Thursday, November 1, 2012

A New Look at the Shabbat Morning Psalms

Shabbat Morning Psalms

The selection of psalms which are recited during the weekday morning prayer is expanded on Shabbat. An additional 9 psalms were chosen which add a new dimension to the Shabbat morning service. Why were psalms added on Shabbat? Why were these specific psalms (19, 34, 90, 91, 135, 136, 33, 92, 93) added by our Sages to the collection of 'pesukei dezimra'? In the next posts I plan on analyzing all these psalms and tying them together, hoping to understand why Chazal chose these to adorn the Shabbat service.

We begin with an analysis of Psalm 19.

There are several ways to divide the psalm: Amos Chacham in 'Daat Mikra' splits the psalm in two:

1-7--Nature's praise of God.
8-15--Praise of Torah and the desire to fulfill it.

I would argue that there are in fact three components to this psalm which represents three foci one should consider on Shabbat: Nature, Torah, Man!


"The heavens tell the tale of God's glory and the firmament tells the work of His hands". " Day to day . Each verse describes how nature, by its very essence, sings a song to God. Even without words, we still appreciate the awesome powers of nature--the day, night, firmament, sun. All of these primordial creations encompass the world and stand as a testament to their creator, an eternal praise.


"The Torah of God is all-encompassing, restores the soul". The psalmist depicts Torah in six different ways each one offering not only a unique description but also a functionality of that specific angle: All-encompassing--restoring the soul; truthful--wisening the fool; straightforward--gladdening the heart... The timelessness and timeliness of Torah affords one not only the enlightenment but also a roadmap for how to navigate the winds of modernity.

Two fundamental components in God's creation, indeed two pieces of the cosmic puzzle, are presented in the first part of the psalm--nature and Torah. But there is, in theory, a third component of creation: "And God placed Man in the Garden to work it and guard it"... Man was meant to guard and protect nature and through guidance of Torah to ultimately use the world to create a sublime civilization. What happened instead?

"Even Your servant was warned in them in guarding them there is great reward". Yet the next two verses include three synonymous words for man's sins: 'shegiot', 'nistarot', 'pesha', and 'man' recognizes his fallibility, his incapacity to defeat urges, sons, negative influence. It is as if the first section of the psalm describes the grandeur and majesty of Bereishit while the latter half depicts the pathetic sins of man to the point of utter self-destruction!

'Man' destroyed the beauty and perfection of the world, yet it was intended for man to 'work it and protect it'. This contradiction is the existential plight of the human condition. We are mandated to take this beautiful world and create a wonderful society in it; we are beset by obstacles internal and external and fail all too often. Yet we keep trying.

The 'man' who is fraught with sin and fallibility, nevertheless offers a prayer at the end of this psalm:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer

Monday, September 24, 2012

Haven’t I Been Here Before?
Ruminations on yet another Yom Kippur

New year, same Yom Kippur. Same Kol Nidrei (didn’t we already do this last year for this year?); same kittel with a few more grape juice stains; same ashamnu, bagadnu, regret for sins, I stole, I spoke ill, I was lax, I was contemptible…

I’ve done it all before, I’ve said it, sincerely! And yet I am back in the same spot with the same machzor and same weight of sin and guilt on my shoulders, the same al chet’s and the same expectations. How do I break out of this funk?

Everything is the same, but me!

The machzor has barely changed in a thousand years; hilchot yom Hakippurim are also pretty much the same; shuls don’t change either. All these factors of constancy are what provides the foundation for our Judaism and our lives. One thing, however, changes constantly—me.
Physically, I am never the same. How many times do I look at myself and notice something new, different, unusual, on my body. Not only my physical presence but my mental position is in a constant state of flux. As I get older MY interests change, music becomes noise; sports becomes a passing fancy; I used to value action, now i value serenity. I could go on…
My spiritual self is in flux as well. I have different interests and different yetzers, I might not run around as much but I gossip more, I may judge others more when before I was concerned mostly about myself. The list of ashamnu has never changed but the pang of guilt has shifted from one letter to another, one genre of sin to a second.

So, Now What? Magic!

Okay, I’ve established that I’m still a sinner but just in a different way. The day is the same but I am not, what do I do about it? I think the answer is the magic of Yom Kippur! כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם… On this day The Lord says—go reinvent yourself! Usually you only get to do that when you move towns, go to a new school, spend a year in Israel, or the like. Nobody knows you, so now is your chance to start on a clean slate—tabula rasa—and nobody is the wiser.

But how do I do it if none of these apply to me? If I am the same guy with the same job, and the same kids, and the same wife, and the same everything???? Answer: the magic of Yom Kippur. You see on THIS day we are TOLD to reinvent ourselves. It is actually EXPECTED of us! Haven’t we learned ad infinitum of the power of Teshuva to erase, metamorphose, transmogrify??? Haven’t we read the Rambam enough times to be convinced that it is expected of us: ומשנה שמו כלומר אני אחר, ואיני אותו איש שעשה אותם המעשים ומשנה מעשיו...

Yes, it’s magical. It is my once a year-get-out-of-myself-free card. People won’t think I’m crazy or disingenuous; they will say, “hey, this guy took Yom Kippur to heart”. And I will say that to myself as well. I have a chance to start fresh, to look at things through a different lens, to look at myself differently on this day and from this day forward. Magic!

Begin Again, Again!

My grandfather Rabbi Joseph Baumol ZTZL (Zayde) taught me that this was the message of King Solomon in Proverbs when he said:

חנוך לנער על פי דרכו גם כי יזקין לא יסורו ממנו.

I’m in education. I have spent the last twenty or so years teaching all different levels, all different topics. Jewish educators generally follow the famous dictum of king Solomon “chanoch lanaar al pi darko (educate the child according to his way)”—find that specific niche where the individual will flourish and teach to that level.

Zayde shared with me a different, Chasidic, interpretation which I believe has a profound effect on my life, my year and even my day.

He said the word חנוך does not mean educate but consecrate (like חנוכת המזבח), or better, inaugurate. You see if you teach a child based on ‘his way’ of a new experience every day; if you internalize the message of seeing the world through the fresh eyes of a child, you will never cease to be amazed by it and it will continuously surprise you at every turn.
Wow. חנוך, bring the freshness of a new day, a new life, a new beginning.

I am blessed to be the head of a Midrasha called Tzvia, where a new group of 18 year old girls fly in to my classroom and home every September. New faces, new beginnings, and inevitably, a few of them (this year 4!) will be experiencing Eretz Yisrael for the first time in their lives. Can you imagine taking them on a tiyul every week and seeing the land through their fresh, unadulterated, eyes? If you hung out with them would you ever be מוציא דבה on the country? Would you spend your time complaining about the petty problems and encounters or would you simply marvel at the קיבוץ גלויות, the בנין הארץ, the הגדלת תורה והאדרתה, the ממשלת היהודים, the צבא הגנה לישראל!!!!!

Wow. חנוך. Start fresh. Begin anew. Make myself new. Reinvent.

If I do this, truly unabashedly reinvent, proudly re-identify, this year’s Yom Kippur will truly transform my entire year. I was once stuck in a vortex of the same; I can magically align my spiritual destiny with my constantly evolving physical and mental journey. I hope and pray that I am able to look at myself in the freshest eyes of who I can become on this magical of days.

Chag Sameach, Gmar Chatima Tova!