Thursday, November 25, 2010

Psalms 7-9

Let's continue with this year's ongoing spiritual project of reading the psalms (three psalms per week). 

7. Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord...
Robert Alter in his monumental translation of the Psalms writes that this term suggests emotional excess or rhapsody.  Is this the emotion that was created by the psalm or the feeling that the public reader of the psalm was supposed to bring to his chanting?
There are familiar themes in this particular psalm:
O Lord, my God, in You I seek refuge;/ deliver me from all my pursuers and save me,/ lest, like a lion, they tear me apart,/ rending in pieces, and no one save me.
And the following according to Alter's translation:
Rise up, O Lord, in Your anger,/ Loom high against the wrath of my enemies./ Rouse for me the justice You ordained.
If God is the God of justice let me see it.  The world does not appear to live up to the ideal of justice.  Yet we pray to a God whose most striking attribute is that of justice.  How can this be so?  The psalmist takes up this familiar refrain, a refrain that accompanies us throughout the centuries.  Dangerous animals, here lions, threaten to tear me apart.  At times I feel beset by wild animals.  Where then is the God of justice?
Does God know our innermost thoughts?  Theologians have debated this for years.  Perhaps that is where justice is meted out.  Justice and righteousness live within.
May evil put an end to the wicked;/ and make the righteous stay unshaken./ He who searches hearts and conscience,/ God is righteous.

8. Then there are some psalms that really speak my language.
When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,/ the moon and the stars that You set in place,/ what is man that You have been mindful of him,/ mortal man that You have taken note of him,/ that You have made him little less than divine,/ and adorned him with glory and majesty...
Last night Ari and I looked up at the sky as we were getting in the car.  "Look at the moon.  Look at the stars.  How beautiful is the night sky!"  On a cool Fall evening the moon and stars are painted in stark relief against the crisp black sky.  There are times when nature appears only beautiful and awe inspiring.  There are moments when it takes your breath away.  This is what the psalmist declares.
Judaism believes that human beings occupy a middle ground between animals and angels.  We have some animal-like needs and desires, for example eating and sex and have some divine qualities, like love and compassion.  It is of course a constant back and forth between these tendencies.  It is not that Judaism believes that the animal is negative or even sinful. Instead it teaches that these tendencies must be framed and made holy.  We sanctify the ordinary and make it extraordinary. So eating becomes a festive occasion (a good for this Thanksgiving day) and sex becomes holy within marriage.  That is the essential teaching to which the psalmist alludes.  We are a little less than divine.  We are constantly reaching upward.  That, at least, is the goal of a spiritual life. 

9. I will praise You, Lord, with all my heart;/ I will tell all Your wonders./ I will rejoice and exult in You,/ singing a hymn to Your name, O Most High.
Again singing of God's wonders creates a thankful soul.  Our prayers have a mantra-like quality.  If I repeat these words over and over again, saying for example the words of Maariv Aravim or Yotzer Or I might then see that the world is a result of God's handiwork.  I might see the moon and the stars rather than the darkness. I might see the wonders of creation as opposed to the world's far too many injustices. 
Sing a hymn to the Lord, who reigns in Zion;/ declare His deeds among the peoples.
We sing best when we are in our own home, the Zion and Jerusalem, in the land of Israel.  This too is the Jewish contention.  There are competing tendencies within the modern Zionist movement.  On the one hand we believe that we can write our own history.  We are no longer dependent on the will or mood of rulers.  History is in our own, Jewish hands.  On the other hand we crave the world's approval.  One of Zionism's goals is to raise the status of the Jew in the eyes of the world.  Israel's Declaration of Independence reads: "...and confer upon the Jewish people the status of fully privileged member of the community of nations..."  World opinion does matter to Israelis.  Part of Israel's goal and desire is to "declare His deeds among the peoples."

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