Psalm 119

I have understood more than all my teachers … (119:99)

Psalm 119 is not only the longest Psalm in the book of Psalms, but also the longest Psalm in the Hebrew Bible. It is an alphabetical acrostic, eight verses for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Do the math – that’s a whopping 176 verses!

These Psalm reflections are based on the practice of reading over the Psalm and finding a single verse or phrase that resonates with me. This Psalm presents difficulties because of its length. I am trying to imagine the setting of Psalm 119, who wrote it, how it was used, and why it took so many words to make his point. It is an extended essay on studying and keeping God’s laws as a path to happiness. After a while, the words and images repeat themselves and blur together. While I found a number of beautifully expressed lines, I found the Psalm as a whole to be tedious. My philosophy is that if you have something to say, you should say it clearly and concisely. Don’t use three words when one will do or 176 verses when 22 will do.

The verse I chose speaks directly to the theme of the importance of learning. On the surface, though, it does not embody the typical Jewish reverence for teachers. However, it is possible to read the verse hyper-literally as “from all of those who taught me, I gained understanding.” This may have inspired Rabbi Chanina’s teaching, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.” (Ta’anit 7a)

If the overall message of the Psalm praises those who are always seeking ways to gain knowledge then the my reading of the verse fits well. There is an opportunity to learn from every interaction with another person. Every encounter is a chance to see the face of God.

In Memory of My Father

In memory of my father, Robert Krishef, February 11, 1931 – November 19, 2015.

At the opening and closing of Parshat Vayetzei, Jacob encounters God, angels. My father encountered angels. My father was the kind of person who you wouldn’t expect to encounter angels. His father was not particularly observant, not a synagogue goer, and for the most part, neither was my father. He was a rational, clear, thinker. But my father had amazing stories in which he was directed away from dangers by a force that he was absolutely convinced came from outside of him. And my father had an encounter at night, like Jacob’s night encounter, that gave him the strength to make it through his father’s funeral. More on this in a bit.

When my father needed to think, he would go into the basement and sit at or near his typewriter. He was a person of the written word. We used to joke that my grandfather was a man of very few words. My father, though by no means a chatterbox, was the kind of person who would be the center of any room. People lined up to speak with him. People were drawn to him because like a good journalist, he could talk to anyone.

My father was the smartest person I know. It’s a kind of a family joke that he was never wrong. But the amazing thing is that was so rarely wrong that that it’s best to assume that he was in fact always right. He wasn’t arrogant about it. He was just the kind of person who can converse about just about anything and you’ll know that his analysis is spot on. He admitted when he didn’t know the facts of a situation, but his grasp of the principles behind the facts was truly astounding.

My father was the kind of person who could engage anyone in an interesting conversation. He can sit down at a party and people will come to him to talk about politics, sports, business, or anything else on their mind. Basically, he understood people – how they think, how they act, how they react. It doesn’t matter whether he was analyzing a political debate, a B’nai B’rith board, or a sports team – he knew people. Because of this ability to analyze, he had an instinctual understanding of basketball, baseball, and football. I’m not sure about hockey, but he watched anyway. My father was drafted to serve in Korea, but because of poor depth perception, could not shoot a gun effectively. Nevertheless, those eyes could watch a pitcher throw a ball and identify a fast ball, a slider, a curve ball, a breaking ball, and probably a knuckleball as well. He could call balls and strikes accurately from any seat in the stadium or in front of the television. He could look at a runner and tell you if he was going to try to steal. He could look at the arrangement of football players on the field and tell you run or pass, to which side, what kind of play it will be, and how the defense is getting set to react.

My father used his ability to analyze as a journalist as well as in his chosen career, public relations, drawing on his deep insight into what motivates people. I like the idea that he was not in advertising, which is a more of a kind of manipulation of the consumer. Rather, public relations is the art of getting information about an event to the people who already have an interest in being a part of that event. It requires an understanding of the kinds of publications people who are interest in X read, and placing an article about X in those publications.

He wrote books, he owned and edited a country music newspaper. He was a columnist and the editor of the American Jewish World. He loved words. And when his father died and he didn’t think he was going to be able to make it through the funeral, he went to the place where he created words. That’s where his encounter took place. He felt a tap on his shoulder, a glow poured over him, he asked Pop to give him strength, and he got it.

I’ve always drawn my strength from my father. I don’t know what I’m going to do without him. On the way into town last night for the funeral, I took out my laptop and started writing. I reread the transcript of some of the stories I recorded, his encounters with guardian angels, that he told me just 8 days ago, the day after we heard the final diagnoses. I told him then that the only way I was going to be able to get through the funeral was with his help. Sharing stories was his way of giving me, his children, and God-willing his grandchildren, a bit of his wisdom, humor, intelligence, strength, and insight.

The last story he told me was of a prayer after a less than successful date when he was in his late 20’s. Praying was something he only recalled doing three times between his childhood and this moment. He wanted to meet and fall in love and have children. He prayed that he would have children who would turned out to be better than himself. He prayed that they would have children, his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth. He prayed not for children who would create some magic formula or become president of the United States, but just to be good, compassionate people, to make a difference in other’s lives, to contribute somehow to society.

This was his final message to me. I offer it to my children Zachary, Solomon, Sarah, and Harrison who are watching from home, as well as to Jared, Alyssa, Jack and Alex, and I offer it to you. If we embrace that message and become 1/10 of the mentch that my father was, then his memory will indeed have become a blessing. Y’hi Zikhro Barukh.

Psalm 118

I shall not die but live and proclaim the works of Adonai. (118:17)

There is a difference between “not dying” and “living.” In this last Psalm of Hallel, whose purpose is to express our joy at the fact that we have survived to celebrate another festival, the Psalmist reminds us that merely surviving is not enough. I have met people who have given up on living their lives while they are still alive. They believe that:

  • “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” There is no point in reading, learning, studying, or challenging their assumptions because they have decided their mind is made up and nothing will change it.
  • “I tried that years ago and I didn’t like it.” Whether it is food or another kind of experience, if I didn’t like it last time I tried it or even if I have never tried it, now is not the time to start trying something new.
  • “I think of nothing but my aches and pains … let me tell you about them.” An aging body hurts and I am not minimizing the sometimes considerable pain. However, telling and retelling the story of pain leaves one trapped in a cycle of perpetually measuring one’s body for death.
  • “I’m bored. There is nothing to do. I’m lonely. I don’t go anywhere.” Sometimes we make choices and sometimes our declining physical ability makes the choice for us. However, within the circle in which we are able to live, we have the choice either to complain about the things that are happening outside of the circle of our lives, or to live to the boundaries as best we can.

Those who truly lives their lives believe in:

  • Learning new things
  • Trying new foods and new experiences
  • Looking for meaningful ways to fill up their days (volunteering), and
  • Finding a reason every day to be grateful.

Psalm 117

Praise Adonai, all nations; extol God, all peoples, for God’s love powers us and the truth of Adonai is forever. Hallelujah. (117)

This is the shortest Psalm in the book, only two verses, one sentence. I have translated more literally than most translations. The Psalmist calls on all people to praise God whose love is the battery which provides the energy powering our lives. He also subtly acknowledges that not all people acknowledge this truth as he asserts that nonetheless, the truth of this statement endures forever.

Some of religious faith feel called to witness their faith to those of another faith or to non-believers. We might find this annoying or even insulting, but I have found that simply saying I am not interested and walking away is effective. I am not terribly bothered by such people because I know they are motivated by a sincere belief in God, although a belief that I find un-compelling.

I am more bothered by the non-theists who belittle my faith and the faith of other God-believers. While believers tend to take a positive approach, arguing why I should believe in something I do not believe in, non-believers tend to take a negative approach, arguing that my beliefs are false. Their motivation is a desire to tear down rather than to build up. Why do they care so much what I believe? Why can’t they take a ‘live and let live’ attitude. From what I’ve experienced, they not only believe that faith in God is wrong, but that it is actually evil.

“The truth of Adonai is forever,” concludes the Psalmist. The life-force that drives the human being is powered by God’s love. It doesn’t matter what they, either the evangelicals or the non-theists, say. In the end, God’s truth is powerful enough to encompass my faith, their faith, and even non-faith.

Psalm 116

What can I give back to Adonai acknowledging all I have benefited from God? (116:12)

If the bounty of the world is our reward for being alive, what, if anything, should we give back to God? Although I don’t think the Psalmist asked the question this way, I read it as a rhetorical question. There is nothing that I need or even can give back to God to repay God for giving me life, a loving wife, children with gifts of their own to share, as well as employment, a home, and sufficient food.

First of all, it is given as a gift. When we receive a gift, the proper response is to be thankful. If we are not thankful then future gifts may be withheld, but the giver does not take back the gift. A gift by definition is given to and belongs to the recipient.

Second, what do you give a God who has, is, was, and will be, everything? Honestly speaking, God does not even need our thankfulness. God asks for loyalty, obedience, and appreciation, but it is not a demand issued by a tyrant on pain of death. We have the freedom to do as we want.

I suggest that we give thanks to God not to satisfy some Divine need but rather to remind ourselves of the importance and power of giving thanks. Thanksgiving is more than an overstuffed turkey and football. It is a pause in our lives to contemplate how lucky we are to be able to put any food on the table, not matter what it is, how little or how much.

My wife set aside a “Thanksgiving Jar” in the kitchen into which we place slips of paper indicating our gratitude for something that has happened. Slowly, over the course of time, the jar fills up. We take them out on Thanksgiving and read them aloud. It becomes a review of the good things of the past year, not necessarily in any particular order. God doesn’t need our Thanksgiving jar, but we certainly do.