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.