Psalm 98

Sing to Adonai a new song, for God has worked wonders; God’s right hand, God’s holy arm, has won victory.  Adonai has announced victory, God has revealed triumph in the sight of the nations. (98:1-2)

This is the fourth Psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat, corresponding to the fourth day of the week and to the fourth sefirah (mystical aspect of God) known as Netzah – victory or triumph. In Kabbalah, Netzah implied endurance and patience. It’s opposite, which we’ll address next week, is Hod, majesty or splendor, and represents submission.

On the fourth day of creation, God made the lights in the heavens: the sun, moon, and stars. The brightness of the sun may be seen as a symbol of victory in the Biblical story of Joshua calling upon the sun to stand still (ch. 10).

And now for something completely different …

According to the Zohar (1:123a, page 209 in Daniel Matt’s Pritzker Edition) Psalm 98 was sung by cows!

A passage from the Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 24b) brings up the verse “The cows went straight ahead along the road to Beit Shemesh” (1Sa. 6:12). Since the word “straight ahead” uses letters that also can mean “sing,” the Talmud suggests that the cows sang a song: “The cows sang along the road to Beit Shemesh.” A number of Biblical passages are suggested that might have been sung by cows, but the Zohar chooses Psalm 98. Let’s also note that the story of Joshua calling upon the sun to stand still is described (according to the book of Joshua) in the Book of Yashar (a book which has not be preserved in the Biblical canon). The name Yashar is based on the same word that means “straight ahead.” The name “Beit Shemesh” might be translated, “House of Sun.” The linguistic connections multiply!

The sun is also a metaphor for enlightenment in an intellectual sense. As we recite this Psalm in Kabbalat Shabbat, our meditative kavanah, intention, might focus on the possibility that all of God’s creation, from cows to stars, is part of a glorious song of praise to the Creator. Recall that the mystical aspect of Netzah is patience. We might focus on Wednesday as “hump-day,” the middle of the week when it seems that Shabbat and the weekend will never arrive, and encourage ourselves to patiently work through and appreciate each day of the week for what it brings us.

Psalm 97

Mountains melt like wax at Adonai’s presence, at the presence of the One who controls all the earth. The heavens proclaim God’s righteousness and all peoples see God’s glory. (97:5-6)

This is the third Psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat, corresponding to Tuesday. On the third day of the week, God separated the water from the dry land and created plant life. Over the eons of geological time, the Creator melted and shaped the geographical features of the earth – mountains and valleys, hill-country and the great plains, the rain forests and the deserts and the rivers. Each particular climate supports its own set of grasses, trees, flowers, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Together, it makes up the agricultural eco-system of planet earth.

The heavens look down on the bounteous produce and proclaim it “good” and a testament to God’s glory. In the mystical system of the Zohar, heaven is a symbolic reference to the third sefirah of Tiferet, beauty. Tiferet is the mediating characteristic between love and judgment. A parent should not shower either unrestrained, unlimited love or harsh judgmental punishment on a child. Proper parenting is a mixture of both love and judgment, and thus the mystical tradition understands God’s traits as well.

Perhaps we might read Psalm 97 as a meditation on an incomplete but beautiful stage of creation. On the third day, “God saw that [creation] was good” twice, perhaps reflecting the fact that even without animal life, the earth had a kind of beautiful perfection in its incompleteness. As much as we try each week to achieve something meaningful and lasting, we remember the rabbinic dictum from Rabbi Tarfon (Pirkei Avot 2:16), “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it.”

Psalm 96

Declare among the nations, “Adonai reigns!” the world stands firm, it cannot be shaken; God judges the peoples with equity. (96:10)

In Kabbalat Shabbat’s Friday evening trip through the week we might remember that on the second day of creation the upper waters and the lower waters were divided by the sky. The world as we know it begins to take shape, although the dry land doesn’t appear until the third day. Most of the time our world stands firm, although it can and does shake when the vast tectonic plates deep under our feet shift. The firm foundation that the Psalmists speaks of is better understood in spiritual/emotional terms than a physical firmness.

The second of the seven sefirot of of God’s attributes is known as Gevurah (power) or Din (Judgement). Our Psalmist asserts that God judges humanity fairly. There is a steadiness and predictability about the way the world works. Even though we don’t yet have the technology to predict when an earthquakes will occur, we know why they happen and can imagine that someday the tools will exist to predict a shift in the earth’s crust. The same might be said for the suffering which afflicts humanity in this world – we don’t yet have the tools or the will on a large scale to alleviate it completely, so we address it as best we are able.

The most powerful message of this verse is rooted in one of the Jewish principles of theology that moves me most intensely, the idea that our role in the world is to be an imitatio dei, an imitation of God. Just as God feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, buries the dead, and visits the sick (all actions of God found in various midrashim), so we are obligated to take care of others. Just as this attribute of God exercises restraint in the use of power and judgement to judge with equity, so too should we.

While in theory I am in favor of the death penalty, in practice I would prefer that it rarely be used, only in cases where there is absolutely no doubt that the convicted murderer had full capacity to understand what he or she was doing and acted with deliberation.

The history of our system of government can been seen as a struggle between those who want to expand and those who want to restrain the power of the Presidency, Congress, or the Supreme court. Power is not inherently dangerous, but power without humility and restraint is.

Psalm 95

Forty years I was provoked by that generation; I thought, “They are a senseless people; they would not know My ways.” (95:10)

The next five Psalms (95 – 99) are the first five Psalms in the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Kabbalah Shabbat is a service created in the mid-16th century by the mystics of the Northern Israeli city of Tzvat (Safed). It is structured around a series of seven Psalms from 95 though 99 followed by Psalm 29, leading up to Psalm 92, titled “A song for the sabbath day.” We might imagine that the progression of seven corresponds to the seven mystical sefirot of God’s attributes from Hesed (love) to Malkhut (Sovereignty), also known as Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, the feminine aspect of God who we welcome as the Shabbat Queen. We might also imagine that each Psalm corresponds to a day of the week from Sunday through Shabbat.

The intention set by this Psalm is Sunday, the first day of the week, and the Divine quality of Hesed. The speaker in our verse is God, exhibiting patience in the presence of a rebellious people. Actually, 40 years is not such a long time in the existence of God. If “A thousand years is like a day in your sight,” (Psalm 90), then 40 years in God’s time is the equivalent of 57 minutes and 36 seconds in human time. So imagine suffering the presence of a very annoying person for 57 minutes and 36 seconds. Imagine listening to him whine and complain about this injustice or that ache and pain, droning on and on, but continuing to pay attention for the full time. Having patience. This is the lesson from our verse. If God can endure something for 40 years without walking away, I can endure something for just under an hour with a loving smile on my face.

On a calendar directed by Shabbat (such as in Israel), Sunday is a workday. It is also a long time until the restful peace of Shabbat returns. For the next six days, we face all of our problems at work and other weekday problems. Psalm 95 reminds us to swallow a loving dose of patience on Sunday to successfully manage the next six days until Shabbat arrives.

Psalm 94

Rise up, judge of the earth, give the arrogant their deserts! (94:2)

Psalm 94 is recited as the Psalm for Wednesday, the fourth day of the week. As with the other Psalms of the day (except for the Psalm for Shabbat), the Talmud posits a connection between this day’s act of creation and something in the Psalm. In this Psalm, the assumption is that those who are in need of punishment for arrogance are those who worship the sun and the moon, created on the fourth day of creation. Arrogant people act as if they are the center of the world, as if the sun and the moon rotate around them.

I find arrogance to be perhaps the ugliest of the negative character traits. It sometimes masquerades as self-confidence, a positive character trait. The difference is that self-confidence is rooted in the essential core of a person’s identity. Confident people have a strong center because they know who they are and understand their abilities and limitations. Humility and self-confidence are symbiotic traits. When they don’t know or understand something or they fail at some task, they are able to admit their deficiency which enables them to learn and grow.

Arrogant people, on the other hand, are not humble. Arrogance is a shell protecting a weak core identity. To admit failure is to admit that their essential nature is weak. To an arrogant person, projecting an image of strength is critical. When they don’t know or understand something, they are more likely to deny or blame to preserve their strong image, rather than show weakness by admitting ignorance.

It’s easy to see why the Psalmist delights in seeing the arrogant receive their comeuppance. Perhaps if they are punished as they deserve, it will be like receiving a dose of humility that will teach them a more pleasant way of relating to others.