Psalm 144

Adonai, what is a human being that You should care about him, a mortal being, that You should think of him? A human being is like a breath, whose days are like a passing shadow. (144:3-4)

Every living thing has value, not matter how long or how short the life span. From a eternal God-perspective, their is no difference between a fertilized embryo which lives a matter of weeks or months and a person who lives a full life. God’s quality of caring and love applies equally to the child who died in utero and the elder who lives 102 years surrounded by three or four generations of descendants.

One way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to say that it does not ignore the embryonic life simply because it is unborn but neither does it give more weight to the woman simply because she is older. Rather, it treats the two of them as equally human, but if the embryonic life is threatening the life or health of the mother, then we take the embryonic life to spare the mother’s life. In the same way, if a mugger showed a gun and declared, “Your money or your life,” the potential victim or a bystander would be justified in taking the life of the mugger.

Another way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to see the baby as a dependent life akin to a limb of the mother. Just as one may remove a person’s limb when it threatens the health of the body, one may remove an child in utero if it threatens the mother. No matter which way one analyzes the ethics of abortion in Jewish law, midrash infuses the embryonic life with a soul. In other words, an abortion is not the killing of a soul-less child, but rather the necessary killing of a soul who is endangering another’s life.

While I have not seen a midrash which addresses what happens to the soul of a child which did not get the chance to be born, I imagine, because I believe that God cares about every soul, that the unborn soul whose life was cut off goes back to the Divine storehouse of souls. Every soul deserves a chance to live a life. A soul whose life was cut short before it could experience the trials and triumphs of a human life ought to be given a second chance to be born.

Psalm 142

No one cares about me! (142:5)

The sentiment expressed by our verse can be read either as a heartbreaking way or in a childish attention-seeking way. There are certainly people who have fallen off the margins of community because of illness or age-related infirmity. They are people who disappear, little by little, from attending worship services, classes, shopping at the supermarket, taking walks in the neighborhood. What happens when no one really pays attention? When time passes and after they haven’t been seen for some months, they realize that they have been forgotten? Their pain is real and their complaint is real and my heart breaks for them.

There are the people whose own bad choices alienate others around them. Those who make constant demands on people who befriend them, for whom no matter how much is done for them, it is never enough. Their cry of “No one cares about me” is plainly untrue, and one has to admire those who care enough to continue showing love despite the ingratitude.

Finally, there are those who make conversation difficult by turning every interaction into a litany of complaints, about their physical condition or an expression of their bitterness about real or imagined injustices in the distant past. One by one, the family and friends drop away because they can’t stand the negativity. These kind of people isolate themselves by their behavior because others do not want to be around them. For them, it is true that “No one cares about me,” but it is hard to work up sympathy.

When you find yourself echoing the complaint of our Psalmist, first, make sure you haven’t placed yourself there by our own behavior. You attract more company with sweetness than with bitterness!

Psalm 133

February 29, 2016

Divre Harav – March/16

For almost three years, I have been publishing reflections on Psalms, one a week. In only three months I will have finished all 150 Psalms. I’ve been doing this because the study of sacred literature for the purpose of spiritual development is a key practice of Judaism.There is a wide range of Jewish literature to study along with classical or modern commentaries, such as Torah, Prophets, Psalms, Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, Zohar. I find that the discipline of study opens me up to whatever message resonates when I open up the book and start reading. I think of it as a message from the Divine, plucking at whichever one of my heartstrings that needs plucking at that particular moment. Here is my reflection on a verse from Psalm 133, at three verses, one of the shortest Psalms in the book.

Psalm 133

How good and how pleasant it is that siblings dwell together. (133:1)

This verse is one of the most well known verses of Psalms. Of course, ‘siblings’ (or more literally, ‘brothers’) is meant to be read broadly, as members of a tribe or nation. How wonderful it is when we all get along, and how awful it is when we don’t. Who can forget Rodney King’s plea during the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the wake of the acquittal of four police officers for using excessive force during his arrest, “Can we all get along?”

Since then, St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Minneapolis have also become flash-points in our country’s struggle to create the kind of society Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned, one in which all people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It is true that siblings don’t always get along. We’re not describing a pollyannaish future in which arguments cease to exist and we sit around every evening around the campfire singing Kumbaya. We disagree, we argue, we might even yell at times, but at the end of the day we find a way to come to an agreement.

The Mishnah speaks about disagreements that are “l’shem shamayim,” for the sake of heaven. We reach this point when we understand and appreciate the other person’s perspective, even when we disagree. First, we imagine ourselves in the position of a young black man or woman walking through a store followed by security personnel or being stopped by the police while driving through predominantly white neighborhoods, and appreciate that the color of their skin places them under heightened suspicion. Only after doing this can we engage in a serious discussion on how to alleviate racial tension.

Psalm 132

Let Your priests be clothed in righteousness .… (132:9)

Would that all religious leaders were clothed in righteousness. The Psalmist hints at a great truth when he expresses himself in the form of a hope. He knows as well as we do that religious leaders are vulnerable to the same human foibles as anyone else. They are often placed in positions of power without sufficient preparation to keep themselves from stumbling. This is partially the fault of the seminaries and yeshivot that insufficiently train those they ordain, but mostly the fault of the clergy themselves who take advantage of their position of power. It may be that 99% are decent people, but it’s the 1% whose sins stain the headlines and damage the reputations of all faith leaders.

Not only clergy, but therapists and politicians and others who have the trust of people over whom they have authority, ought to behave beyond reproach and keep away from even the appearance of impropriety.

Psalm 106

They grumbled in their tents … (106:25)

Very few people look forward to dealing with angry, malcontented, frustrated, or unhappy people, although some are better at it than others. I am amazed at how well a good customer service person can diffuse my anger when I call about a mistake, a broken or lost product, or some technical support. That’s their job and they take pride in how well they do it.

When meeting with clients or working with co-workers, most people try to show their best selves. We focus on the task at hand to accomplish something positive rather than complain about the things that are going wrong in our lives. No one enjoys spending extended time at work with a grumpy co-worker.

After an exhausting and perhaps frustrating day at work or on the commute or with the kids or running errands and driving carpool, we come home or our spouse comes home, and what’s the first thing we are tempted to do? Complain about our day! All of the grumbling and whining that we held inside all day because we were being good professionals comes pouring out! All of the frustrations that we kept inside because we were being good parents burst forth!

Granted, a good spouse understands that sometimes we need to get something off our chest. But if grumbling is the first thing out of our mouth when we come through the door or moaning and kvetching is the first thing we hear when our spouse enters the house, it puts a major damper on the excitement of coming home welcoming one’s beloved at the end of a long day apart.

Try this as an exercise: Pause before coming in the door and take a deep breath. Let out the tension and put a smile on your face. Do the same thing inside the house when you hear the garage door or the door to the house open. Set aside the bellyaching for a bit and enjoy seeing your family again. Greet them with a smile of gratitude for all the pleasure they bring you. There is a time and a place for “grumbling in the tent,” but if you lead with positivity and happiness, you might find that your complaints are not quite as significant as you first thought.