Psalm 105

God is ever mindful of God’s covenant, the promise God gave for a thousand generations (105:8)

Even in this era of contracts and written agreements and attorneys, we depend on people and businesses who make verbal promises to keep their word. We wait for the repairman or the cable guy who said he would arrive between 8:00 and noon. We drop off our cleaning or a pair of shoes to be resoled or pants to be tailored receive in return a promised that it will be ready by Tuesday at 4:00. We need some specialty item and call ahead to the store to ensure it is in stock before we make a special trip. We make appointments to see doctors, to have our hair or nails done, to have our teeth checked or our pets groomed and expect that we will be seen at or close to our appointment time.

Our lives would be in chaos if we couldn’t rely on the people around us to keep their word. How frustrating is it to make plans to meet a friend at a certain time, only to have her cancel at the last minute or show up a half hour late or not at all!

The Kol Nidre prayer at the beginning of Yom Kippur acknowledges that there are times that we do not keep our word. By asking forgiveness from God for those lapses, we acknowledge that every unfulfilled promise is an offense against God. Therefore, we should treat every promise as a sacred commitment. Words that come out of our mouth should be as strong as a written contract drawn up by attorneys. A promise made in private should be as reliable as a written agreement notarized and signed by witnesses.

Understanding that sometimes a broken promise is unavoidable, under normal circumstances our word should be like God’s covenantal promise, everlasting.

Psalm 104

… Leviathan that You formed to play with. (104:26)

The central images in this Psalm about God as creator depict God as provider. The trees and the earth get their water, the lions get their prey, the cattle get their grass, and human beings get wine and oil. Yet buried in the description of the sea are a few words which describe the creator God in very different terms — God plays! What a wonderful concept, a God who creates with playful enjoyment.

First, let’s be clear that all language about God is symbolic. God has no arms, legs, fingers, eyes, or nose. God is not a lover or a warrior. God is not happy, sad, angry or jealous. All such language describes the human body-centered condition. However, human language is all we have to share ideas with each other, so when we talk about God we by necessity describe God in human terms.

We describe God using terms of negative emotion because a dash of anger is sometimes appropriate, as is a hint of jealousy and a certain amount of sadness. Other descriptions of God are aspirational – we imagine that God is loving to challenge ourselves to be loving. We describe God as just because we believe in the principles of human justice. The depiction of a playful God reminds us that while work and study of Torah are important, so too it is important that we set aside time to be frivolous.  God didn’t create the world so we could spend every moment in serious contemplation and service. The world contains items with no purpose other than for our amusement and so it is our duty to be amused by them. The Talmud tells us that God will hold us accountable for every earthly pleasure we denied ourselves to which we were entitled (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12). While the Talmud spoke about the pleasures of food, it is equally true with respect to other physical or emotional pleasures. God is playful, and we, too, should be playful.

Psalm 103

Adonai is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. God will not contend forever, or nurse anger for all time. God has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor has God requited us according to our iniquities. (103:8–10)

In Exodus, God told Moses:

Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations. (Exodus 34:6–7)

The essential difference between these two passages is that the Exodus passage asserts that God might forgive most of the sin but nonetheless still requires punishment, even if the punishment is stretched out over generational time. The Psalm passage asserts the opposite, that God will not require punishment.

Our system of justice is based on the notion that most of the time, repentance and restitution is not enough. Crime demands punishment. Our prisons are full of people who committed relatively minor offenses which hurt no one, but violated the law. Mandatory sentencing guidelines take discretion out of the hands of judges. Even law enforcement officer body cameras, which we typically think of in terms of protection against officers abusing their authority, also result in officers being unable to use their discretion to ignore small offenses.

In communities of poverty, engaging in criminal activity and serving time in prison is generational. Children who grow up with a father – or sometimes both parents – in prison are likely to end up in prison themselves. This is an Exodus vision, in which children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are stuck in a cycle of punishment that began with the sins of their ancestors.

The vision of Psalm 103 is that of a society in which we find a way to guide those who violate the law towards repentance and restitution without recourse to excessively harsh punishment. If we change the culture of communities in which children grow up without any hope that they can escape the pattern of their parents and grandparents, then we can make the psalmist’s vision a reality.

Psalm 102

I am like a great owl in the wilderness, an owl among the ruins. (102:7)

With big eyes, phenomenal night vision, and a neck that turns nearly 180 degrees, an owl watches over the ruins. The Psalmist envisions himself the owl, seeing everything but powerless to do anything to repair the damage.

When it comes to fixing the brokenness of the world around us, I empathize. I see hunger and homelessness, I see violence against women and children in the media, I see siblings, parents, and children who will not speak to one another. Most of the problems are beyond my capacity to solve, leaving me as the owl, seeing with powerless eyes.

I rode along with a police officer for several hours one night and watched as he made traffic stops, mostly of people who had a headlight or taillight burned out. All the while, I listened to the police dispatchers on the radio as they sent officers in another part of the city to calls of possible domestic violence and break-ins.

It reminded me of an Ethics and Religion Talk column I wrote a couple of years ago in which I argued that we have a moral duty to return shopping carts to the cart corral, in part because a parking lot in which I need to dodge an obstacle course of carts to find a parking place signifies that the business doesn’t care about the customers. The quiet act of returning a shopping cart speaks loudly about how much people in that neighborhood care about each other.

Similarly, the perhaps trivial act of making a traffic stop to warn the driver about a burned-out taillight reminds people in that community that they need to care for their vehicle, both for their own safety and for the safety of others. During one stop, I watched him make sure that a driver was sober and not experiencing any obvious health issues, before wishing him a safe drive home. At another point, I watched him assist a fellow officer after a traffic stop revealed drugs.

There is no such thing as a trivial act of repair. Failing to act leads to continued deterioration. Acting, even in a small way, upholds order and dignity. For this reason, one of the seven Noahide commandments is the obligation to live in a place which enforces a system of justice. Without it, society would devolve into chaos.

The Psalmist might see himself as simply a powerless watcher. Yet if he broke through his lethargy and acted, and if others in the community did the same, the ruins would soon be restored into a beautiful community.

Psalm 101

I will sing of love and justice. (101:1)

To quote Ecclesiastes (1:9), “There is nothing new under the sun!”

Three thousand, five hundred years ago, the Psalmist longed for justice. We, in a world in which people are beaten and killed for the color of their skin, long for justice. Yet we still maintain our faith in God, sing songs praising God’s teachings, and study God’s Torah. The Divine message compels us to fight for justice when we see injustice.

Every once in a while we get a win. For those who believe in the justice of same-sex relationships, the Supreme Court’s acceptance of the right of same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states is nothing short of miraculous.

In 1996, President Clinton signed the “Defense of Marriage Act,” (DOMA) explicitly defining marriage as one man-one woman and restricting same-sex marriage benefits under federal law. It passed both houses of Congress with large majorities and enjoyed the support of a a significant majority of the American public. Only 19 years later, the majority of the American public supports the right of same-sex couples to marry and receive all of the rights and privileges of heterosexual couples under the law. What a remarkable about-face!

The fight isn’t over. Gay and lesbian individuals still face legal discrimination. They can be turned away from housing or fired for being gay. Sexual orientation does not enjoy the complete set of protections as religion or race or gender do, but sometimes love and justice intersect. When the Supreme Court rendered section 2 of DOMA (which permitted states not to recognize same-sex marriages) void on June 26th, 2015, the majority of Americans joined in celebration and song!

Psalm 100

A psalm for thanksgiving …. Serve Adonai with happiness. (100:1-2)

Job said, “Adonai gives and Adonai takes away. May the name of Adonai be a source of blessing.” The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart elaborated, “It is permissible to take life’s blessings with both hands, provided thou dost know thyself prepared in the opposite event to take them just as gladly. This applies to food and friends and kindred, to anything God gives and takes away.”

Joy should not be dependent on receiving a particular thing. Anything we receive can be taken away. If we are happy just because we have a new device, are sitting down to a gourmet meal, or are in the company of a good friend, then when our device becomes old, our meal has been consumed, or our friend goes home, our happy feelings will evaporate.

We have an obligation to God and to all who spend time with us, especially our family, to do whatever we need to do to express our lives with a spirit of gratitude and happiness. Pirke Avot (1:15) expresses the simple act of greeting loved ones with a smile as a moral imperative: “Greet every person with a cheerful face!”

When we greet the day with positive energy, we are giving God an offering of happiness. The converse is expressed in the Star Wars Jedi philosophy by ‘Master Yoda:’ “Anger, fear, aggression; the Dark Side of the Force are they.” In organizational life or interpersonal relationships, negativity and despair sap energy. When we live an unhappy or fearful life, we take something away from God.

We can best serve God by striving to live a positive, cheerful life. As Reb Nahman said, “It is a great Mitzvah to be in a constant state of happiness.”

Psalm 99

Adonai is sovereign, enthroned on cherubim … (99:1)

In Kabbalat Shabbat, Psalm 99 is the fifth Psalm, corresponding to Thursday, the fifth day of the week. It also corresponds to Hod, majesty or splendor, the fifth mystical aspect aspect of God 5. Hod also represents the quality of submission. On the fifth day of creation according to Genesis, God created sea creatures and birds.

From my office window, I can often see hawks circling high above the trees. Large birds such as hawks and eagles have a quality of majesty about them. They soar in the air, wings outstretched, as they scan the ground for prey. They instinctive know how to submit to the air currents, riding the air rather than flapping against it. Large sea creatures, such as whales, dolphins, and sharks similarly move through the water with a graceful lack of apparent effort.

Cherubs are winged angels. Thus, our Psalmist is depicting God as riding one of these majestic air creatures, using it as a throne. As Shabbat approaches, we may or may not have finished our work for the week. Yet, Shabbat is a time to set aside the worries and responsibilities that ride on our shoulders during the week, and soar with grace into a different dimension of time.

A bird has built a nest underneath a gutter just outside my kitchen. Early in the evening on Shabbat, I sat on the deck watching the bird sitting in the nest. For an hour, the bird didn’t move from the nest. I don’t know whether the bird was laying eggs or sitting on them, keeping them warm. I have a sense, though, that it was submitting itself to a need larger than itself, the need to grow the next generation. Both the bird and I were enjoying a peaceful Shabbat with no responsibilities other than to sit and breathe.

Psalm 91

A thousand may fall at your left side, ten thousand at your right, but it shall not reach you. (91:7)

It shall not reach you.” It is both strange and significant that the ‘it’ is not explicitly named, either in this verse or in the following verse, “You will see it with your own eyes ….” In the binding of Isaac narrative, Isaac asks his father, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Isaac was holding the wood; his father was holding the fire and the knife, but Isaac doesn’t mention the knife, clearly the most important and the most frightening object of the three. (Gen. 22:6-7) Based on the context, the thing-that-is-not-named is the plague, the trap, the terror, the arrow, and the scourge, harm and disease — in other words, death.

I associate this Psalm with the end of Shabbat and with funerals. We read it while carrying the casket to the grave, and we read it shortly before Havdalah. Liminal moments are moments of transition and passage – Shabbat to weekday, life to death. In a religious or anthropological context, these kind of threshold moments are times of danger.

Shabbat time is stable; weekday time is stable. The moments in between the two represent unstable and unprotected time. Therefore, the liturgy includes Psalm 91, a Psalm speaking of shelter, refuge, and protection.

An unburied body brings us uncomfortably close to death. In older times (and still in many Israeli funerals today), the body is not enclosed in a casket, it is simply laid on a bier and covered. Therefore, Psalm 91 is recited, a prayer of protection from death.

We all know that life is a terminal condition. Death is unavoidable,even though Jewish tradition envisions a messianic era in which we have conquered death. Eventually, we will succumb to the inevitable. I remind myself periodically that life is not a race. The one who reaches the finish line more quickly does not get a prize! We all get to the end sooner or later, but the goal of life is to slow down and pay attention to the experience along the way.

Psalm 92

A righteous person flowers like a date-palm, grows like a cedar in Lebanon. (92:13)

Good behavior is contagious. Unfortunately, so is bad behavior, but the Psalmist and I would rather focus on the power of goodness to multiply. The metaphor in our verse has at multiple layers of meaning.

First, just as a date-palm produces many dates and a cedar tree produces many branches and leaves, a righteous person will have many children. This layer of meaning may not always prove itself to be true. Either because of infertility or by choice, some wonderful and giving people might not have children, or might only have one or two.

Second, just as both a date-palm and a cedar tree grow straight and tall, so too a righteous person stands tall and walks a straight path. By definition a righteous person follows a straight path as long as we define this to mean that such a person lives according to their principles. Great practitioners of civil disobedience like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks lived precisely according to their sense of justice, even when it meant disobeying the law. Humility is also a significant value, so one can proudly stand up for one’s convictions while also avoiding the sin of arrogance.

Third, the fruit, branches, and leaves on the trees can also be understood as the good deeds of the righteous person. Just as the trees sweeten the world with the smell and taste of their products, so too do the actions of a good person make the world a sweeter place.

Psalm 92, with its focus on the victory of joy, faithfulness, and righteousness, is also known as the Psalm for Shabbat. The actions of righteous people bring the world closer to “a day which is all Shabbat,” one of the Jewish expressions for the messianic era.

Psalm 93

Above the thunder of the mighty waters, more majestic than the breakers of the sea is Adonai, majestic on high. (93:4)

Creation is a thunderous presence. The sound of the big bang can still be hear by radio telescopes. I am fascinated by Stephen Hawking, by black holes, by the formation of matter into galaxies, galaxies into star systems, stars into planets, and planets into the materials that can support life. Time and matter and energy can be quantified and measured in a series of equations. Mostly.

Above and beyond and behind that thunderous presence is another Presence whose existence cannot be measured and determined by anything but the poetry of a religious text.

A spinning earth creates shifting tectonic plates and currents and waves and weather patterns. We’ve gotten pretty good at predicting the weather short term. As long as we can see the weather to the west of us, we know pretty much what we’re going to get. But the farther out we try to predict, the more vague and useless our predictions get. Can I count on good weather for a picnic the day after tomorrow? I’ll trust the meteorologist. Can I count on good weather on a Sunday afternoon two months from now? No one knows. The same goes for predicting shifts in tectonic plates. No one can warn us about earthquakes within anything close to useful precision.

Someday, maybe we’ll be able to predict the weather with pinpoint accuracy more than three to five days in advance. Exerting control over the weather? Science fiction loves that idea, but it is as far beyond my imagination as controlling the movement of the earth’s plates.

Those who believe in God assert that the Majestic Divine Presence is the animating force energizing our universe (as well as any and all parallel universes), above the thunder of the upper waters of the sky, behind the breakers of the lower waters of the oceans.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – Summer, 2015

In the almost 125 year history of Congregation Ahavas Israel, many individuals and families have been generous in their financial support of our synagogue. Approximately 25 years ago, Frances Rayden made a significant, unrestricted endowment gift to the synagogue. Recently, Leon Ash has generously offered to match future unrestricted endowment gifts or bequests up to $2 million. We are looking for the next individuals, couples, or families to contribute the next set of gifts to the congregation that will assure our future for the next 125 years. I am grateful to Leon for offering this gift, as well as his wisdom and support as we launch a major endowment campaign this summer.

A synagogue budget covers normal yearly expenses. A synagogue endowment both supports the operating budget (underwriting building, program, and staff expenses) and goes beyond the budget to cover long term support of the building and grounds of the congregation.

Ahavas Israel currently has unrestricted endowment funds totalling approximately $675,000. Our goal over the next ten years is to raise $2 million in endowment funds, matched by Leon Ash’s $2 million, and increase our endowment to $5 million.

Stuart Rapaport and I will be meeting with synagogue members to talk about endowment gifts and planning giving. If you would like to talk about a establishing a fund in memory or in honor of a loved one. Here’s how endowment giving will strengthen Ahavas Israel:

A gift of $1,000,000 could support the Building and Grounds committee, ensuring the long term upkeep of our sacred space. Half of the gift could help fund the maintenance portion of the annual budget, which covers the normal, expected day to day needs of the building and its property. The other half could be used for emergencies or saved for planned major projects.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Funding capital improvements and repairs, such as maintaining the parking lot and replacing the roof.

A gift of $1,000,000 could support the Membership and Religious Life Programming committees, enhancing and expanding our community-building programming. Most of the approximately $50,000 income per year could reduce our dependence of membership dues within the annual budget, thus reducing the cost of membership and making affiliation with Ahavas Israel more affordable. A portion of the income could be given to the Membership Programming Committee and the Religious Life Committee to help build community relationships.

The Membership Programming Committee could strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Arranging for bus trips for Passover Shopping or cultural events in Detroit or Chicago.
  • Enhancing annual meetings with dinners programs.
  • Planning annual dinner/dances with entertainment.

The Religious Life Committee could strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Arranging for an extended Kiddush and lunch every week, sitting at tables and extending Shabbat afternoon together.
  • Offering a small honorarium to authors, rabbis, cantors, and other scholars coming from outside of Grand Rapids for our Shabbat speaker series, expanding the pool of engaging speakers.
  • Offering a stipend to the GVSU Hillel for them to send students to join our Shabbat morning community to lead junior congregation, help with Shabbat preparation, or just enjoy Shabbat morning services.
  • Hiring a student rabbi for the summer to run extra programs and study groups and classes.

A gift of $1,000,000 could help to ensure that the congregation enjoys a professionally trained rabbi. The $50,000 a year income would underwrite approximately half of a typical full-time rabbinic package.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Ensuring religious guidance and clergy duties being filled by a Rabbi who knows the needs of the community.

A gift of $500,000 could ensure the long term stability of our Educational Program. The $25,000 annual income would support the United Jewish School, junior congregation, pay salaries for the adult education program, and fully subsidize the expenses for youth group retreats.

A gift of $1,000,000 would also allow us to subsidize or reimburse young families for tuition to the United Jewish School, thus making affiliation with Ahavas Israel more affordable.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Creating and sustaining educational and social opportunities for our young Jewish community members.
  • Providing financial stability to run the United Jewish School.

A gift of $400,000 could ensure that the congregation can hire a professional cantor for High Holidays and selected other special occasions. The $20,000 annual income would cover the cost of a High Holiday cantor and B’nai mitzvah tutors with a little bit left over for a special music program every couple of years.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Ensuring clergy-led services for large holiday religious events.
  • Providing performance opportunities that could be open to the Grand Rapids public.

Psalm 94

Rise up, judge of the earth, give the arrogant their deserts! (94:2)

Psalm 94 is recited as the Psalm for Wednesday, the fourth day of the week. As with the other Psalms of the day (except for the Psalm for Shabbat), the Talmud posits a connection between this day’s act of creation and something in the Psalm. In this Psalm, the assumption is that those who are in need of punishment for arrogance are those who worship the sun and the moon, created on the fourth day of creation. Arrogant people act as if they are the center of the world, as if the sun and the moon rotate around them.

I find arrogance to be perhaps the ugliest of the negative character traits. It sometimes masquerades as self-confidence, a positive character trait. The difference is that self-confidence is rooted in the essential core of a person’s identity. Confident people have a strong center because they know who they are and understand their abilities and limitations. Humility and self-confidence are symbiotic traits. When they don’t know or understand something or they fail at some task, they are able to admit their deficiency which enables them to learn and grow.

Arrogant people, on the other hand, are not humble. Arrogance is a shell protecting a weak core identity. To admit failure is to admit that their essential nature is weak. To an arrogant person, projecting an image of strength is critical. When they don’t know or understand something, they are more likely to deny or blame to preserve their strong image, rather than show weakness by admitting ignorance.

It’s easy to see why the Psalmist delights in seeing the arrogant receive their comeuppance. Perhaps if they are punished as they deserve, it will be like receiving a dose of humility that will teach them a more pleasant way of relating to others.

Psalm 95

Forty years I was provoked by that generation; I thought, “They are a senseless people; they would not know My ways.” (95:10)

The next five Psalms (95 – 99) are the first five Psalms in the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Kabbalah Shabbat is a service created in the mid-16th century by the mystics of the Northern Israeli city of Tzvat (Safed). It is structured around a series of seven Psalms from 95 though 99 followed by Psalm 29, leading up to Psalm 92, titled “A song for the sabbath day.” We might imagine that the progression of seven corresponds to the seven mystical sefirot of God’s attributes from Hesed (love) to Malkhut (Sovereignty), also known as Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, the feminine aspect of God who we welcome as the Shabbat Queen. We might also imagine that each Psalm corresponds to a day of the week from Sunday through Shabbat.

The intention set by this Psalm is Sunday, the first day of the week, and the Divine quality of Hesed. The speaker in our verse is God, exhibiting patience in the presence of a rebellious people. Actually, 40 years is not such a long time in the existence of God. If “A thousand years is like a day in your sight,” (Psalm 90), then 40 years in God’s time is the equivalent of 57 minutes and 36 seconds in human time. So imagine suffering the presence of a very annoying person for 57 minutes and 36 seconds. Imagine listening to him whine and complain about this injustice or that ache and pain, droning on and on, but continuing to pay attention for the full time. Having patience. This is the lesson from our verse. If God can endure something for 40 years without walking away, I can endure something for just under an hour with a loving smile on my face.

On a calendar directed by Shabbat (such as in Israel), Sunday is a workday. It is also a long time until the restful peace of Shabbat returns. For the next six days, we face all of our problems at work and other weekday problems. Psalm 95 reminds us to swallow a loving dose of patience on Sunday to successfully manage the next six days until Shabbat arrives.

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