Psalm 106

They grumbled in their tents … (106:25)

Very few people look forward to dealing with angry, malcontented, frustrated, or unhappy people, although some are better at it than others. I am amazed at how well a good customer service person can diffuse my anger when I call about a mistake, a broken or lost product, or some technical support. That’s their job and they take pride in how well they do it.

When meeting with clients or working with co-workers, most people try to show their best selves. We focus on the task at hand to accomplish something positive rather than complain about the things that are going wrong in our lives. No one enjoys spending extended time at work with a grumpy co-worker.

After an exhausting and perhaps frustrating day at work or on the commute or with the kids or running errands and driving carpool, we come home or our spouse comes home, and what’s the first thing we are tempted to do? Complain about our day! All of the grumbling and whining that we held inside all day because we were being good professionals comes pouring out! All of the frustrations that we kept inside because we were being good parents burst forth!

Granted, a good spouse understands that sometimes we need to get something off our chest. But if grumbling is the first thing out of our mouth when we come through the door or moaning and kvetching is the first thing we hear when our spouse enters the house, it puts a major damper on the excitement of coming home welcoming one’s beloved at the end of a long day apart.

Try this as an exercise: Pause before coming in the door and take a deep breath. Let out the tension and put a smile on your face. Do the same thing inside the house when you hear the garage door or the door to the house open. Set aside the bellyaching for a bit and enjoy seeing your family again. Greet them with a smile of gratitude for all the pleasure they bring you. There is a time and a place for “grumbling in the tent,” but if you lead with positivity and happiness, you might find that your complaints are not quite as significant as you first thought.

Psalm 105

God is ever mindful of God’s covenant, the promise God gave for a thousand generations (105:8)

Even in this era of contracts and written agreements and attorneys, we depend on people and businesses who make verbal promises to keep their word. We wait for the repairman or the cable guy who said he would arrive between 8:00 and noon. We drop off our cleaning or a pair of shoes to be resoled or pants to be tailored receive in return a promised that it will be ready by Tuesday at 4:00. We need some specialty item and call ahead to the store to ensure it is in stock before we make a special trip. We make appointments to see doctors, to have our hair or nails done, to have our teeth checked or our pets groomed and expect that we will be seen at or close to our appointment time.

Our lives would be in chaos if we couldn’t rely on the people around us to keep their word. How frustrating is it to make plans to meet a friend at a certain time, only to have her cancel at the last minute or show up a half hour late or not at all!

The Kol Nidre prayer at the beginning of Yom Kippur acknowledges that there are times that we do not keep our word. By asking forgiveness from God for those lapses, we acknowledge that every unfulfilled promise is an offense against God. Therefore, we should treat every promise as a sacred commitment. Words that come out of our mouth should be as strong as a written contract drawn up by attorneys. A promise made in private should be as reliable as a written agreement notarized and signed by witnesses.

Understanding that sometimes a broken promise is unavoidable, under normal circumstances our word should be like God’s covenantal promise, everlasting.

Psalm 104

… Leviathan that You formed to play with. (104:26)

The central images in this Psalm about God as creator depict God as provider. The trees and the earth get their water, the lions get their prey, the cattle get their grass, and human beings get wine and oil. Yet buried in the description of the sea are a few words which describe the creator God in very different terms — God plays! What a wonderful concept, a God who creates with playful enjoyment.

First, let’s be clear that all language about God is symbolic. God has no arms, legs, fingers, eyes, or nose. God is not a lover or a warrior. God is not happy, sad, angry or jealous. All such language describes the human body-centered condition. However, human language is all we have to share ideas with each other, so when we talk about God we by necessity describe God in human terms.

We describe God using terms of negative emotion because a dash of anger is sometimes appropriate, as is a hint of jealousy and a certain amount of sadness. Other descriptions of God are aspirational – we imagine that God is loving to challenge ourselves to be loving. We describe God as just because we believe in the principles of human justice. The depiction of a playful God reminds us that while work and study of Torah are important, so too it is important that we set aside time to be frivolous.  God didn’t create the world so we could spend every moment in serious contemplation and service. The world contains items with no purpose other than for our amusement and so it is our duty to be amused by them. The Talmud tells us that God will hold us accountable for every earthly pleasure we denied ourselves to which we were entitled (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12). While the Talmud spoke about the pleasures of food, it is equally true with respect to other physical or emotional pleasures. God is playful, and we, too, should be playful.

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.