Psalm 119

I have understood more than all my teachers … (119:99)

Psalm 119 is not only the longest Psalm in the book of Psalms, but also the longest Psalm in the Hebrew Bible. It is an alphabetical acrostic, eight verses for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Do the math – that’s a whopping 176 verses!

These Psalm reflections are based on the practice of reading over the Psalm and finding a single verse or phrase that resonates with me. This Psalm presents difficulties because of its length. I am trying to imagine the setting of Psalm 119, who wrote it, how it was used, and why it took so many words to make his point. It is an extended essay on studying and keeping God’s laws as a path to happiness. After a while, the words and images repeat themselves and blur together. While I found a number of beautifully expressed lines, I found the Psalm as a whole to be tedious. My philosophy is that if you have something to say, you should say it clearly and concisely. Don’t use three words when one will do or 176 verses when 22 will do.

The verse I chose speaks directly to the theme of the importance of learning. On the surface, though, it does not embody the typical Jewish reverence for teachers. However, it is possible to read the verse hyper-literally as “from all of those who taught me, I gained understanding.” This may have inspired Rabbi Chanina’s teaching, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.” (Ta’anit 7a)

If the overall message of the Psalm praises those who are always seeking ways to gain knowledge then the my reading of the verse fits well. There is an opportunity to learn from every interaction with another person. Every encounter is a chance to see the face of God.

Psalm 98

Sing to Adonai a new song, for God has worked wonders; God’s right hand, God’s holy arm, has won victory.  Adonai has announced victory, God has revealed triumph in the sight of the nations. (98:1-2)

This is the fourth Psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat, corresponding to the fourth day of the week and to the fourth sefirah (mystical aspect of God) known as Netzah – victory or triumph. In Kabbalah, Netzah implied endurance and patience. It’s opposite, which we’ll address next week, is Hod, majesty or splendor, and represents submission.

On the fourth day of creation, God made the lights in the heavens: the sun, moon, and stars. The brightness of the sun may be seen as a symbol of victory in the Biblical story of Joshua calling upon the sun to stand still (ch. 10).

And now for something completely different …

According to the Zohar (1:123a, page 209 in Daniel Matt’s Pritzker Edition) Psalm 98 was sung by cows!

A passage from the Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 24b) brings up the verse “The cows went straight ahead along the road to Beit Shemesh” (1Sa. 6:12). Since the word “straight ahead” uses letters that also can mean “sing,” the Talmud suggests that the cows sang a song: “The cows sang along the road to Beit Shemesh.” A number of Biblical passages are suggested that might have been sung by cows, but the Zohar chooses Psalm 98. Let’s also note that the story of Joshua calling upon the sun to stand still is described (according to the book of Joshua) in the Book of Yashar (a book which has not be preserved in the Biblical canon). The name Yashar is based on the same word that means “straight ahead.” The name “Beit Shemesh” might be translated, “House of Sun.” The linguistic connections multiply!

The sun is also a metaphor for enlightenment in an intellectual sense. As we recite this Psalm in Kabbalat Shabbat, our meditative kavanah, intention, might focus on the possibility that all of God’s creation, from cows to stars, is part of a glorious song of praise to the Creator. Recall that the mystical aspect of Netzah is patience. We might focus on Wednesday as “hump-day,” the middle of the week when it seems that Shabbat and the weekend will never arrive, and encourage ourselves to patiently work through and appreciate each day of the week for what it brings us.

Psalm 89

How long, Adonai, will you hide your face forever; will your fury blaze like fire? (89:47)

The final Psalm in Book 3 of the Psalms, at 53 verses, is the third longest Psalm. It concludes with a doxology typical of the final verse of each book of Psalms, “Blessed is Adonai forever, Amen and Amen.” When I embarked on this project to write a reflection on each of the 150 Psalms, one per week, a nearly three year project, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to maintain the discipline. That’s the funny thing about long-term projects. You begin with the best of intentions, but at a certain point it seems like they’re going to take forever to complete. Forever is a long time. Something which takes forever is never completed.

The JPS translation of our verse, paying careful attention to the punctuation of the verse, reads three distinct questions:

How long, Adonai; will you hide your face forever, will your fury blaze like fire?

The first question, “How long,” is a general cry for God’s presence. It is followed by two specific question. To paraphrase, “Will I never see you again?” and “Are you very angry?”

Rabbi Benjamin Segal, in his masterful book “A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature” translates the verse differently by putting moving the word “forever” from the middle of the verse, where it is found in the Hebrew, to the end of the verse:

How long, Adonai, will you hid your face; will your fury blaze like fire forever?

Rabbi Segal’s translation, reads the verse as two questions — “How long will you remain distant?” and “Will you be angry forever?”

I’ve chosen a different way to understand the verse. The Psalmist asks, “How long will you hide your face?” but embedded in the verse is the word ‘forever,’ a word which indicates what he’s afraid of. I’ve translated this verse to emphasize the writer’s sense of uncertainty and contradiction. The Psalmist asks “how long?” but answers that God’s face will be hidden forever, that God will never appear to him again.

Time is relative. One minute standing in silence, as Israelis do as part of their Memorial Day observance, seems like an eternity. On the other hand, one minute on a rollercoaster is over in a flash. When we’re feeling abandoned, time crawls. When we’re having a good time, time flies. Three-fifths of the way into my journey though the Psalms, I, like the Psalmist, sometimes wonder if I’ll make it to the end. It seems far away. As we finish Book 3 of Psalms, I pause to acknowledge God, the source of blessing, and to thank God for giving me the mental strength and discipline to push on and finish what I began.

Psalm 84

They go from rampart to rampart (or “from strength to strength”), appearing before God in Zion. (84:8)

“May you go from strength to strength” was part of a speech of congratulation of my childhood rabbi. It sounded so rabbinic, mostly because it was not at all clear to me what he meant. Did it mean “may you go from success to success,” a wish that would make sense given that he might be offering congratulations for an accomplishment? Of course, he might also be offering congratulations for a marriage or the birth of a child. We won’t know for some years whether the marriage is successful, and while the child may be successfully delivered, the larger task of actually raising the child has barely begun!

As a rabbi myself, I figured I needed to be able to give the phrase a plausible explanation and I did so as follows: “may you go from the strength that it takes to do what you did to the strength that it will take to do the next big thing.” A confession, though — prior to reading Psalm 84, I never knew where this phrase came from. Now that I know where it came from, my 26 word explanation of four Hebrew words seems a bit wordy.

The context in Psalm 84 is a description of a person engaged in a pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem, going along the highways, passing through a valley, and finally traveling me’hayil el hayill. Are we envisioning the pilgrim climbing the ramparts on the walls of Jerusalem on the final leg of his journey? I think it more likely that the weary pilgrim would have completed the journey on the streets into the city rather than on the walls around the city. Perhaps a better understanding would be “from effort to effort,” summarizing the long journey as a series of discrete efforts, each of which needed to be accomplished in order to complete the task.

“May you go from [this] effort to [another] effort” doesn’t sound as good as “from strength to strength,” but I think that’s what what my childhood rabbi intended. Each time we complete something, whether it be graduation from high school, a wedding, birth of a child, a new job, we praise the effort that went into the accomplishment. We praise the effort that went into the completion, not the quality of the final product.

What do you call a medical student who graduated last in his class?’ goes the old joke.  Doctor! While there is much to be said for the marathoner who runs to Jerusalem with a world-record breaking time, when all is said and done the plodder who also arrives in the holy city has done the pilgrimage mitzvah just as well.

Psalm 52

Your tongue devises mischief, like a sharpened razor that works treacherously. (52:4)

Our contemporary inability to communicate kindly is not a modern invention. Back in the days when writing was new, I suppose Oggita wrote a note on a cave wall to her girlfriend Uggah, “Og wears stinky hides.” And Og scratched out, “Grogg can’t hit the side of an Elephant with a rock.”

I, like the Psalmist, find it discouraging when people use their power of speech as a weapon. When I read online posts and comments claiming with all seriousness that Israel is responsible for a Holocaust of the Palestinian people, I am horrified that people have so little regard for history and for truth. Easily verifiable facts are simply invented – one can find it stated that Gaza is the most densely populated area on earth, when in truth Gaza is 4 times bigger than Manhattan with about the same population. Truth doesn’t matter when one’s goal is to demonize.

In the online world, debate is not about laying out facts and seeing who can present the most persuasive case. It should be – but too often it is about sarcasm and attacks and making up the facts as one goes along.

The goal in peace negotiations is about coming to a consensus that both sides can live with. The goal in online conversations is about making the most outrageous claims, making the other side look foolish, having the last word.

Facebook as a forum for comments on articles is no paragon of virtue, but the fact that most users are identified by their real name causes most users to moderate their comments, at least on articles posted by a friend. However, when NPR or the HuffPost posts a controversial story which receives hundreds or thousands of comments, the sheer volume of comments seems to provide a layer of anonymity that invites meanness.

Websites which allow anonymous comments are the best example that the speech the Psalmist wrote against thousands of years ago has not changed. Speech was, continues to be, and probably always will be used by some as a weapon.