Psalm 13

How long will You hide Your face from me? (13:2)

What happens when God hides God’s face from the individual or from the world? Deuteronomy 31:17 suggests that when God’s face is hidden, we lose God’s protection from the evil and troubles that surround us in the world. When God’s face is hidden, we are vulnerable. The Birkat Kohanim, on the other hand, promises that God’s face will “shine upon us and be gracious to us” and God will “Lift up God’s face to us and grant us Shalom, peace, wholeness.” (Numbers 6:25-26). The Priestly blessings suggests that when God’s face is given to us, we have protection.

There are so many different ways that we can be killed or injured … If I were to start thinking about all of the random ways that I could get hurt or killed while driving a car down the highway I would become paralyzed and unable to drive. If I were to start thinking about how easy it would be for a driver to become distracted and drift over a couple feet onto the shoulder of Michigan street where I am walking home from shul, I would be afraid to walk. At any given moment a tree could fall down, a piece of concrete could fall from a bridge, a gas line could leak and explode, an unknown flaw in my biological or genetic makeup could reach a critical point and break down …

I life my life consciously unaware of all of these things, certain that I will be protected from them (until I am not). I am grateful for my ability to be naive and unaware and see God’s face surrounding me and protecting me.


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

Psalm 10

“Why, Adonai, do you stand far away?” (10:1)

I feel frightened and empty inside. Sometimes I can identify the cause and address it. I made a mistake and caused hurt and bad feelings, so someone is angry with me. Other times I am looking at a list of things that need to be done and I just don’t know how I am going to finish everything. Perhaps there is something going on with one or more of the children – problems at school, tension at home, and that is causing the entire family to be distant and unhappy. Sometimes, though, for no identifiable reason I feel this tremendous disconnect between myself and everything else around me, as if I am floating off in space somewhere or living in a parallel universe only vaguely connected with the people around me.

Is it God who is standing far away? It’s easy to blame God. It’s easy to place me at the center of the universe. It’s natural and in fact true that I am the center of my universe, if my existence consists only of that which takes place inside my head.

It’s a matter of perspective. I could just as easily say that God is not standing far from me; I am standing far away from God! The problem is that when I look at the universe from the perspective of my head, like a Mercator projection of a map of the world, the universe is severely distorted. A goal of a religious life ought to be to see the world in a more expansive way – not from the limited perspective of a single human being or group of people, but from the widest possible lens of humanity.

Thus we can break the illusion of God standing far from me or me standing far from God.


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

Psalm 11

Rabbi Jack Moline, in my opinion one of North America’s wisest rabbis, once shared that when he writes a sermon or a d’var Torah, his first intended audience is himself, so that when he listens to himself delivering it, he’ll learn something that he needs to learn. If anyone else listens and learns from it as well, so much the better.

Well, having completed almost three months of Psalm blogging, that’s about how I’m feeling. A systematic consideration of Psalms is helping me think through some issues that come before me, but I’m wondering how many others find it useful. A blog is a conversation – I invite you to share your thoughts on what I write each week. If you are so inclined, please go to embodiedtorah.wordpress.com and leave me a note or a reflection on the week’s Psalm.

 

“When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous man do?” (11:3)

We live our lives based on a set of core assumption and beliefs about the world. Most of the time we don’t question or explore those basic principles, and in fact we might not even know what they are. Now and then, however, something happens to make us notice one of our foundational beliefs and either reject it, modify it, or conform to it.

Our core belief might be that if I treat other people right, I will always be treated well. This principle is shaken when we find ourself being mistreated for no apparent reason, perhaps by people we don’t even know! We might conclude that we should reject the core belief, and from that point on not care about how we treat others. Preferably, we might decide to modify the core belief and conclude that regardless of how others treat me, I am going to treat people well.

Another core belief might be that Judaism directs me to care for the environment and all who live in it, both human and animal. This principle is tested when I learn more about food production and the damage done to the environment by pesticides and the raising of animals for food. I might commit myself to conform to my principle and change my diet; or I might decide that other principles of Jewish eating allow me to lesson my commitment to this core value as long as I hold onto other principles of kashrut.

In order to live a life of righteousness, it is important to examine, preserve, maintain and live by one’s foundational principles.


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

Psalm 9

“Adonai is a haven for the oppressed, a haven in times of trouble.” (9:10)

Sometimes you’re just having one of those days on which problems accumulate. Not necessarily huge problems, but each one is like a tiny brush fire that has to be put out immediately, before it grows, spawning the leaping flames of a giant problem. It’s one of those days when you feel like the only sane person in a world of unstable, psychotic, pyromaniacs playing with matches. Why send a simple email reply when replying all and c:ing even more people will complicate matters by involving more people who don’t fully understand the background of the decision to be made? Why read the entire email before replying with questions and objections, when reading the subject line and the first sentence is sufficient?

Oppression feels like the world is noise and static – a dozen annoyances grabbing for your attention like needy toddlers. Oppression is when you come home exhausted after a day of busyness with no breaks, with no sense that you’ve accomplished anything useful, lasting, or meaningful.

The Psalmist asserts that you can find a haven from oppression. The haven can be your home, but only if you put up on invisible force field around your home that admits you, but excludes the troubles. The Mezuzah on the door is the force field – the reminder that this home is a place in which God’s presence lives. Stop at the doorstep – take a breath of redemption, and breath out the oppression. Put a smile on your face, and walk through the door. Welcome to the haven from oppression! Welcome to God’s home!


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

Psalm 8

“What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty?” (8:5-6)

There is a teaching of the Hasidic Rabbi Simha of Bunem, that a person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. In the left pocket, the slip of paper reads, “You are dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27) The slip of paper in the right pocket reads, “For my sake, the world was created.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Being created in God’s image is at the same time a great privilege and a great responsibility. The ability to manipulate tools and extensively use the resources of the planet for our benefit gives us an advantage over all other forms of life. Were we to be tossed into the wild to compete on even terms with animals of prey, most of us would be lost. In our own environment, we are masters.

It is the “little less than Divine” that draws my attention. We are asked to be self-limiting in our behavior. No one can compel us to use fewer resources, be kinder to the environment, treat all life with compassion. The Psalmist therefore reminds us that we are not Divine; in Reb Simha’s words, we are destined to become dust and ashes.

Reb Simha’s teaching is that ego needs to be balanced with humility; and that self-effacement needs to be balanced with self-esteem. In the end, the key to understanding Reb Simha’s teaching is to remember that the right hand is stronger than the left hand (for those of us who are left handed, think of it symbolically). Therefore, the self-strengthening message that I am so important that the world was created for me is slightly stronger than the ego-cautioning message warning me that I am a mortal being destined to return to the grave.


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

Psalm 6

“Adonai, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.” (6:2)

Anger is an addictive emotion. We feel powerfully alive when are are angry. Heart pounding, air pumping in and out of our lungs, muscles tense, the brain flashing like lightning. But our mind and body are focused on exactly one thought, one decision — fight or flight?

In that moment, we are not capable of truly rational thought. Nuance is lost. “Protect and Defend,” our mind is telling us. “Break, Smash, Destroy!” Or perhaps, “Run away! Duck and Cover! Roll and Dodge!”

It’s a paradox – in the moment when you feel most alive and energized and ready to make a split second decision, at that precise moment you are incapable of discernment. At that moment, you should not write an email or text, lest you press send. At that moment, you should not phone or message or chat.

The Psalmist knew that judgement is impaired when we are angry. Never mind that the Psalmist is talking about God – even God, as depicted in the Torah, burns with hot anger but can be “talked down” from God’s destructive power. The Blessed Holy One pulling back from the abyss becomes our model for proper control over our own angry impulses.


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

Psalm 7

I realize, as I have gotten into the reading of psalms as a devotional practice, that my reflection does not necessarily match the intent of the Psalmist. While I read the entire Psalm and try to understand it, the verse or phrase that I select out may have caught my eye because of something going on in my life, something in the news, or a concern that someone else may have brought me, and may not be related to the subject of the Psalm as a whole. In fact, once I pull the verse out of context, my thoughts on it may not even fairly represent what that very verse meant to the Psalmist. While this would not be a legitimate method of Bible study, it is an age-old way to use Psalms, not dissimilar from the way a mantra might be used in meditation. Initially, the mantra has a certain meaning, but in repetition, the mind moves beyond the literal meaning and the mantra becomes a gateway for an expansion of thought. This is the case in the following reflection. In context, the sense is that “God vindicates the righteous,” a sentiment that might prompt feelings of self-righteousness. My translation, “God judges the righteous,” rather invites us to be self-critical.

“God judges the righteous …” (7:12)

No matter how much good we might have done, beware the self-righteous feeling that we have done our job with unsurpassed excellence and we may now pat ourselves on the back and stop doing the work.

No matter how righteous we might be, we are still judged by God. Are we good because goodness is Godly, or are we good because we are seeking reward?

If we didn’t get emotional satisfaction from doing good works, would we still do them? If we were not appreciated, would we still act on our good impulses?

My High School science teacher had a poster on his walls, which said something like, “The mark of a truly good person is what he does when he knows no one is watching.”

Is God watching everything we do, 24/7 (or 24/6, if God rests on Shabbat)? Is God the equivalent of a super-efficient NSA, sucking up information to be used against us in a Divine court of law, should we someday stumble?

It is theologically problematic to endow God with the quality of human watchfulness, but it is part of the my understanding of what it means to be boundless and infinite that all moments, all space, all knowledge, are part of the Divine.

Every action that I take affects the infinite fabric of reality. Once done, an action cannot be undone. If it causes damage, the damage might be reparable, but it still leaves a mark.

No one should be so self-centered as to believe that his goodness is unblemished, but no one should be so arrogant as to believe that she has no goodness at all.

Rather, live life as if every action is an opportunity to reinforce our goodness and make up for the times that we could have done better.


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

Psalm 5

“But I, with abundant love for you, enter Your house …” (5:8)

When we enter God’s house, it is as if we pass through a force field. On the outside, there is the world, loud, crowded, uncaring, indifferent. On the inside, there is warmth, quiet, enveloping love. A synagogue (or church, for that matter) is often considered to be a place of refuge and sanctuary. It is supposed to be a safe place, where we can leave behind the masks and shields that protect us in the wider world and just be ourselves within a supportive community.

There is actually no difference between the physical outside and the physical inside space. The difference is us.

When we enter a sacred place, we enter with love. We know it is supposed to be a place of love, so we might take special care to behave with love. Our love reflects off the other worshippers, and it becomes a place of love.

The Mezuzah on the doors of our home is not a magical amulet of protection. It will not stop a hurricane or tornado or fire or robber. What it does is remind us that the home is equally sacred as a synagogue. Both contain Torah, both contain God’s presence.

You’ve had a hard day and finally arrived home. You stop on the threshold of your door and notice the mezuzah. When you walk through the door, to be greeted with chaos, problems, emptiness or loneliness, take a moment to gather us your love – remember, this too us a sacred place, God’s house.


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

Psalm 4

“You freed me from distress.” More literally, “In a tight spot, you gave me room to expand.” (4:2)

Feeling squeezed? Feeling constricted? Having trouble breathing, coping or keeping up with change? When you feel under pressure, you may make unwise decisions. You might make decisions out of fear or panic. You might fail to make a decision when one is needed … a non-decision is also a decision.

The essential root meaning of the Hebrew word for Egypt is a place of narrowness. Mitzrayim, Egypt, is what happens when you live your life in a narrow box, unable or unwilling to try new things or serious examine the way you live your life. When you repeat the same mistakes over and over again, or continually find yourself experiencing the same frustrations, chances are you could do something about it but are stuck in a rut of stimulus and response.

The opposite of Mitzrayim is expansiveness. The first behavior of a meditation or yoga practice is to learn how to breathe, to expand your lungs and body. Rather than being a slave to a stimuli, you learn how to expand yourself and take time to evaluate why your instinct is to jump to a particular response. What’s going on inside your head? What positive or negative experiences have you had in the past that are influencing the way you make decisions? Next, examine the stimulus again, and allow yourself to objectively decide on a wise response. Move from narrowness, in which your responses are predetermined, to expansiveness, in which you have the room to choose a response from a wide range of options.


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

Psalm 3

“Adonai, my foes are so many! Many are those who attack me.” (3:2)

My foes might be an external enemy or might be demons attacking from within. They might be attacking my self-image, my confidence, my self-worth. No one listens to me – my children, my wife, my so called friends, my boss. Creditors are calling, bills are due, the car needs unexpected – and expensive – repairs, a puddle appears under the refrigerator.

The Psalmist speaks of David fleeing from his son Absalom. How terrible is that – a son leading a revolt against his father. Ultimately, the revolt fails and Absalom dies. David is plunged into an even blacker depression. This is the classic no-win scenario.

When things are going wrong, it seems like there is no solution. We are stuck in a downward spiral and it doesn’t matter what we do, because any choice leads to the same disastrous consequences.

Running away from signs of physical problems, refusing to see a doctor, won’t make the problem heal itself. Seeking medical attention and undergoing proper treatment earlier rather than later might cause short term suffering but relieve long term problems.

The solution is to make decisions from strength and wisdom rather than fear and impulse. Not all immediate consequences will be positive, but in the long term, making wise decisions will lead to stable consequences.

The only guarantee in life is that there are no guarantees. There will always be problems and challenges, and it is a guarantee that something will go wrong. If you know this, however, you can take the ups and downs with equanimity, not letting the low points distort your wisdom.


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

Psalm 2

“Serve Adonai in fear/awe; rejoice with trembling.” (2:11)

Fear and Trembling is the name of an important philosophical work by Soren Kierkegaard. He uses the model of the binding of Isaac to explore the meaning of faith. It is fundamentally a Christian look at the role of faith above all.

Some Jews would read this verse as a mandate to serve God/observe mitzvot with fear and trembling lest God withhold reward to send suffering upon the world. I’d rather focus on a different aspect of awe and trembling, focusing on the most odd verb, to rejoice.

Picture a small child fully engaged by a movie, a storyteller, a performer of any kind – the wide open eyes, the open mouth. Such a child is fully open to anything that might happen. Her senses are totally focused on what is happening before her. At the climactic moment, her arms might begin to shake, her body might bounce up and down her her seat, giggles of laughter or shrieks of joy emerge from that open mouth, she might hug herself as if to keep herself from flying out her body!

That’s how I understand this verse – as a challenge to reach the highest level of focus, excitement, and joy while engaged in mitzvah. Could I reach that level of kavanah, intention, while shaking a lulav and etrog, while making Kiddush, while wrapping myself in tefillin, while delivering Purim baskets or doing some other act of gemilut hasadim? What an opportunity!


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

Psalm 1

My bulletin series this year will focus on my attempt to read the book of Psalms as a devotional practice. Psalms were written to reflect an individual’s or a communal struggle with the joys and sorrows of life. When life is good, the Psalmist reaches out to God in gratitude. When life is troubled, the Psalmist reaches out to God for help. When life is sweet, the Psalmist reaches out to God with gentleness. When life is frightening, the Psalmist reaches out to God in despair. When life is cruel, the Psalmist reaches out to God in anger.

My goal is to post weekly Psalm reflections on my blog and on the Ahavas Israel website, ahavasisraelgr.org. Each week, I’ll have chosen one phrase or verse from the Psalm of that week and use it to create a brief 200-250 word meditation on how the torah of that verse might help us embody a positive approach to life. That’s the goal, anyway – we’ll see how the project plays itself out over time.

A blog is a two-way conversation – please post comments and reactions. Share with me and others how you understand the verse I’ve selected. Join me in creating a devotional practice, creating person meaning within our sacred texts.

“Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, or stood along with the path of sinners, or sat in the company of the insolent; rather, the teaching of the LORD is his delight, and he studies that teaching day and night.” (1:1)

Walk, Stand, and Sit. It is easy to fall into undesirable habits. We can travel down a meaningless path in an unfulfilling job, we can stand around with people we dislike whose values and habits do not reinforce good behavior, we can sit around complaining that nothing ever goes our way.

Walking, Standing, and Sitting. We might try to escape a mindless life by stopping what we are doing and practicing stillness; we might try to can escape the exhaustion of endless standing and waiting by sitting down and searching for distraction on our electronic devices; we try to enliven our life by getting off the couch doing anything that gets us moving again.

The truth is that the path to a meaningful life is not determined solely by our habit of walking, standing, or sitting — it is determined by our inner life. What’s going on while we are walking, standing, and sitting? To what extent have we internalized a path of Torah so that we are carrying its values with us when we are at work and at play, while shopping and while out with friends, with our parents, children, spouse, or siblings.


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

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – Summer, 2013

You’ll notice that Rosh Hashanah begins just two days after Labor day. You will recall that Pesah began very early. You’re probably wondering … what about Hanukkah?

The article is adapted from an article by Jonathan Mizrahi, which can be found here:

sites.google.com/site/mizrahijonathan/home/ThanksgivingAndHanukkah

This year features an anomaly for American Jews – The first day of Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving, on 11/28/2013. Hanukkah and Thanksgiving have only coincided once before, in 1888 … and it will never happen again. [Note: Prior to 1942, Thanksgiving was the LAST Thursday in November, and thus could occur on November 29 or 30. In 1888, Hanukkah began on November 29, which was also Thanksgiving.]

Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday in November, meaning the latest it can be is November 28. November 28 is also the earliest date on which Hanukkah can fall. The Jewish calendar repeats on a 19 year cycle, and Thanksgiving repeats on a 7 year cycle. You would therefore expect them to coincide roughly every 19 x 7 = 133 years. Why won’t it ever happen again?

The reason is because the Jewish calendar is very slowly getting out of sync with the solar calendar, at a rate of 3 days per 1000 years (not bad for a many centuries old calendar!). The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar modified by the addition of leap months to adjust for the length of the solar year. However, the assumption it makes about the length of the solar year corresponds to the Julian calendar. In 1582, Pope Gregory introduced a calendar reform (known as the Gregorian calendar) when it was recognized that the spring equinox was slowly drifting later at the rate of about 3 days per 1000 years. The solution was to reduce the number of leap years – century years divisible by 100 (but not divisible by 400) are not leap years. Thus, 2000 was a leap year, but 2100, 2200, and 2300 will not be.

This means that while presently Hanukkah can be as early as November 28, in the year 2200 the Jewish calendar will drift forward so that the earliest Hanukkah will be November 29. The last time Hanukkah falls on 11/28 is 2146 (which happens to be a Monday).

Of course, if the Jewish calendar is never modified in any way, then it will slowly move forward through the Gregorian calendar, until it loops all the way back to where it is now. So, Hanukkah will again fall on Thursday, November 28 … in the year 79,811! Of course, Jewish law  and the guidelines for determining the Jewish calendar require Passover to be in the spring.  Therefore, the Jewish calendar will have to be adjusted long before it loops all the way around. Of course, the messiah will have come long before then to sort out these kinds of sticky problems!

Remember that “day” in the Jewish calendar starts at night. This means that although this year the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving, candles will be lit for the first NIGHT of Hanukkah the night BEFORE Thanksgiving. When the first day of Hanukkah falls the day after Thanksgiving, the first night’s candles are lit the night OF Thanksgiving.  This will happen two more times, in 2070 and 2165.

***

I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my additional activities of the past month:

  • • I am one of the co-founders of the Coalition for Small Conservative Congregations (CSCC) and one of the planners of the Rabbinic conference sponsored by the CSCC. I have been working on our 3rd annual conference, taking place in Chicago June 2-4.
  • • The weekly Torah study group that has been meeting for about 15 years (for the last 10, at Schuler Books and Music on 28th St.) will shift focus this fall to begin reading a chapter a week from the classical prophets. I have been researching books and commentaries on Isaiah.

Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar, Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi Tagged: calendar, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving
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