on same sex sexuality or as no longer halakhically applicable, based on a paper by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, and Avram Reisner; or as argued in a paper by Rabbi David Greenstein, or in a book by Rabbi Steven Greenberg. The powerful image of a soul thirsting for the presence of God is no less true with respect to a human relationship. To deny a gay or lesbian individual the opportunity to have intimate partnership is to sentence him or her to live without the fulfillment of a fundamental human need.


Filed under: Accessibility and Inclusion, Embodied Torah, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 43

Send forth Your light and Your truth; they will lead me; they will bring me to Your holy mountain, to Your dwelling-place. (43:3)

The least pleasant conversations on religion that I have had are those with people who are certain beyond a shadow of doubt that they have seen the light and know the Truth. If I may slightly mangle the lyrics from a song in “The Music Man,” — that’s Truth, with a capital T and that stands for Trouble.

The Psalmist wants certainty. Don’t we all sometimes want to know for certain whether we are making the right decision? He can ask all he wants, but he can’t and shouldn’t have it. Certainty – Truth – is one of God’s names in Jewish tradition. Truth belongs to God. I think we can come close to truth, I think we can search for truth, but I don’t think we were ever meant to capture truth. For one thing, people who think they have the truth are insufferable. How can they not be, when they are right and everyone who disagrees with them are wrong!? It is impossible to have a conversation with someone who is convinced that he/she has a lock on the truth. There is no shared learning, there is only the conversational equivalent of the attempt to open up my head, pour information (the truth) in, shake, and bake for an hour at 350 until my head feels like it is about to explode.

Will the truth lead you to the holy mountain? Only if the holy mountain is Everest. If you stay up on that mountain too long your lungs will starve for oxygen and you’ll freeze to death. Rather, it is the search for truth (not truth itself) that leads you to the holy mountain. As long as the search never ends, you can stay on the holy mountain indefinitely. This holy mountain is Zion, not Everest. At the top of the mountain was a place of searching for God’s name, a place where we tried to care for the elusive presence of God.

Back to the Psalmist — If truth is like the light of the sun, we can see it and feel it, but we can never capture it, contain it, and keep it. Keep searching for enlightenment, search all of your life, and you will behold the light of truth.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 40

Your Torah is in my inmost parts. (40:9)

One approach to Torah teaches that the entire purpose of Torah is to transform us into people who see the unity of God everywhere and in everything. This is the approach of “Embodied Torah.” When we carry Torah within us at both an unconscious and conscious level, then we change the nature of our reflexes. No longer do we respond with anger or impatience. No longer do we manifest negative emotions or character traits. Rather, we respond with love and positivity.

One who embodies Torah instinctively knows the right way to react. Rather than reflecting negativity and anger back at the person who is angry at him, he absorbs it like a supersonic stealth aircraft with a radar absorbing coating. Even better, like a science fiction invisibility cloak, he bends the rays of the emotions so they pass around him without touching him in the slightest.

In case you were wondering, I, like virtually every other human being, am far from perfectly embodying Torah in this way. If fact, I am far from imperfectly embodying Torah. But as attributed to Voltaire, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I began this blog because I believe that the internalizing Torah is the ultimate goal, a process that will take a lifetime and likely will never be completed. However, I also believe, like Rabbi Tarfon (Pirke Avot 2:16), that “you are not required to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.”


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 39

My mind was in a rage, my thoughts were all aflame; I spoke out! (39:4)

At a moment of terrible, raging, flaming, emotion, at precisely the time when we are least capable of speaking with wisdom, what do we do? We speak, we write and send an email, we write an angry text, we post a status or comment that we will later regret.

An angry, flaming, mind is pathologically unable to see the path of truth. A raging mind is only concerned with itself. The ego seeks to soothe its own pain, not caring about anyone or anything else. The unsettled mind can justify any action, no matter how much damage it may cause.

The solution seems easy. When the mind is angry, stop acting and be still. Retreat into silence. Calm the mind. Easier said than done, because the angry mind doesn’t know that it is muddled. In fact, the angry mind thinks that it is thinking crystal clear thoughts. It think that it is seeing the truth far more clearly than a quiet mind, because the rage makes it feel powerful, like a supercharged engine.

Giving voice to an angry mind is a reflexive habit, and the only way to break a habit is to practice. We need to practice quieting our mind when our mind is already pretty quiet, because this is easy. Then we need to practice quieting our mind when our mind is a little bit agitated, because this is a small challenge. Then we need to practice calming our mind when we are excited, because this is a greater challenge. Only then will we have cultivated the skill to recognize and put out the flames of a raging fire of emotion.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms
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