Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Shortest Psalm

The Shortest Psalm; The Grandest Message

Psalm 117 has just two verses. What can we say about a psalm consisting of just sixteen words?

א הַלְלוּ אֶת-ה', כָּל-גּוֹיִם; שַׁבְּחוּהוּ, כָּל-הָאֻמִּים.
ב כִּי גָבַר עָלֵינוּ, חַסְדּוֹ-- וֶאֱמֶת-ה'לְעוֹלָם:

"Praise God all the peoples; laud Him all nations.
For His loving-kindness has overcome upon us; and truth God, mysteriously eternal, Praise God."

There are two exegetical quandaries in this short psalm. The first is thematic; the second, semantic. The first verse offers a straightforward idyllic eschatology--a day will come when all nations will praise God. The second verse, however, presents the difficulty as it begins with the word ki--for or because. Once we attempt to provide a reason for the worlds' acknowledgment of God we tread on dangerous territory.

We find two seemingly diametrically opposing yet symbiotic components for this universal praise; the first half of the verse concerns God's chessed (loving-kindness), while the second relates to God's emet (truth).

Chessed and Emet appear countless times throughout the Torah, each one representing a different motif of Godly attributes, and consequently, human emulation.

Emet is truth, pure, absolute, black and white, unforgiving, unsympathetic, ideal.
Chessed is love, kindness, compromise, sacrifice, openness, understanding, practical, ideal.

They seem to contradict; they seem to travel in different ideological circles, perfecting opposing components of personalities.

We know each type; each one is meritorious. One pursues justice, isn't that ideal? Without that pursuit we would sink into a chaotic, vortex of relativism. Justice is blind, it speaks truth, it sees one's actions and one's consequences. A justice system is a sine qua non for God's ideal society. It is built on truth, emet and certainly the rabbinic adages that God's name is composed of emet rings true.

Chesed, on the other hand, rejects truth, blurs justice and focuses on one's heart. Forgiveness,
reconciliation, above and beyond, doing something simply for the good that comes out of it. Chesed doesn't necessarily make sense, it is a leap of faith, a shot in the dark. Chesed is what the world is built on, 'olam chesed yibane', it is the loving-kindness of creation which God fashions for imperfect man. It is the second chances, seeing the potential and overcoming the urge to act justly, truthfully.

What do we find? God is described as 'verav chesed ve'emet'--a mixture of these two contradictory attributes. Avraham pursues this idyllic admixture; Yaakov bequeaths it to his sons on his deathbed; the spies offer it to Rachav for safe haven; Shmuel acknowledges it, David writes about it, Shlomo offers it as wisdom. Chesed and emet are opposites destined to be together.

In our short psalm we nevertheless learn of the interaction of the two in the reason for universal praise of God--'ki gavar alenu chasdo'--for the chesed component overcame. It 'beat out' the emet and is most pronounced in the equation. But 've'emet Hashem, leolam'--the truth of God, that is mysteriously eternal.

The word 'olam' often translates as eternity, though sometimes is understood as hidden, or disappearing from the forefront of consciousness. 've'neelam hadavar'. The precise definition might borrow a bit from both and render the truth of God mysteriously eternal.

Perhaps a life dedicated to chesed ultimately engenders a legacy of truth for eternity. Perhaps the exact blend of the two attributes is what the psalmist praises. Either way, this duo is the wellspring from which we sing out our ubiquitous praise--'hodu l'Hashem ki tov, ki leolam chasdo'.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


"Don't hide your face from me; don't disregard your servant, you were my great help, don't abandon me, don't leave me. For my father and mother left me, but God, you will collect me" right?
Psalm 27

David is speaking here not like the king of Israel, a warrior, poet or leader. David speaks here as a broken man who has lost loved ones in his life. David is an orhpan and as an orphan he realizes sadly that he will forever be alone. When parents die they leave behind a child, four years old or forty, still a child who is bereft, existentially alone, afraid.

Yizkor is mandated to be recited by those who forget and to only be recited a few times a year for those who can't let go. But when a man or woman is confronted with the mortality and the harsh reality of the sands of time, a profound sadness envelops them.

David reminds us that we will always be someone's child and their influence left an indelible imprint on us. Only God inour hearts and minds can fill that void, acting as the caring mother and guiding father.

They leave. It's a fact. It's up to us to cherish the moments they are here, soak in their light and attempt to transmit it to our children in the future. And it's up to us to follow David in calling out to God, demanding of Him not to leave us, abandon, forget, ignore...
al taazvenu

Friday, August 20, 2010

Ahavti--Personalizing Hallel

Hallel can be viewed as a story.

It actually begins in psalm 111 with the word, "Hallelu-yah begins with אודה את ה' (I will praise), a single voice on a quest to expand God's name in the world. He concludes תהלתו עומדת לעד (His praise exists eternally), an a to z depiction of God's greatness and his desire to praise Him eternally. Psalm 112 moves from a description of man's desire to praise—אודה— and a list of those praises, to אשרי איש ירא את ה', fortunate is the MAN who fears the Lord, which is a psalm of praise for the individual who leads a life infused with righteousness, morality and praise of God. It concludes with the ultimate reward of the individual who aims to praise God in his lifetime—תאות רשעים תאבד--the desire of the wicked (to disrupt his ways) will be terminated.
Psalm 113 continues with a synthesis of the two: הללו-יה, הללו עבדי ה' הללו את שם ה' the praising of God in the world is fused together with the one who praises Him.

With these three psalms as an introduction, psalm 114 begins with בצאת ישראל ממצרים, a praise of Israel for the exodus. I have already mentioned that an analysis of this psalm leads us to an understanding of the important realization one must have of why God changes nature at time. I also wrote about the dramatic beginning לא לנו, not for us, but for You, which we find in psalm 115.

Then we reach psalm 116—Ahavti ( I loved it when…). It represents a moment in the story when something goes wrong, a crisis develops, a depression settles. How do we deal with it? One of the exegetical problems with the psalm concerns the time at which the psalm is being recited. The first half of the psalm seems to imply there is an immediate crisis while the second half seems to imply it has passed and the psalmist is expressing gratitude about the events of the past.

Depending on which position you take you must interpret the grammar of certain parts of the psalm accordingly. This is by no means a simple translation. Be aware, every translation is an interpretation and this psalm is a clear example.

א אָהַבְתִּי, כִּי-יִשְׁמַע ה'-- אֶת-קוֹלִי, תַּחֲנוּנָי.
ב כִּי-הִטָּה אָזְנוֹ לִי; וּבְיָמַי אֶקְרָא.
ג אֲפָפוּנִי, חֶבְלֵי-מָוֶת--וּמְצָרֵי שְׁאוֹל מְצָאוּנִי; צָרָה וְיָגוֹן אֶמְצָא.
ד וּבְשֵׁם-ה' אֶקְרָא: אָנָּה ה', מַלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי.
ה חַנּוּן ה' וְצַדִּיק; וֵאלֹהֵינוּ מְרַחֵם.
ו שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם ה'; דַּלֹּתִי, וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ.
ז שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי, לִמְנוּחָיְכִי: כִּי-ה', גָּמַל עָלָיְכִי.
ח כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת: אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה; אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי.
ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי ה'-- בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים.
י הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, כִּי אֲדַבֵּר; אֲנִי, עָנִיתִי מְאֹד.
יא אֲנִי, אָמַרְתִּי בְחָפְזִי: כָּל-הָאָדָם כֹּזֵב.
יב מָה-אָשִׁיב לַה'-- כָּל-תַּגְמוּלוֹהִי עָלָי.
יג כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא; וּבְשֵׁם ה' אֶקְרָא.
יד נְדָרַי, לַה' אֲשַׁלֵּם; נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ.
טו יָקָר, בְּעֵינֵי ה'-- הַמָּוְתָה, לַחֲסִידָיו.
טז אָנָּה ה', כִּי-אֲנִי עַבְדֶּךָ:
אֲנִי-עַבְדְּךָ, בֶּן-אֲמָתֶךָ; פִּתַּחְתָּ, לְמוֹסֵרָי.
יז לְךָ-אֶזְבַּח, זֶבַח תּוֹדָה; וּבְשֵׁם ה' אֶקְרָא.
יח נְדָרַי, לַה' אֲשַׁלֵּם; נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ.
יט בְּחַצְרוֹת, בֵּית ה'-- בְּתוֹכֵכִי יְרוּשָׁלִָם:

1 I loved it when God would hear my voice and my supplications.
2 When He inclined His ear to me, and in my time I would call..
3 [Yet then] the pangs of death encompassed me, and the straits of the nether-world got hold upon me; I found trouble and sorrow.
4 But I called upon the name of God saying: 'I beseech You, O LORD, deliver my soul.'
5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yea, our God is compassionate.
6 God guards the simple ones (secrets?); I was brought low, and He saved me.
7 Return, O my soul, to rest again; for the LORD has repaid you (?).
8 For You delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
9 I will walk before God in the lands of the living.
10 I trusted even when I spoke: 'I am greatly afflicted.'
11 I said in my haste: 'All men are liars.'
12 How can I repay unto the LORD all His bountiful dealings toward me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
14 My vows will I pay unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people.
15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.
16 I beseech Thee, O LORD, for I am Thy servant; I am Thy servant, the son of Thy handmaid; Thou hast loosed my bands.
17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.
18 I will pay my vows unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people;
19 In the courts of the LORD'S house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. Halleluyah

This psalm is often split into two sections: 1-11, and 12-19.
Let's see if the interpretation supports this division:
Until verse 8 the psalmist describes an event of crisis, a call to God and deliverance. The culmination could either be in verse 9—I shall walk before God…
Or in verse 11—all men are liars.

The problem with the second division is that it seems to leave us hanging. Why conclude with believing all men lie? What does that add to the conclusion of walking before God after having received deliverance?

Amos Chacham in Daat Mikra notes that according to the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the Torah by Ptolemy) section one starts with an awkward word—ahavti-- but concludes with a positive note of 'ethalech lifnei Hashem be'artzot hachaim' (I will walk before God in the land of living). Then, states the Septuagint, section two of the psalm begins with the word He'emanti (I believed) which parallels Ahavati (I loved).

Ahavti KI yishma Ha-Shem et koli… verse 1
He'emanti KI adaber… verse 10

What we gain from this distinction is a parallelism in the psalm of both halves focusing on a time of depression and crisis and a religious reaction when deliverance came. In the first half his response is acknowledging of God's salvation, the second half goes one step beyond and asks—'ma ashiv la'HaShem' (what can I return to God?). It focuses on the vow, the neder that this individual wants to give to God as a result of the goodness which was bestowed upon him.

Repaying a vow finds expression in verse 14 and then repeated again in 18. Verse 13 which speaks of calling out in God's name parallels verse 4 using the same language. Verses 17 and 19 enforce the notion of repayment of the vow in terms of an offering in the Temple in Jerusalem.

What we emerge with is a new component of the Hallel experience. It is not simply a present day desire to praise and acknowledge God for an historical miracle bestowed upon one; It becomes more personalized, subjective and introspective. When introducing this subjective component some bitterness seeps out when recalling times of crisis and isolation.

The psalm sets out an introspective Hallel in the first section in the form of recognition and singing praise; in the second half the psalmist wants to act on the base level to heighten the religious expression by turning to action and directing oneself to Jerusalem. Through this reinforcement we appreciate a new aspect to praising God and an important component of Hallel.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Tehillim Anthology

Tehillim for Every Occasion (1-22)

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.

Psalm 10—Lashing out. The wicked boast, in their success they take pride. This seeming injustice and perversion in our eyes causes us to scream out to God. Why? How? Those who curse God seemingly keep rising higher. The psalm demands from God to rise up, put the wicked in their place, restore equilibrium, at least in our minds.
(similar idea in psalm 11,12)

Psalm 13 How Long? The psalm is short and powerful for anyone in a position of despair, ready to give up because it looks like it will never end. The anxiety builds up and instead of looking to escape reality, call out to God and ask for a respite in the suffering.

Psalm 14 Philosophy about Evil. Sometimes we read Tehillim to understand views on evil in the world, God’s sense of justice and the foolishness of wrongdoers.

Psalm 15. Who is Righteous? Too often we define righteousness by God-related actions. The psalm reminds us about interpersonal character traits and the importance of being a ‘mentch’.

Psalm 16—At a Funeral. Several psalms offer solace for the grieving individual. This one reminds us that God rewards those who cleave to Him and that though we may physically cease to exist, spiritually we rejoice in the knowledge that God will never leave us.

Psalm 17—A Direct Call to God. A prayer directed to God to guard our paths, answer us, show us His loving-kindness, and watch over us. Though our enemies conspire against us we may take faith in God’s governance and reassurance in His justice.

Psalm 18—A Song of Gratitude. Personal salvation, whether physical or emotional, warrants a spiritual response. David, at a time of great peril and precariousness, finds a moment of respite and composes a song to God. Filled with aphorisms of God-consciousness, the psalm provides a template for the believer to use as a springboard for singing out in praise of one’s redeemer.

Psalm 20—God will Answer Me in My time of Need—Every country, city, community and home has a leader who inspires, guides and teaches the populace at any given moment. The leader must be embedded with strength of character, courage, commitment and most of all, a strong subservient connection with the Ultimate Saviour, the True King, God in heaven. In truth, each and every individual is at times a leader, at times a follower; at times ready to charge at life’s vicissitudes, at times willing to listen, learn and emulate those who have taken the mantle and confronted the crisis.

Psalm 22—Despair—My God, My God why have you forsaken me…This famously quoted verse finds it source in David’s treatise on despair and hope, two emotions that sometimes can go hand in hand. Often one figures that when depression sets in there is no outlet to God, no chance to include the notion of salvation. David rejects this by interweaving these seemingly contradictory emotions into one song, prayer and psalm.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Message for Yom Haatzmaut

ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו
The Nascent Flowering of our Redemption

ברך את מדינת ישראל ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו

This quote, representing the most powerful and controversial component of the prayer for the state of Israel, was coined by the then chief Rabbi Herzog in 1948. It has become the mantra of the religious Zionist movement and the nemesis of the Haredi world due to its religious connotations.

In a word, if you accept the veracity of this statement you believe that the creation of the (secular) state of Israel represents a stage in the return to Zion, redemption or messianic age (depending on your preference for terminology). Rejecting this statement on religious grounds places you in a camp unwilling or unable to confer upon the events of the past 62 years any particularly religious title due to their secular origins as well as contemporary secular establishment.

And so, three small words can present a divide so seemingly insurmountable as to cause a chasm within the Orthodox Jewish community.

The words chosen by Rabbi Herzog are quite unique—'reishit, tzmichat, geulateinu'. Reishit means the beginnings, first stages; the second word seems to be a repetition of the first—tzmch. The first reference to the word tzmch—צמח in the Torah is to the creation of plants and vegetation: Bereishit 2:5,9--
וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, וְכָל-עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִצְמָח every shrub had yet to develop, all vegetation yet to emerge.
וַיַּצְמַח ה' אֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה, וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל God created from the ground all trees of visual delight and delectable to eat.
The word reappears with the description of Pharaohs dream of the miraculous bundles of wheat, as well as in describing the destruction of the plague of barad (hail)—all focusing on this idea of generation, creation, emergence.

Thus, the phrase seems to declare that we are in an era of "first of the emerging", the initial, initial stages of the vegetative development—of redemption! Well, what is the first of the first? How should we understand the earliest stages of development? The answer might stem from understanding the source of the word tzmch, emergence, or perhaps, flowering.

How does a plant grow? There are four stages it undergoes from seed to plant to earth: vegetative, reproductive, senescence (old age) and dormancy . The first stage is the topic for discussion here: vegetation.

( Based on an internet article by Pan, Wendy "Plant Growth Stages - How Plants Grow
It starts with a seed. The seed, like a fertilized egg in human beings, has an inner and outer shell. In the initial stages of development the seedling is sustained by the inner food store inside the seed, similar to a mother's womb. In this state it is able to create the root stem which will nourish the plant and enable it to grow. When the gestational period succeeds and the seed is ready to move to the next level—to manifest, it penetrates the protective coating of the shell in two directions. The root stem grows downwards towards the moist earth, while the shoot rises towards the sunlight, the 'outside' and the future.

This process continues with the root continuing to be nourished from the earth, while the shoot sprouts forth into leaves and surges towards the sun, expanding and emerging. When the seedling has matured, when roots and leaves develop simultaneously, when the vegetative, first stage is complete—
A flower emerges!

(God's) Nature begins with a seed. The seed can refer to a physiological phenomenon—plants, animals, humans, or it can refer to an idea, a philosophy, a movement! The world begins with bereishit, a seed, a first. Monotheism was reintroduced with Abraham's upward glancing towards the heavens, the kernel of a future movement to which billions would adhere. Redemption began with a seed, or in the perception of the midrash, a conversation between a daughter and her parents, to not give up despite the desperate times, to try once more, perhaps something will emerge, that flower from the thorns.

Medinat Yisrael began with a seed. A seed in Vienna. A seed in the mind of an unflappable, relentless, secular Austrian, who envisioned a future and did not stop until his dying day in pursuit of that initial, initial germination.

That seed developed an outer and inner shell, a secular, nationalist, cultural vision, nourished ultimately by the traditional, spiritual, pintele yid feeling. That seed penetrated the idea stage into action, pursuing external governments and monarchies as well as awakening internal Diaspora Jewry to the dream and to the responsibility of turning it into a reality.

That seed developed, germinated, found nourishment and gestated, until on November 29th, 1947, nations of the world recognized the Herculean triumph of a nation returning to their land, of a people connecting to their heritage, of a family joining together again from the four corners of the earth. That seed joined forces with another man of vision and action, who helped it burst forth on May 14th, 1948, and became a reality for the entire world.

Immediately, two forces began moving in opposite directions: a root began to entrench throughout the Diaspora, a base for financial, political, emotional support as well as a shoot which surged forwards into the land, to those heroic figures who tilled the land, transformed the wasteland, and fought valiantly in defense of the land, and the nation so that it could finally produce branches and leaves--shade, serenity, peace and prosperity—a flower!

Sixty-two years have passed, and as we look around our remarkable little land we have to ask ourselves: What have we accomplished? Our world leading scientists and hi-techers, start up nation and military superpower? Our unparalleled center of Torah and our refuge for any Jew in distress? Our passion and kindness, chessed and morality? What have we done?

The answer, I think, is that we have begun! The initial, initial germination, the nascent steps towards emergence, the symbiotic relationship between Jews in the Promised Land and Jews in the Diaspora, the striving towards the delicate balance between rational, open-minded, moral, democratic thinking and the adherence to the mystery, the humility, the traditions and heritage of our Torah as our guide and our light.

We have begun the process so succinctly and eloquently described by Rabbi Herzog 62 years ago. We are on our way towards the flower!

May it be His will and ours, that we live to usher in the stage where our seed will have matured into a righteous shoot which will be a harbinger for the flowering of our redemption.

Yom Haatzmaut Sameach!

ה הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם-ה', וַהֲקִמֹתִי לְדָוִד צֶמַח צַדִּיק; וּמָלַךְ מֶלֶךְ וְהִשְׂכִּיל, וְעָשָׂה מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בָּאָרֶץ. 5 Behold, the days come, says the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous shoot, and he shall reign as king and prosper, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
ו בְּיָמָיו תִּוָּשַׁע יְהוּדָה, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁכֹּן לָבֶטַח; וְזֶה-שְּׁמוֹ אֲשֶׁר-יִקְרְאוֹ, ה' צִדְקֵנוּ. 6 In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is his name whereby he shall be called, The LORD is our righteousness.
ז לָכֵן הִנֵּה-יָמִים בָּאִים, נְאֻם-ה; וְלֹא-יֹאמְרוּ עוֹד חַי-ה', אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. 7 Therefore, behold, the days come, says the LORD, that they shall no more say: 'As the LORD lives, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt';
ח כִּי אִם-חַי-ה', אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה וַאֲשֶׁר הֵבִיא אֶת-זֶרַע בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ צָפוֹנָה, וּמִכֹּל הָאֲרָצוֹת, אֲשֶׁר הִדַּחְתִּים שָׁם; וְיָשְׁבוּ, עַל-אַדְמָתָם. 8 but: 'As the LORD lives, that brought up and that led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all the countries whither I had driven them'; and they shall dwell in their own land.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lo Lanu--Not for Us!

לא לנו—Not for Us!

Psalm 115

1 Not for us, O Lord, not for us, but rather to Your Name give honor, for Your Loving-kindness, and Your truth.
2 Why should the nations say: 'Where is now their God?'
3 But our God is in the heavens; whatever pleased Him He has done.
4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
5 They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;
6 They have ears, but they hear not; noses have they, but they smell not;
7 They have hands, but they handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; neither speak they with their throat.
8 They are like them, those that make them; all those who trust in them.
9 O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield!
10 O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield!
11 Those who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.

12 The Lord has remembered us, He will bless--
He will bless the house of Israel; He will bless the house of Aaron.
13 He will bless them that fear the Lord, both small and great.
14 The Lord should increase upon you more and more, you and your children.
15 Blessed are you to the Lord who made heaven and earth.
16 The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but the earth He gave to the children of men.
17 The dead will not praise the Lord, neither any that go down into silence;
18 But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for ever.

A few questions to begin:
How does this psalm flow from the previous one focusing on Exodus from Egypt? Who is the psalm's audience and what is its ultimate message?

The psalm splits into two (leading to the break in Hallel) symmetrical halves with the former invoking Israel, house of Aaron and the fearers of God (9,10,11) to trust God, while the latter invokes God to respond to the same players in blessing (12, 13). The first half makes reference to the irrationality and ultimate uselessness of engaging in idolatry with a call to segments of the population to internalize that fact and to believe that God truly assists and defends. Perhaps herein lies the continuity between the miracle theme in psalm 114 and the notion of God's protection in ours.

Why do miracles occur? In general, God lets nature take its course, lets man make his choices, his. Sometimes, in moments of intense love God changes nature. Why?

Generally, veering from natural order reflects a deserving person or nation who is worthy of this unique break in the world. It often acts as an exclamation to all that God's people are beloved and chosen.

In fact, we usually choose the story of the Exodus as the greatest proof for the 'election' of Israel. "Asher bachar banu mikol am, ve'romemanu mikol lashon" (You have chosen us from every other nation, and lifted us from every language). This message rings clear in the very nationalistic tenor of the holiday which emerges from the Hagadah narratives as well as the first song of Hallel, "betzeit Yisrael mimitzrayim". The mitzvah of retelling and re-experiencing the story of Passover is presented on two levels, a physical realm and a spiritual one (Rav and Shmuel debating in Talmud Pesachim). Both stories, though, reflect a very personal connection between God and His 'elected' nation.

However, we must always be cautious to not allow that 'election' to be misconstrued as elitism and hyper-worthiness. We must not confuse our redemption with spiritual arrogance. In fact, never once in the narrative of the Exodus story is there a reference to the worthiness of Israel. The holiday is a scathing rebuke of Egypt and its lack of God consciousness rather than a meritorious display of affection to His cherished people…"Forty ninth level of impurity"…

In this context, psalm 115 delivers a powerful intellectual blow." It's not about us!" We are confronted with humility, indeed anonymity! "Lo lanu, lo lanu! Because it was really about Your honor!" We recognize the battle waging between the King of Kings and the dark forces in the world that reject Him and we join in the mission to enlighten about truth, absolute kindness and trusting in God.

Verse 9 begins with Israel, moves to the priestly elite and then expands to all in the world who fear God to put their trust in Him. This trust is an act of blind faith for until verse 12 there is no recompense. We are left hanging on a precarious religious cliff, wondering if we have enough courage to place our faith in God without assurance of protection. This audience of Israel, Aharon and those who fear God run through the length of the Hallel psalms with the 'trust' motif in the beginning of the psalm, the 'bless' motif in the middle and the 'thank or praise' psalm at the end of the following psalm.

The psalm exhorts Israel and the elite class and all God fearing people to believe; not to take pride or pleasure in the comfort of God's zone. It reminds us all that the world might be anthropo-oriented but it is still theo-centric (to paraphrase Rav Soloveitchik). The first word (repeated) acts as a reminder to all that the gloriousness of Passover does not bequeath upon its subjects the Holy Grail but encourages them (and us) to serve God in humility and even anonymity all the while knowing that 'it is not for us but for Him'.

השמים שמים לה' והארץ נתן לבני אדם

And yet, ultimately, the dead cannot praise Him; the land belongs to us as is the responsibility to survive, endure, ensure our future and the future of mankind. We need to follow the path through humility and trust to reach a point where:
ואנחנו נברך י-ה מעתה ועד עולם הללוי-ה we (all) will bless God from now until eternity.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Whole Story of Redemption

תהילים פרק קיד

א בְּצֵאת יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם; בֵּית יַעֲקֹב, מֵעַם לֹעֵז.
ב הָיְתָה יְהוּדָה לְקָדְשׁוֹ; יִשְׂרָאֵל, מַמְשְׁלוֹתָיו.
ג הַיָּם רָאָה, וַיָּנֹס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, יִסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.
ד הֶהָרִים, רָקְדוּ כְאֵילִים; גְּבָעוֹת, כִּבְנֵי-צֹאן.
ה מַה-לְּךָ הַיָּם, כִּי תָנוּס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.
ו הֶהָרִים, תִּרְקְדוּ כְאֵילִים; גְּבָעוֹת, כִּבְנֵי-צֹאן.
ז מִלִּפְנֵי אָדוֹן, חוּלִי אָרֶץ; מִלִּפְנֵי, אֱלוֹהַּ יַעֲקֹב.
ח הַהֹפְכִי הַצּוּר אֲגַם-מָיִם; חַלָּמִישׁ, לְמַעְיְנוֹ-מָיִם.

"Betzeit Yisrael Mi'mitzrayim"

This well-known psalm, recited or sung during every festival and particularly during Passover, tells a story of the Passover experience----"when Israel emerged from Egypt"... It describes the euphoria and the supernatural nature of this event such that not only human beings rejoiced but even the inanimate mountains, seas and rocks performed miraculous activities in acknowledging and enabling the children of Israel to triumphantly depart.

The poem is presented in parallel structure as 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 tzion; etc,). A perfect parallelism creates a feeling of orderliness and completion. Except for verses 3 and 5!

Verses 3 and again 5 describe the sea splitting or fleeing in 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 remarkable experience 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 excitement.

While a parallel verset usually restates, enhances, and/or elucidates the former one as we witness in the rest of the psalm, two verses which describe the experience of the sea are the exception-- they refer to two totally different events, occurring 40 years apart!

הים ראה וינס--the sea sees and flees
הירדן תסב לאחור--the Jordan turned backwards

While the Torah makes no reference to the sea 'fleeing' in Exodus, it does present the miracle in Joshua (3:16) closer to the psalmist's description, "the waters which came down from above stood, and rose up in one heap". Why would the author of the psalm include the second miracle of the Jordan together with the splitting of the sea forty years earlier?

The song we sing on Passover might be engaging us to recognize the entirety of the Passover story. What is the mitzvah of Passover? "mitzvat sippur yetziat Mitzrayim". Rav and Shmuel in Masechet Pesachim argue as to when this story begins (Idol worshiping, slavery respectively) but they leave us wondering as to when the story ends!

Is it the moment of the splitting of the sea, which incidentally is considered as the seventh day of Passover?
Is it at Mount Sinai which ends a cycle of the Omer joining the two holidays?
Perhaps there is another 'end of the story', one which fulfills the true divine mission originally intended:

Genesis 15:13
"And He said unto Abram: 'Know of a surety that your seed will be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;...and afterward shall they come out with great substance... And in the fourth generation they shall come back hither"

Exodus 3:8
"And I shall come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good, expansive land, to a land flowing with milk and honey; to the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite"

Pesach Mitzrayim opens a circle filled with all the ingredients of nation building and covenant fulfilling. But when does the circle close? From the prophecy to Abraham it is clear that only with the return to the land promised to the forefathers do we come full circle. From Abraham to Moshe and from Moshe to Joshua the same message rings true--Eretz Yisrael represents the seed of redemption as well as the majestic forest of fruition.

The first miracle took place for the eyes of the generation who left Egypt while the second miracle patterned exactly after the first takes place for the eyes of the second generation of those entering Israel, God's complete two-part mission told to Moshe.

In fact, when we consider the process of the exodus from Egypt it mirrors the process of entering Israel.

Consider the steps in Exodus:
Shal ne'alecha--Exodus,3:5 (personal revelation with God (in Israel acc. to Midrash),
Egypt and Exodus,
Pesach (no uncircumcised may partake),
Splitting of the sea.
Matan Torah
Entering the land

Now consider the process of entering into Israel in Joshua:
Entering the land
Splitting of the sea (הים תסב לאחור)
Matan Torah
Brit Milah
Shal ne'alecha Joshua, 5:15 (personal revelation with God in Israel)

What begins with Abraham's calling to Eretz Yisrael continues with Moshe's only experience on the land where the revelation takes place, and concludes with Joshua's ultimate return to the land with the children of Israel.

The psalmist in veering from orderly parallelism and structure unlocks a key towards the whole picture of redemption. He 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.

הים ראה וינס--the sea sees and flees
הירדן תסב לאחור--the Jordan turned backwards

Chag Sameach

Monday, February 22, 2010

King David: On Self-inflicted Scandals and How to Emerge

אשרי האיש
Psalm 1, verse 1: Fortunate is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful.

What about the man who did not evade sin? What about the man who succumbed to his evil inclinations and caused a great scandal? Can he ever regain his metaphysical fortune? Can that individual find redemption despite his indiscretions? What measures can he take to retain a legacy he worked so long to establish? Is he lost forever?

The answer comes in the form of psalm 32, another Ashrei!

א לְדָוִד, מַשְׂכִּיל: אַשְׁרֵי נְשׂוּי-פֶּשַׁע; כְּסוּי חֲטָאָה.
ב אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם--לֹא יַחְשֹׁב ה' לוֹ עָו‍ֹן; וְאֵין בְּרוּחוֹ רְמִיָּה.
ג כִּי-הֶחֱרַשְׁתִּי, בָּלוּ עֲצָמָי-- בְּשַׁאֲגָתִי, כָּל-הַיּוֹם.
ד כִּי, יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה-- תִּכְבַּד עָלַי, יָדֶךָ:
נֶהְפַּךְ לְשַׁדִּי-- בְּחַרְבֹנֵי קַיִץ סֶלָה.
ה חַטָּאתִי אוֹדִיעֲךָ, וַעֲו‍ֹנִי לֹא-כִסִּיתִי--
אָמַרְתִּי, אוֹדֶה עֲלֵי פְשָׁעַי לַה';
וְאַתָּה נָשָׂאתָ עֲו‍ֹן חַטָּאתִי סֶלָה.
ו עַל-זֹאת, יִתְפַּלֵּל כָּל-חָסִיד אֵלֶיךָ-- לְעֵת מְצֹא:רַק, לְשֵׁטֶף מַיִם רַבִּים-- אֵלָיו, לֹא יַגִּיעוּ.
ז אַתָּה, סֵתֶר לִי-- מִצַּר תִּצְּרֵנִי:
רָנֵּי פַלֵּט; תְּסוֹבְבֵנִי סֶלָה.
ח אַשְׂכִּילְךָ, וְאוֹרְךָ--בְּדֶרֶךְ-זוּ תֵלֵךְ; אִיעֲצָה עָלֶיךָ עֵינִי.
ט אַל-תִּהְיוּ, כְּסוּס כְּפֶרֶד-- אֵין הָבִין:
בְּמֶתֶג-וָרֶסֶן עֶדְיוֹ לִבְלוֹם; בַּל, קְרֹב אֵלֶיךָ.
י רַבִּים מַכְאוֹבִים, לָרָשָׁע: וְהַבּוֹטֵחַ בַּה'--חֶסֶד, יְסוֹבְבֶנּוּ.
יא שִׂמְחוּ בַה' וְגִילוּ, צַדִּיקִים; וְהַרְנִינוּ, כָּל-יִשְׁרֵי-לֵב.

1 [A Psalm] of David. Maschil. Fortunate is he whose rebelliousness is carried, whose sin is covered.
2 Fortunate is the man unto whom God no longer considers his iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deception.

3 When I kept silence, my bones wore away through my groaning all the day long.
4 For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my sap was turned as in the droughts of summer. Selah
5 I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hid; I said: 'I will make confession concerning my transgressions to God-- and You carried the iniquity of my sin
6 For this let every one that is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; surely, when the great waters overflow, they will not reach him.

7 You are my hiding-place; from an adversary
with songs of deliverance You will compass me about. Selah
8 'I will teach you, instruct you in the way which you shall go; I will give counsel, My eye is on you.'

9 Be not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding; whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, that they come not close to You.
10 Many are the sorrows of the wicked; but he that trusts in God, mercy encircles him.
11 Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you that are upright in heart.

Structure of Psalm 32
1-2 אשרי intro praising the one who has gone through the process of teshuva catharsis
3-6 An explanation of the dangers of defiance and the rewards of confession
7-8 Recreating a relationship with God after the sin, punishment, and resolution
9-11 Gleaning a moral lesson to evil and righteous as a result of the experience.

In sin one is overcome by desire; one does not contemplate actions, one acts! But immediately afterwards, after the adrenaline fades away, when feelings of guilt seep into one's soul--at that moment and the moments after that until the next opportunity to sin, the individual must make a choice: cover up? or confront your sin and be ready to deal with the consequences. This is the discussion in psalm 32.

David uses the word כסוי (cover) in verse 1 referring to God's atonement, and again in verse 5 referring to man's desire to deny, cover up, and evade responsibility. David's premise is that only through an honest confession and a readiness to expose yourself to family, friends and country will you merit a true 'cover' from God and will God lift the burden of your sins off of you paving the way to self-redemption.

Verses 3 and 4 could have been written by Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov: hiding your indiscretion and maintaining silence ultimately wears your bones, atrophies your conscience. Once again turning the phrase God's 'lightening your burden' in verse 1, a person who keeps it stuck inside ultimately feels God heavy hand upon him, crushing his spirit.

In the first 6 verses, his sinning state of 3,4 are enveloped by the healthier experience of divulging, confessing and working towards reconciliation (1,2,5,6).

But what truly sets David apart from the rest of us is his desire to turn his personal misfortune into a learning experience for all those around him. Both in this psalm and in psalm 51 David expresses his willingness to teach of his folly and help others avoid the pitfalls of sin.

One may teach only after there is acceptance, confession, steps taken towards reconciliation and a willingness to put yourself out there in humiliation in order that you may ultimately earn respect in your eyes, God's, and those around you.

The end of the psalm speaks of joy, happiness, deliverance. It reminds the average reader that as great as David's sin was, there is still a path towards redemption. Only this path must be transparent, David must reject his human inclination to cover up to achieve divine atonement and then God will cover his sins and lift the burden of guilt off his shoulders.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Real Israel Moment is a Process

My fellow Biblical exegete in the Israeli tax department asked me why Thursday's psalm for the day doesn't end up on a positive note. In fact, it is downright scary! What begins with a festive call to sing out to God:

2 Sing aloud unto God our strength; shout unto the God of Jacob.
3 Take up the melody, and sound the timbrel, the sweet harp with the psaltery.
4 Blow the horn at the new moon, at the full moon for our feast-day.
5 For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.

concludes with a litany of rebuke from God:

10. No strange god shall be within you, neither shall you prostrate yourself to a foreign god.
12. But My people did not hearken to My voice, neither did Israel desire to [follow] Me.
13. So I let them go after their heart's fantasies; let them go in their counsels.
14. If only My people would hearken to Me, if Israel would go in My ways.
15. In a short time I would subdue their enemies and upon their enemies I would return My hand.

Why does the psalm end on a note of 'if only they would listen to me'?

I pointed out to my new friend that sometimes in order to appreciate one psalm, one must check the ones around it; perhaps it is actually a continuation of another or a prelude to the next one. In this case in order to appreciate psalm 81 we have to learn psalm 80 and see the contrast between the two.

Here, we need to focus on the chorus of psalm 80 together with verse 9.
Biblical poetry doesn't always have a chorus but when it appears you can be rest assured that it is significant. In psalm 80 we find the chorus in verses 4, 8, and 20 with the same theme permeating throughout the psalm, namely: "O God, return to us, shine Your light upon us and we will be saved."

This idea of asking God for immediate salvation becomes dangerous when it is presented along with the metaphor of the grapevine found in verse 9, and continued in verse 13 and 15:

"Grapevine [the Children of Israel] from Egypt you uprooted and removed the [seven] nations from Canaan to replant...Why then did You [God] break down the boundaries of the grapevine allowing others to come in and destroy her?...O God return to us, look down from the heavens and see; and remember that grapevine."

The psalmist remembered the days of yore when God uprooted the Jews from Egypt and in one fell swoop brought them to Israel, entrenched them in the land and enabled them to grow and flourish. The psalmist then has one request: "do it again God". He wants the people of Israel to experience the hand of God in an immediate display of wonders and miracles to be returned to their glorious image of sweet tasting grapes of the grapevine.

There is only one problem with this "we want grapes now!" philosophy: it assumes a measure of merit on the part of the people to deserve God's immediate intervention. What happens if the people ignore the work necessary to become worthy for salvation and just scream, salvation, salvation, all day long?

The answer is psalm 81! It is a sobering message that reminds the Jewish people of their unique chosen status but also of their great responsibility in maintaining that lofty level. "You want God to shine His light, listen to His laws! You want Him to return to you, serve Him, follow Him, sanctify His name.

It is a process that will bring a return not a moment of miraculous splendor! In fact if I had to coin the process I would call it the 'wine-press' as opposed to the grapevine. Psalm 81 begins with a reference to a 'gat', a wine-press which is telling in contrast to the previous psalm. God responds entreating His nation to engage in the process of turning grapes into fine wine. That process requires effort, constant supervision, creating the proper conditions and being disciplined to the process all the way through. Only through the process can we truly merit the salvation of God, the full return to His people and the redemption.

It is an age of the quick fix, where information is passed in milliseconds; it is doubly important to remind ourselves of the message of the wine-press and of the process we need to abide by in order to merit God's true salvation.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

An Israel, Tehillim, Moment (part 1)

Thursday: New immigrant task for the day--Mas Hachnasa--the Israel tax authority!

A foreboding mission, my job was to attain the proper documents and permission from the authority regarding the educational needs of one of my children. The challenge was my lack of Hebrew proficiency, my inability to be pushy and persistent and my overall confusion about Israeli bureaucracy. I was clearly in trouble.

The first task was to find the actual office and where to park in the labyrinth that is the ministry buildings. After securing a semi-legal parking space, I entered the building and asked, pleaded and navigated my way to the waiting room for this particular office. There was no signage just a mound of people ambling about with no seeming rhyme or reason.

I was directed to one officer who looked at me, looked at my documents and grunted towards another official. The second one told me to return to the first office and wait my turn. This was going to take a while. When I noticed an opening at a table I lunged ahead and gave my best Israeli greeting to catch the attention of the seated clerk.

No answer.

I 'ahem'ed and said hello. Silence. I used the opportunity to look around his office to hopefully find something that would be an icebreaker for our conversation. What would I have in common with this middle-aged, secular Israeli from a Kibbutz in the south who had a sign of his membership to the Israeli Art and Theater Association?

I gave up and cleared my throat again hoping to get his attention once more.
He looked up and said, "one moment more, I am just finishing up with something." I noticed he was binding some papers together and was very involved in this process. "I am just finishing binding my book", he stated.

His book? What would a clerk in the tax department write a book about? Tax law? How to penalize evaders of tax? Or perhaps a script in some drama he was writing in his spare time.
"What's your book about?", I ask.

"It is a commentary on Torah. I just finished the book of Bereishit (Genesis) and have begun Shemot. I bind it together and present it in my Torah discussion group on my kibbutz."


I am blown away. Speechless. I am also a bit embarrassed. I pegged this clerk as a chiloni which was supposed to mean to me as an American that he was not observant, nor religious, not knowledgeable in Torah and most of all, didn't care about Torah.

I was wrong. This clerk taught me how much. He may or may not have been observant, I cannot generalize. He was certainly knowledgeable, and he cared enough to write a commentary on Torah!
I learned that I definitely have a shared language and culture even with the average Israeli. We may not look alike but there is a common bond.

I collect myself and say to this man that I too am writing a book on Tanach.

"Really", his eyes light up. "What about?"

Tehillim, I respond. And then he proceeds to do something which amazed me until this very day. He pulls his hand back on the table and reaches for his trusty Tanach and says to me the following: "Funny you should say Tehillim, I was having difficulty with today's Mizmor, perhaps you could explain it to me".

Wow! Not only was he knowledgeable, he cared, but he also recited Thursday's psalm 81! And he wanted me to explain this troublesome message to him.

I told him that I would love to explain it to him but in order to do so, we need to first learn together, psalm 80 its antecedent psalm (which I will discuss in part 2).

And that's exactly what we did in the mas hachnasa office in Jerusalem on a random Thursday in Israel.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


The word behala is a cross between fright, shock, confusion and dread. It connotes total lack of control over one's environment and the unnerving, unsettling feeling that imparts. Behala is found in many psalms, and many places in the Bible. It is presented as a punishment of the most severe accord in the section of curses in Leviticus. In chapter 26 verse 16, after presenting the rewards for following in the path of the laws of God and then warning not to stray from that path and end up mocking, ignoring and humiliating the name of God, the Torah begins a litany of curses aimed at paralyzing our minds and bodies.

אַף-אֲנִי אֶעֱשֶׂה-זֹּאת לָכֶם וְהִפְקַדְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם בֶּהָלָה אֶת-הַשַּׁחֶפֶת וְאֶת-הַקַּדַּחַת מְכַלּוֹת עֵינַיִם וּמְדִיבֹת נָפֶשׁ וּזְרַעְתֶּם לָרִיק זַרְעֲכֶם וַאֲכָלֻהוּ אֹיְבֵיכֶם
"I shall also do this to you by raining down upon you the 'behala' and the diseases of consumption and fever, failing eyes, and languishing soul, you will sow your seeds in vain and your enemies will eat it."

The diseases of consumption and fever and opthalmological problems we understand, but what of this behala? Should the first curse, the first punishment for the unrepentant sinner be behala?

Yes! The terror one feels at losing control of a situation, of losing sight, of utter confusion strikes a fatal blow to man's capacity to survive and sustain. As long as we have some semblance of control, we can endure the suffering. Once we lose that, we enter the world of behala.

Behala occurs when events before us defy logic.
When a brother we killed turns up as the devising evil viceroy of Egypt, "velo yachlu laamod lifnei Yosef ki nivhalu mipanav" An they could not stand before their brother Joseph for they experienced behala.
When a rundown group of slaves manages to uproot the great empire of Egypt: "az nivhalu elufei edom eile moav" Then the generals of Edom and Moav experienced Behala.

Finally, it is found in the mouth of David and the psalmists to reflect their state of utter terror at their loss of control. Psalm 6 depicts this behala in two realms:
רפאני ה' כי נבהלו עצמי, ונפשי נבהלה מאד ואתה ה' עד מתי
Heal me God for my bones are affrighted (behala) and my soul is in a state of bewilderment (behala).

David in psalm 6 has lost control. The psalm we use as our tachanun attempts to impart the feeling that while most of the time we put on a facade of control and confidence, once in a while we confess that we are confused, unsure, bewildered and disoriented. This can either be a result of a physical malady which strikes us (nivhalu atzamai) or a psychological or spiritual malaise which frightens us (nafshi nivhala).

David acknowledges the curse of behala as it grips his essence and paralyzes his senses. It almost prevents him from functioning at all, but something raises him from the mire--his relationship with God.

Ultimately he overcomes his own demons and reconnects with God to assert control over his destiny and over his enemies. "yevoshu ve'yibahalu meod kol oyvai" A day will come when my enemies will retreat in abject fear and chaos (yibahalu), they will experience the dread of behala.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Soulblessing, part 2: The Partnership

"Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz", the ubiquitous Jewish blessing is a bit of a conundrum. We acknowledge God, our Lord, king of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth. God brings forth BREAD from the earth? If anything, God brings forth wheat, grain, anything natural, but bread? Bread involves human production, a lot of it in fact! The Mishna lists the eleven events necessary to turn earth into our smorgasbord--
1. Sowing (seeding)
2. Choresh - Plowing
3. Reaping (cutting)
4. Gathering (bundling sheaves)
5. Threshing
6. Zoreh - Winnowing
7. Selecting, separating)
8. Grinding
9. Sifting
10. Kneading
11. Baking

How then do we recite the blessing as if God Himself sends us bread from the earth like manna from heavens? The answer relates to a fundamental Jewish notion of existence: We are not bystanders in God's world. The film called 'life' is not about its creator but His creations! I have heard in the name of Rav Soloveitchik that Judaism is theo-centric but anthropo-oriented. This means that while God should be in our consciousness at all times, the real story is about mankind and the way in which we as people interact, develop and ultimately join together with our creator to make the world He made for us, that much better.

This idea is illustrated in the famous story in the Midrash:

Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Akiva, "Whose deeds are better? Those of God or those
of humans?" Rabbi Akiva answered, "Those of humans are better." Turnus Rufus asked,"Behold the heaven and the earth. Can you make anything more beautiful than them?"

He answered, "Do not tell me about something that is higher than human capabilities, since
humans are unable to do these things, but let us compare things which humans are capable of."

Turnus Rufus asked, "Why do you circumcise yourselves?" Rabbi Akiva answered, "I knew that
you were asking about something like that, and for that reason I told you at the start that men's deeds are greater than those of God."

Rabbi Akiva then brought to Turnus Rufus two items: stalks of wheat and baked rolls. Rabbi
Akiva said, "These [the stalks of wheat] are the deeds of God, and these [the baked rolls]
are the deeds of humans. Are these [baked rolls] not more beautiful?" (YALKUT 546, par. "Uveyom")

It is quite significant that Rabbi Akiva uses the rolls as the the example of the joint venture between man and God. Psalm 104 describes man's acknowledgement of God, of His creation, of His sustaining life through nature. But halfway through verse 14 a transition takes place where God is not the provider but man. That takes place with the verse 'lehotzi lechem min ha-aretz' that man takes the fruit of the earth and turns it into bread which sustains us and grapes into wine which gives us joy. It is this transition that reminds us of our incredibly important role in the world. Just as God sets up the infrastructure of nature, the eco-systems and all that is needed to survive and thrive, so too, Man takes the baton and adds value, brings emotion, compliments the fruit of the earth with the ingenuity of mankind towards an even nobler ideal.

The psalm in the subsequent verses beautifully describes how we are all supposed to share this beautiful world in a state of equilibrium: nature does its work constantly; the animals emerge in the night; Man goes out to work in the day; the sea has an entire world within it, living together side by side; "all turn to God for sustenance, all are provided by His light and warmth (and all shudder at God's hidden face).

"yehi chevod hashem leolam, yismach hashem bemaasav"
May God's glory permeate for eternity and may He rejoice in His creations.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Soulblessing: Analysis of Psalm 104, part 1

ברכי נפשי את ה
My soul shall bless God...

This title to psalm 104 is familiar to us all as the psalm our rabbis designated to be recited on Rosh Chodesh, the festival of the new moon. What does it mean that my soul should bless? What does this psalm have to do with the new moon?

The thirty five verses of the psalm depict the creation story anew. It is a song to God acknowledging the grandeur, the splendour of God's work, culminating with the famous verse, "מה רבו מעשיך ה" How wondrous are your works O God!

I distinctly recall the epiphany I underwent when in Yeshiva Univeristy I learned this psalm under Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Cohen, the man who opened my soul to the majesty of Psalms. He asked us to scan the text and find the parallels to the creation story. It was all new for me and lit a spark which has continued to luminate until this very day as I pass the spark on to my students.
From the initial creation story we sense a glimpse of the Divine planning, the orderliness and the process. We note the distinction in usage of words to create, fashion, cause to evolve, and a plethora of nuances which comprise the brief glimpse into the metaphiysical beginning.

Psalm 104 is perhaps the very nascent steps of man to acknowledge, express gratitude, praise, and even bless God for what we take for granted every day.
Already in the first verse the tone changes from a statement about the experience of praising God to a call to God Himself--ה אלהי גדלת מאד הוד והדר לבשת, O Lord, my God You have consistently, totally, unequivocally shown us the true nature of 'good', splendour and beauty are Your garments.

Then, verse two begins the praising of creation: light, heavens, waters, atmosphere, celestial spheres, elements, land--all of which is in totality, consistency, permanence.
Verse 6 describes the miraculous nature of the world (which we take for granted) such as the mountains standing on the water, the movement of water, the crumbling of mountains, and the development of new ones. the process of nature as the streams usher down into the valleys, dancing in-between the hills.

What is Rosh Chodesh, the 'festival of the new moon'? It is a day built in to nature to serve as a reminder that the world is remarkable, that we should never settle, resign, or feel content. We can't take it all with us, but in appreciating its source we must not simply sing out and rejoice, praise but must also bless and convince our souls, our Godliness built in to our humanness, to bless the Almighty, engage in His good works and internalize His amazing system.

Once a month the moon shrinks, the light diminishes, and we wonder frighteningly about our mortality and insignificance. But then, just as hope is lost, a sliver reappears, and the light begins to shine once again.