Psalm 103

Adonai is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. God will not contend forever, or nurse anger for all time. God has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor has God requited us according to our iniquities. (103:8–10)

In Exodus, God told Moses:

Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations. (Exodus 34:6–7)

The essential difference between these two passages is that the Exodus passage asserts that God might forgive most of the sin but nonetheless still requires punishment, even if the punishment is stretched out over generational time. The Psalm passage asserts the opposite, that God will not require punishment.

Our system of justice is based on the notion that most of the time, repentance and restitution is not enough. Crime demands punishment. Our prisons are full of people who committed relatively minor offenses which hurt no one, but violated the law. Mandatory sentencing guidelines take discretion out of the hands of judges. Even law enforcement officer body cameras, which we typically think of in terms of protection against officers abusing their authority, also result in officers being unable to use their discretion to ignore small offenses.

In communities of poverty, engaging in criminal activity and serving time in prison is generational. Children who grow up with a father – or sometimes both parents – in prison are likely to end up in prison themselves. This is an Exodus vision, in which children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are stuck in a cycle of punishment that began with the sins of their ancestors.

The vision of Psalm 103 is that of a society in which we find a way to guide those who violate the law towards repentance and restitution without recourse to excessively harsh punishment. If we change the culture of communities in which children grow up without any hope that they can escape the pattern of their parents and grandparents, then we can make the psalmist’s vision a reality.

Psalm 102

I am like a great owl in the wilderness, an owl among the ruins. (102:7)

With big eyes, phenomenal night vision, and a neck that turns nearly 180 degrees, an owl watches over the ruins. The Psalmist envisions himself the owl, seeing everything but powerless to do anything to repair the damage.

When it comes to fixing the brokenness of the world around us, I empathize. I see hunger and homelessness, I see violence against women and children in the media, I see siblings, parents, and children who will not speak to one another. Most of the problems are beyond my capacity to solve, leaving me as the owl, seeing with powerless eyes.

I rode along with a police officer for several hours one night and watched as he made traffic stops, mostly of people who had a headlight or taillight burned out. All the while, I listened to the police dispatchers on the radio as they sent officers in another part of the city to calls of possible domestic violence and break-ins.

It reminded me of an Ethics and Religion Talk column I wrote a couple of years ago in which I argued that we have a moral duty to return shopping carts to the cart corral, in part because a parking lot in which I need to dodge an obstacle course of carts to find a parking place signifies that the business doesn’t care about the customers. The quiet act of returning a shopping cart speaks loudly about how much people in that neighborhood care about each other.

Similarly, the perhaps trivial act of making a traffic stop to warn the driver about a burned-out taillight reminds people in that community that they need to care for their vehicle, both for their own safety and for the safety of others. During one stop, I watched him make sure that a driver was sober and not experiencing any obvious health issues, before wishing him a safe drive home. At another point, I watched him assist a fellow officer after a traffic stop revealed drugs.

There is no such thing as a trivial act of repair. Failing to act leads to continued deterioration. Acting, even in a small way, upholds order and dignity. For this reason, one of the seven Noahide commandments is the obligation to live in a place which enforces a system of justice. Without it, society would devolve into chaos.

The Psalmist might see himself as simply a powerless watcher. Yet if he broke through his lethargy and acted, and if others in the community did the same, the ruins would soon be restored into a beautiful community.

Psalm 101

I will sing of love and justice. (101:1)

To quote Ecclesiastes (1:9), “There is nothing new under the sun!”

Three thousand, five hundred years ago, the Psalmist longed for justice. We, in a world in which people are beaten and killed for the color of their skin, long for justice. Yet we still maintain our faith in God, sing songs praising God’s teachings, and study God’s Torah. The Divine message compels us to fight for justice when we see injustice.

Every once in a while we get a win. For those who believe in the justice of same-sex relationships, the Supreme Court’s acceptance of the right of same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states is nothing short of miraculous.

In 1996, President Clinton signed the “Defense of Marriage Act,” (DOMA) explicitly defining marriage as one man-one woman and restricting same-sex marriage benefits under federal law. It passed both houses of Congress with large majorities and enjoyed the support of a a significant majority of the American public. Only 19 years later, the majority of the American public supports the right of same-sex couples to marry and receive all of the rights and privileges of heterosexual couples under the law. What a remarkable about-face!

The fight isn’t over. Gay and lesbian individuals still face legal discrimination. They can be turned away from housing or fired for being gay. Sexual orientation does not enjoy the complete set of protections as religion or race or gender do, but sometimes love and justice intersect. When the Supreme Court rendered section 2 of DOMA (which permitted states not to recognize same-sex marriages) void on June 26th, 2015, the majority of Americans joined in celebration and song!

Psalm 100

A psalm for thanksgiving …. Serve Adonai with happiness. (100:1-2)

Job said, “Adonai gives and Adonai takes away. May the name of Adonai be a source of blessing.” The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart elaborated, “It is permissible to take life’s blessings with both hands, provided thou dost know thyself prepared in the opposite event to take them just as gladly. This applies to food and friends and kindred, to anything God gives and takes away.”

Joy should not be dependent on receiving a particular thing. Anything we receive can be taken away. If we are happy just because we have a new device, are sitting down to a gourmet meal, or are in the company of a good friend, then when our device becomes old, our meal has been consumed, or our friend goes home, our happy feelings will evaporate.

We have an obligation to God and to all who spend time with us, especially our family, to do whatever we need to do to express our lives with a spirit of gratitude and happiness. Pirke Avot (1:15) expresses the simple act of greeting loved ones with a smile as a moral imperative: “Greet every person with a cheerful face!”

When we greet the day with positive energy, we are giving God an offering of happiness. The converse is expressed in the Star Wars Jedi philosophy by ‘Master Yoda:’ “Anger, fear, aggression; the Dark Side of the Force are they.” In organizational life or interpersonal relationships, negativity and despair sap energy. When we live an unhappy or fearful life, we take something away from God.

We can best serve God by striving to live a positive, cheerful life. As Reb Nahman said, “It is a great Mitzvah to be in a constant state of happiness.”

Psalm 99

Adonai is sovereign, enthroned on cherubim … (99:1)

In Kabbalat Shabbat, Psalm 99 is the fifth Psalm, corresponding to Thursday, the fifth day of the week. It also corresponds to Hod, majesty or splendor, the fifth mystical aspect aspect of God 5. Hod also represents the quality of submission. On the fifth day of creation according to Genesis, God created sea creatures and birds.

From my office window, I can often see hawks circling high above the trees. Large birds such as hawks and eagles have a quality of majesty about them. They soar in the air, wings outstretched, as they scan the ground for prey. They instinctive know how to submit to the air currents, riding the air rather than flapping against it. Large sea creatures, such as whales, dolphins, and sharks similarly move through the water with a graceful lack of apparent effort.

Cherubs are winged angels. Thus, our Psalmist is depicting God as riding one of these majestic air creatures, using it as a throne. As Shabbat approaches, we may or may not have finished our work for the week. Yet, Shabbat is a time to set aside the worries and responsibilities that ride on our shoulders during the week, and soar with grace into a different dimension of time.

A bird has built a nest underneath a gutter just outside my kitchen. Early in the evening on Shabbat, I sat on the deck watching the bird sitting in the nest. For an hour, the bird didn’t move from the nest. I don’t know whether the bird was laying eggs or sitting on them, keeping them warm. I have a sense, though, that it was submitting itself to a need larger than itself, the need to grow the next generation. Both the bird and I were enjoying a peaceful Shabbat with no responsibilities other than to sit and breathe.