Psalm 24 is sung in our services on weekdays and Shabbat afternoons (and on weekday Festivals) when we put the Torah away. It’s a beautiful, short psalm that begins by reminding us that God is the Creator and in order to deserve a home on this world, we have to treat the landLord and the rest of God’s creatures with respect.
Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in God’s holy place? — One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life or sworn deceitfully. (24:3-4)
Of course, there is no one who has not missed the mark at some point in his or her life. No one’s behavior is unblemished, and no one heart is (i.e. thoughts are) absolutely pure. If thoughts of sin were equal to sin (not true in the Hebrew Bible), most people would be in deep trouble! Judaism has been accused of being so mired in a legal system that recovery is impossible – this is a misunderstanding of Jewish tradition.
In order to ascend the mountain and stand in the presence of God, we need to do the proper work. There is no shortcut up this mountain, there is no tram that takes you up without effort. The work isn’t hard, but it has to be done. Bad habits need to be considered and dismantled. We need to watch our patterns of speech, be careful how we speak about others. Lashon Hara, evil, reputation destroying gossip, will trip us on our journey up the mountain.
I am reminded of a deep Biblical teaching from the beginning of Leviticus, which presents a series of offerings, each of which purify the one who brings it. Large animals, small animals, birds, and grain – each accomplish the same end. The ritual of repentance is open to all, the path up the mountain is fully accessible, regardless of one’s economic power. Judaism has embraced that principle and continued to democratize itself. Judaism is not a race, it is no a closed tribe, it is a way to live your life according to Torah. It is not punitive – it provides a way to clean one’s hands. In the end, we believe that God, the righteous judge, is a loving and merciful God.