Psalm 150

 

Let all that breathes praise Adonai. Hallelujah! (150:6)

I love the fact that the book of Psalms concludes with praise that comes from every living creature that draws a breath. Not just human beings, but every other animal joins with us in dedicating that breath to God. Every release of breath gives something back to God. We return carbon dioxide to nourish plant life. We release music to make the world beautiful. We release sounds and words of gratitude.

For some, criticism comes more naturally than praise. But living a life in which criticism comes as naturally as breathing is a recipe for unhappiness. Such people are focused on what is missing from their lives rather than the gifts they have received.

The book of Psalms contains words of people who are deeply afraid, unhappy, persecuted, and sick, reaching out to God for relief. The book concludes, however, with the words of people reaching out God in song and praise. At the end of my life I hope to face death and God with words of gratitude on my lips, for my wife, for my children, and for all that I have experienced in my life. Because we don’t know at what moment we might die, Pirke Avot suggests that we treat each hour as if it is our last (2:10). Consider the last sentence you spoke to a loved one. What if that were your final words? Would your last breath be leaving you carrying praise or condemnation?

Psalms concludes with an exercise in gratitude. How can your every exhaled breath contain appreciation?

I am grateful to God for the wisdom embodied in the 150 Psalms, reflecting the entirety of the range of human experience. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with the poetry and use the life of the poet as a backdrop against which I have examined my own life. I am grateful to God for giving me the strength and perseverance to complete this project of Psalm reflections. As my thoughts have given me peace of mind, I hope that they have positively impacted other readers.

“May Adonai grant strength to God’s people. May Adonai bless God’s people with peace.” (Psalm 29:11)

.ה׳ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן, ה׳ יְבָרֵךְ אֶת־עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם

Psalm 149

For Adonai takes pleasure in God’s people (149:4)

The Yiddish word for this kind of pleasure is Nahas, coming from the Hebrew Nahat. Although this is not the Hebrew word used in the Psalm, it reminds me of the Yiddish expression, sheppen nahas fun kinder, deriving pleasure from the mere existence of children. Of course, if the children misbehave, refuse to leave the nest and get a job, or get arrested, we’re no longer sheppen nahas! But when they bring home artwork that only a mother could love, work their hardest and struggle to meet expectations, or celebrate Bar/Bat Mitzvah or graduations, the accomplishment itself is a delight.

I imagine that God takes pleasure when we try. We make mistakes and don’t always succeed and often need help. But as long as we put forth the effort, learning and growing over the course of our lives, God is proud of us because we are God’s children. A midrash imagines the questions God will ask us at the entrance to the world to come. I understand the questions as “Have you fulfilled your personal potential, have you been the best version of you, have you done the things in this world that you alone were created to do?”

We will fall short. We will leave things undone. But Pirke Avot (2:16) teaches that we don’t need to finish the work, we only need to make our contribution.

“[Rabbi Tarfon] would say, “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it.”

Psalm 148

God establishes a law and does not violate it. (148:6)

Every morning when I read this Psalm this verse catches my attention. It suggests that God is self-limiting. God created a world in which apples predictably fall down and skilled pitchers can throw a baseball with a certain spin to make it make it curve over the plate and we can take a walk without worrying that that there will be a temporary gravity outage and we, along with our atmosphere, will drift off into space. We can rely on predicable and repeatable chemicals reactions so our medications function reliably and our bread rises and bakes golden brown. Our physical world functions according to unchanging rules because God created it that way. From the first moment after the cosmic bang or the Divine word saying “Let there be light,” time moved at a steady pace and the physical matter of the universe coalesced and cooled and condensed in order to provide energy and material for life.

Pirke Avot (5:6) teaches that God built certain miracles into the fabric of the world during the first week of creation.

Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they:

(1) the mouth of the earth [Num. 16:32]; (2) the mouth of the well [Num. 21:16-18]; (3) the mouth of the ass [Num. 22:28]; (4) the rainbow [Gen. 9:13]; (5) the manna [Ex. 16:15]; (6) the rod [Ex. 4:17]; (7) the Shamir [a worm which cut blocks of stone so iron tools were not needed, cf. Deut. 27:5, I Kings 6:7]; (8) the letters, (9) writing, (10) and tablets [of the ten commandments, Ex. 32:15f.].

Without knowing advanced physics, the ancient rabbis instinctively understood that God doesn’t interrupt the natural order willy-nilly and posited that the exceptions to natural law were pre-programmed into creation from the beginning. Assuming that God is an infinite omnipotent creator who can rewrite the code of the world at any time, the Psalmist asserts that for the sake of humanity God agrees to let the world continue to exist by the original set of rules.

If setting limits and abiding by them is a Divine trait, it is also a trait worth emulating.

Psalm 147

 

The healer of the broken hearted (147:3)

Deuteronomy 10:16 speaks of circumcising the foreskin of one’s heart to remove impediments to recognizing God, but he could not have foreseen using miniature cameras to place stents in partially clogged arteries or cracking open someone’s chest and replace the arteries coming out of the heart.

Ezekiel used the metaphor of a heart transplant to speak about a fundamental transformation in the human being. He wrote, “I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh” (11:19, 36:26), but he could not have imagined attaching a human being to a machine to oxygenate and circulate blood while removing an ailing heart from the person’s chest and replacing it with a healthy heart.

The Psalmist could never have envisioned what goes through my mind when I read the phrase, “healer of the broken hearted.” I think of my relatives and friends and members of my congregation who have survived heart procedures that under normal circumstances have become routine. Even so, because messing around with the heart is never completely routine, this Psalmist’s image of God as a Divine doctor gives me strength and hope.

Imagine the presence of God hovering in the operating room guiding the hand of the surgeon. Think about the miraculous functioning of the body, and consider the asher yatzar berakha:

You are the source of blessing, Adonai our God, eternal Sovereign of the universe, who formed the human being with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is revealed and known before Your Throne of Glory that if one of them ruptures or one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. You are the source of blessing, Adonai, who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱ–לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִיאֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשֹוֹת