Psalm 126

January 11, 2016

When Adonai restores the fortunes of Zion, we are as dreamers. (126:1)

To be a Jew is to be an optimist and a dreamer. We don’t say “if God gives Zion back to us,” we say “when.” For nearly 2000 years of exile during which there was a Jewish presence but no Jewish control over Jerusalem, we introduced Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, with this Psalm on Shabbat. Our optimism asserts that our loss of sovereignty was only a temporary setback that could be corrected at any time. The Sabbath in Jewish tradition is celebrated as taste of the world to come, a day on which we experience the beauty and peace of messianic era. Shabbat embodied the optimism of the Jew. No matter how much time has gone by, no matter how much evil or hatred we experience in the world, Shabbat takes us back to the perfection of the garden of Eden.

In order to improve yourself to the greatest extent possible, you must have goals that are slightly beyond your reach. If your goal is to lose five pounds and you succeed and stop trying to lose weight, you miss the opportunity to lose ten pounds. If your goal is to increase your strength and endurance by taking a 50 mile bike ride, you might stop at that point and lose the opportunity to ride 60 miles. If your goal is to increase sales by 10%, you might lessen your efforts when you reach that mark and miss the opportunity to increase by 25%.

Optimism teaches us to celebrate our accomplishments even if we haven’t reached our goals. After setting the mark higher than you expect and losing only nine pounds instead of ten pounds; riding only 58 instead of 60 miles; or increasing sales only 20 instead of 25%, you can then notice with pride in accomplishment that you lost nine pounds instead of five pounds; rode 58 instead of 50 miles; and increased by 20% rather than 10%.

To be a Jew means to be an optimist and a dreamer.

Psalm 125

Jerusalem, hills enfold it, and Adonai enfolds God’s people now and forever. (125:2)

Jerusalem is not built on the largest of mountains and Israel is not the largest of peoples. Yet God protects both, which accords with a Biblical theme that the largest and the strongest are not necessarily the most important. In the story of Israel, it is the small and the second-born rather than the powerful or the first-born, the mild shepherd rather than the mighty hunter, who deserves God’s covenantal promise.

Living a modest life is a primary Jewish value. We know that we do not have to make a big splash in order to have a lasting impact on the world. A modest person can raise similarly modest children who live lives of faith and raise modest children of their own. One’s values pass from generation to generation through one’s children and one’s students. It is not necessary to be rich and famous in order to seed the world with goodness. In fact wealth and fame may very well may make it more difficult to live a covenanted life. Not impossible, but more difficult, because the power that comes from success nudges one in the direction of immodest and arrogant behavior. It is an additional obstacle that a powerful person must overcome, while a modest person does not. Thank God for the wealthy people who not only generously support institutions in their communities, but also do so with modesty. Thank God for the people of modest means who live humble lives enfolded in the arms of God.

Divre Harav, January, 2016

First I want to acknowledge with gratitude the outpouring of love and support for me and my family on the loss of my father. The journey through shiva gave me insight into a profoundly healing ritual that I had never fully experienced. The first time I sat shiva was for my infant daughter. The shiva minyanim morning and evening were important, but because we had two of her siblings in the hospital, we left the house every day to go visit them and focus on their needs. This time I experienced shiva in a form closer to its intended state. Except for the travel day between Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, I stayed in the home and stayed away from activities that would distract me from thinking about my father.

I talked about my father to Marisa and kept in touch by phone with my mother and sisters. I did some writing with my father in mind, created a slide show of pictures of my father, and watched it until I could do so without crying. I also sat or lay down doing nothing but thinking about him, stories he told, things we did together, and particularly how he handled the last week of his life.

The day my father died and the following day, the day of the funeral, I was an emotional wreck. The time I spent with my sisters and my mother, all grieving the loss of this person who meant so much to each of us, was enormously healing, and the time I spent in Grand Rapids with my community was comforting. In accordance with shiva customs, I didn’t get up to greet visitors. I waited until they came to greet me. I did that because even when I was in my home, I was not a host and didn’t want to act like one, which would have taken me out of the mental space of mourner.

Some people don’t know what to say to a mourner. For this reason, some visitors avoided me, not speaking to me until they were ready to leave, when they shared a few brief words of condolence, like “I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your father.” Other people said that or the words that Judaism supplies, “May God comfort you among all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” as they entered, but disengaged as soon as possible afterwards. There were times, especially at the shiva in Minneapolis, that I was sitting by myself just watching people come in and stand on the other side of the room from where I was sitting.

It is difficult for many people to talk about death. To speak about my father would stir up uncomfortable feelings either about their own parent’s death or about their own mortality. They may have projected those feelings onto me, thinking that I would be uncomfortable having to speak about my father. The most uncomfortable moments for me were when people engaged me in conversation that had nothing to do with my father or when they launched into some kind of sermon telling me what I should be feeling, thinking, or believing about my father’s soul.

I found great wisdom in the traditional approach to shiva, suggesting that visitors sit with the mourners in silence and let them open the conversation however they want. I wanted to talk about my father and when I found opportunities to share stories about him, it was a comfort to me. I was looking for the shiva visitors to provide me with an opening. More than anything, I wanted them to say very simply, “Tell me something about your father.” This, more than anything, is the enduring lesson I will take away from this shiva experience. Again, I am grateful to each one of you who called, visited, sent a note, made a donation, brought food, or spoke to me personally about the loss of my father.

Psalm 124

Our help is the name of Adonai, maker of heaven and earth. (124:8)

The power of names. I love superheroes and will watch virtually any television series and see virtually any movie featuring characters from Marvel or DC. When I was young, I recall a short-lived television series based on a DC comic about Captain Marvel. Billy Batson was a teenage boy who, when he witness injustice, would strike a dramatic pose and transform himself into Captain Marvel by pronouncing the word, “Shazam!”

Then there is the beloved fairy tale collected by the Grimm brothers, in which uttering the name “Rumplestiltskin” causes the title character to stomp his right foot into the ground so hard that he either falls into a chasm or gets stuck and tears his body in two trying to escape, depending on which edition you read.

Jewish tradition asks us not to pronounce the personal name of God, spelled with the Hebrew letters Yod-He-Vav-He. Instead, we substitute the name Adonai (roughly, my Lord) or occasionally Elohim (God). We recognize that part of the power of the use of a personal name is that it implies equality between the user of the name and the owner of the name. Similarly, I would never address my parents as ‘Dale’ and ‘Bob.’ Instead, I use the titles Mom and Dad as a sign of honor.

In ancient times, the names of gods were thought to have had great power. Some mystical traditions attempt to discover the secret name of God. Using it, a person could supposedly control aspects of the physical universe. Other traditions use the name of God as a mantra. A meditation centered on breathing in and out the letters of God’s name will not give you God’s creating power, but may very will calm and center your mind, thus releasing your own creative energy.

Psalm 123

Too long has our soul been saturated with the ridicule of the complacent, the contempt of the arrogant. (123:4)

Ridicule and contempt wear down our souls. They are weapons used against those who take an unpopular position. Rather than engage in discussion and analysis of the pro’s and con’s, the path of a bully is to use tactics of intimidation by belittling the message or the messenger.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is a child’s magical incantation to ward off the pain of being put down with words. It rarely works, because it is extraordinarily painful to be belittled, even just with words. It hurts not to be taken seriously.

The complacent and the arrogant might believe that things are great just the way they are right now, and no change is needed. They might believe that the status quo is dead and radical change is the only way to survive. It is not their ideas that make them complacent or arrogant, but rather the way they express them, with the certainty that they are right and anyone who opposes them is wrong.

Leadership of an organization, beware! For only so long will your volunteers devote their time and resources if they are not valued. Healthy individuals can handle the fact that not every proposal will survive the test of committee discussion because they know that not every idea is necessarily a good one. But even emotionally stable people will walk away if ridicule and contempt, complacency and arrogance, are the response to every proposal.

Psalm 122

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be in tranquility. (122:6)

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Jerusalem to Judaism, from the shaping of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish practice, the city is to Jewish history what Rome was to the Romans or what Babylon was to the Babylonians. Except while those ancient empires are no more, the Jewish civilization that grew up around Jerusalem thrives. I think of Jerusalem as the power source for my spiritual battery. Judaism has been powered either by the fact or by the memory of Jerusalem its Capitol city for over 3000 years, and both Judaism and Islam preserve traditions that connect Jerusalem with the site of Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac (or Ishmael, in the Moslem tradition), perhaps 3800 years ago.

The ancient etymology of the name ‘Jerusalem’ is made up of the two words “city of” and “Shalom,” peace. A vital Jerusalem is necessary for the spiritual life of Israel. A Jew who lives connected to Jewish texts and traditions cannot live in tranquility when our most sacred city is not a peace.

In ancient Jewish maps of the world, Jerusalem is in the center. In Jewish maps of the spiritual life, Jerusalem is the center. May we see the day when Isaiah’s vision comes to pass, that “… My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” and the house of worship on the Temple Mount will be a place where people of all faiths can pray in peace together.

Psalm 121

Adonai will guard your going and coming now and forever. (121:8)

Travel makes us vulnerable. When we leave the security of our homes, we are at the mercy of a means of transportation which might break down, get stuck in traffic, get in an accident, or be delayed by weather. It is no wonder that the traveler prays that God will protect him from missing connecting flights, losing a passport, being robbed, or getting sick. Even the occasional traveler has been stranded overnight, has had to find a place for emergency auto repairs, or has gotten lost in a strange city.

It seems that God doesn’t so much protect us from inconveniences as much as give us the emotional stability to withstand them and the mental ingenuity to work around them. With the right frame of mind, most travel inconveniences can be seen as adventures. It is the thrill of extending the trip for an extra day, having the chance to see a new part of the city, and embracing the opportunity to focus on the journey rather than the destination.

If the destination is the only thing that matters, how many wonderful things will we miss on the journey? Traveling to Chicago to catch a plane IMG_2197to Minneapolis for my father’s funeral, I saw an amazingly beautiful sunset over Lake Michigan. The sun was a pillar of fires shooting up to the densely clouded sky, like a brightly lit path for my father’s soul on it’s journey upward. It was peaceful and calming. God was with me at that moment, calming my anxiety at the outset of a very long (and delay-plagued) trip.

In the airport, I found a quiet spot to write a tribute to my father. A close friend called. I spoke with my wife. I sent text updates of my delays to my cousin. ‘Pick me up at 11:45 pm.’ ‘Delayed until 12:30 am.’ ‘Mechanical problems … See you at 1:00 am.’ ‘Waiting for a new plane to arrive.’ ‘On the plane ready to take off, scheduled to arrive at 2:00 am!’ I never felt alone or abandoned or panicked because I had complete confidence that one way or another, I would arrive in Minneapolis in time for the funeral.

The journey home had a delay as well, giving me the chance to spend more time with my mother and sisters as well as catch up with some cousins that I had not seen for several years. The hiccups in my travels inconvenienced a number of people, to be sure. But in the end I arrived safely at every destination. Thank God.

Divre Harav – Words from the Rabbi, December, 2015

In a recent Zohar class, I noted that the phrase “Who can tell the mighty acts of Adonai” from Psalm 106:2 is the basis for the well known Hanukkah song, Mi Y’mallel g’vurot Yisrael, written by Russian-born Menashe Ravina (1899-1968) sometime in the first half of the 20th century. It became a popular Hanukkah song in the early years of the State of Israel.

However, we should pay attention to the major theological difference between the source material and the Hanukkah song. The popular singable English version of the first verse is:

Who can retell the things that befell us?
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Arose to our aid.

But this is a mistranslation. The first line, in passive voice, doesn’t specifically tell us who led us to victory, and the third line introduces the word ‘sage’ to rhyme with age, not found in the original Hebrew. More literally, the song begins:

Who can tell of the heroic deeds of Israel?
Who can count them?
Yes in every generation a hero arises
To save the people.

In short, the Psalmist speaks of the power of God and Ravina speaks of the power of Israel. Hutzpah’dik? Theological audacity or arrogance? Yes, but with deep roots that go back virtually to the first accounts of the story of Hanukkah. The story told in the historical book of Maccabees focuses on the fight against the Syrians led by Mattathias and his five sons. God is not absent from the book, but it is clearly primarily about the zealotry and heroism of this family and especially Judah, who became known by the appellation “Maccabee” (hammer), for his strength.

The early Rabbinic tradition wanted to move away from the Maccabean origins of Hanukkah and instead emphasize God’s salvation of Israel. Thus the major Hanukkah prayer in the Amidah contains the passage, “You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah.” The rabbis turned the military leaders into yeshiva bochers!

The early builders of the state of Israel face the opposite challenge, that of turning academics and trademen into farmers and soldiers. Thus their songs emphasized strength and independence. If Israel was to survive the economic, social, and military challenges of the early years, they needed to learn how to do things that Jews had not needed to do for centuries, if ever.

As we celebrate Hanukkah this month, in our songs and prayers and candle-lighting rituals we remember the miracles ancient and modern, by which God has ensured the improbable survival of the tiny but determined Jewish people and our State of Israel. We also remember the Maccabees and others who fought for our religious freedom, both here and in Israel. Hag Ha-Urim Sameah, May you experience a joyous festival of lights!

Psalm 120

I am peace; but when I speak, they are for war. (120:7)

Psalm 120 is the first of a series of 15 Psalms with the title “A song of (or for) ascent.” Mishnah Middot 2:5 suggests that the 15 steps ascending to the Temple Mount on the South side were built to correspond to the 15 Psalm, but the full implication of giving this title to this collection is unknown.

Peace is an important value in Judaism and other major religious traditions, but most have an escape clause that allows for defensive wars. Christianity is known to have pacifist denominations. Judaism is less known for this position, but there are some rabbis who find pacifism in Jewish sources.

It is a challenging position to hold, illustrated by this Psalm, because when the Psalmist asserts a position embracing peace at all costs, he says “they” attack. “They” might be fellow Jews who reject pacifism or “they” might be the enemy of Jews who see an opportunity to advance their position without resistance.

There are numerous adages in our American culture encouraging a non-pacifist outlook, such as:

  • The best defense is a good offense.
  • Speak softly and carry a big stick. Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Doveryai no proveryai, Trust but verify. Ronald Reagan used this aphorism, based on a Russian proverb, to defend a massive increase in military spending.

Projecting strength is connected with a willingness to attack while standing for peace is typically seen as a weakness. This is not necessarily the case. Some martial arts, such as aikido, judo, and t’ai chi emphasize defensive moves, embracing a philosophy of non-aggression and harmony.

I can also hear a hesitancy in the Psalmists words. “I am by nature peaceful,” he is saying, “but because they are war-like I have been forced to respond in kind.” Religion might attempt to cultivate softer, gentler attributes (middot) within us. There are, however, selfish people with large egos around us. Unless we cultivate middot of conviction alongside those of giving or compromising, others will take advantage of us. Not every person who speaks or acts in God’s name has fully embraced the humility that ought to go along with doing so.

The best approach is not to prejudge the other, not to assume that he or she is for war, but to put forward one’s peaceful nature and intentions whole-heartedly. At the same time, though, one ought to put forward one’s other fundamental convictions, for fairness, equality, human rights, and security. It is not peace but …. Rather, it is peace and ….

Psalm 119

I have understood more than all my teachers … (119:99)

Psalm 119 is not only the longest Psalm in the book of Psalms, but also the longest Psalm in the Hebrew Bible. It is an alphabetical acrostic, eight verses for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Do the math – that’s a whopping 176 verses!

These Psalm reflections are based on the practice of reading over the Psalm and finding a single verse or phrase that resonates with me. This Psalm presents difficulties because of its length. I am trying to imagine the setting of Psalm 119, who wrote it, how it was used, and why it took so many words to make his point. It is an extended essay on studying and keeping God’s laws as a path to happiness. After a while, the words and images repeat themselves and blur together. While I found a number of beautifully expressed lines, I found the Psalm as a whole to be tedious. My philosophy is that if you have something to say, you should say it clearly and concisely. Don’t use three words when one will do or 176 verses when 22 will do.

The verse I chose speaks directly to the theme of the importance of learning. On the surface, though, it does not embody the typical Jewish reverence for teachers. However, it is possible to read the verse hyper-literally as “from all of those who taught me, I gained understanding.” This may have inspired Rabbi Chanina’s teaching, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.” (Ta’anit 7a)

If the overall message of the Psalm praises those who are always seeking ways to gain knowledge then the my reading of the verse fits well. There is an opportunity to learn from every interaction with another person. Every encounter is a chance to see the face of God.

In Memory of My Father

In memory of my father, Robert Krishef, February 11, 1931 – November 19, 2015.

At the opening and closing of Parshat Vayetzei, Jacob encounters God, angels. My father encountered angels. My father was the kind of person who you wouldn’t expect to encounter angels. His father was not particularly observant, not a synagogue goer, and for the most part, neither was my father. He was a rational, clear, thinker. But my father had amazing stories in which he was directed away from dangers by a force that he was absolutely convinced came from outside of him. And my father had an encounter at night, like Jacob’s night encounter, that gave him the strength to make it through his father’s funeral. More on this in a bit.

When my father needed to think, he would go into the basement and sit at or near his typewriter. He was a person of the written word. We used to joke that my grandfather was a man of very few words. My father, though by no means a chatterbox, was the kind of person who would be the center of any room. People lined up to speak with him. People were drawn to him because like a good journalist, he could talk to anyone.

My father was the smartest person I know. It’s a kind of a family joke that he was never wrong. But the amazing thing is that was so rarely wrong that that it’s best to assume that he was in fact always right. He wasn’t arrogant about it. He was just the kind of person who can converse about just about anything and you’ll know that his analysis is spot on. He admitted when he didn’t know the facts of a situation, but his grasp of the principles behind the facts was truly astounding.

My father was the kind of person who could engage anyone in an interesting conversation. He can sit down at a party and people will come to him to talk about politics, sports, business, or anything else on their mind. Basically, he understood people – how they think, how they act, how they react. It doesn’t matter whether he was analyzing a political debate, a B’nai B’rith board, or a sports team – he knew people. Because of this ability to analyze, he had an instinctual understanding of basketball, baseball, and football. I’m not sure about hockey, but he watched anyway. My father was drafted to serve in Korea, but because of poor depth perception, could not shoot a gun effectively. Nevertheless, those eyes could watch a pitcher throw a ball and identify a fast ball, a slider, a curve ball, a breaking ball, and probably a knuckleball as well. He could call balls and strikes accurately from any seat in the stadium or in front of the television. He could look at a runner and tell you if he was going to try to steal. He could look at the arrangement of football players on the field and tell you run or pass, to which side, what kind of play it will be, and how the defense is getting set to react.

My father used his ability to analyze as a journalist as well as in his chosen career, public relations, drawing on his deep insight into what motivates people. I like the idea that he was not in advertising, which is a more of a kind of manipulation of the consumer. Rather, public relations is the art of getting information about an event to the people who already have an interest in being a part of that event. It requires an understanding of the kinds of publications people who are interest in X read, and placing an article about X in those publications.

He wrote books, he owned and edited a country music newspaper. He was a columnist and the editor of the American Jewish World. He loved words. And when his father died and he didn’t think he was going to be able to make it through the funeral, he went to the place where he created words. That’s where his encounter took place. He felt a tap on his shoulder, a glow poured over him, he asked Pop to give him strength, and he got it.

I’ve always drawn my strength from my father. I don’t know what I’m going to do without him. On the way into town last night for the funeral, I took out my laptop and started writing. I reread the transcript of some of the stories I recorded, his encounters with guardian angels, that he told me just 8 days ago, the day after we heard the final diagnoses. I told him then that the only way I was going to be able to get through the funeral was with his help. Sharing stories was his way of giving me, his children, and God-willing his grandchildren, a bit of his wisdom, humor, intelligence, strength, and insight.

The last story he told me was of a prayer after a less than successful date when he was in his late 20’s. Praying was something he only recalled doing three times between his childhood and this moment. He wanted to meet and fall in love and have children. He prayed that he would have children who would turned out to be better than himself. He prayed that they would have children, his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth. He prayed not for children who would create some magic formula or become president of the United States, but just to be good, compassionate people, to make a difference in other’s lives, to contribute somehow to society.

This was his final message to me. I offer it to my children Zachary, Solomon, Sarah, and Harrison who are watching from home, as well as to Jared, Alyssa, Jack and Alex, and I offer it to you. If we embrace that message and become 1/10 of the mentch that my father was, then his memory will indeed have become a blessing. Y’hi Zikhro Barukh.

Psalm 118

I shall not die but live and proclaim the works of Adonai. (118:17)

There is a difference between “not dying” and “living.” In this last Psalm of Hallel, whose purpose is to express our joy at the fact that we have survived to celebrate another festival, the Psalmist reminds us that merely surviving is not enough. I have met people who have given up on living their lives while they are still alive. They believe that:

  • “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” There is no point in reading, learning, studying, or challenging their assumptions because they have decided their mind is made up and nothing will change it.
  • “I tried that years ago and I didn’t like it.” Whether it is food or another kind of experience, if I didn’t like it last time I tried it or even if I have never tried it, now is not the time to start trying something new.
  • “I think of nothing but my aches and pains … let me tell you about them.” An aging body hurts and I am not minimizing the sometimes considerable pain. However, telling and retelling the story of pain leaves one trapped in a cycle of perpetually measuring one’s body for death.
  • “I’m bored. There is nothing to do. I’m lonely. I don’t go anywhere.” Sometimes we make choices and sometimes our declining physical ability makes the choice for us. However, within the circle in which we are able to live, we have the choice either to complain about the things that are happening outside of the circle of our lives, or to live to the boundaries as best we can.

Those who truly lives their lives believe in:

  • Learning new things
  • Trying new foods and new experiences
  • Looking for meaningful ways to fill up their days (volunteering), and
  • Finding a reason every day to be grateful.

Psalm 117

Praise Adonai, all nations; extol God, all peoples, for God’s love powers us and the truth of Adonai is forever. Hallelujah. (117)

This is the shortest Psalm in the book, only two verses, one sentence. I have translated more literally than most translations. The Psalmist calls on all people to praise God whose love is the battery which provides the energy powering our lives. He also subtly acknowledges that not all people acknowledge this truth as he asserts that nonetheless, the truth of this statement endures forever.

Some of religious faith feel called to witness their faith to those of another faith or to non-believers. We might find this annoying or even insulting, but I have found that simply saying I am not interested and walking away is effective. I am not terribly bothered by such people because I know they are motivated by a sincere belief in God, although a belief that I find un-compelling.

I am more bothered by the non-theists who belittle my faith and the faith of other God-believers. While believers tend to take a positive approach, arguing why I should believe in something I do not believe in, non-believers tend to take a negative approach, arguing that my beliefs are false. Their motivation is a desire to tear down rather than to build up. Why do they care so much what I believe? Why can’t they take a ‘live and let live’ attitude. From what I’ve experienced, they not only believe that faith in God is wrong, but that it is actually evil.

“The truth of Adonai is forever,” concludes the Psalmist. The life-force that drives the human being is powered by God’s love. It doesn’t matter what they, either the evangelicals or the non-theists, say. In the end, God’s truth is powerful enough to encompass my faith, their faith, and even non-faith.

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