Psalm 150

Let all that breathes praise Adonai. Hallelujah! (150:6)

I love the fact that the book of Psalms concludes with praise that comes from every living creature that draws a breath. Not just human beings, but every other animal joins with us in dedicating that breath to God. Every release of breath gives something back to God. We return carbon dioxide to nourish plant life. We release music to make the world beautiful. We release sounds and words of gratitude.

For some, criticism comes more naturally than praise. But living a life in which criticism comes as naturally as breathing is a recipe for unhappiness. Such people are focused on what is missing from their lives rather than the gifts they have received.

The book of Psalms contains words of people who are deeply afraid, unhappy, persecuted, and sick, reaching out to God for relief. The book concludes, however, with the words of people reaching out God in song and praise. At the end of my life I hope to face death and God with words of gratitude on my lips, for my wife, for my children, and for all that I have experienced in my life. Because we don’t know at what moment we might die, Pirke Avot suggests that we treat each hour as if it is our last (2:10). Consider the last sentence you spoke to a loved one. What if that were your final words? Would your last breath be leaving you carrying praise or condemnation?

Psalms concludes with an exercise in gratitude. How can your every exhaled breath contain appreciation?

I am grateful to God for the wisdom embodied in the 150 Psalms, reflecting the entirety of the range of human experience. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with the poetry and use the life of the poet as a backdrop against which I have examined my own life. I am grateful to God for giving me the strength and perseverance to complete this project of Psalm reflections. As my thoughts have given me peace of mind, I hope that they have positively impacted other readers.

“May Adonai grant strength to God’s people. May Adonai bless God’s people with peace.” (Psalm 29:11)

.ה׳ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן, ה׳ יְבָרֵךְ אֶת־עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם

Psalm 149

For Adonai takes pleasure in God’s people (149:4)

The Yiddish word for this kind of pleasure is Nahas, coming from the Hebrew Nahat. Although this is not the Hebrew word used in the Psalm, it reminds me of the Yiddish expression, sheppen nahas fun kinder, deriving pleasure from the mere existence of children. Of course, if the children misbehave, refuse to leave the nest and get a job, or get arrested, we’re no longer sheppen nahas! But when they bring home artwork that only a mother could love, work their hardest and struggle to meet expectations, or celebrate Bar/Bat Mitzvah or graduations, the accomplishment itself is a delight.

I imagine that God takes pleasure when we try. We make mistakes and don’t always succeed and often need help. But as long as we put forth the effort, learning and growing over the course of our lives, God is proud of us because we are God’s children. A midrash imagines the questions God will ask us at the entrance to the world to come. I understand the questions as “Have you fulfilled your personal potential, have you been the best version of you, have you done the things in this world that you alone were created to do?”

We will fall short. We will leave things undone. But Pirke Avot (2:16) teaches that we don’t need to finish the work, we only need to make our contribution.

“[Rabbi Tarfon] would say, “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it.”

Psalm 148

God establishes a law and does not violate it. (148:6)

Every morning when I read this Psalm this verse catches my attention. It suggests that God is self-limiting. God created a world in which apples predictably fall down and skilled pitchers can throw a baseball with a certain spin to make it make it curve over the plate and we can take a walk without worrying that that there will be a temporary gravity outage and we, along with our atmosphere, will drift off into space. We can rely on predicable and repeatable chemicals reactions so our medications function reliably and our bread rises and bakes golden brown. Our physical world functions according to unchanging rules because God created it that way. From the first moment after the cosmic bang or the Divine word saying “Let there be light,” time moved at a steady pace and the physical matter of the universe coalesced and cooled and condensed in order to provide energy and material for life.

Pirke Avot (5:6) teaches that God built certain miracles into the fabric of the world during the first week of creation.

Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they:

(1) the mouth of the earth [Num. 16:32]; (2) the mouth of the well [Num. 21:16-18]; (3) the mouth of the ass [Num. 22:28]; (4) the rainbow [Gen. 9:13]; (5) the manna [Ex. 16:15]; (6) the rod [Ex. 4:17]; (7) the Shamir [a worm which cut blocks of stone so iron tools were not needed, cf. Deut. 27:5, I Kings 6:7]; (8) the letters, (9) writing, (10) and tablets [of the ten commandments, Ex. 32:15f.].

Without knowing advanced physics, the ancient rabbis instinctively understood that God doesn’t interrupt the natural order willy-nilly and posited that the exceptions to natural law were pre-programmed into creation from the beginning. Assuming that God is an infinite omnipotent creator who can rewrite the code of the world at any time, the Psalmist asserts that for the sake of humanity God agrees to let the world continue to exist by the original set of rules.

If setting limits and abiding by them is a Divine trait, it is also a trait worth emulating.

Hag Sameah!

Auto-posted to wish you a Hag Sameah on the second day of the festival of Shavuot. We’ll read the book of Ruth and recite Yizkor at the synagogue this morning. This note is for those of you looking for this week’s Psalm Reflection – check back tomorrow morning!

Psalm 147

The healer of the broken hearted (147:3)

Deuteronomy 10:16 speaks of circumcising the foreskin of one’s heart to remove impediments to recognizing God, but he could not have foreseen using miniature cameras to place stents in partially clogged arteries or cracking open someone’s chest and replace the arteries coming out of the heart.

Ezekiel used the metaphor of a heart transplant to speak about a fundamental transformation in the human being. He wrote, “I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh” (11:19, 36:26), but he could not have imagined attaching a human being to a machine to oxygenate and circulate blood while removing an ailing heart from the person’s chest and replacing it with a healthy heart.

The Psalmist could never have envisioned what goes through my mind when I read the phrase, “healer of the broken hearted.” I think of my relatives and friends and members of my congregation who have survived heart procedures that under normal circumstances have become routine. Even so, because messing around with the heart is never completely routine, this Psalmist’s image of God as a Divine doctor gives me strength and hope.

Imagine the presence of God hovering in the operating room guiding the hand of the surgeon. Think about the miraculous functioning of the body, and consider the asher yatzar berakha:

You are the source of blessing, Adonai our God, eternal Sovereign of the universe, who formed the human being with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is revealed and known before Your Throne of Glory that if one of them ruptures or one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. You are the source of blessing, Adonai, who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱ–לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִיאֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשֹוֹת

Divre Harav – May/16

The festival of Shavuot is approaching, marking the beginning of summer on the Jewish calendar. We’re gathering on the first night for a program that is part social and part educational – a Tikkun Leil Shavuot study session. The topic this year is “Psalms and their role in liturgy and a life of religious practice.” If you’ve never participated, perhaps this year you’ll try it out. It’s an informal gather at my home (2021 Michigan St. NE) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 11. The Shavuot morning service the next morning reenacts the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai; on the second day of the festival, we recite Yizkor.

I chose this year’s Shavuot study topic because, for almost three years, I have been immersing myself in the poetry of the Psalmist and writing weekly reflections. On June 27, God willing, I will publish the reflection on the final Psalm, 150. I took on this project in part because for my own spiritual life, I needed a project that would bring me to parts of our Tanakh that I had never before thought about seriously. I needed something to break me out of patterns of habitual behavior, in which I only read and study material that I already know and feel comfortable with.

Most of us live our lives in habitual ways because the comfortable routine appeals to us. This is why when we ask people who are not accustomed to coming to synagogue services to participate in a weekday or Shabbat service, we most often do not succeed. Their is a vast gulf between one’s normal morning or weekend routine and the new routine of coming to Ahavas Israel early on a Wednesday or Thursday or at 9:30 am on Saturday morning. People tell me that they’d like to come more often or that they know they should come more often, but most often that desire is not strong enough to break an old habit and form a new one.

Living strictly according to the Jewish calendar can become just as habitual and thoughtless as a life disconnected from Jewish rhythms. Holidays which interrupt our schedule can help us pay more attention to the flow of time. Deliberately choosing to take on a new project or learn something outside our comfort zone can also take us out of habitual behavior. Please join me on Saturday night, June 11, to begin your celebration of Shavuot and your journey towards a more thoughtful life.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • tefillah – Prayer.
  • l’hitpallel – To pray.
  • l’har’her – To mediate.
  • lil’mod – To study.
  • l’la’meid – To teach.

Psalm 146

Adonai releases the bound; Adonai restores sight to the blind; Adonai makes those who are bent stand straight. (146:7-8)

Each of these three phrases has been adapted into the morning liturgy in a series of blessings focusing on the experience of waking up, regaining one’s consciousness and identity, rising out of bed, and getting dressed.

Movement is critically important to our health. Physical problem abound when we spend too much time sitting or lying down. For those experiencing weight- or age- or other health-related issues, getting out of bed can be a task requiring significant exertion. It’s simply easier not to move than to move. It’s comfortable to remain bound up in one’s bed or easy chair. It hurts to release the limbs from their curled up position, straighten the spine to sit up, and lean forward to stand. We might rather keep our eyes closed, not only to let us sleep longer, but to ignore both the short term physical toll that activity demands of us, and the long term degradation of our body that non-activity takes from us.

The easy and comfortable path leads to weak muscles, poor balance, back pain and other problems. God created our eyes, literal or metaphorical, to look at our body honestly and see the problems associated with failing to use it properly. The core of Judaism celebrates the exodus from Egypt and freedom from oppression. God gave us a free range of movements that we can do with our bodies, and unless we exercise each one of them, we will find ourselves slowly losing that freedom. Whether we move by ambulating our feet or pushing wheels with our arms or pushing a joystick that turns our chair, we can use our eyes, hands, arms, or legs to see where we want to go and propel us in the proper direction.

So sit forward in your bed or your chair, align your spine one vertebra on top of the next, take a deep breath, and enjoy the body that God gave you!

Psalm 145

Adonai is near to all who call, to all who call God with sincerity. (145:18)

Psalm 145, also known as Ashrei (even though the lines beginning with the word Ashrei come from two different Psalms), is an alphabetical acrostic. From a liturgical point of view it is a popular Psalm, recited three times a day because of the verse, “You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living creature” (verse 16). I love that verse but decided to write about the kof verse instead, because it reminded me of the aphorism attributed to French novelist and playwright Jean Giraudoux, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

Faked sincerely can fool many people most of the time. In the end, however, living a lie is unsustainable. God is the purest form of truth-detector and will make sure that eventually the lie will collapse. To paraphrase Pirke Avot’s teaching about one mitzvah leading to another (and one sin leading to another), one lie will lead to another lie, to another lie, to another, until the pile of falsehoods collapses from its own weight.

The extent to which one feels close to God depends entirely on the sincerity of one’s belief that God is an imminent presence in the world. There will be times in your life when The Presence is in shadow. Psalm 145, especially this verse, is a reminder that eclipses are temporary and with time, patience, and sincere dedication to one’s religious practice of mitzvot, you will again feel God’s presence.

Service Schedule Change

Last summer’s congregation survey reported and recent conversations confirmed that a number of people have said they would come to services more often than they currently do if only the service was shorter. On one hand, the people who doven in the Ahavas Israel community religiously, week after week, appreciate a traditional service, which, no doubt about it, is long. On the other hand, we want people to be able to find a satisfying worship experience at Ahavas Israel. Therefore, I have proposed an experiment to the Religious Life committee. On the second Shabbat of each month we will alter our Shabbat morning schedule and service in order to shorten the service significantly.

We’ll begin at 9:30 a.m. with bagels and Torah study. The service will begin at 10:30, with a goal of finishing by 11:45. We’ll try this for a minimum of 12 months, but begin to gather feedback after the first six months. Please be patient for the first couple of months. It may take a little experimentation to get the timing right.

I’m hoping that the multi-faceted experience will draw in both those who like Torah study, even if they don’t stay for the service, and those who want a shorter service, even if they don’t come early for the Torah study. I’m also hoping that our regulars who appreciate a traditional experience will enjoy the extended Torah study and also find the quicker service tolerable, once a month.

The first of the monthly Torah Study Shabbat services will take place on June 11. Subsequent dates will be July 9, August 13, September 10, October 8, November 12, and December 10. The schedule will be:

  • 9:30 a.m. bagels and Torah study
  • 10:30 a.m. Service
  • 11:45 a.m. Kiddush

Psalm 144

Adonai, what is a human being that You should care about him, a mortal being, that You should think of him? A human being is like a breath, whose days are like a passing shadow. (144:3-4)

Every living thing has value, not matter how long or how short the life span. From a eternal God-perspective, their is no difference between a fertilized embryo which lives a matter of weeks or months and a person who lives a full life. God’s quality of caring and love applies equally to the child who died in utero and the elder who lives 102 years surrounded by three or four generations of descendants.

One way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to say that it does not ignore the embryonic life simply because it is unborn but neither does it give more weight to the woman simply because she is older. Rather, it treats the two of them as equally human, but if the embryonic life is threatening the life or health of the mother, then we take the embryonic life to spare the mother’s life. In the same way, if a mugger showed a gun and declared, “Your money or your life,” the potential victim or a bystander would be justified in taking the life of the mugger.

Another way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to see the baby as a dependent life akin to a limb of the mother. Just as one may remove a person’s limb when it threatens the health of the body, one may remove an child in utero if it threatens the mother. No matter which way one analyzes the ethics of abortion in Jewish law, midrash infuses the embryonic life with a soul. In other words, an abortion is not the killing of a soul-less child, but rather the necessary killing of a soul who is endangering another’s life.

While I have not seen a midrash which addresses what happens to the soul of a child which did not get the chance to be born, I imagine, because I believe that God cares about every soul, that the unborn soul whose life was cut off goes back to the Divine storehouse of souls. Every soul deserves a chance to live a life. A soul whose life was cut short before it could experience the trials and triumphs of a human life ought to be given a second chance to be born.

Psalm 143

Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for before You no creature is in the right. (143:2)

The American political system abhors changing one’s position on issues. They call it “flip-flopping.” Apparently, they believe that from the very first moment that a future politician takes a public stance on an issue, whether that be in an election for high school student council or maybe an op-ed piece published in a college newspaper, that one’s positions should be consistent and unchanging.

Most of us are not so consistent. Over time, we do grow and mature and our positions on issues change. Sometimes they become softer, sometimes they become firmer. Sometimes we learn something new that causes us to reject a position completely and embrace its opposite. Yet at the same time, most of us hang on to and defend whatever it is that we believe at the moment with the strength of a dog with a chew-toy.

It is very frustrating to have a conversation with someone who is so certain of his own set of truths that everything that you say is judged and found wanting. The rest of the Psalm speaks of God’s beneficence, faithfulness, and gracious spirit, but this verse peers into a different Divine facet. It is the experience of being in a relationship in which you can never do anything right, no matter how hard you try.

Reflecting off this verse, I promise not to be stubbornly enslaved to every belief, but rather to take gentler positions and be kind to those who disagree with me. I promise to affirm the inherent value of those in relationship with me and not judge so harshly that they despair of ever meeting my standards. I promise to look to God beneficence, faithfulness and gracious spirit as a model of behavior.

Psalm 142

No one cares about me! (142:5)

The sentiment expressed by our verse can be read either as a heartbreaking way or in a childish attention-seeking way. There are certainly people who have fallen off the margins of community because of illness or age-related infirmity. They are people who disappear, little by little, from attending worship services, classes, shopping at the supermarket, taking walks in the neighborhood. What happens when no one really pays attention? When time passes and after they haven’t been seen for some months, they realize that they have been forgotten? Their pain is real and their complaint is real and my heart breaks for them.

There are the people whose own bad choices alienate others around them. Those who make constant demands on people who befriend them, for whom no matter how much is done for them, it is never enough. Their cry of “No one cares about me” is plainly untrue, and one has to admire those who care enough to continue showing love despite the ingratitude.

Finally, there are those who make conversation difficult by turning every interaction into a litany of complaints, about their physical condition or an expression of their bitterness about real or imagined injustices in the distant past. One by one, the family and friends drop away because they can’t stand the negativity. These kind of people isolate themselves by their behavior because others do not want to be around them. For them, it is true that “No one cares about me,” but it is hard to work up sympathy.

When you find yourself echoing the complaint of our Psalmist, first, make sure you haven’t placed yourself there by our own behavior. You attract more company with sweetness than with bitterness!

Divre Harav – May/16

It used to be, back in pre-modern times, that there was a tall, thick wall between Jews and Christian. Jewish identity was protected by this wall, which formed a protective barrier around us by making it very difficult for outsiders to get in. There was a way through the way from the Jewish side to the Christian side, but Christians didn’t want anyone going the other way so they guarded their side of the wall. Jews were suspicious of anyone who tried to cross onto our side, examining them carefully and turning them away several times before finally letting them in.

As the 18th century enlightenment dawned, the walls between communities began coming down, replaced by neat picket fences. In general, people stayed on their own sides, but we begin having polite conversations over the fence. Most elements of the Jewish community welcomed the new openness in society, although some Hasidic or what came to be known later as Hareidi Jews built new, higher, walls around their lives.

As we reached the late-20th century, the picket fences began to be perforated by gates and more often the not, the gates were left open. People freely visited each other’s homes, married and raised children together. Jewish identity, once so clearly defined by walls or fences, became more challenging to define.

In the early 21st century, we live in a society defined by the consumer marketplace. Shoppers have access to food, clothing, and products from around the world delivered right to their doorstep at the click of a button. Religious community is not immune from this. It is easy to design a ritual that precisely reflects an individual’s Jewish identity, including elements from Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, if you wish. A religious community like ours which reflects a particular path to God has to compete in this marketplace and demonstrate how and why our path is rewarding, meaningful, compelling, and true. We host visitors wishing to sample our product. If they like what they see, they might consider staying in our area; otherwise, they move on and sample another community.

Our challenge, then, is to maintain appropriate boundaries that preserve our identity, but at the same time keep our gates open and welcome visitors, knowing that many are just passing through but some will stay.  And those who stay will enrich our community by the many gifts they bring with them.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • ger – In the Bible, a stranger living in a foreign community; in post-Biblical Hebrew, a convert.
  • kahal or Kehillah – congregation
  • Adah – congregation. Adat – ‘congregation of,’ as in Adat Shalom
  • Bayit – house. Beit – ‘house of,’ as in Beit Yisrael. Sometimes written in English as Beth, as in Beth El.
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