Psalm 25

After a year in which all of the holidays have been “early,” we finally arrived at the month of Adar on February 1. In order to adjust the calendar so that Passover will fall in the Spring, this year is a leap year. This means that the month of Adar is doubled, and Purim is celebrated in the second month of Adar. Passover will begin on April 15. I guess we can all start complaining that the holidays are late again!

There are 150 chapters in the book of Psalms. I have now finished 1/6 of the book, 25 Psalms. The structure of Psalm 25 is an alphabetical acrostic; the theme is that of sin and forgiveness.

Let me know Your paths, Adonai; teach me Your ways; guide me in Your true way and teach me … (25:4-5)

Where do we look for wisdom? How do we know what God wants of us? There is no simple guidebook for life, easily searchable. There is no Siri for life, to whom we can ask, “Should I tell my boss I am not willing to be less than 100% honest with our customers if it might mean losing my job?” “Can I lie to get out of jury duty?” “Is it OK to choose not to aggressively treat my terminal cancer?”

For Jewish wisdom, we have Torah, Tanakh, and all of the literature of commentaries and Midrash and Mussar (ethical training) and ritual, civil, and criminal law that for centuries has grappled with such issues. Nonetheless, it is not as easy as finding a simple and direct answer in a book. The instruction to “Do what is right and good in the sight of Adonai” (Deut. 6:18) means that we ought to life a life of good character; engage in acts of hesed (love); celebrate the Jewish calendar; eat holy food; and continually engage in study of Torah.

It is the last item, Talmud Torah, Torah study, that is the key to the rest. It is a mitzvah to learn. Through learning in its broadest sense, we catch glimmers of wisdom that will serve to center us as we encounter the questions of life. We will have the wisdom and skill to examine the questions with equanimity, to analyze, to hear and learn from the sacred texts, find answers that we might ultimately reject. We will discover the values that inform our decision making, and use them to find a path illuminated by God’s ways.


Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Embodied Torah, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 24

Psalm 24 is sung in our services on weekdays and Shabbat afternoons (and on weekday Festivals) when we put the Torah away. It’s a beautiful, short psalm that begins by reminding us that God is the Creator and in order to deserve a home on this world, we have to treat the landLord and the rest of God’s creatures with respect.

Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in God’s holy place? — One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life or sworn deceitfully. (24:3-4)

Of course, there is no one who has not missed the mark at some point in his or her life. No one’s behavior is unblemished, and no one heart is (i.e. thoughts are) absolutely pure. If thoughts of sin were equal to sin (not true in the Hebrew Bible), most people would be in deep trouble! Judaism has been accused of being so mired in a legal system that recovery is impossible – this is a misunderstanding of Jewish tradition.

In order to ascend the mountain and stand in the presence of God, we need to do the proper work. There is no shortcut up this mountain, there is no tram that takes you up without effort. The work isn’t hard, but it has to be done. Bad habits need to be considered and dismantled. We need to watch our patterns of speech, be careful how we speak about others. Lashon Hara, evil, reputation destroying gossip, will trip us on our journey up the mountain.

I am reminded of a deep Biblical teaching from the beginning of Leviticus, which presents a series of offerings, each of which purify the one who brings it. Large animals, small animals, birds, and grain – each accomplish the same end. The ritual of repentance is open to all, the path up the mountain is fully accessible, regardless of one’s economic power. Judaism has embraced that principle and continued to democratize itself. Judaism is not a race, it is no a closed tribe, it is a way to live your life according to Torah. It is not punitive – it provides a way to clean one’s hands. In the end, we believe that God, the righteous judge, is a loving and merciful God.


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

Psalm 22

Because of You I offer praise in the great congregation; I pay my vows in the presence of His worshipers. (22:26)

The movement of “Spiritual But Not Religious” defines itself as a search for spiritual growth and fulfillment without attachment to a specific religious community. On the contrary, I believe that the highest spiritual growth can only occur within a community. The Psalmist believes that both celebrations ought to be held within a congregation, and the duties that one owes ought to be paid within a community.

One’s spiritual peak by definition ought to be the negation of self, subsuming oneself into the larger body of being and energy of the community, the world, the universe. Arriving at a radical understanding of unity means that not only God is one, but that God, the universe, and one’s life are bound together in a singular unity. Nothing we do is in a vacuum. Every action we take has repercussions that echo around us.

Doing spiritual work on one’s own is the ultimate focus on oneself, making oneself the center of the universe. Rather than humbling the self, this tends to inflate the ego. Placing oneself in community, for work, worship, study, and celebration, forces a person to look at other’s needs alongside or above his or her own. It is a reminder for us that we are not the center of the universe.


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

Psalm 23

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of Adonai for many long years. (23:6)

Psalm 23 is one of the most well know and often quote of the Psalms. The words feel comforting, as long as don’t consider them too deeply. Take the opening line, for example: “The Lord is my Shepherd ….” What does a shepherd do for his flocks? Sure, he takes care of them and protects them from predators. But he also sheers them and occasionally slaughters them for food!

Is verse 6 of this Psalm, quoted above, a description of the life of a faithful member of God’s flock? It seems unlikely. Who among us experiences only good, loving events over the course of his life? Who among us never feels the cold hand of hatred, racism, anti-semitism, discrimination? Who among us is treated only fairly, never gets the short end of the stick?

I prefer to understand the verse above as a prayer – “May goodness and steadfast love pursue me all the days of my life, and may I dwell in the house of Adonai for many long years.” I acknowledge that my life is not going to be full of perfection and light, but I will keep working to find the greenest of pastures, the purest of water to rest by.

Psalm 23 has traditionally been associated not only with funerals, but also with the end of Shabbat. As we eat our final Shabbat meal and the emotional peacefulness of the day draws to a close, I read this Psalm as a prayer that I might hold onto the taste of the messianic olam haba, the world to come, for just a bit longer.

May we someday experience a world in which no one lacks the basic necessities of life.


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

Psalm 21

You have granted him the desire of his heart, have not denied the request of his lips. (21:3)

Wanting is encoded into our DNA. Rabbinic thought teaches that the human being is created with two inclinations – the Yetzer Hatov (altruistic inclination) and the Yetzer Hara (selfish inclination). The rabbis said that were it not for the Yetzer Hara, a person would not marry or build a home. Our impulse towards wanting our needs to be taken care of is built into us from birth. A baby wants to be fed, warm, and dry. A baby learns that certain behaviors cause mom and dad to pay more attention – both crying and looking adorably cute seem work well – and he uses those behaviors at will until his wants and desires are satisfied. Over time, a toddler learns that other people also have needs, and her wants sometimes need to wait. She learns patience. She learns that how she asks for something is important – omitting the magic word please and not using the pleasant tone of voice results in not getting what she wants. Over time, a child learns the pleasures of taking care of someone else, drawing pictures, giving gifts to Mom and Dad. He learns that sometimes, no matter how nicely he asks, there are some things that he wants that he is not going to receive. A young adult learns that no one gets everything they want. Everyone yearns and desires and asks, and more often than not, does not receive.

The wise person learns pay attention to one’s wants, to examine whether they are truly needs, or just the hard to control impulses of the Yetzer Hara. The wise person asks for things that are beyond physical whims, things prompted by an enduring need. The wise person asks for things that are within his power to achieve.

The wise person filters out those things that are motivated by the selfish desires of the Yetzer Hara. The prayers and requests of the wise person, therefore, are directed by the Yetzer Hatov, and are largely motivated by a desire to relieve the suffering of others. May such prayers never be denied.


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

Psalm 20

How much has the world changed in the last 2013 years? How much has it changed in the last 5744 years? Is there anything that has existed for the entire timeline of recorded history?

My friend and colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg wrote recently that what is possibly the oldest living culture, the Australian aborigines, is about 60,000 years old (see his writings at neohasid.com). That’s pretty old, possibly as old as the earliest development of symbolic culture and language. For the rest of us, our religion, culture, traditions, laws, and rituals are a whole lot younger. Still, our cultural and religious systems provide a measure of stability and continuity over time. The Psalmist, in Psalm 20, reflects on what is temporary and what is permanent.

 

They [call] on chariots, they [call] on horses, but we call on the name of Adonai our God. They collapse and lie fallen, but we rally and gather strength. (20:8-9)

When you get down to brass tacks (what does that really mean, anyway), what do you find at the core? The Psalmist presents two contrasting world views, that of gashmiyut vs. ruhaniyut — materialism vs. spiritualism.

All material objects are temporary. Living creatures eventually die, and their (our) bodies disintegrate, slowly turning back into more basic elements.

I remember flying in and out of New York, looking at all of the buildings and thinking that even such enormous structures cannot last forever. I used to try to imagine Manhattan tens of thousands of years in the future, the buildings covered with vines, slowly eating away at the material, slowly crumbling. I never imagined that the end of the two most imposing towers at the South end of the island would be so dramatic as the one we witnessed in horror on September 11, 2001.

Gashmiyut, materialism – Horses and chariots, mortal beings and material objects, will all eventually collapse and disappear. Everything that we create will ultimately be destroyed.

Ruhaniyut, spiritualism – The existence of a Divine realm over and above us assures us that there is the possibility of a transcendent set of values and meaning for our existence. We can gather together in community and call upon the name of God, we can find strength in rallying together under a banner of a religious community whose purpose is to do good in the world.


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

Psalm 19

The Torah of Adonai is perfect, renewing life… (19:8)

One question that comes up frequently in the comments to my “Ethics and Religion Talk” columns is ‘how can we base a system of ethics on a piece of literature that gives laws which are unethical according to our contemporary standards?’

I have written one column addressing this question in the context of The Hebrew Bible’s apparent acceptance of the (for us) immoral practice of slavery by mandating a set of laws proscribing proper treatment of slaves.

It has also come up in connect with the Biblical law that a rapist must marry the woman whom he raped, and the apparent second class status of Priests with disabilities.

These are some of the questions posed against any religious tradition which holds the Hebrew Bible to be sacred scripture. The only truthful response to these challenges is to say that Torah reflects the reality of the society in which it was created. Its laws were in fact progressive compared to contemporary non-Biblical legal systems, even though they are primitive compared to our laws. Ah, there’s the rub – how can the Bible be perfect/revealed/word of God if they laws of the Bible are not perfect. If God is omniscient and perfect, then why don’t the laws of the Bible reflect a perfectly evolved system of law.

We might understand the Bible as an eternal book whose meaning transcends time, and/or as a product of God’s revelation. Nevertheless, the Bible came into existence as a specific time and place in history, and its language, style, and content spoke to that first generation who embraced its wisdom.

The best way to understand the Bible is to contrast it with contemporary wisdom and law in the ancient Near East. In the code of Hammurabi (a Babylonian law code), we can read about slave treatment that is truly brutal. Against that backdrop, the Hebrew Bible is a giant step towards humane treatment of slaves. It is not unreasonable to presume that the Hebrew Bible deliberately sought to wean humanity away from slavery.

The Bible has undergone constant reinterpretation over the many generations since it first came into being. What was acceptable to one generation was no longer acceptable to later generations. The Bible is timeless because from its inception, it was intended to be a progressive, rather than a static, code of law and behavior.


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

Psalm 18

Adonai, my crag, my fortress, my rescuer, my God, my rock in whom I seek refuge, my shield, my mighty champion, my haven…. Then the earth rocked and quaked; the foundations of the mountains shook, rocked by His indignation…. I ground them fine as windswept dust; I trod them flat as dirt of the streets. (18:3, 8, 43)

My senior sermon delivered during my final year of Rabbinical School played with the image of the rock as an image as a representation of God. I’ve always lived in a place where the earth is fairly solid and still, so the image of God as bedrock makes sense to me. Only once have I been in an earthquake – an early morning in Jerusalem – and my first thought was that a convoy of very large trucks must be driving by to make the building shake for such a long time. My roommate Larry, from Washington, immediately recognized it for what it was and had jumped out of bed and was standing in the doorway, which he later told me was the safest place to be during an earthquake.

The Psalmist envisions God’s power as a bedrock, but by no means sees God as being confined to the rock. God’s anger breaks the rock, shaking it, and ultimately grinding it down to dust.

Maimonides understood that any language we use to describe God is inadequate. The metaphor of a rock is destroyed by an earthquake. Elijah looked for God in the earthquake, in the whirlwind, and instead found God in the thinness of silence.

What is thinner and more silent that a force of attraction? Perhaps we might read Elijah’s story as one of finding God in the attractive forces that bind the sub-atomic particles together. Those particles, so few of them, combine in increasingly intricate ways to form a multitude of solid forms, including rock and including carbon based biological life forms.

Thus my God infused fingers press on keys made from the remains of the ancient dead, rearranging electrons in their orbits and thus changing patterns of light. Sometimes, after I finish a sermon or an article, I think to myself – if what I have produced is good, it is because God is speaking through me. God gets the credit. If what I have produced is nonsense, it is because I have not paid close enough attention to the Divine voice. I get the blame.


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

Psalm 17

 

The Psalmist is  certain that his cause is just and those who oppose him are wicked:

I call on You; You will answer me, God; turn Your ear to me, hear what I say. (17:6)
Rise, O LORD! Go forth to meet him. Bring him down; rescue me from the wicked with Your sword … (17:13)

What is it like to be so sure of yourself? I am not. I am filled with self-doubt. Even when I know that I have a solid foundation for the path I have chosen, for the decision I have made, even when I know that I am doing the right thing, I still have doubts. As long as there is someone who takes a different path, makes a different decision, I wonder whether I should be so sure that I am right and he is wrong. Is this healthy humility, or paralyzing timidity?

Rabbinic texts, Mishnah and Talmud, record the rejected opinions because they see the potential for more than one correct answer. Talmud often goes the extra mile to explain the logic behind a position that they ultimate reject, to teach us that we can learn to appreciate an opinion with which we vigorously disagree.

There is a lot of arrogance in the words of this Psalmist. I wonder what happened to him to make him so certain that God tested him and found his cause just? What would happen to his faith in God if he were to discover that his enemies, whom he calls arrogant, are actually very nice people, and he is wrong?

The ultimate test of our faith is not what happens when we experience a Divine intervention proving that we are right, but rather what happens when we feel let down and discover that we are wrong!


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

Psalm 16

Much ink (including mine, last summer) has been spilled noting that Hanukkah has not been as early in the solar year as it is this year for 125 years. The articles stating that Hanukkah will coincide with Thanksgiving again in 70,000-some years assume that the growing error between the Jewish year and the solar year will never be corrected. Were that to be the case, in 35,000 years we would be celebrating Rosh Hashanah in April and Passover in September. The problem is that the Jewish year is corrected to match the Julian year. We follow the Gregorian calendar, which corrected a very slight error in the length of the year. At some point, when Passover is projected to fall too late in the Spring, the calendar will be corrected so the celebration of Thanksgivakkah or Hodunakkah may very well happen again, although not necessarily in our lifetime.

I bless the LORD who has guided me … (16:7)

The Hanukkah story is an example of how we use a religious myth – the myth that God’s guiding hand can be seen in history.

The first sentence was deliberately provocative, in that it used the word ‘myth’ in a way that is likely to be misunderstood to mean ‘a made up story, one that is not true.’ In fact, a myth may or may not be a historically true story, but it is definitely a true story in that it teaches significant truth. The most accurate definition of ‘myth’ is a narrative that provides a meaningful framework for our lives. The Exodus story is the backbone of the Torah. The principles derived from the experience of the transition from slavery to Mount Sinai, such as the obligation to take care of the weak and vulnerable in our society, are the most important principles of the Torah. Tzedakah and Shabbat, for example, are explicitly linked to the Exodus.

The way we tell the Hanukkah story reinforces the idea that our successes, our victories, are directly linked to acting on our faith in God.

An objective telling of the Hanukkah story might focus on military acumen, the wisdom of fighting a guerrilla war against the Syrian army rather than confronting them in the conventional face to face battle. The Syrians, fighting on behalf of Greek values, were a powerful army, but not particularly committed to the ideology for which they were fighting. They could be worn down over time, and that’s what the Mattathias and his five sons did.

The theological story of Hanukkah emphasizes the victory of the few against the many, the weak against the powerful, an event that could only have happened with God’s intervention. This story is the one told by the al ha-nissim prayer, inserted into the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon on Hanukkah.

An even more extreme story is told by the Talmud to explain the 9 branched Hanukkah menorah. The 8 day celebration of Hanukkah, we are told, is only indirectly connected to the Maccabee’s victory. Rather, we are celebrating the miracle that the last vial of consecrated oil, uncontaminated by Syrian idolatrous hands, burned for 8 days, until new oil could be pressed.

The dreydel, with its four letters representing “A Great Miracle Happened There,” is ambiguous. Which miracle are we talking about – the military victory, the oil, or both? It doesn’t really matter – both stories illustrate “I bless the LORD who has guided me …”, seeing the hand of Divine providence in the critical events of our history.


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

Psalm 15

Adonai, who may sojourn in Your tent, who may dwell on Your holy mountain? One who lives without blame, who does what is right, and in one’s heart acknowledges the truth; whose tongue is not given to evil; who has never done harm to his fellow, or borne reproach for [acts toward] one’s neighbor; for whom a contemptible person is abhorrent, but who honors those who fear Adonai; who stands by an oath even to harm; who has never lent money at interest, or accepted a bribe against the innocent. One who acts thus shall never be shaken. (15:1-5)

I often read this Psalm at funerals. As I consider the qualities of the life of the deceased and listen to the family speak about their loved one and reframe my thoughts and their words into a eulogy, it seems that the good qualities in this Psalm apply to virtually every one of them. I know this is not likely. Were I to be completely objective, I would not use this Psalm. Why do I use it? Because when we have experienced the loss of someone significant in our lives, we want there to be some quality or qualities that made their life worth living and their memory worth remembering. We should be relatively honest in how we recall and speak of the deceased, but we should also try to remember their positive values and way they influenced us. We don’t speak ill of the dead.

On top of this, however, I have found by sitting with so many families after a death that it is always possible to find qualities that bring a smile to the face of their relatives. It should give us hope. For all the mistakes we made during our lifetimes, the vast majority of us do more good than harm.

I also read this Psalm, I think, because to do so gives the survivors and other guests at the funeral something to live up to. When I am at a funeral (and listening, rather than speaking), I am thinking about how I might emulate the positive qualities of the deceased. Psalm 15 reminds us of the power and importance of living with truth and integrity. As we celebrate Hanukkah this week, we might consider the courage and integrity of our ancestors who proudly lived Jewish lives under adverse conditions – it is thanks to them that we celebrate this Festival of religious freedom. As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we might also consider the importance of honestly giving thanks for what we have, even as we are aware that we don’t have everything we might want.


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

Psalm 14

The fool thinks, “There is no God.” (14:1)

This is not the kind of language that I would have used. Fool is a very strong word, and I think we have seen enough strong language in our contemporary society.  We have too many people throwing around name calling rather than trying to understand and  appreciate the position of the “fool” with whom they disagree. What is there to admire about the position of the atheist? NPR’s talk of the nation had a recent series examining different beliefs in the afterlife.  One person interviewed was an atheist named Samuel Sheffler who just published a book on “Death and the Afterlife.” I quoted from an op-ed he wrote for the New York ties in October before Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret. His position is that the fact that we know that after we die people will live on is the single most critical factor in giving us the motivation to live meaningful lives. For proof, he invites us to engage in the following thought experiment. If we knew for an absolute certainty that the world will come to an end shortly after we die – imagine that an asteroid will wipe out all life – how many of us would live the same lives that we have lived. How many of us would have children? How many of us would build wealth to give to museums, synagogues, Charitable organizations? How many of us would do research to find a cure for cancer, write great works of literature, or create beautiful works of art – if we knew that virtually no one would enjoy or benefit from our work?

The claim, “There is no God” is also challenge to the image of God as the old man with the white beard watching and exercising minute control over everything that happens to us. Rabbi Brad Artson (or maybe it was Rabbi David Wolpe) told a story once of a conversation he had with an atheist. The atheist claimed that believe in God was ridiculous and reason demanded that one be an atheist, and the rabbi asked to atheist to describe God and why precisely he could not believe. After listening to the atheist’s description of God, which very much resembled the description that a religious person might give, the rabbi said, “You know, I don’t believe in that God either.” He then went on to describe a much more sophisticated view of God.

Thank God for questions of the atheist!


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

Psalm 12

“… the pious are no more; the faithful have vanished …” (12:2)

Taking a stand is not always a pleasant experience, especially in these days in which social networks make everything that we say or do liable to become the subject of public scrutiny. Anonymous critics harshly pick at those who take a stand based on moral principles. When we take a stand which upholds traditional religious values, we may find ourselves at odds with contemporary society’s values. It is an uncomfortable place to stand, and we might feel alone and isolated.

But there are those who claim to hold pious principles in one area of their life, who behave atrociously in other ways – the Westboro Baptist folks come to mind. While I believe with all my heart that one can be in a same sex relationship consistent with Torah principles, I understand and respect those whose religious teachings and understanding of Leviticus hold differently. I have no tolerance, however, for those who claim piety but treat gay and lesbian couples (and those who support such unions) with open hatred.

Authentic piety demands more than adherence to a code of belief. It asks us to adhere to a code of behavior based on the principle of “love your neighbor” that recognizes the essential humanity of every person. It asks us to be humble and faithful enough to realize that as human beings, we too have flaws and inconsistencies; that we too fail at times, and that we are not infallible. When we take a pious position on an issue, we ought to also have the humility to realize that those who disagree with us may also be taking a principled position.


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