Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Week of Psalms; A People's Ultimate Journey

If a week represents a lifetime, with the auspicious beginnings of finding one's place in God's world, recognizing the locale of God's presence and attempting to construct a just society, the middle of the week brings us back to the harsh realities of the world and our oftentimes tenuous existence.

We experience raw evil; we contend with abject hatred, ridicule and scorn at us and our God. It hurts, shames but most of all baffles us. Why would the creator of the world raise up this downtrodden nation only to subject it to mockery and humiliation at the hands of Godless enemies? How does evil triumph? Why are we deserving of such cruelty?

Jewish history in Israel and out is fraught with pain, suffering death and destruction. we are hard-pressed to find a period of serenity, just glimpses of hope in an otherwise consistently disconsolate existence, mostly an exiled one. We are forced in our hour of need to introspect, search for meaning during our bouts of terror and solitude.

Wednesday's psalm begins by crying out to God, lashing out at our enemies but ultimately finds the psalmist forcing himself to dig deep inwards, into our psyche, into our past deeds and sins. Are we being punished? Disciplined? rejected?

At times the pain and suffering subsides but does not disappear; we share a period of relative quiet or even thriving when we begin to normalize our lives and look towards a better future. It is precisely at this point, as we approach the 'end of the week' where an expectation begins to percolate--mashiach is arriving, redemption is upon us. This undeserved quest and demand of redemption is met by anger from the prophets dating back to Jeremiah at the Temple to Ezra during the return to Zion to the Chachamim during the great revolt and so on.

Thursday's message is quite a sobering one with God Himself asking the people if they are truly ready for redemption? Are they indeed worthy of restoring the commonwealth, rebuilding the Temple, raising the scepter of the Lord and fulfilling the prophetic eschatological dreams?

Surely our arrogance is not so great as to expect a full-blown redemption merely because we are asking nicely! A return inwards is required; a revival of practice, of values and mores, of humility and gratitude. All these are prerequisites for the triumphant return to Zion. Until then we must continue to work, pray, carry forward the slow process step by step, and build our nation once again to its glory.

The week does come to an end, though, with Friday and Shabbat's messages mysterious and perplexing. The penultimate inspiration is purely spiritual, removing the human component from the equation--God Reigns! The short poem is replete with the lofty divine images, is the message to be learned that in order to reach our destination we might have to remove the I from the equation? Friday begins with God and concludes with Him (I am first; I am last...). The concluding point reflects the absolute eternal, the infinite One in our world of the finite many, and the ultimate unified cohesive sound which lasts eternally emerges from the multitude of voices (mikolot mayim rabim adirim).

But then as quickly as the song travels heavenward it returns to our earthly realm. Shabbat comes and as the psalm states at the outset, 'it is good to praise God' on such a day. But how do we praise God with the enemy still on our minds? What good is other-worldly praise when we still must contend with 'this-worldly' vicissitudes?

Thus the final psalm represents the removal of the final obstacle before true redemption arrives. Note the amount of times evil is mentioned in this 'Sabbath' psalm. Apparently there is still work to be done, and only through its final demise will the righteous find solace, bringing the era of pain and suffering to a close.

The week represents our story, our history, our journey. Like our checkered history we acknowledge the peaks and nadirs, triumphs and tragedies of our lives. We recognize that as a nation we have never earned a consistent badge of honor, but we also never relented, always finding our place as God's nation, sometimes faltering, sometimes fumbling but always oriented on God, His Torah, our Land and our nation.

I suppose that the somewhat depressing message is a result of our altered state during the 'three weeks', with my scraggly beard and my limited joy. It is a saddening yet inspiring message that trials and tribulations are part and parcel of our Jewish experience but they have never brought us to the rejection of our tradition; the opposite is true. Until we reach that ultimate 'shabbat' we will commemorate the days of sadness looking inwards and attempting to return to be worthy of
the title--Am Hashem, Nation of God.