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.
… 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.
Adonai is sovereign, enthroned on cherubim … (99:1)
In Kabbalat Shabbat, Psalm 99 is the fifth Psalm, corresponding to Thursday, the fifth day of the week. It also corresponds to Hod, majesty or splendor, the fifth mystical aspect aspect of God 5. Hod also represents the quality of submission. On the fifth day of creation according to Genesis, God created sea creatures and birds.
From my office window, I can often see hawks circling high above the trees. Large birds such as hawks and eagles have a quality of majesty about them. They soar in the air, wings outstretched, as they scan the ground for prey. They instinctive know how to submit to the air currents, riding the air rather than flapping against it. Large sea creatures, such as whales, dolphins, and sharks similarly move through the water with a graceful lack of apparent effort.
Cherubs are winged angels. Thus, our Psalmist is depicting God as riding one of these majestic air creatures, using it as a throne. As Shabbat approaches, we may or may not have finished our work for the week. Yet, Shabbat is a time to set aside the worries and responsibilities that ride on our shoulders during the week, and soar with grace into a different dimension of time.
A bird has built a nest underneath a gutter just outside my kitchen. Early in the evening on Shabbat, I sat on the deck watching the bird sitting in the nest. For an hour, the bird didn’t move from the nest. I don’t know whether the bird was laying eggs or sitting on them, keeping them warm. I have a sense, though, that it was submitting itself to a need larger than itself, the need to grow the next generation. Both the bird and I were enjoying a peaceful Shabbat with no responsibilities other than to sit and breathe.
Declare among the nations, “Adonai reigns!” the world stands firm, it cannot be shaken; God judges the peoples with equity. (96:10)
In Kabbalat Shabbat’s Friday evening trip through the week we might remember that on the second day of creation the upper waters and the lower waters were divided by the sky. The world as we know it begins to take shape, although the dry land doesn’t appear until the third day. Most of the time our world stands firm, although it can and does shake when the vast tectonic plates deep under our feet shift. The firm foundation that the Psalmists speaks of is better understood in spiritual/emotional terms than a physical firmness.
The second of the seven sefirot of of God’s attributes is known as Gevurah (power) or Din (Judgement). Our Psalmist asserts that God judges humanity fairly. There is a steadiness and predictability about the way the world works. Even though we don’t yet have the technology to predict when an earthquakes will occur, we know why they happen and can imagine that someday the tools will exist to predict a shift in the earth’s crust. The same might be said for the suffering which afflicts humanity in this world – we don’t yet have the tools or the will on a large scale to alleviate it completely, so we address it as best we are able.
The most powerful message of this verse is rooted in one of the Jewish principles of theology that moves me most intensely, the idea that our role in the world is to be an imitatio dei, an imitation of God. Just as God feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, buries the dead, and visits the sick (all actions of God found in various midrashim), so we are obligated to take care of others. Just as this attribute of God exercises restraint in the use of power and judgement to judge with equity, so too should we.
While in theory I am in favor of the death penalty, in practice I would prefer that it rarely be used, only in cases where there is absolutely no doubt that the convicted murderer had full capacity to understand what he or she was doing and acted with deliberation.
The history of our system of government can been seen as a struggle between those who want to expand and those who want to restrain the power of the Presidency, Congress, or the Supreme court. Power is not inherently dangerous, but power without humility and restraint is.
Above the thunder of the mighty waters, more majestic than the breakers of the sea is Adonai, majestic on high. (93:4)
Creation is a thunderous presence. The sound of the big bang can still be hear by radio telescopes. I am fascinated by Stephen Hawking, by black holes, by the formation of matter into galaxies, galaxies into star systems, stars into planets, and planets into the materials that can support life. Time and matter and energy can be quantified and measured in a series of equations. Mostly.
Above and beyond and behind that thunderous presence is another Presence whose existence cannot be measured and determined by anything but the poetry of a religious text.
A spinning earth creates shifting tectonic plates and currents and waves and weather patterns. We’ve gotten pretty good at predicting the weather short term. As long as we can see the weather to the west of us, we know pretty much what we’re going to get. But the farther out we try to predict, the more vague and useless our predictions get. Can I count on good weather for a picnic the day after tomorrow? I’ll trust the meteorologist. Can I count on good weather on a Sunday afternoon two months from now? No one knows. The same goes for predicting shifts in tectonic plates. No one can warn us about earthquakes within anything close to useful precision.
Someday, maybe we’ll be able to predict the weather with pinpoint accuracy more than three to five days in advance. Exerting control over the weather? Science fiction loves that idea, but it is as far beyond my imagination as controlling the movement of the earth’s plates.
Those who believe in God assert that the Majestic Divine Presence is the animating force energizing our universe (as well as any and all parallel universes), above the thunder of the upper waters of the sky, behind the breakers of the lower waters of the oceans.