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.
O God, do not be silent; do not hold aloof; do not be quiet, O God (83:2)
Some Psalms do not speak to me. This is one of them. The language is powerful, it evokes the image of glorious battles of the past in which our enemies were vanquished, but I find it disturbingly passive. Shall we sit back and wait for God’s voice to thunder from the mountain top? Should we wait for God’s right arm to smash our enemies and correct the injustices of society? Ought we expect that the power of nature – wind, fire, storms – will protect us and destroy them?
Do I show a lack faith when I say no, we should not sit back and wait for God, whining about God’s non-appearance?
When Selma led to the passing and signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that was the voice of God. It was also the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of demonstrators. The racial injustice we still experience is not caused by God’s aloofness. It is the responsibility of those of us who carry around prejudice in our hearts.
To blame God for human failings is an act unworthy of a mature adult. God created us with the potential for greatness, and when we fail it is our failure, not God’s.
You plucked up a vine from Egypt; You expelled nations and planted it. You cleared a place for it; it took deep root and filled the land. (80:9-10)
The theology of this verse reminds me of the comment on the first verse of Genesis by the medieval French commentator Rashi, in which he explains that the purpose of beginning Torah with creation, rather than with the first mitzvah given to Israel in Exodus 12, is to remind us that the world belongs to God. In this Psalm, God is a gardener and the world is God’s garden.
I know some transplanted species do very well in a new location, taking over the land and crowding out the native species. Typically, we call those kinds of plants “invasive.” This does not seem to be the image that the Psalmist is drawing. Rather, he is describing a Gardener who very carefully prepares the soil by clearing away the plants currently growing in the new location as if they were weeds. Only when the area is empty and ready for a new planting does the gardener take the vine that had been growing in Egypt and transplant it to its new location.
The vine takes to the new location as its native habitat, flourishing, sending its roots deep into the ground and spreading out to fill the land. The vine doesn’t own the land any more than the plants who preceded it owned the land. The vine lives off the land, depending on the owner of the land to sustain it. This Gardener is not typical of those who take care of small farms and landscapes. This Gardener not only fertilizes the soil and trims the vine, but also controls the water and the sunshine that nourish the vine.
Although the Psalmist speaks as if the vine is the only thing growing, we know that a healthy ecosystem supports a variety of plants. To conclude on a messianic note: just as the vine shares the land with a different kinds of fruit trees, vegetables, grains and and flowering plants, so too may the people Israel someday share the land in peace with a diversity of other peoples.