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.