Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ba, Cha, Ka, A Guttural Alliteration in Psalm 147

Alliteration is an important tool of the poet, writer or prophet. Merely choosing similar words or letters to form one unique line transforms its meaning and adds value and aesthetics to the poem.

William Blake masters it in his famous poem Two Sunflowers Move in the Yellow Room.

Two Sunflowers
Move in the Yellow Room.

"Ah, William, we're weary of weather,"
said the sunflowers, shining with dew.
"Our traveling habits have tired us.
Can you give us a room with a view?"

They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.

William Blake

In the verse "Ah, William, we're weary of weather," the salient w and the forced sluggishness of the words "we're weary" compel us to slow down, consider the strange circumstance of sunflowers addressing William Blake and appreciate this moment of poetic preciousness. My student Eliana noted that Blake concludes with an alliteration that could be inverse to the start. "where the topaz tortoises run". As opposed to the languid w, the t's 'run' speed up the tempo quickening our pace on the way out.

That's poetry!

Psalms also uses this technique specifically in psalm 147.

יב. שַׁבְּחִי יְרוּשָׁלִַם, אֶת-ה'; הַלְלִי אֱלֹהַיִךְ צִיּוֹן.
יג. כִּי-חִזַּק, בְּרִיחֵי שְׁעָרָיִךְ; בֵּרַךְ בָּנַיִךְ בְּקִרְבֵּךְ.
יד. הַשָּׂם-גְּבוּלֵךְ שָׁלוֹם; חֵלֶב חִטִּים, יַשְׂבִּיעֵךְ.

12. O Jerusalem, praise the Lord; extol Your God, O Zion.
13. For He strengthened the bars of your gates; He blessed your children within you.
14. Within your borders He makes peace; with the best of the wheat He will sate you.

Engaging Jerusalem to join in on the praise of God, the Hebrew alliteration once again slows down the reader. But this time it is not a languid w, but a guttural het, chaf and forceful kuf and bet. It is quite appropriate since the message to Jerusalem (the gates and fortifications of Jerusalem) is to praise God for what He made unique to you. In this case her gift was her capacity to protect its citizens with impenetrable strength--ki chizzak.

Jerusalem can boast of her power, invincibility and fortification, or she can acknowledge God who provided that power, rendered her invincible, and fortified her gates and walls.

The reader slows his pace, considers that even the cement and concrete are engaging in praise of God for the inanimate gifts bestowed upon it, certainly draws the a fortiori and enhances his own praise, acknowledging all the gifts God bestows upon His animate creations every day of our lives.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

All My Life's a Circle...

Concentric circles are cool in general and important in poetry. They exude inclusiveness while acknowledging distinctiveness; they reflect the whole but also impart a sense of the multiplicity of conditions.

Psalm 145 verse 16 presents us with a series of concentric circles surrounding the idea of divine providence. To what extent does God strike up a relationship with us in His world? And what is the nature of that connection? Perhaps there is no relationship at all with us?

These questions are raised obliquely in verse 16 as David poetically draws circle upon circle to convey his messages all together. In order to appreciate the motifs we must be ready to divide verses not simply into versets but even smaller pieces, as long as there still remains a coherent thought.

1. God is close
2. God is close to all
3. God is close to all who call Him
4. God is close to all who call Him in truth

Which one is right? All of them! At different times, in different locales, with different populations, the answer to this question takes on a new form. In a psalm which sometimes conveys the transcendence of God, with objective praises referring to His almighty power and omniscience (verse 3, God is great and His greatness is unsearchable; verse 8, God's all encompassing compassion; verse 9, God's greatness and mercy to all creations; God's kingship is eternal...), verse 18 journeys to the other pole of the spectrum--God's immanence.

Immanence is about closeness. How close? Close to whom? Close when?
The answer is found in a typically all encompassing manner in verse 18. Concentric circles embody all of God's closeness with us on earth. 1. It exists. 2. It exists or can exist for all humanity--'children of God'. 3. But is there not a covenant, a relationship built on the responsibility of one to the other? Close to those who call. 4. Even within the realm of calling out to God there are degradations, another circle within a circle. Who stands in the inner sanctum? Who merits to stand by the rock and witness the fleeting yet supernal experience?

"Those who call to Him in truth".

ve'idach perusha zil gmor

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Message to My Students...

Poetic Paradox

" Mizmor shir chanukat habayit--A psalm, a poem, of Chanuka for the home"

Life is poetry.
It can be inspiring or boring.
You can run through it and ignore its complexity and majesty,
or you can slow down to analyze, appreciate--internalize the countless and timeless messages.

Poetry is not a four letter word. It is not unreachable; it can belong to all of us.
When I was a kid I never read a book! I confess, I was more into sports, hanging out, TV, and socialization.

I never stopped to consider the poetry of my existence; the rhythmic movements of my body; the consistent inconsistency of my day; the irony, symmetry, inclusios and dramatic events of my life.
I just lived monotonously, day by day. What a waste!

Imagine if I had sensed it then. If I had perspective then, during my youth, during the vitality of my incipient existence... I might have been infused with creativity, expanded horizons, engaged my spirit on higher levels, connected with so many more ebullient souls--I would have soared.


Or, perhaps I would have nevertheless been depressed. Perhaps all that multi-dimensional self-expression would have rendered me lonely, distant, introverted. Maybe too much cerebral activity would have suffocated me; too much creativity would have left me ungrounded; too much self-exploration would have inhibited my social networking. Perhaps in the end I would have sunk into a deep despair.

Oh boy, I made a mess. I have self-contradicted!

That's poetry for you. Two readings, two interpretive experiences, but one text, one life.

Which reading is truer? Herein lays the beauty of the poet. Both are true. Both endure, both inspire. A poem is worthless and meaningless without the corroborating reader; without our imagination as we partner with the psalmist and create something new. Through reading and interpreting, the words take on meaning, the ideas materialize, our metaphysical notions morph into reality! Cool.

Machon Maayan, the beautiful poetic idea, doesn’t exist without each young woman who walks through its doors. You enter and embark on a journey that is yours and ours. Together we dream, interpret, internalize and turn that amorphous idea into a reality. A reality which we hope will last you and us a lifetime.

What does this all have to do with King David and a poem on the Chanuka of his house? Ask my Poetry of Prayer girls and they will tell you that what defines David is not his consistent, measured, anticipated message; on the contrary, he exudes a roller coaster of emotions towards himself, his God, his people. He sings in praise and moans in despair (sometimes in the same verse!); he leaps with the confidence of a new dawn, and recoils in the fear of a stormy, darkened night. He congratulates and excoriates himself at the same time, and that's okay.

A barrel of contradictions? Yes! But entirely and expectantly human!

What do we celebrate about Chanuka? Perfection? Completion? Consistency?
No and no! It is about light in the midst of darkness, a surge of holiness amidst the profane; majestic nobility and a synthesis of spirit and law, only to last for a fleeting moment in the great abyss we call our history. It teaches us to strive for the poetic in our mundane lives, to take a moment to meditate on the flickering fire which, like our own silhouetted souls, glances upwards towards the divine.

Happy Chanuka.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Desire to End on a Happy Note

Psalm 94, commonly known as 'wednesday's shir shel yom (psalm of the day) is generally considered as having an upbeat message. It begins with a request that God appear and take vengeance upon the psalmist's enemies. He then turns to the wicked themselves upbraiding them for their hubris and their denial of God. But then the psalmist reveals his fears, his pain and his incomprehension of the suffering he must endure.
This message, though is not fully digested by daily daveners, as the custom of many Jews who pray daily is to skim the body of the psalm during prayer (especially those who are running out of Shul towards the end)and to just focus on the strong beginning and the final verse at its end.
But this time the ending is curiously lengthened with an addendum from the beginning of psalm 95, fondly sung as 'lechu neranena...'. The rabbis invoked a tool often used in choosing Haftara endings and applied it to Wednesday's post prayer message. What is the tool? To always find a way to end us off on a happy note.
If we were to truly recite the final verses of 94 and internalize them we would conclude our tefillah with the following thought:
God, I have tried many ways to eradicate the wickedness from my life. I have turned to You first in fervent prayer in hope that You appear in a burst of vengeance. That never happened. I turned to my aggressors with rebuke or reason but to no avail. I have attempted to justify my affliction, but I emerged unsatisfied. Instead I endure, suffer, nostalgically recall a time of respite, but in the end, I turn back to You God with one final message--smite them, smite them, smite them.
Not a particularly cheery finale, yet, sometimes a very realistic one.
But our Sages prevent us from leaving Shul on that sour note. Instead look forward to Shabbat as it is just around the bend. Perhaps that optimism will help you maintain the struggle and help you endure the current crisis.
In the end, post prayer psalms force us to consider our predicaments, struggle with our crises, but when we seem to be falling into despair to try to find some silver lining, some happiness in our lives so that we may continue to sing, dance and rejoice with God despite troubling times.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Portal

1 A Psalm of David. To David, Mizmor, The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.
2 For He founded it upon the ocean, set it on the nether-streams.
3 Who may ascend the mountain of God and who may stand in His holy place?
4 He who has clean hands, and a pure heart; who has not taken My name in vain, and has not sworn deceitfully.
5 He shall carry away a blessing from the Lord, a just reward from God, his Deliverer.
6 This is the way of the generations who search for God, Jacob, selah.
7 Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, everlasting doors, that the King of glory may come in.
8 “Who is the King of glory?” God, strong and mighty, God, mighty in battle.”
9 Lift up your heads, O gates, yea, lift them up, everlasting doors; that the King of glory may come in.
10 “Who then is the King of glory? God of hosts; He is the King of glory.” Selah

Psalm 24 is recited quite often throughout the liturgical year: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with great passion, as well as every Sunday morning and when we return the Torah to the ark.
What is so remarkable about this psalm that it warrants such a unique position in the Siddur?
The psalm should be divided into three distinct sections, each one focusing on another fundamental dimension of praying to God, certainly during the high holidays.

Section one should be titled: God. Plain and simple, it requires no additional components, but asks us to realize that the focus of our lives begins and ends with our creator. Hence, "To God belongs the heaven and earth, land and all its inhabitants".

Section two changes course entirely. It should be titled: Man. After all, when asking who will rise us to the mountain of God and what qulities they need you are really trying to discern the ideal traits of man.
Interesting. The first theme leads us to believe that we are reciting a psalm about God. This would be quite appropriate because isn't Rosh Hashana about God, creator of the heavns and earth? But then the second theme seems to contradict the first--it's really about us!
Which one is true?

Enter, theme three! As I gave this class I asked the group to describ the sections in one word. When I reached the third section one man hit the nail on the head and exclaimed that the third section is about the portal between God and Man. In truth, if we wanted to use one word to describe the psalm, it might be the portal. What is that gateway between human beings and the divine? What is the catalyst which engenders the heavenly relationship here on earth? Gates life up your heads the the heavens and call out that God is the Lord, King of glory, Creator of all.

Judaism is about the extreme of the extremes. Where one extreme is a theocentiic existence, devoid of physicality and human compnents, the other extreme is believing in anthropocentric--everything revolves around man, the here and now, the physical and mundane.

The psalm and the Judaism it aims to represent presents the extreme opposite of the two radical poles--effectively the center! IT is about the perfect balancing of God and Man in our world, the admixture of sacred and profane, the synthesis of physical and metaphysical.

This idea is manifest in a presentation of both God and Man, but then a conclusion with a reference to the portal--the gateway towards man developing a proper relationship with God.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Asking for it ALL

Imagine you are in a literal foxhole. Bullets flying over your head and your enemy encroaching upon you. Or to be less dramatic, you are suffering a terrible slanderous campaign against your good name. Everywhere you go people look at you and smirk, having heard the vicious lies someone is spreading. You feel helpless and are filled with despair.

Precisely at this moment of impending doom, God appears and offers you one wish, what would it be? I imagine you would relate to that which has been tormenting you for the past hours, days, weeks or months. "Just help me survive" or "defeat my enemies", or "clear my name from this slander".
What wouldn't you do? Ask for too much (you don't want to be a pig right? Get off topic (stay focused on the crisis at hand, right? Wish for general niceties when you are in the midst of a specific crisis, right?

Now let's look at the middles section of psalm 27, the 'one'request.

4. One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek-that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple every morning.
5. That He will hide me in His tabernacle on the day of calamity; He will conceal me in the secrecy of His tent; He will lift me up on a rock.
6. And now, my head will be raised over my enemies around me, and I will sacrifice in His tent sacrifices with joyous song; I will sing and chant praise to the Lord.

Is that all? Some commentators try to soften the blow by explaining that the 'one' main request as sitting in the house of God and from there flow all the other ramifications--"if I experience Godliness then spiritually, physically, emotionally, etc., all will fit into place for me". The question I have is how he focuses on details in the requests--hiding me in His Sukka, lifting me up on a rock, overcoming my enemies, offering in the Temple festive offerings, singing a new song... How does one reconcile all these different and disparate goals into one neat request?

Moreover, where is the 'save me from my enemy'request? Hidden somewhere in the second verse. Should it not be more prominent?

I think David is teaching us a lesson. If the psalm is about faith, then having faith means relying on God. Relying on God entails the realization that God acts with great mercy towards His loved ones. Mercy entails acting against logic, against righteousness, against reason. If David is in a crisis, is it not due to his sin and is this not his punishment? If it is, then how can he ask for a reprieve? The answer I think is that we must humbly accept the judgment of our just king, but we must also submissively ask for mercy from our loving father. They are not mutually exclusive!

Once David realizes that he can allow himself to ask for ANYTHING from God, what is stopping him from asking for EVERYTHING! If he were to beseech God for survival alone, I would see it as a lack of faith in God that He cannot provide every need for David, physical, spiritual, emotional, existential...

David steps out of himself for a moment despite the bullets flying overhead and petitions God for the greatest goals, most lofty ideals and a perfect life.

Should he have asked for anything less?

Monday, September 7, 2009

In THIS I trust

Is the first section of psalm 27 portraying a confident, faithful David? I have thought this way for many years, I now think differently. The analysis stems from one ambiguous word. בזאת, in this. To what is David referring as he concludes his firs section? Here is the text:

1 [A Psalm] of David. The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evil-doers came upon me to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell.
3 Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
If war should rise up on me, in THIS I will trust.

Commentaries abound as to what the 'this'is. Does it mean not 'this'but 'nevertheless'? (Hirsch)Or perhaps it refers to what he said beforehand--that God is his strength and salvation (Rashi, Meiri, Shlah, Amos Chacham)Ibn Ezra and Malbim round out the positions by suggesting it is the seeking of God he will presently discuss.

There are some exegetical issues to contend with in defining this word. First, does zot allow for a change from 'this' to nevertheless? A quick perusal of the Concordance shows that the vast majority of cases where zot appears it means 'this'.

If it is 'this', can it refer to that which has not yet been said? Perhaps, but one would expect the transition in the next verse to be smoother and not as abrupt as אחת שאלתי. Finally, if it refers to the faith and salvation he portrayed in the first verses we need to appreciate the polarity of faith and fear which pervades those verses.

How many times does David say that he has no fear or will not fear? How many times does he remind himself of his enemies and his impending destruction? Is this the tenor of a man overflowing with confidence? I think not.

David is not expressing confidence but the inner conflict he is experiencing in including God in his very real and practical crisis. This is not the time other-wordly illusions, it is time to fight. David struggles with his faith here, struggles to continue to believe, if not in God's impending salvation, then in God's decision to hide His face at this juncture. David battles with his inner demons and emerges victorious just by invoking God's name and bringing Him into David's realistic environment.

In THIS he will trust. In the struggle of finding the balance between confronting his problems while including God and faith in the picture. This vacillation is healthy, no extreme will be effective. Therefore the final verse teaches us a vital lesson in how to confront a harsh reality while continuing to keep God part of your vernacular and part of your life.

In THIS, we trust!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What I do...

One reader commented that she wonders how I approach a psalm. How does one analyze it? What are the initial steps taken in order to develop an approach to the Mizmor? Good question. I provide the answers of my methodology in my book (which is soon to be out, Gefen Publishing, the end of this month). Here, though, are some points to consider:

There are at least five ways to approach the mizmor:

How to learn Tehillim?
A. Like Chumash with Mefarshim pasuk by pasuk
B. Read it nonstop.
C. Seeing the poetry involved and using methods gleaned from literary analysis in poetry in general and wisdom literature of Tanach in particular
D. Two dimensions: understanding the mizmor in its time, understanding the mizmor as it speaks to each individual in any time period in history.
E. Learning it as a separate part of Tanach vs. learning it as part of Siddur (the liturgy).

How to analyze a Psalm?

Start at the beginning-- Psalm 1
A. Read the entire psalm
B. Translate to the best of your ability based on your understanding of the words in Tanach. Do NOT accept one translation alone.
C. Note the title of the Mizmor, who is the author, what are the initial remarks and whether that should affect the analysis
D. Divide the mizmor into sections. Try it on your own, if not Amos Chacham always divides the sections, but you don’t have to agree with him!)write for yourself, verses_ to _ convey theme x, or can be described as___
E. Look for mini-themes in each section
F. Look at the different themes and attempt to bind them together with one general motif.
G. Determine what type of literary tools are being used by the psalmist: metaphor, repetition, parallelism, contrast, wordplay, inclusio, chiasmus, emotional vs. intellectual, chorus, use of language, tone of speech, etc.
H. Tackle hard words and phrases and understand why they are being used.
I. Search for a theme an stick with it, do not switch you will never stop…
J. Attempt to get into the mind of the author as to the reason behind the words written.
K. Attempt to glean a message for your own life.
L. [Attempt to understand why Chazal (if they did) chose this psalm to be recited by all Israel at a certain stage…]

These are some skills I have used over the years; there are of course many more which you should develop on your own. The beauty of the Psalter lies in its accessability and multi-tiered interpretive experience.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Taking It With You

Tehillim for Every Occasion

Tehillim were not meant to be used as a soothsayer or as a magical divination. One should not be searching for the words which will make one’s crisis disappear. Instead, Tehillim should be considered a form of therapy for the individual who is either suffering, scared, or joyous and thankful.

When confronted by a crisis one tends to lose oneself and one’s connection with God. Tehillim is a means towards reconnecting with the self and with God. Each chapter has a different focus, each song reflects a different angle or motif that affected the psalmist and can help us get in touch with those feelings as well.

Reciting the specific psalm is meant to inspire us, engage our minds and hearts towards dealing with the crises before us and to engage our God in our journey towards emerging from this particular crisis.

Here is a list of psalms which relate to certain emotional experiences:

Psalm 1—Appreciating the everyday struggle and the capacity to overcome negative influences and pressures in one’s life leading the way to realizing a metaphysical fortunate existence.

Psalm 2—A meditation about leadership and kingship, acknowledging there are powerful forces which aim to uproot the messengers of God. The king and nation must have faith in the ultimate destruction of evil in the world.

Psalm 3—What happens when those closest to you rebel? How do you feel when you are partially responsible for their errant ways? When it threatens your capacity to parent, or even to exist? Turn to God. Have faith in His guiding hand and accept your predicament while at the same time be encouraged that you can overcome it.

Psalm 5—Morning confidence and even expectation is crucial in how we approach our day. We need to sometimes feel that we can conquer, fulfilling the divine imperative. We do not deny the reality of our present but with prayer and expectation we hope for a brighter future.

Psalm 6—Depression. When we are down all the little hindrances in or world are magnified paralyzing us from functioning. This psalm teaches us to turn to God as our therapist. He will help us emerge from this dark predicament and defeat our demons.

Psalm 7—Justification. Sometimes the cards are turned against us for no reason. We feel the need to justify our actions and question our needless suffering. We turn to God for guidance at why this evil chases us and wears us down. Ultimately we will acknowledge God’s true justice and be able to sing His praises.

Psalm 8—Philosophy. We forget to marvel at God’s world. We must always be aware of our precarious human condition—humbly finite and insignificant on the one hand, and almost infinite and divine on the other. Between the two lies the secret of our human experience.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Guarding Sins

"If God keeps tabs on our sins, O God, who can stand?"

This statement appears in many of king David's psalms in different forms. "God, You can't possibly expect us to succeed in this game of life? You cannot employ Your harsh rules of rewards and punishments since it would mean the end of humankind! God, if You didn't invoke Your concept of teshuvah and the capacity to redeem our sins, surely we would not survive! God, do You really want us dead? Surely, You would rather us alive and praising You?

All these weak arguments produce images of a guilty defendant standing before the judge conjuring up last ditch reasonings which have no logic and value for the executioner. Does God need our existence? Are we that impotent, unable to live a semi-successful life? If God made it too hard for us, why did He bother? Does He need our praisings?

The word tishmor תשמור translated as 'keep' is unclear. Not because we are unsure of the proper translation as we have ample contexts to observe, but because in our context other words would have better conveyed the point. תספור, תמנה, תפקוד, count, list, recall...

Tishmor connotes guarding, protecting; why would the author of the psalm phrase it in this way--if our sins guard you God, who would stand?

The question perhaps relates to how to view and judge people. If you look at someone and immediately see their deficiencies, their errors and their capacity for evil, you will very quickly have no friends. Nobody wants to be around a critical, preachy, though honest, individual. People are aware of their own misgivings and each one of us struggles with self-improvement. But to hear it constantly from our spouse, our parent or our child is enough to make us go very far away from them.

Seeing and focusing on the deficiencies of people is a way to guard yourself and raise your status above others. Keeping tabs on people might lead you to a more comfortable and confident self-perception. (I wonder if this is not the fascination in the media for reporting all the dirt that's fit to print. Why must I constantly have a tally of the murders, rapes, thievery and corruption in my headlines?)

What I am saying then is that seeing good in others is not a reflection of your righteousness but rather a psychological therapy for personal development and maturity. When you choose to focus on others' capacity for good you raise your own standards and seek to live a more meaningful existence.

To return to our poem. Our psalmist has sinned. He is in the throes of punishment and pain, the depths of darkness due solely to his wrongdoing. From those depths he calls out to God, pleading, demanding to be heard, to be attended to, to call out to God. What does he say?

"God, do not guard my sins, do not let my capacity for evil envelop Your perception of me. I may be down but I can rise. I can repent, I can hope..."
"God, teach us how to look not on the negative side of others, but on the potential they have inside to come back to Your grace. If You were to be cynical or realistic about the human endeavor--who could stand before You?"

Instead, our supplication before God in our moment of need is to reassert His position of optimistically leaning towards the capacity for good in humans and in so doing, teaching us to ultimately emulate His ways and shape our human condition based on this guiding principle.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Religious Audacity

How audacious can one be towards God? How much can we demand of Him? There is a Talmudic passage in Berachot 31b-31a which is quite striking. It recounts several biblical personalities who 'threw words heavenwards'. The word 'hitiach' is used in Torah connoting shooting of an arrow and in Talmudic parlance as speaking out audaciously to God (see Kohut, Haaruch under 'tach'). Hannah 'threw words heavenwards' as it says 'and Hannah spoke on God (instead of to God). Elijah and Moses follow in description as they metaphorically twisted God's arm. The average individual is prescribed from emulating these personalities in Talmud Megila 23, 'one should never throw words heavenwards...'.
So is it ever allowed? Does a person in extreme circumstances reserve the right due to turn heavenward, expectantly? angrily? accusingly? Jeremiah lashes out to God in Lamentations, the kinnot we recite on Tisha Bav. Rav Soloveitchik explained that were it not for Jeremiah's audacity we would never be able to utter those words even on the night of the destruction of the Temple.
And so, at certain times, under certain extraordinary conditions we too call out to God, scream out to God and even demand from God, answers, salvation, justice, peace.

I wonder if psalm 130 doesn't have an underlying sense of audaciousness when the psalmist calls out to God from the depths.
God, listen to my voice, let your ears be attentive to my supplications. If you are counting sins, God, who will listen? For with You there is forgiveness, so that their may be fear and awe.

When speaking to God out of humility and fear one does not boldly call out, demanding to be heard and then repeating the demand again; one does not then provide an explanation for God. The tenor of the psalmist bespeaks of someone who is outrageously rude and sacrilegious, or, alternatively, one in pain, suffering, and truly needs to hear God.
When in the depths, deep in pain, suffering physically or, perhaps worse, psychologically, your boundaries are blurred, your moral conduct is shaky and you focus only on relieving the pain. Such an individual seldom involves himself in the spirit; the opposite is usually true. You look for relief in any way possible and try to numb the pain.
The Psalmist teaches us another path. He acknowledges that his words to God might cross a line, but to God they ultimately remain. Jeremiah turns to God and screams 'how' but knows the reason for destruction--our sins Hannah calls out to God seeking justice, Moses and Elijah too.
Our mission is to maintain our respect, love, and boundaries towards God, but sometimes when life takes us on a path so painful, the best thing is to follow the psalmist and turn to God cautiously asking Him to hear our voice and relieve our pain.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

From the Depths...psalm 130 (part 1)

1 A Song of Ascents. Out of the depths have I called to You, Lord.
2 O Lord, listen to my voice; let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
3 If You count iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
4 For with You there is forgiveness, that so that You will be feared.
5 I waited for the LORD, my soul waited, and in His word I yearned.
6 My soul is for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning; yea, more than watchmen for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the LORD; for with the LORD there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption.
8 And He will redeem Israel from all iniquities.

This well-known psalm finds its way into the Ashkenaz liturgy on mainly two occasions. The first is during the ten days of repentance where we have a heightened sense of our mortality as well as our capacity to redeem ourselves from sin. A second scenario is somewhat contemporary as we find times of crises in our modern lives, we conclude our morning services (and in times of war, afternoon and evening) with two small psalms, one of which is psalm 130 'mimaamakim keraticha Hashem'--from the depths I call out to you God.

Why was this psalm chosen? What renders it unique?

There is something eery about the depths. A literal translation from the Hebrew--mimaámakim, the depths connote a geographical, emotional, or spiritual nadir. A person in the depths has possibly been running away for so long, or perhaps life has trhust upon them such a heavy load they simply submerged--either way the depths have taken them, consumed them, distorted their reality and darkened their dreams.

Yet there is one thing which redeems the downtrodden, reminds the drowning spirit that there is still hope, a glimmer of light--that one thing is the call--keraticha Hashem (I call out to You my God). Human prayer involves a process of translating the mind's ruminations into words and statements before your invisible but very real God. The psalm recognizes that there are times when we have sunk to the lowest levels in our minds and hearts, yet precisely at those times what gives us rise is the call, the word, the utterance--keraticha Hashem!

I rise out of my depths with my language.
You rise out of your depths with your language.
Carl Sandburg (20th century poet)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Jerusalem Sings: Personification in Psalm 147

Two Sunflowers Move in the Yellow Room.
"Ah, William, we're weary of weather,"
said the sunflowers, shining with dew."
Our traveling habits have tired us.
Can you give us a room with a view?"
They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.
William Blake(1757-1827)

Blake dazzles us with a tale of a meeting he (William Blake) had with an inanimate part of nature--the sunflower. Can they speak? Can they request a room for their weary branches and flowers? In the mind of Blake and all of us who imagine the glistening sunflowers and their plight in nature, the answer is positively yes!

We all engage in personification, it has penetrated our speech and found favor in our thought, why not find it in our praising of God? To personify is to present a thing, an idea, or an animal as acting in the manner of humans (persons).

Personification is prevalent in many of the psalms, particularly the songs we sing for kabbalat shabbat--psalms 95-99, with phrases like "Let the heavens rejoice and the earth dance, the sea roars, the fields and all around them sing out". When we call out to God in praise it is not in order to fulfill some ritual obligation or to earn some brownie points, rather it is an expression of 'kosi revaya' (my cup is overflowed). We are so enamoured with the notion of God's presence, His involvement in our lives and His relationship with us, that we collectively call out in unison in praise.

But we are not alone in this endeavor--nature joins in, all the elements 'feel' the awe of the Lord as well as 'share' in the joy of our faith.

In Psalm 147, a psalm dedicated to the collective praise of God, another personification takes place, another inanimate object joins the collective praise--Jerusalem.

שבחי ירושלים את ה' הללי אלוהיך ציון, כי חזק בריחי שעריך ברך בניך בקרבך השם גבולך שלום חלב חטים ישביעך

12 Exalt the Lord, Jerusalem; praise Your God, Zion,
13 for He strengthens the bolts of your gates and blesses your people within You.
14 He makes your borders peaceful and satiates you with the finest wheat.

The psalmist directs his words to Jerusalem encouraging her to call out to God, to Praise Him for all He has done to the beautiful city. It is a unique way to integrate the praise of Israel with her Homeland and Jerusalem as her capital. Implicit in this message is that we turn to God not only for our lives, our sustenance, our history, but also for providing us with a home, a perfect land, a holy city, a unifying center for His special nation.

Turning to Jerusalem and encouraging her to praise God is the psalmists way of acknowledging this precious gift called Israel and that when the nation comes together from the exile and inhabits its borders, this is a unique opportunity for the people, but also for the city herself.

A physical, spiritual, metaphysical, alliterative personification! That's a mouthful and a wonderful addition to the tapestry of the praises of God in Tehillim.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Davidic Response to Suffering

א מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד: בְּבָרְחוֹ, מִפְּנֵי אַבְשָׁלוֹם בְּנוֹ.
ב ה', מָה-רַבּוּ צָרָי; רַבִּים, קָמִים עָלָי.
ג רַבִּים, אֹמְרִים לְנַפְשִׁי: אֵין יְשׁוּעָתָה לּוֹ בֵאלֹהִים סֶלָה.
ד וְאַתָּה ה', מָגֵן בַּעֲדִי; כְּבוֹדִי, וּמֵרִים רֹאשִׁי.
ה קוֹלִי, אֶל-ה' אֶקְרָא; וַיַּעֲנֵנִי מֵהַר קָדְשׁוֹ סֶלָה.
ו אֲנִי שָׁכַבְתִּי, וָאִישָׁנָה; הֱקִיצוֹתִי--כִּי ה' יִסְמְכֵנִי.
ז לֹא-אִירָא, מֵרִבְבוֹת עָם-- אֲשֶׁר סָבִיב, שָׁתוּ עָלָי.
ח קוּמָה ה', הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי אֱלֹהַי-- כִּי-הִכִּיתָ אֶת-כָּל-אֹיְבַי לֶחִי;שִׁנֵּי רְשָׁעִים שִׁבַּרְתָּ.
ט לַה' הַיְשׁוּעָה; עַל-עַמְּךָ בִרְכָתֶךָ סֶּלָה.

"A psalm of David when he fled from his son Avshalom.
O Lord my troubles are so many
Many are those who attack me; many say of me
"There is no deliverance for him through God." Selah
But you O Lord are a shield about me,
My glory, He who holds my head high...
I cry aloud to the Lord and He answers me...
I have no fears of the myriad of forces
arrayed against me on every side.
Rise O Lord, deliver me, O, my God
For You slap all my enemies in the face;
You break the teeth of the wicked.
Deliverance is the Lord's;
Your blessing be upon Your people."
David, in this third psalm, confronts a subject which has plagued man from time immemorial - suffering. "O Lord, how great are my troubles" (3:2). This penetrating line is the focus of his song.

We suffer. Throughout our lives, either for reasons we create, or for reasons unbeknownst to us, we experience tragedies, feel pain and suffer. Why? This Jobian question disturbs us throughout our period of distress, and continues to torment us when that pain is translated into loss. The prophet Jeremiah is famous for his 'why;' 'eikha,' he proclaims, an expression which sets the mood and acts as the mila mancha (leading themeword) on the saddest day in our history. [Tish'a Be'av - which commemorates the destruction of the first and second holy temples.]

Yet, while Jeremiah exclaimed 'eikha,' it is the response, or lack of response from God, which sets him apart from Job. Job suffered. His friends came to comfort him offering their justification for his situation. Ultimately he responds and searches for an answer, one he will accept only from the Almighty. In the end, it is God Himself who responds to Job's call.

Jeremiah, in contrast, receives word from God that He will not accept prayer any longer. The prophet remarks that "You have clouded the heavens from allowing my prayers to pass through" (Lamentations 3:44) ..."Even when I cry and call for help, He stops my prayer" (3:8). While Job's suffering was more graphic and heart wrenching, it did not involve Jeremiah's tragic sense that God no longer listens to man's prayer, even to inform man of his iniquities.

Living in a time void of the prophetic call, our rabbis of the Talmud constructed approaches in response to affliction.

"Ha-ro'eh yesurin she-ba'in alav, yefashpesh be-ma'asav" - "If one sees adversity coming his way, he should inquire into his past deeds (perhaps he has sinned) T.B Berakhot.

The rabbis offer an insight into human nature, something to help us begin to understand our predicament. Begin I say, because it would be presumptuous for us to assume that we know exactly what caused our current suffering. Which sin was it? Which punishment suits which sin? Should we subscribe to a "measure for a measure" approach in our reckoning, or is it impossible to ascribe reason for any specific tragedy?

All of these questions, as stated, are unanswerable without the guidance of the word of God or His prophet. This perhaps is the greatest tragedy; the notion that we can only guess about the reason for our predicament sends a chill down our spines. However, questions such as what to do, how to act, how to walk in the way of God—these questions, despite the lack of prophecy, can be answered in our day and age.

The Mishna in the second chapter of Avot states, "Rebbe said, … look at three things and you will never come to sin. Know what is above you: an eye which sees, an ear which listens, and all your actions are written in the book" (2:1).

While the literal sense of the line refers to one's realization that God is watching and writing down all of one's actions, my grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Baumol, saw the statement differently. At one time we were on the level where we could actually see God. "And the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] in Elone Mamreh …" (Genesis 18:1); "And all the people saw the thundering , lightning, and the sound of the Shofar …" (Exodus 20:15), "And they saw the God of Israel …" (24:10), "And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like Moshe, when the Lord knew face to face …" (Deuteronomy, 34:10).

The era of the early prophets represented a lower level of connection to God, namely hearing. "Hear O heavens and give ear O earth, for the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 1:2); "And the Lord said to me, herewith I put My words into your mouth" (Jeremiah 1:9). The phrase "thus says the Lord" uttered by the prophet appears countless times throughout the books of prophecy. This, the notion of hearing rather than seeing, epitomizes the second era in our history.

As I mentioned earlier, a time came when even the word of God was not heard, and man was no longer told what to do and where to go. At that stage, which is the stage which exists still today, all we have is the written word of God—"and all your actions are written in the book". The Torah is our guide, teaching us how to live our lives, yet when we disregard the Torah, we have no one to help us see our predicament. For this we pray every day and every week "return us O God, to you and we will come back, renew our days like old" (Lamentations 5:21).

Ironically, the reason the word of God ceased to be handed down from the prophets is that the people rejected it. The harsh words of the prophet upset the populace to the point where they rejected him along with God. God in turn denied His people the treasure of His guidance, sending us forth into a dark and unknown existence.

It is that idea which occupies our mourning on the ninth of Av. Eikha — where were You? How could You let this happen? This was a thought found in the minds of those during the destruction of the temples, and found as well on the lips of those in concentration camps during our most recent Holocaust. It is not only the tragedy which stings; the lack of knowledge about one's destiny, the 'cloudiness' of God's word, hurts us more.

That uncertainty did not exist in King David's time. He knew what was expected of him, heard the words of the prophet or priest, and directed his conduct accordingly.

One of the most salient features that we see in the personality of David illustrated by the stories of David and Saul, and in the subsequent accounts of David as king, is the constancy with which he calls out to God and with which God responds. "And David kept growing stronger, and the Lord, God of Hosts, was with him" (2 Samuel 5:10). A comforting feeling enveloped David with the realization that 'God is by my side', and as a result he grew from strength to strength.

Yet, while this special relationship serves as a guiding light for David when he follows the command of God, in time of his sin, the punishment is swift and unsparing.

After sinning with Bat-Sheva and Uriah, Natan the prophet comes to the king with a message from God: "you have sinned, here is your punishment." See chapter eleven in Samuel 2, which describes the sins. The subsequent eight chapters depict the downfall of David. Of his children, some are killed, one is raped, and one sleeps with his wives - all in the meting out of the punishment which Natan predicted. One cannot help but sympathize with the king; after all he is the great King David, how can everything come tumbling down so quickly? The answer is that with the privilege of 'God at your side', there is the corresponding responsibility of utmost observance and little room for error.

When one knows what is expected of him and nevertheless disregards it by sinning, it is difficult to speak to God in that predicament. David knew this, but taught us the message of the verse in the Torah:

"But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all you heart and soul. When you are in distress, and all these things have befallen you, in the end you will return to the Lord your God. For the Lord your God is a compassionate God, He will not fail you nor let you go …" (Deuteronomy 4:29-31).

What sets David apart from the others is his instinctive, though thought out, response to Natan's rebuke - "I have sinned before God" (2 Samuel 12:13). The greatness of David, and the central message that we should all take away with us when we read this passage, concerns David's ability (and ours as well) to recognize his sin, accept his punishment, and immediately set himself on a course for teshuva - repentance.

Looking in a Hebrew Tanakh in chapter 12, verse 13 in 2 Samuel, we notice a space interrupting this sentence, after the words "I have sinned before God." The Vilna Gaon writes about this seeming 'delay' in the story - "Here David cried." This "crying" epitomizes David's personality and accounts for his greatness.

With this introduction to David's sinning, suffering, and searching for God from his distress, we can now begin psalm 3 which presents this motif in Tehillim. Before we analyze the psalm, however, let me give some background information. Immediately following the David-Batsheva story we read of David's son, Amnon, raping David's daughter Tamar who is from another wife. Tamar's brother Avshalom comforts Tamar, but vows revenge on Amnon, and ultimately kills him. With the murder of the king's son, Avshalom is exiled. After some convincing David receives his son in return but is reluctant to embrace him. While in the kings house, Avshalom gains popularity (due to political attractiveness)and ultimately assumes the throne, overthrowing his father and forcing him to flee. It is this fleeing to which David refers.
Two words act as the 'milot manchot' - the leading themewords, which appear most often in the psalm, 'Rav' - many, describes his enemies and suffering'; 'yeshua' - salvation, refers to the faith David has in God's salvation, and the prayer for His intervention now. The structure utilized in the Psalm is very natural. It begins with a description of what is most affecting David in his life. The onslaught of his enemies, his suffering, and his fear of the future are the thoughts that are at the forefront of his mind and his poem.

It is not only that his kingdom is being overthrown, that his daughter was raped and he was silent in reacting; add to that the fact that his beloved son Avshalom was the mastermind behind it all! These are the multiple troubles which constitute the main part of the psalm.

The second feeling David invokes here is crucial, possibly the most important component in a methodology of relating to God in time of need. " But You O Lord are a shield about me." Amidst the suffering, before the regret, before the prayer for salvation, a calm, confident expression of faith in God is expressed. It is God who will save David, despite his sins! God raises up David's head when all others attempt to lower it. One must honestly and truly acknowledge this step before attempting the next step of asking for salvation from God.

Notice how the extra word of "and you - ve-ata" is inserted in the second section. The emphasis here is on God as his only protector, his saving grace. How can David, who is well aware that what he sees transpiring before him is a punishment for his sins, confidently call out to God as his savior? This is the true message of repentance that is hidden between the lines of the psalm.

The final stage emphasizes the extent to which David is sure of his method in restructuring his relationship with God. After the first and second stage of honest trust in God, in the third stage, the request comes forth in full force.

" Rise O Lord, deliver me, O, my God". David asks God to rise and stand up against his enemies. Passivity is unacceptable here. It is interesting to note that each line in the psalm fluctuates between second and third person. The beginning of each section has David turning directly to God and calling out to Him, culminating with the final section when the call is not just "O God," but "Rise O God!"

In summation, this psalm presents David's three-pronged response towards personal suffering. The human side depicts first the anguish and the pain. The spiritual side acknowledges complete faith in God who saved in the past and will bring salvation in the future. Finally, this human endowed with spirituality strongly entreats God to rise up against his enemies and to smite them.

This same David who sinned in the dark night, now rises on his road to repentance to again find the light of God, letting it shine radiantly upon him. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Whole Story Psalm 115

Psalms Chapter 114
א בְּצֵאת יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם; בֵּית יַעֲקֹב, מֵעַם לֹעֵז.
1 When Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language;
ב הָיְתָה יְהוּדָה לְקָדְשׁוֹ; יִשְׂרָאֵל, מַמְשְׁלוֹתָיו.
2 Judah became His sanctuary, Israel His dominion.
ג הַיָּם רָאָה, וַיָּנֹס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, יִסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.
3 The sea saw it, and fled; the Jordan turned backward.
ד הֶהָרִים, רָקְדוּ כְאֵילִים; גְּבָעוֹת, כִּבְנֵי-צֹאן.
4 The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep.
ה מַה-לְּךָ הַיָּם, כִּי תָנוּס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.
5 What is with you, O sea, that you flee? OJordan, that you turn backward?
ו הֶהָרִים, תִּרְקְדוּ כְאֵילִים; גְּבָעוֹת, כִּבְנֵי-צֹאן.
6 The mountains, skip like rams; the hills, like young sheep?
ז מִלִּפְנֵי אָדוֹן, חוּלִי אָרֶץ; מִלִּפְנֵי, אֱלוֹהַּ יַעֲקֹב.
7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob;
ח הַהֹפְכִי הַצּוּר אֲגַם-מָיִם; חַלָּמִישׁ, לְמַעְיְנוֹ-מָיִם.
8 Who turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters.

This well-known psalm, recited or sung during every festival and particularly during Passover, tells a story of the Passover experience--"betzeit Yisrael mi'mitzrayim"--when Israel emerged from Egypt... It describes the euphoria and the supernatural nature of this event such that not only humanbeings rejoiced but even the inanimate mountains, seas and rocks performed miraculous activities in acknolwedging and enabling the children of Israel to triumphantly depart.
The poetry is presented in typical parallelism such that a lmost every verset finds an exact parallel in its sister verset. (Yisrael and bet yaakov; Mitzrayim and am loez; Yehuda and Yisrael; harim and gevaot; eilim and benei tzon...). One verse stands out though as comprising two entirely different events but are presented as two halves of a parallel verse.

2 Judah became His sanctuary, Israel His dominion.
ג הַיָּם רָאָה, וַיָּנֹס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, יִסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.
3 The sea saw it, and fled; the Jordan turned backward.
ד הֶהָרִים, רָקְדוּ כְאֵילִים; גְּבָעוֹת, כִּבְנֵי-צֹאן.
4 The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep.
ה מַה-לְּךָ הַיָּם, כִּי תָנוּס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.
5 What aileth thee, O thou sea, that thou fleest? thou Jordan, that thou turnest backward?

Verses 3 and again 5 describe the sea splitting or fleeing from the awe of god and Israel. The notion of the sea fleeing הים ראה וינס is very powerful in that it personifies the great sea and turns it into yet another part of creation expressing the fear and awe of the great and powerful experince of yetziat mitzrayim. The Torah makes no mention of the sea fleeing at Moshe's command, yet the depiction creates a dramatic feeling in our minds and raises our excitment.

What is unique, however, is the fact that these two versets are seemingly not parallel at all! The sea flees at Yam Suf, but the Jordan turning back, that takes place forty years later in Canaan! We should realize that in fact these two events are parallel, in fact they complement each other. the first miracle took place in the eyes of the first generation of those who left Egypt while the second miracle patterned exactly after the first takes p lace in the eyes of the second generation of those entering Israel, God's complete two-part mission told to Moshe.
The psalm wants to reinforce the notion that without Joshua's conquest of Canaan the Passover story is not complete, but with the final miracle of the Jordan the story comes to a close and the Holiday is truly complete.

Thus, analyzing one component of psalm 114 offers insight into the entire Passover story and sheds light on the entire mission of the children of Israel, and their complete triumph so many years ago.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ashrei Teaches us about our Mission (part 2): Manifesting the Mission

Did you ever wonder where the praises of the first blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh come from? Did the rabbis make them up? How did they know when to stop? The Talmud in Berachot 33b tells the following story: A man approached the lectern and began to compose his own praise of God in the repetition of the Amidah prayer. He started with the standard “Lord who is great, heroic, awe-inspiring,” but then continued with “mighty, powerful, fearful, strong, courageous, revered…” As the individual ran out of praises, Rav Chanina rebuked him, stating, “Have you concluded your praising of your Master? Rather only the verses which Moshe spoke are we permitted to recite...". In this vein we would expect the praises in the first blessing to be an exact quote of Moshe in the Torah. And indeed the first four words do just that--“Lord who is great, heroic, awe-inspiring,” but then one extra phrase is presented, el elyon.
Moshe was not the originator of this term we use to describe God, in fact no Jew did! It is a quote from a non-Jew.
Can you imagine that we would have to resort to quoting non-Jews in our own Shemoneh Esreh, in the first blessing no less? Yet, that is exactly what happens and I think for a very good reason.
The author of this phrase is Makli-Tzedek, king of Shalem, who, after seeing Avram's actions in the battle of the four kings against the five, was so inspired with his behaviour that he brought out bread and wine and made a blessing to the "el elyon, owner of the heavens and earth".
Why would the rabbis use this appellation to describe an attribute of God in our own prayers? The answer, I think, stems from the previous blog and the understanding that when Avram sanctifies the name of God and spreads it to the point that other nations not only acknowledge Him but praise Him and bless His name--then Avram is fulfilling his mission and the world became a bit more in tune with God.
The Torah recognized and therefore recorded this profound event as a reminder of how Avram fulfilled his mission and charged us to walk in his footsteps and attempt to spread the name of God to more and more nations of the world.
Yitro is the next personality who is influenced by Moshe, by God and by the children of Israel. Ignoring the question of whether he converted or not, the mere fact that he understood the greatness of God from the actions of the exodus, the splitting of the sea, but also the battle with Amalek, shows us that even in wartime and against our enemies, we can impact the minds of the righteous and ultimately of all the nations of the world.
I think this is the mission which is presented in psalm 145--Ashrei. It is about finding your relationship with God and then embarking on a mission to spread God consciousness throughout the world so that other nations will join you in praise and in blessing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ashrei Teaches us about Our Mission (part 1)

"Our Mission"

Can one truly make a sweeping statement like "this is what our purpose in life is about"? It would be too arrogant to unabashedly and confidently state as a fact that I know what God expects from us. Or do we hide behind that false modesty in order to never have to confront ourselves with such a major idea in our lives. Perhaps the exact think we must investigate and continually reassess is our very nature and our capacity to truly change this world.

Nevertheless, perhaps hints in Torah and throughout our history might give us that glimpse and teach us what it is we are doing here in this world. When asking Jews what their purpose in this world is, they respond in several ways:

1. To get closer to God. (I am not sure what that means. Along the lines with 'becoming more spiritual and holy', etc. Often to describe ambiguous feelings we resort to ambiguous words).

2. To be a good person. (Also too general and undefined, and quite subjective for that matter)

3. To be a servant of God. (See 1)

4. To perform mitzvot. (Is that the end or a means to something greater?)

5. To learn, live, love, or be Torah! (Again this is, while trying not to sound heretical, a means to something not necessarily an end unto itself.)

So, what then is it all about if I have rejected all of the above? Clearly one cannot reject any of the above answers as extremely vital to one's life, but perhaps I can crystallize the components into one sweeping mission built on two words--chesed and emet (kindness and truth).

Another way to state these two foundational principles is: chesed=social consciousness; emet=absolute truth, or God consciousness. The two in this world must go hand in hand. At the dawn of creation there was Adam and Eve alone. They epitomized an 'I' existence, never actually speaking to each other and not acknowledging others in society, Cain killed Abel, leading the way for generations of self-involved pleasure seekers. A world recognizing God but not recognizing social consciousness--chessed--must be destroyed.

The generation which emerged out of the ark learned their lesson and became quite harmonious. Led by the inclusionary attitude of Noach towards his family this new world showed real promise in terms of social interaction and responsibility. Yet, it seems as if a trade off was necessary. Once they engaged in chesed they rejected emet. This is evidenced by the story of the Tower of Babel, at least according to Rashi's interpretation of focusing on themselves and waging war with God.

As a result of a world which is unable to find the proper balance between these two fundamental poles God chose to create a world within the world, a nation whose mission would be to restore the delicate balance of chesed and emet.Next blog I will show the various biblical personalities who exemplified this hallowed mission through the years and then show how this is reflected in Tehillim of King David.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Ashrei Code

There’s Davinci, the Matrix, and the Genome, all codes which (fact or fiction) reveal a fundamental and powerful idea about life and history. None of them, however, compare to the underlying message of the Ashrei code! Hidden between the lines of the famous psalm (145) David sought to reveal the ultimate secret—the purpose of life.

It was not for naught that our sages considered Psalm 145 as the choicest of all, there is a qualitative dimension which sets it apart from all the rest. For this reason Chazal set out to accomplish two things in order to embed in this psalm the mystique, the sanctity, and the attraction to become one of the most recited psalms in Jewish history.

First, they declared it as such. They chose one psalm from all of David’s songs, one prayer from all of Tanach and they praised it, raised it, setting it above the rest. First the Talmud (Berachot 4b) entertains the notion that the acrostic is key to its importance. The message is that the psalm is special not only for what it says, but for how it says it! (Method over message).
But when challenged by psalm 119 which has the acrostic eightfold, it offers a second approach—the content, namely the powerful dimension of God's infinite lovingkindness--verse פ. This verse and what it represents teaches us that substance plays the crucial role in determining its status. (Message over method).

This answer, too, is rejected by means of a similar verse in psalm 136 (noten lechem lechol basar), Chazal conclude—it must be a unique combination of the two (Message And Method).

Poetry often focuses on one aspect or the other. One might lean to the form of the poetic manner--its rhyme, its word play, alliteration, etc. Alternatively, the complex message embedded in the poem might be the key factor disregarding many strictly method oriented motifs. Perhaps an ideal poem can accurately synthesize the two schools of poetry and balance the intellectual and the aesthetic together. This is the intention of king David in psalm 145!

Secondly, within the psalm itself, or better, in transmitting the pure psalm to liturgy they added on a prefix and a suffix, two verses before, and one to conclude. What should be noted is not only the content of the additional verses but the simple first and last letter of the prayer—אשרי...הללויה. This one psalm, hint Chazal, is a microcosm for all of Tehillim which begins psalm 1 with the word Ashrei, and ends psalm 150 with the word Halleluya. One step beyond is to theorize that Tehillim itself is a microcosm of all of Tanach and ultimately the mission of man in this world.

The explanation of this idea is the subject of part 2...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Portrait of Metaphysical Fortune

A successful poem will sometimes enable you to close your eyes and envision the message in your mind. You conjure up the idea with your own palette, style and background. In so doing, the poet becomes your partner in conveying a shared truth. The importance of the mental picture is high on King David's list as he dedicates the third and fourth verses of Psalms on such a picture which sparks our imagination. After praising the 'Ish'(average individual), he begins the portrait as follows:

והיה כעץ שתול על פלגי מים אשר יתן פריו בעתו ועלהו לא יבול וכל אשר יעשה יצליח לא כן הרשעים כי אם כמץ אשר תדפנו רוח "And he shall be like the tree firmly planted by the banks of the river whose fruit come in the proper season and whose leaves never wither and all he does he will succeed.
Not so with regard to the wicked for they are like the chaff that flies away in the wind."

The insertion of the simile (a comparing of two unlike objects) reflects the importance with which the poet wanted to enforce the notion of the reward of the righteous versus the punishment of the wicked. This fits in to our theme that the psalm is about the average individual who is struggling to avoid the temptation of the wicked, as there is no better stumbling block than the unsettling vision of the righteous suffering while the wicked succeeding. The writer must convince us that this equation is ultimately false before expecting our adherence.

For this reason we are asked to imagine the corollary to righteous living. Picture in your mind a large cedar tree entrenched by the bank of a river. Consider its roots which find a constant supply of nourishment from the fertile earth and its luscious, sustaining fruit always appearing in their proper time. On the one hand we are awed by the presence of this tree and we appreciate its longevity and consistency. On the other hand we must note that in order for the tree to reach its impressive state it requires years, decades, and even generations. Once it achieves its grandeur it will endure and provide shade, fruit, life for centuries to come, but one still needs patience and perspective until one arrives at that gets there.

Now consider a grain of wheat. It it planted, harvested and turned into a scrumptious donut in months. Its reward is almost immediate, the waiting time is next to nothing. However, while it delivers the product, it loses itself during the process. The chaff is lost in the wind, the wheat is crushed down, and one needs to start the process all over again in the next season. The chaff is useless, the pleasure from the wheat, ephemeral.

When you contrast a stalk of wheat with a magnificent tree you begin to realize there is no comparison and while one requires patience ultimately it is worth the wait. The same applies to one's life and pursuit of meaning and fortune. Sure there is a quick route to physical pleasure, but what of a long lasting consistent sense of purpose and enrichment?

A righteous person builds, develops and consistently shapes his life and his family so that the next generation will emerge strong, vibrant, confident, fortunate! They will have been sustained by the simple but consistent river nutrients and will appreciate the deep roots of their tradition and their mission. In this context the end of the simile presents us with an interesting turn--it switches back into the individual.

"And everything he does he will be successful".

It seems as if the poet wanted us to enter the surreal for the dramatic effect of the picture and then seamlessly have us return to real life as if to say our dreams can turn into a consistent, protracted, generational, reality. NOT so with the wicked. For they revel in the moment, but the moment will be their only consolation.

For the average individual who struggles with good and evil, this psalm presents for him a powerful intellectual and mental picture of the true rewards of a righteous life. He is rest assured by the psalm and willing to make the sacrifice, to live a meaningful existence, a spiritual existence and ultimately a fortunate one!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Finding Fortune Part 2

Intensification is a powerful poetic tool used quite often in Biblical poetry. According to Bible scholar Dr. Robert Alter, verses in the Torah which create a parallelism in the second stanza are involved in an intensifying of the message (see Mercer’s Dictionary of the Bible, page 698). It engages the reader, heightens the drama and intensifies the message. The idea presented is that when we enhance a message and emphasize, it resonates with us and we internalize it more.

It is therefore somewhat mystifying that in the first few verses of Psalms, when we would expect intensification and a strong progression, we find the exact opposite.

אשרי האיש אשר לא הלך בעצת רשעים ובדרך חטאים
לא עמד ובמושב לצים לא ישב
כי אם בתורת ה חפצו ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה

"Fortunate is the one who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the path of sinners, nor sat in the assembly of insolent; rather the Torah is his desire, meditating on it day and night."

First off, the praise of the individual is all in the negative—fortunate is he who did not… why not simply write “fortunate is the one who walked with righteous, stood with pious? Secondly, the reverse progression of walking, standing, sitting and finally meditating presents us with a feeling of paralysis. Is the praise upon the individual who does nothing??

Perhaps the two points converge; the average person wakes up and, as the day begins, is bombarded by unplanned movement; such activities void of premeditation are a breeding ground for sin. Without considering, the temptation of joining the group, hanging out, standing around—whether it is a water cooler at the office, or outside the sanctuary during the sermon, sitting at the coffee house or talking with friends at recess—is quite formidable. Indeed, many of us are so busy in our lives that we might fail to consider the steps we take and the company in which we find ourselves. This leads to an existence that is extremely busy, filled with activity, but ultimately uninspired.

The psalmist recognized the struggle of the average person who just has to go with the flow in order to end up far from the righteous path, therefore the praise is in the negative, acknowledging the strength of the one who stayed away from the most natural and least taxing action.

The fortunate soul has already passed on the sinning group walking, veered from the people standing around and speaking lashon hara, and chosen to reject the frivolous activities of the seated assembly. That person thought things through, that individual found strength in the attitude of Torah as his/her delight, meditating upon it day and night. The intellectual experience of the fortunate ones determines the nature of their day’s endeavors.

Judaism certainly believes in taking action. Immobility is an unhealthy life philosophy; however when it comes to choosing a course of action for our day, the psalm comes to reward us for thinking first, acting upon those thoughts and ultimately choosing the right direction in our lives.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Finding Fortune Part 1

אשרי האיש אשר לא הלך ("Fortunate is the person who does not")

These are the first words of the book of Tehillim. For a book devoted to praising God, calling out to God, thanking Him and needing Him, it is quite telling that the incipient remarks should be אשרי האיש אשר לא! Each word raises concern for the reader, as we wonder why begin in such a way. First off, the word אשרי (ashrei) is mysterious. Does it mean happy? praiseworthy? blessed? I found all these translations in various books. Which one is best suited for the onset of the book of Psalms? I prefer the term 'fortunate', but with a twist. Generally, fortunate connotes physical joys, wealth and excess. But there already is a Hebrew word which expresses physical wealth which sounds very similar to our word--עשר (osher). The psalmist chooses his word carefully--אושר-- to distinguish between physical joy and metaphysical fortune. Experiencing true metaphysical joy one searches for the opposite of material riches in order to reach a state of complacency with his material lot. Our rabbis called true wealth the attitude of being happy with what you have. Indeed we might argue that the entire Jewish outlook on life is finding our way from seeking osher with an ayin, to realizing osher with an aleph! Thus the psalm begins with praise of the individual who has found the magic elixir of life--metaphysical fortune, spiritual joy.

The second word also requires some consideration. Would we not have wanted to praise and describe the righteous individual? For this there are plenty of words from which to choose--tzaddik, chasid, yashar... Why choose a bland, average, anonymous איש? In order to answer we must remind ourselves that this book is not written for the elite but rather for the masses. King David had a message to his entire kingdom, a message of closeness to God and capacity to speak with Him, praise Him and feel Him throughout one's life. If the book begin with a description of a righteous man who knew no evil, didn't recognize temptation, then it would reject a whole population of the simple folk. For this reason perhaps a generic individual is praised--אשרי האיש, fortunate is the person who can resist temptation and bypass evil on their way to a meaningful existence. They are the subject of this great book, they are the ones who will achieve immortality!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Poetry of Simplicity

When encountering a poem I sometimes recoil, unable to see its beauty at first glance and appreciate its message due to its complexity. One needs the right tools, temperament and imagination to become a partner with the poet and emerge with a new and fresh perspective. There are however shorter poems which still pack a punch; in fact, terseness might impact even stronger than a long drawn out poem. Consider the shortest poem in the Bible (Numbers 12:13):

וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-ה’ לֵאמֹר: אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ

And Moses shouted to the Lord, saying: God,
Please heal please –

This five-word poem presents several powerful messages about the nature of petition, the personality of Moses and the relationship between a brother and a sister. As I write in my forthcoming book, sometimes it is worthwhile to view the poem in a different structure, perhaps the way the author intended it to be seen:
נָא נָא
אֵל לָהּ

We immediately notice the doubling of the word נָא – please – before and after the central word: רפא – heal. Why the repetition? We must note that in the story God’s decree is a just punishment for Miriam who sins against her brother and against God’s ways. The response of leprosy is handed down with a measure for a measure. Moses’ job is to somehow obtain mercy for his stricken sister despite the justice involved in her punishment. He employs brevity to get straight to his point – please.

In the five-word song, due to the aforementioned doubling of נָא, we notice an interesting poetic structure: ABCBA. The structuring of the poem allows us to concentrate on word placement and the central feature being presented, in this case C – רְפָא – heal. The notion of healing is enveloped by B on both sides, as Moses attempts to direct the petition to “please HEAL please” rather than focusing on Miriam herself who, based on her action, is clearly not worthy of mercy. This explains the strange word sequence which veers from logic and standard syntax. We would have expected the poem to read:

Lord, please – heal her, please.

In this respect the “please” begins and ends the poem and presents an inclusio of the idea of entreaty before God. Moses strays from that sequence in order to elicit a more merciful response from the Creator as well as to direct attention away from Miriam per se, and maintain the prayer’s focus on God and Moses’ plea to Him.

There is still much to analyze and many permutations of these five words but the message is clear. Moses teaches us about humility, fraternity, and a secret way to find God’s mercy at the height of His anger. He reminds us of the necessity to pray and the power of prayer even when justice dictates otherwise. He also gives a lesson in brevity and simplicity as just five words are able to penetrate the celestial spheres to mitigate his sister’s divine punishment.

One verse, one story, one example of the multiple facets of poetic meaning and nuance found in the biblical drama and of the sometimes smallest verse which can say so much.
-Much of the blog was taken from my forthcoming book called The Poetry of Prayer, due out this summer by Gefen publishing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Join Me!

There are many ways to express ourselves individually in this religion. Our personal relationship with God is just that, personal. Our Torah learning need not take place with more than one, and our prayer is perfectly legitimate as a "soul's sincere desire" to connect with its maker. There is one area, however, which requires many and not one will suffice--the greatest mission of all, to proclaim the name of God as One over the entire world. In actualizing the ה אחד ושמו אחד prophecy, one lone voice will not reach the multitudes. True, in today's cyber-technic world where information travels close to the speed of light one blog, or site, or video can reach hundreds of thousands, even millions. However, when attempting to present something more than sensationalism and sound bytes the effort requires a grander scale. In this regard, King David has one message to his friends--join me!
Psalm 34 stands in contrast to many other psalms in Tehillim in that there is no direct call to God at all. It is a psalm to his friends, his countrymen, his nation and maybe mankind. It is a call for all of God's faithful to partake in the holiest of endeavours of raising God's name to all. Verse 3 initiates the message: גדלו לה אתי ונרוממה שמו יחדו "Render God great with me, and we will lift His name together". We are familiar with this verse for two reasons. First it is recited every time the Torah is removed from the ark (except Shabbat morning) when the community is about to read the Torah in public. The Torah, God's recipe for an enlightened life, cannot be read by an individual, it is a public affair, requiring at least a quorum and often many more to set it in motion. (The second is as a source for a zimmun, three to bless God's name, see Berachot 7).
The psalm continues as David describes the ways in which God delights in His followers and the vital characteristics a person must have in order to be worthy of standing together with David to publicly spread the name of God throughout the world.
At a time when much of the world focuses on the individual success it is a comforting knowledge that sometimes in Judaism, we can only go at it together.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Reward Lies in the Struggle

How should we feel when entering the Synagogue? What emotional state should we be in when praying to God? King David offers us a glimpse of his feelings in psalm 5 when he speaks about preparing to pray to God. Our prayer book gleaned one verse from the psalm to represent our initial experience of engaging with our Creator. ואני ברב חסדך אבוא ביתך אשתחוה אל היכל קדשך ביראתך. (But I in Your abundant kindness shall enter Your house, bow down in Your holy inner sanctum, in fear.)
Many are familiar with this verse and recite it matter-of-factly, but in truth it is far from simple. This one statement provides much insight into David's psyche and his understanding of the Man--God process called prayer. Two phrases are extraneous in this verse. It could simply have read, "But I shall enter Your house and bow down in Your holy inner sanctum". Why with Your abundant kindness? Why in fear?
The answer, I think stems from the previous three verses and the structure of psalm 5. Verses 2-4 have David expressing to God his intention to offer a prayer before Him--a preface to the prayer. In 5-7, David explains that God should accept his prayer because after all "You are not a God who desires wickedness or tolerates evil". God does not allow scoffers to stand before Him, He hates doers of iniquity, destroys speakers of lies and despises blood guiltiness and deceit.
No less than seven expressions of evil and contemptible people which David presents to God in contrast to himself. Is it not enough for him to say, "But I God pray to You!"
Apparently not! David is well aware that he is not perfect, indeed he has sinned and is sometimes not worthy to stand before God. Yet, despite his sin, he chooses to still stand before God and pray, plead, and beseech from God his needs about which only god can fulfill. The magical phrase ברב חסדך teaches us to recognize where we stand in God's eyes and where we position ourselves in this world. While we may not attain perfection, we strive towards it and do not let our inconsistencies inhibit our calling out to God.
His abundant kindness allows for us to feel the confidence to stand before Him and ask for our needs. This is a beautiful expression of the relationship between the loving Creator and the very human, inconsistent, faulty, but unyielding creature of God who seeks to be nothing less than shielded in His divine presence.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Of Jewish Generals and Kings

War is hell! It brings out the worst in people, and it must do so if the individual is going to survive, withstand, conquer and control. It is the animal instinct which man curbs for most of his day which must be unleashed in order to succeed. For this reason there are different rules in wartime, morality seems to take a backseat and an uneasiness engulfs one's consciousness. Yes, there are no atheists in the foxholes but other than that split second, much of the battlefront experience ignores Godliness and spirituality. It is not for nought that the Torah presents a most difficult commandment called the beautiful captive.
There is no individual more important than the general or king at times of war. This is provided that the king or general is on the front lines leading the troops towards the enemy. If a flicker of fear is found on his face the soldiers sense it, the battle is already lost. If he inspires them moments before the attack, if he riles up the troops and draws out those animalistic instincts and urges, the soldiers become a fighting force like no other.
But what does he say? How does he inspire that confidence? Passion?
King David provides an answer in psalm 20.
יענך ה' ביום צרה--God will answer your call on this day of distress
The first verse sets the stage for an entire psalm devoted to rallying the troops before the ensuing battle. The priest or prophet stands up at the gates of Jerusalem, faces the king and the army with the throngs of civilians looking on and exclaims: "God will answer your call on this day of distress". Implicit in this incipient remark is the understanding as to what type of king or general is standing before them--this warrior invokes God as his salvation. This king has prayed on behalf of himself, his army and his nation for salvation--to him, God will reply. The first five verses reinforce this motif. He will send, He will support, He will remember, provide, fulfill...
And who is this king? One who not only prays but recognizes the holy of holies and Jerusalem as the manifestation of God's presence and has offered meal and burnt offerings before the high priest. Indeed to this personality there is confidence that God will "fulfill his heart's desire". The nation rejoice at seeing a true leader who can inspire, enlighten and lead them into battle. This king represents God stronger than any prophet or priest who stays back at the camp while the army goes to war.
The Jewish soldier does not eschew his Godliness at times of distress; on the contrary, he includes God in his prayers, on the battlefield and in the villages. He cares for the fruit trees and certainly for the civilians who are casualties of the war. He knows that some like to count the tanks, others the artillery, but our secret lies in the mentioning of the name of God our Lord.
In this context the psalm ends on a beautifully ambiguous note: "the king will answer us on the day we call out to him". To which king does the psalmist refer? To the human one who leads them onto the battlefield, or to the One King who brings ultimate salvation from above? The answer I think is a blending of the two so that the Jewish king truly rises and raises his people to Godly proportions even on the most trying days of distress.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Comparing psalm 6 (tachanun) with psalm 30 (chanukat habayit ledavid)

Titles and leading verses are very important in biblical poetry as they often set the tenor of the entire passage. David in ascribing a title with meaning to psalm 30 gives us the impression that it is a happy psalm, about rejoicing and praise. While in Psalm 6 we are convinced he is in a deep depression due to al lhis ailments and woes.
But in truth, while psalm 30 begins with a rejoicing 'sing a song dedicating the house''motif and then proceeds to an upbeat first verse 'I shall praise the Lord for He drew me up, it neverthless bears a striking resemblance to the downtrodden David of psalm 6. Both have David going through a variety of ailments--some physical, some emotional, external as well as internal spiritual; both have words like 'sheol, bechi' and perhaps most significantly, 'behala'! Both offer a claim from David saying to God that he is of no use to Him dead, and both see David calling out to God and realizing that his sin has brought him to this unforutnate position.
The difference between the two, however, is how one presents one's predicament. In Psalm 6 it is all sadness, depression, desperation and helplessness. It begins with a desparate call to God not to rebuke him but instead to shine His light and show grace to David, and from there it describes all the frightening and torturous conditions. The redemption is far off, and the only moment of solace comes when he acknowledges that God has heard his cries.
30, on the other hand, shares a different angle. It begins and ends (in inclusio form) with a call of praise to God (in a somewhat chaistac structure with abba--I shall praise God...God my Lord I shall eternally praise and thank. With these two bookends the psalm introduces all the requisite fears of the king--his enemies from without and within, his psychological worries and his physical ailments. 30 gives us more of a 'recalled in tranquility'perspective without us having to feel bad from the getgo. It seems as if David is teaching us to engage in introspection regarding our own existential and metaphysical state. Determine for ourselves if we truly are in a state of despair stemming from a deep depression or perhaps we are suffering from our sins and the repercussions. In which case the forumla in psalm 6 is clear--God can help us raise ourselves from the depressive state. If however we are not that low, then our calling to God follows psalm 30, bookends of praise with content that is an admixture of emotions and fears as well as thanks and praise.
Two mizmorim with similar content, but with a message that is ultimately entirely opposite reflected in the anture of the poetry and its method. That's Biblical poetry!

first post... My Problem With Daily Prayer

I pray daily. Most of the time I follow the service-- recite, repeat, sing, meditate, etc. Some times I tune out or read some literature I brought with me to pass the time of the service. I am not proud of it, but I confess that prayer is a difficult experience for me. I am meant to come to a Synagogue (often at early hours) and immediately begin a dialogue with my Creator. Can it be done? There is no question that at times I feel my supplications have almost touched the heavenly gates. When I really needed guidance, during a particularly troubling time personally or nationally, or on a festival, perhaps Yom Kippur many years ago--I felt it. But on a daily basis?
It is with this sober realization that I set out on a quest to understand the words I recite in prayer, to appreciate them, and find a way to use them as my own when speaking to God. Over ten years ago I began writing a column called Introduction to Psalms where I analyzed a chapter of Tehillim every week for a few thousand students throughout the world. I twas very fulfilling as I was able to peek into the heart and soul of King David and the other psalmists and truly understand their poetic words, conveying the timeless messages to my readers. I also tried to internalize the ideas so that when I would have the oportunity to recite them, I would be ready and inspired.
It worked. And then it stopped working.

And then it started once again when I realized that as fickle as I am on a daily basis, so too is my spiritual capacity specificaly when engaged in prayer with an invisible God. Sometimes I feel it, other times...

This blog represents the daily, weekly or monthly ruminations of my heart about prayer in general and the elucidation of Psalms chosen to form part of that prayer in particular in hope that my dialogue with the Creator will continue to be dynamic and inspire me (and my children) to 'glance upwards' to God in a powerful way on a daily basis.