Psalm 38

For I am on the verge of collapse; my pain is always with me. (38:18)

The human body, as it ages, hurts. If we eat right, exercise properly, and a blessed with good genes, we might retain our youthful vigor longer, but inevitably, if we survive to an advanced age, we will begin to feel the aches and pains of a body whose joints, bones, and nervous system are wearing down.

The question, then, is how do we want to live our lives as our still functional body hurts us. My role models are people who accept the pain and the limitations, treat it the best they can, and continue to show up at the synagogue week after week or month after month, for services or to volunteer their time. They continue to engage in communal activities with their friends and they don’t complain (Why bother complaining? It serves no purpose! Their friends have their own set of pains to deal with, and it doesn’t stop the pain – it just makes more people miserable!)

Judaism doesn’t celebrate suffering, it doesn’t commend pain as a positive spiritual experience. The Psalmist, in fact, connected suffering with sin – God’s punishment. The Psalmist sought to relieve the suffering by identifying and correcting the sin. While I reject that particular theology, I try to embody relatively heathy habits in my life, thinking that a life connected with God and Torah, a life embodying goodness, is more likely to be a life in which happiness and satisfaction outweigh the inevitable aches and pains.


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

Psalm 35

All my bones shall say, “Adonai, who is like You?” (35:10)

This verse from Psalms reminds us that our whole body can be engaged in prayer. Prayer need not be merely an intellectual exercise or even just an emotional experience. Prayer can also be a physical experience. We can pray while we move our bodies – “shuckeling” is the Yiddish term for the quintessentially Jewish back and forth swaying motion of traditional prayer. We can pray while we walk. A walking meditation typically invites us to focus on our breath and balance and body movements. A long distance runner might experience a “runner’s high,” that point when the exhausted body releases endorphins. It might feel like God breathed out a healing breathe.

On another level, prayer should never only be petitionary. If prayer is only about asking, then God is reduced to a vending machine. Prayer should also be about cultivating goodness. Prayer should affect my bones, my body. If prayer has not transformed my very being into a different person, then it has not truly been prayer (I should add here parenthetically that I believe most prayer, including my own, is very rarely true prayer). It is only when “all my bones/my essence” are involved in the experience that we achieve a complete connection with the Divine.

Finally, God is unique. That is the essential proclamation of the Shema.. This psalmist asserts that God is entirely Other, that no one and nothing is like God. This particular statement would seem to exclude the Hasidic/panentheistic view that God’s uniqueness is manifested by virtue of God infusing all reality – “There is no place free from God’s presence.” However, the beauty of Biblical theology through a Jewish lens is that it does not present a single monolithic view of God, so we can certainly also find support for the notion that God’s oneness means that nothing is separate from God.


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

Psalm 36

I know what Transgression says to the wicked; he has no sense of the dread of God … (36:2)

Transgression personified is seductive. Transgression is that little voice inside our head whispering to us, that no one will every know that we have taken the unwise action that we are contemplating. Transgression urges us to break down the filter that a wise person places between his thoughts and his actions; between her emotions and her mouth. Transgression urges us towards impulsive behavior – sometimes it is only fear of discovery, fear of shame, fear of God that holds us back.

The meditative mind responds to Transgression: I am not going to act in the moment – I am going to sit on my impulses and live with my strong emotions until they quiet down. Only then will I be able to hear the other voice whispering inside my head, urging me towards equanimity, the calm, measured emotions of the wise, clear seeing person.

This internal dialogue is ongoing. It does no good to try to shut off the transgressive voice – it will not be denied. It does no good to try to shout at it, drown it out with counter arguments, it will just shout louder and longer. The only way to respond to it is by hearing the voice and letting it go. By giving it attention, you give it substance and reality. By embracing the path of equanimity, you choke off the source of its strength. The voice has no power. It is smoke. The slightest puff will dissipate it.


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

Psalm 37

“Be silent for Adonai …” (37:7)

There are many times in our lives when we are called to speak up and let our voices be heard. This verse, however, focuses our attention on the time that we are called to be silent. I am thinking of my favorite part of dovening, the silence of the amidah, the part of the service where we create the opportunity for intense, directed, focused prayer.

The amidah is intended to be a period of time in which we address God directly. This is true prayer, during which we might pour out praise, thankfulness, sadness, hopes, requests, focusing on the quality of the day, focusing on our own needs, and focusing beyond ourself to the needs of the Jewish community and the world as a whole, using both our own words and the words of the Siddur. Externally, the most notable quality of the amidah is that it is prayed in complete silence.

There are different qualities of silence. There is silence of reprobation, there is the silence of shame, there is awkward silence, there is the silence of confusion, there is the silence of anger, and then there is the silence of acceptance. When a community agrees to hold each other in their prayers together in silence, it is a silence that embraces and supports.

The amidah is a time during a service where a roomful of people fall into a warm silence together. Not a word is heard. God, who has no ears, does not listen by means of air pushing through vibrating vocal cords, sound rippling through the room. Ideal Jewish prayer uses the merest whisper, audible only to the speaker. Prayer could be expressed through pure thought, being being human, we pray best if we activate our thoughts. But the mildest whisper of air while our lips enunciate the words, so quiet as not to disturb a neighbor standing only a foot away, is enough to focus our prayers and send them on to the Blessed Holy One.

There is a time to act for God, there is a time to raise one’s voice up to God, there is a time to sing for God, there is a time to shout for God, and there is a time to “Be silent for God.”


Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Embodied Torah, Liturgy - embodying a conversation with God, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 34

Taste and see how good Adonai is; happy the one who takes refuge in God! (34:9)

I was listening to a “How Stuff Works” podcast recently on synesthesia. Synesthesia is the blending of the senses, when, for example, music or language is experienced as color or taste or smell. I am fascinated by people with this ability (my wife and daughter among them). The hosts of the podcast kept referring to synesthesia as a ‘disorder,’ which really bothered me. It is better described as a neurological condition, one which potentially can give the affected person a level of creativity and insight that amazes us neurotypicals. Jimi Hendrix, David Hockney, Billy Joel, Duke Ellington are just a handful of the artists and musicians blessed with synesthesia.

The Psalmist’s suggestion that one might taste God’s goodness, like the suggestion that the Israelites saw the thunder of the Sinai revelation (Exodus 20:18), suggests that at least some of the Biblical writers appreciated the ability to perceive the world in non-standard ways.

All language about God is metaphorical. I understand how to take refuge in a basement against a tornado. I don’t really understand how to take refuge in God – it is certainly not a literal image. But we all use such language all the time, and if I don’t think about it too carefully I know exactly what it means to take refuge in God, just as I instinctually know how to taste goodness.

The Passover Seder bridges the gap between the symbolic and the actual by inviting us to eat ritual foods which transport us back to our time as slaves and experience the bitterness, the tears, and the oppression of bondage. Thus, even those of us who are neurotypical can engage many of our sense, tasting and smelling, hearing and seeing, in the Passover experience.


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

Psalm 33

Note: My psalm reflection leading into April on Psalm 33 is in honor of the celebration of Pesah. For more information about Pesah, you can download a detailed Guide to Passover from AhavasIsraelGR.org or contact the synagogue office to request that we send it to you, either by email or by regular mail.

For God spoke, and it was; God commanded, and it endured. (33:9)

I learned recently that in the Biblical idiom, “God spoke” or “God said” in Genesis 1 means “God thought.” God’s speech does not need to be audibly pronounced, because speech is a physical human action that involves breath and mouth/nose and teeth and lips pushing and shaping sound. God, lacking human anatomy, does not need to manipulate wind and sound to make something real. A though or an idea, which to us is only a potential reality depending on action to make it concrete, to God is a reality. In the higher world of God’s reality, if something can be thought than it is real.

Told through the lens of God, Passover should therefore have been a quick story. God would needed only to speak/think and the Israelites would been free. The story would have been brief and to the point – Now we’re slaves, <poof>, now we’re free! But the Hagadah doesn’t opens its telling of the story this way because we don’t tell the story of Passover through God’s lens – we tell it through the lens of human experience. Maggid (the storytelling) begins Now we’re slaves – next year may we be free. We human beings don’t transition quickly. Unlike God’s immediate though to action, we need time to adjust from one state to another. We need to draw out the story to give us time to become free, so we have 10 plagues (which in the Rabbinic imagination are multiplied to 50 and 250) to give Pharaoh and ourselves time to prepare.

I shared a d’var Torah recently in which I suggested that a critical component of leadership is presence. One can be a great visionary leader, but only if one also is able to enlist others to fulfill the mission and get the job done. There will be times of crisis during which writing memos and issuing orders will be insufficient. The leader needs to demonstrate presence, that he or she is involved in the process of getting the work done. Enduring visions are those which are sufficiently compelling so that people stick around to do the work and to see what comes next. The story of Passover wasn’t a story of slave people who scattered to the four winds, each in pursuit of their own vision of freedom but rather the liberation of a people who remained together. 3500-some years later, we are still that same enduring people, telling the same story of how God’s plan came to be. Have a happy and kosher Pesah!


Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar, Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Embodied Torah, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 32

Many are the torments of the wicked, but one who trusts in Adonai shall be surrounded with favor. (32:10)

Why do Jews ask me if Jews believe in Hell? Do they not know what they believe in? It seems clear that if they believed in Hell, they would not need to ask me – they would know that they, full fledged dues paying members of the Jewish community, believe in Hell and therefore Jews believe in Hell. They do not believe in Hell, and are asking me if Jews other than themselves, any other Jews, believe in Hell. Are they afraid that their non-belief might jeopardize the quality of their Jewishness? If I tell them that certainly Jews believe in Hell, would they suddenly change their minds and begin believing?

In fact, I don’t think that this Psalmist believes in Hell. It is far more likely that his theology assured him that goodness and evil carry their own rewards and punishments in this world, not in a future world.

The evil that you do will come back at you. It will torment you. It will catch up to you. it will turn you into a frightened, suspicious, bitter, dried up soul. On the other hand, the good things that you do will keep you fresh and vibrant. You will smile and others will return the favor. You will see the good in people, as they will see the kindness in you.

I believe in Heaven and in Hell, although I don’t really know what heaven and hell means or what it looks or feels like. I also believe that you make yourself into the kind of person you want to be, and you see yourself and your attributes reflected around you. When I am happy, I see the blessings and favors around me; when I am unhappy, I see the curses and burdens around me. I am happier when I am happy, so therefore I choose to be happy.


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

Psalm 31

Into Your hand I entrust my spirit; You redeem me, Adonai, faithful God. (31:6)

The final stanza of the well known hymn Adon Olam is based on this verse, “Into God’s hand I entrust my spirit; when I sleep, I shall not fear.”

Fortunately, I sleep well most of the time. I don’t sleep enough, but that is because I stay up later than I should. Most of the time when I settle in with my head on the pillow ready to sleep, I am asleep within 5-10 minutes. I am thankful that I don’t have trouble falling asleep, because when I do have trouble, or when I wake up in the middle of the night and am unable to sleep, I am filled with anxiety. I worry that I am going to be too tired to function the next morning if I don’t get enough sleep, and the worry causes me not to be able to sleep. I begin thinking about the various things I have to do the next day, and either I am eager to get started (and thus cannot sleep) or I worry that I’ll forget something on the list before the next morning (and thus cannot sleep).

When this happens to me, I turn to techniques of meditation. I focus on my breath, and try to imagine my thoughts as puffs of vapor that arise and disappear, arise and disappear. I try not to allow myself to be seduced by a thought – to chase it around, to follow it as it leads me down the pathways and through the meadows of my mind towards other thoughts. I think about this verse, imagining that I am handing over all of my thoughts, plans, and items on my to-do list to God. I entrust not only my spirit but also my thoughts and memories to the repository of the Holy Blessed One, trusting that I will get them back safely the next morning.


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

Psalm 30

What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the Pit? Can dust praise You? Can it declare Your faithfulness? (30:10)

I am always struck by the difference in tone between Jewish and Christian obituaries in the Grand Rapids Press. Most often, the obituaries of faithful Christians speak about the joy of going to be with Jesus or God, a sentiment that is rarely, if ever, found expressed in a Jewish obituary.

One of the questions at the center of the difference between the two types of obituary is whether salvation is the primary goal of the religious life. For Christians, salvation achieved through belief in Jesus is the starting point for one’s religious behavior. The reward of salvation is union with God/Jesus. For Jews, one’s behavior with respect to the system of mitzvot (Divine commandments) is the goal of a religious life. The Psalmist reflects the belief that the ability to praise God or serve God through mitzvot ends with one’s death; therefore, the union with God after death ironically ends one’s ability to serve God.

Judaism and Christianity, each in its own way, encourage the individual to live a life of service to others and service of God. The path, though, are dramatically different. Christianity starts with belief, asserting that a sincere belief in Jesus go hand in hand with adherence to a Jesus centered set of behaviors. Judaism starts out with a detailed set of behavioral expectations, believing that adherence to mitzvot will nurture a relationship with God.


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

Psalm 26

Probe me, Adonai, and test me, test my kidneys and my heart; (26:2)

When you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder whether the Psalmist is having a wry chuckle at your expense. At that point in your life, when the main social event of your week is visiting another doctor’s office, when every organ and orifice is being poked and prodded and tested and medicated, it’s hard to believe that the Psalmist is seriously and happily inviting God to get in line and take a turn!

Though amusing it would be, happily is not the case. God leaves the poking and prodding to human doctors. In the Biblical idiom, kidneys referred to the seat of strong emotions, and the heart referred to the seat of the intellect. A less literal and far more accurate translation of the verse would therefore be, “Probe me, Adonai, and test me, test my feelings and my thoughts.”

The Psalmist is challenging God to examine the purity of his actions, down to the last intention. A Midrash teaches that the Ark of the Covenant was covered in gold both outside, where it’s beauty could be seen, and inside, where it would never be seen, to remind us that we too should be the same outside and in. Our actions should be positive as should our motives. We should be truthful both to others and to ourselves. We should be the same person when we deal with friends and strangers, family and outsiders, members of our tribe and foreigners, alike. Ironically, the outside of the ark was rarely if ever seen – it was kept in the most sacred of places, and visited but once a year on Yom Kippur by the High Priest. Our additional challenge is strive for purity of actions and motives even when we know that no one is watching, that no one will ever see or know what we have done – except, of course, the Blessed Holy One, who we invite to keep an eye on us to help keep us honest.


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

Psalm 27

One thing I ask of Adonai, only that do I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of Adonai, to frequent God’s temple. (27:4)

This verse brings out a particular religious tension for some. The question is to what extent should a religious tradition encourage its followers to seek complete union with the Divine at every moment such that one is living one’s life entirely in God’s house; versus encouraging its followers to live their lives in service to their fellow humans. At first glance, the Psalmist seems to be living on the side of withdrawal from the world in favor of exclusive union with God.

I learned many years ago from a kind and gentle Buddhist named Ken Wells that this is a needless dichotomy. One can be in meditation all day long while at the same time engaging with one’s job, one’s family, and all of the other tasks of one’s life. Being in intimate awareness of God does not preclude also being intimately aware of human needs.

Not that I have even come close to mastering what I need to do to maintain a meditative mind while taking phone calls, answering email, studying Torah, and taking care of a family. But periodically I come back to this verse, especially to a beautiful melody by Yoni Ganout (you can hear several versions here), and use it as a way to refocus myself when I feel myself becoming distracted and and impatient.

When we begin losing our equilibrium and becoming flustered or angry, taking a breath and narrowing our focus can help. “Just one thing do I ask. I am not asking for help juggling the dozen tasks and concerns on my plate – just help me with one thing. Help me to remember that God’s presence is at the center of everything I do. Help me to remember that the world I am living in is God’s house and the people who are demanding things of me are God’s people. Help me to remember that it is X days until Shabbat, when for 25 hours I can step away from many of the demands on my life and hang out for a few hours at shul among people whom I like.”


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

Psalm 28

Deliver Your people, bless Your heritage; shepherd them and raise them forever. (28:9)

In Hebrew, this verse has exactly 10 words. Because of an odd Jewish bias against counting people, this verse is often used on traditional settings to count people to determine whether a minyan is present. The bias comes from to main places in the Bible:

Exodus 30, where a half shekel ransom is taken along with a national census, possible to “atone” for taking the census.
Samuel 24, where King David took a census and as a result 70,000 people died of a plague.

Counting people or possessions was seen as dangerous, lest it attract the evil eye and cause death. In addition, there is something distasteful about assigning people numbers. Number are dehumanizing (e.g. Holocaust tattoos), and because they are associated with value, numbers may imply that some people have higher value than others. Therefore, Exodus 30 takes a coin from each person and counts the coins, rather than counting the people directly.

So, back to our verse, rather than counting a minyan by number people in the room, you might assign each person a word from the verse:

Hoshia et amekha, u-varekh et nahalatekha; ur’em v’nas’em ad olam.

Of all the verses that have exactly 10 words (I haven’t counted them, but I imagine there must be a good number), this is the one that has become popular. Perhaps because the verse is a plea for deliverance, and if we are going to do something as dangerous and dehumanizing as count human beings (even indirectly), we ought to do it with a prayer for their safety and deliverance, calling upon the shepherd God who takes care of the flock. You hear a popular melody of this verse here.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: Psalm, Psalm Project

Psalm 29

The voice of Adonai breaks cedars; Adonai shatters the cedars of Lebanon … The voice of Adonai kindles flames of fire; the voice of the LORD convulses the wilderness … the voice of Adonai causes hinds to calve, and strips forests bare ….” (Psalm 29:5, 7, 9)

I am fascinated by the description of God’s voice – the power of a tremendous thunderstorm, causing the mightiest of trees to lose branches and even topple over. Not only thunder but lightening as well, so loud that the sound can be felt in one’s core even more than by one’s ears. I’m not sure if the hind (deer) gives birth prematurely out of fright, or whether this is a reference to some other biological phenomenon – but the image is of God’s voice stripping both animal and vegetable bare.

Psalm 29 is sung liturgically twice – during the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service to welcome to Sabbath, and on Shabbat mornings when processing around the congregation and putting the Torah away.

The pairing of this Psalm with the Torah service makes a kind of sense, but is a bit backwards. God’s thunderous voice is associated with revelation of Torah. It would make more sense if we chanted these words when removing the Torah from the ark rather than after. The verses we chant when carrying the Torah in procession at the beginning of the Torah service focus on God’s majesty and beauty, which could just well be chanted when putting the Torah away as a response to revelation.

The Kabbalat Shabbat service is a serious of seven Psalms, once for each day of the week, followed by Lekha Dodi, a song welcoming the Sabbath queen. I wonder if the series of Psalms leading up to Shabbat is intended to build up to the revelation of the Divine Presence, which would explain why Psalm 29 immediately precedes Lekha Dodi. However, I have never really understood the progression of Kabbalat Shabbat Psalms (except for Psalm 92, the Psalm for Shabbat, right after Lekha Dodi), so my conjecture might be completely off base. If you have other ideas, I’d love to read about them in the comments on my blog at EmbodiedTorah.Wordpress.com.


Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar, Liturgy - embodying a conversation with God, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: Kabbalat Shabbat, Psalm Project, Psalms
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