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 82

They neither know nor understand, they go about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth totter. (82:5)

Our Psalm is identified by the Talmud as the Psalm to be recited on Tuesdays because on the third day, God separated water from dry land. In other words, God created the foundation of the world on which human beings live. The connection between Tuesday’s act of creation and Psalm 82 is found in our verse, which says that those among the court of divine judges who are ignorant shake the very foundation of the earth. The Psalmist suggests  that if we allow judges to pervert justice, the fabric of creation can unravel.

The first century Rabbinic work Pirke Avot understood that government, which includes a judiciary system, is necessary for the stability of society:

Rabbi Chanina taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive.” (Avot 3:2)

On the other hand, Pirke Avot also was caution about the capricious nature of the leadership of the Roman empire:

Rabban Gamliel taught: “Be wary of the government, for they get friendly with a person only for their own convenience. They look like friends when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a person when he is in need.” (Avot 2:3)

It is true that our government has not always protected those in need. We have just passed the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” on which over 600 non-violent protesters were viciously attacked by Alabama State troopers as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. President Obama shared the following words:

Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?

Voting is a privilege and a sacred obligation. Collectively, we are responsible for maintaining a stable society by choosing our elected representatives wisely. Please take your obligation seriously.

Psalm 76

God curbs the spirit of princes, inspires awe in the kings of the earth. (76:13)

Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Powerful leaders need constant reminders that their power does not entitle them to do and take anything they want. This is the basis for a philosophical argument for a monotheistic God. Were there more than one creator/power in the universe; or if there were no power above human power, there would be no basis for asserting universal, non-relative, moral authority.

In a polytheistic system, the gods are in conflict. There is no absolute authority, and therefore no absolute right or wrong. Any position that I might take, appealing to the voice of a specific god, can be contradicted by the voice of an opposing god. The sun god dries up the water god, but the storm god blows clouds to cover up the sun god and produce more water. The sea god has no power inland, where the goddess of crop fertility reigns. And so on.

In a non-theistic system, we have to trust the human system to create systems of morality. The problem, though, is that every human created system can be modified or suspended by a person with sufficient power. The Constitution of the United States provides protection for its citizens, but Congress has passed laws abridging our rights when it feels that it is necessary.

A monotheistic system has a God at the top of the system whose authority (in theory, and usually in practice) cannot be altered by human beings. It’s answer to Lord Acton is that since human power is limited by God, then a human leader who is curbed by a belief in God and held in awe of God will never be corrupted, and certainly never be corrupted absolutely.

Psalm 66

O peoples, bless our God, celebrate God’s praises; the One who has granted us life, and has not let our feet slip. (66:8-9)

Several years ago I met Rabbi Ronnie Cahana while visiting Camp Ramah in Canada. He serves a congregation in Montreal. Our paths crossed because his daughter was in the same age group as my sons. He was warm and friendly. I enjoyed the few days I spent getting to know him, and remembered the encounter. Just a couple years after that meeting, in 2011, he had a stroke. He was paralyzed from just below his eyes down. His mental faculties were intact – a condition known as “locked-in syndrome.” His daughter Kitra recently gave a very powerful TED talk describing how she and the rest of his family transcribed his communication through blinks, which allowed him to continue to share his Torah and his poetry with his congregation and on his web site, rabbicahana.com.

I watched the video of Kitra’s talk . The next day, I received an email from Pam, a college friend whose mother suffered a major stroke early in October. She wrote that she was away from home with her mother for nearly five weeks, taking care of her throughout her recovery and the search for a facility that will be able to take care of her after Pam returned home to her family. Her mom is mostly cognitively intact and cannot move the right side of body, but because she suffered the stroke about 36 hours before she was found and treatment could begin, she will not recover fully.

“Bless God … who has not let our feet slip.” From the first moment that he could communicate, Rabbi Cahana comforted his family and his congregation, assuring them that his experience was a blessing, that he found God within the silence of his body. He continued to teach Torah, he continued to counsel members of his congregation, while in a condition that most of us would have found intolerable.

“Bless God … who has not let our feet slip.” Pam found spiritual comfort in some of my Psalm reflections and other blog posts, but I find spiritual comfort in hearing about the love and strength she exhibits in the face of tremendous hardship. Away from her husband and children, she was willingly taking on the task of caring for the mother who embraced her and cared for her.

I have long disliked the aphorism, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Most of us handle whatever we need to handle, but some of us, overwhelmed, do not handle things well at all. For me, a theology that suggests that God “piles it on” for those who can handle it is perverse. Rabbi Cahana is standing firm and my friend Pam is standing firm; both under very trying circumstances. “Thank God … they have kept their footing.”