“The Jordan ran backward.” (114:3)
As the city of Chicago grew in the late 1800’s, it relied heavily on Lake Michigan for drinking water. The pollution-laden Chicago river dumped its sewage into the lake, contributing to public health problems like cholera and typhoid fever. In 1900, an agency of the State of Illinois, using a series of canal locks from Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines river, increased the flow from Lake Michigan and reversed the flow of the Chicago river away from the lake. Ultimately, this water drained into the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. One of the greatest engineering feats of its time ensured that Chicago would take a place among the great cities of the United States.
“From the rising of the sun until its setting …” (113:3)
In the ancient world, astronomical phenomena were unpredictable and thus were signs of Divine favor or displeasure. An eclipse was a portent of disaster. A comet was a sign of good tidings. The regular cycles of the sun and moon told people when to sow, when to reap, and when to celebrate. Stars and planets were and are objects of wonder. Someday, humanity might take steps to populate another world, but today, the distances and difficulties of travel are insurmountable. From our miraculous perch on the arm of a galaxy we call the Milky Way, we sit and observe and perhaps wait to be contacted.
“A light shines in the darkness.” (112:4)
Jews celebrate by lighting two candles on Shabbat and major Festivals and elaborate none-branched candelabras on Hanukkah, and mourn by lighting a single candle at the shiva following a death and on a yahrtzeit, the anniversary of a death. A single flame, representing the human soul, dispels the darkness of sadness and loss. Two flames represent “observe” and “remember,” the first words of the fourth commandment to observe Shabbat in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the increasing light of the Hanukiah at the darkest days of winter, reminds us when two candles or two human souls converge, the light burns brighter.
“Accessible to all who desire …” (111:2)
Accessibility means making a place for everyone who wants to participate. This means providing ramps and wide doorways, Braille materials, hearing amplification, and presenting a fully inclusive, welcoming presence to all. When an institution begins selectively narrowing down the type of person who is welcome in its midst, it creates an atmosphere of privilege. Members evaluate each person who enters against a list of criteria. Those who measure up are welcomed, those who do not are turned away. For newcomers, entry becomes an unpleasant experience of being judged worthy or not. An accessible institution is one which opens its doors to all who desire to enter.
“He raises his head.” (110:7)
The Psalmist is speaking of a person whose posture suggests that he is confident that he is under the protection of God, a hero, secure in his ability to succeed. This is in contrast to the person who advises “Keep your head down” or “Keep your nose to the grindstone,” who comes from the opposite perspective, suggesting that we keep a low profile and not call attention to ourselves.
During the most important Jewish prayers, we stand upright in an attentive, dignified posture. When addressing the Blessed Holy One, we want to present ourselves well. We do well to approach others with the same confident posture.