Friday, November 12, 2010

Psalms 1-3

Although I often write a lot about politics and contemporary events, and have much to say about our recent American elections and plenty more to say about settlements and the peace process, today I wish only to retreat into my books.  Don't worry it won't be long before I write about Israeli politics.  For now I want to lose myself in the words of our tradition.  Sometimes I need to find rescue in verses.  Leon Wiesltier writes in the most recent edition of The New Republic: "[Books] are the edifices of the Jews.  I hold my palaces in my hands.  My cathedrals are on my shelves.  One loves books  because one loves life."  So today I am beginning a new spiritual exercise: three psalms per week.  I am borrowing the idea from my colleague, Rabbi Andy Bachman.  He is reading and writing about three psalms per day and is nearing completion of this spiritual project.  I prefer a year long project.  150 psalms in one year.  A few words from the greatest poetry collection ever compiled and of course a few accompanying words of my own.

1. Happy is the man who does not walk in the path of wicked.
"As long as you are happy" is not the mantra of the psalmist.  Happiness and joy are tied to righteousness.  Sometimes you get to do what you want.  Sometimes you don't.  But you will only be happy if you do what is right.  Righteousness is later compared to a tree that is planted by a stream of water.  Nourishment is received from doing what is right and by avoiding doing what is wrong.  One of the most striking sights to behold in the desert wilderness is a lone tree flourishing in a dry wadi.  The water is unseen but sustains this solitary tree.  So too those who follow the path of righteousness. 

2. Why are the nations aroused, and the peoples murmur vain things?
Even in biblical times we cried out to God against the nations of the world, against those who oppress us.  They might rule over us.  They might determine our borders and boundaries.  Still their words are murmurings.  (And I thought I would escape from politics with these poems.)  Even then the cry was similar to today's.  They keep murmuring.  I will keep rejoicing.
Worship the Lord in fear, and rejoice in trembling.
Yirah is often translated by modern interpreters as awe.  What is the difference between fear and awe?  How do I tremble when I sing?  In our own day and age we see fear as negative.  Yet the psalmist saw it as positive.  In the psalmist's view, to fully rejoice one must tremble.  Whether we tremble with fear or in awe does not matter.  Trembling, using one's entire body, is the only proper way to pray to God.

3. I cry aloud to the Lord, and He answers me from His holy mountain.  Selah.  I lie down and sleep and wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
Like many other biblical figures, King David is again on the run.  This time from Avshalom.  He cries out to God.  Does God respond?  One might think that God sits on a mountain top, aloof and unaware of our daily concerns.  Yet my cries reach even there and God sustains me day in and day out.  For God's sustenance is as natural and regular as sleeping and waking. 

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