Happy is one … who is ardently devoted to God’s commandments. (112:1)
There are no guarantees of happiness in this world. Making the most money or acquiring the best ‘toys’ won’t do it, but studies have shown that those who spend time serving others tend to be happier than those who live self-centered lives.
God has many commandments and they have a variety of functions, although the Torah generally does not describe a purpose for the commandments. Living a life of participation in public prayer, Sabbath and holiday observance (including the communal aspects of such holy days), tzedakah and service towards others tends to creates the conditions for greater happiness. However, it is not an automatic response, like dropping a quarter into a parking meter. Showing up for a minyan now and then when you feel like it does not show devotion. Showing up consistently, even when you are tired and would rather be doing something else, does. Being physically present because you were asked to make a minyan but mentally zoning out, or rushing through your prayers and leaving the service early so your can get to your next activity doesn’t show devotion. The former is minimally doing someone a favor and the latter is selfishness – devotion to your prayer, not devotion to being a part of a community serving God.
Devotion to God’s commandments requires a high degree of selflessness. I have to be willing to give something up for God and it is precisely in setting aside my ego and my needs in favor of something else that satisfaction and happiness may be found.
The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Adonai (111:10)
The character attribute of Yir’at Hasham, living in awe of God, reminds me that for all of the degrees on my wall, my storehouse of knowledge is finite while God is infinite. Fear of God is not terror. Most religious people do not understand God as a terror or use God to frighten others. At the most, they might embrace the quality of fear to inspire trembling in themselves. The primary purpose of fear and awe is to promote the quality of humility, the ability to set aside ego. Wisdom begins with the ability to see the rightness in the words of others and the wrongness in one’s own words.
Wisdom is not the same things as intelligence. There are many smart people in the world who are not wise and there are many wise people who would not score well on an IQ test. Wisdom begins by cultivating the ability to see one’s own flaws against God’s perfection. A wise person knows when to speak and when to hold back. A wise person sees wisdom in others, even while disagreeing with them. A wise person understands his or her own motivations, triggers, and flash points and uses that knowledge to minimize responses provoked by fear, anger, jealousy, or other negative emotion.
Stretch forth your mighty scepter from Zion, O Adonai! (110:2)
When producing a flat map of a globe, the mapmaker has to choose how to center the world on the paper. Typically, world maps sold in the United States depict North America in the center. A similar map sold in Germany places Europe at the center just as an ancient map of China is centered on China. The most interesting projection might be a world map sold in Australia which (not surprisingly) places Australia at the center, but for a better projection of the continents, sometimes places south at the top of the map, causing the world to appear upside down!
The traditional Jewish view of the world sees Jerusalem as the center of the world, sometimes described as the navel of the world. From the point of view of the Zohar, the central Jewish work of Kabbalah, the Divine umbilical cord providing nourishment to the world is attached to the rock on the Temple Mount, Mount Zion, on which Abraham was told to offer his son Isaac.
There is no right way or wrong way to orient a map, and there is no right or wrong way to center a map. If the Biblical Israelites had produced a map, they probably would have placed east at the top and west at the bottom (see Genesis 13:9, where the Hebrew words for left and right denote north and south). The published map reflects the common world view of the expected audience.
In the same way, there is no right or wrong way to number years. The western world has chosen to use the birth of Jesus as point ‘0’ on the number line. The Jewish world has chosen a different starting point, the year of creation according to a midrash written nearly 2000 years ago.
Even though I live in the world of CE and BCE, my filing system organizes files by the Jewish year. Even though I know that there is no place devoid of God’s presence, I think of Jerusalem as God’s home base. If references to time and space are nothing more than a convention, I’m going to choose the convention that reinforces my chosen religious identity.
They repay me with evil for good, with hatred for my love. (109:5)
Most of the time it feels good to be a good and loving person in this world. Living one’s life according to the middah of hesed (character value of love) means continually looking for ways to radiate acts of love. Most of the time, a smile aimed at a harried cashier or another driver at a four-way stop during rush hour will elicit a smile in return. A kind word to a server or a person you pass walking down the street doesn’t take much effort and will likely result in that person passing along the act of hesed to another person later in the day.
Every once in a while, however, it is more challenging. I had a meeting downtown and was fortunately enough to find street parking right across the street. I had just pulled in to the spot and had not even shut off the car. While arranging my bag and getting change for the meter out of the ashtray, I heard a sharp knock on the window. Standing there was a meter lady, getting ready to write a ticket. I rolled down the window and she barked, “you’re meter’s expired!” I explained, somewhat angrily, that I had just that moment pulled in and hadn’t had a chance to get out of the car yet. She responded, “Well, you’d better put money in the meter right away,” and walked away. I wanted to get out of the car and ask her why she was being so unpleasant! Was she behind on her ticket writing quota? I could have gotten her badge number and reported her for … something! Such an aggressive action, however, would have had no positive outcome. It would have left both of us feeling even more angry, and that anger, carried through the rest of the day, would have infected each of my subsequent interactions.
Pirkei Avot (1:6) teaches, “judge every person on the side of merit.” My initial response to her was angry. What would have happened if I had imagined how hard her job must be and even when she does it 100% properly, people get angry at her. What is it like working under those conditions day after day, week after week, month after month, in the heat, cold, rain, and snow? If it happens again, perhaps I would be able to roll down the window and say, “I appreciate all the hard work you do to make sure people park on the downtown streets fairly. I was just about to get out of my car and put money into the meter. Thank you for reminding me, and enjoy the rest of your day!”
Awake, O harp and lyre! I will wake the dawn. (108:3)
Of course we know that the human being doesn’t wake up the musical instruments or the dawn, but rather the instruments – the alarm clock – or the dawn wakes up the human being. The Psalmist, however, chose to imagine a moment in which reality is holding its breath, waiting for him to turn on the power, as it were. I’m thinking of my summers at camp or time spent on a retreat in a rural location. I’m seeing that precise moment in the morning when consciousness returns, before anyone’s alarm clock rings, before the sun rises, when everything is quiet.
There is a quiet so completely still that it feels like even nature is asleep. At a retreat in a peaceful camp-like setting, I arise and dress and head to minyan early. I’m the only one outside, and as dawn breaks and the birds begin chirping, it is a concert for my enjoyment alone.
At that moment, an early morning blessing comes to life: Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, “who gave the rooster the consciousness to distinguish between day and night.”
Good morning, world! It’s nice to see you again, and thank you for the wonderful show you’re putting on for me this morning.
I am aware that some people are not morning people and might not be enthusiastic about greeting the dawn. Truthfully, while I often awake early, I would sometimes prefer to go back to sleep. But most of the time I shoulder my responsibility and get out of bed to wake up the dawn. After all, aside from the winters in extreme regions, we wouldn’t want the sun sleeping the whole day, would we?