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 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.