Psalm 137

 

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour. (137:5-6)

I love Jerusalem because it is the center of the Jewish world. I love Jerusalem even though the religious perspective of many Jerusalemites is anathema to my world view. I love Jerusalem because that is where I was introduced to the power of Torah. I love Jerusalem even though to many of its residents I am a complete puzzle whose religion bears little resemblance to Judaism. I love Jerusalem because it is a thoroughly Israeli city built on top of 3000 years of Jewish history. I love Jerusalem because it is also a city built on top of 2000 years of Christian history and 1400 years of Moslem history.

Jerusalem is religiously complicated, historically rich, at once ancient, medieval, and modern. I love Jerusalem both for what it represents and what it is – Judaism deeply rooted in Torah and a diversity of Jewish practice unimagined by ancient Israel. In a perfect world, Jerusalem would be the center of all religious practice. All people, of all faiths, would make pilgrimage there to offer of themselves to God. In a not-yet-redeemed world, the “city of gold” is a place of great joy and also a symbol of an imperfection and brokenness.

In the Bible, the right hand symbolizes strength. In Kabbalah, the right side symbolizes love. Without Jerusalem in my life, I would be weakened and my love of God and Torah would be less developed.

Psalm 129

Let all who hate Zion fall back in shame. (129:5)

For most of Jewish history, love of Zion has united Jews. Zion represented the dream of a world in which Jews would regain their historic place and live in security in a perfect Garden of Eden society according to the values and practices of Torah. Dreams do come true, but there is a wide gap between the perfection of a dream and the realpolitik of reality.

Zionism is the movement to make the dream a reality. The modern state of Israel is our embodiment of the historic values of the love of Zion, the result of nearly 2000 years of prayers and 50-plus years of political activism. For the entire history of post-Temple Judaism, Jews have held Zion, the mount on which the Temple stood, as a place of pilgrimage. Life in Jerusalem and in other cities in which Jews lived, such as Hebron, Tiberius and Safed, was difficult. Nonetheless, small communities of Jews embraced life in and around Zion as a religious obligation and privilege.

There is room for disagreement about how successful the modern state of Israel has been in living up to the challenge of creating a state embodying Zionism, democracy, Jewish values, and security. There is no doubt that they have fallen short in some area, even as they have succeeded wildly in other areas. Who would have dreamed that the “ingathering of exiles” would have taken so many Jews from so many different part of the world and melded them into such a innovative powerhouse in such a relatively brief period of time?

It saddens me that there are still people in the world and in the Jewish community who believe that the world, Jewish and otherwise, would be better off today without a State of Israel. Let those who want to improve Israel stand up and let their voices be heard. Let those who want to dismantle and destroy the State be ashamed.

Psalm 126

January 11, 2016

 

When Adonai restores the fortunes of Zion, we are as dreamers. (126:1)

To be a Jew is to be an optimist and a dreamer. We don’t say “if God gives Zion back to us,” we say “when.” For nearly 2000 years of exile during which there was a Jewish presence but no Jewish control over Jerusalem, we introduced Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, with this Psalm on Shabbat. Our optimism asserts that our loss of sovereignty was only a temporary setback that could be corrected at any time. The Sabbath in Jewish tradition is celebrated as taste of the world to come, a day on which we experience the beauty and peace of messianic era. Shabbat embodied the optimism of the Jew. No matter how much time has gone by, no matter how much evil or hatred we experience in the world, Shabbat takes us back to the perfection of the garden of Eden.

In order to improve yourself to the greatest extent possible, you must have goals that are slightly beyond your reach. If your goal is to lose five pounds and you succeed and stop trying to lose weight, you miss the opportunity to lose ten pounds. If your goal is to increase your strength and endurance by taking a 50 mile bike ride, you might stop at that point and lose the opportunity to ride 60 miles. If your goal is to increase sales by 10%, you might lessen your efforts when you reach that mark and miss the opportunity to increase by 25%.

Optimism teaches us to celebrate our accomplishments even if we haven’t reached our goals. After setting the mark higher than you expect and losing only nine pounds instead of ten pounds; riding only 58 instead of 60 miles; or increasing sales only 20 instead of 25%, you can then notice with pride in accomplishment that you lost nine pounds instead of five pounds; rode 58 instead of 50 miles; and increased by 20% rather than 10%.

To be a Jew means to be an optimist and a dreamer.

Psalm 122

 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be in tranquility. (122:6)

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Jerusalem to Judaism, from the shaping of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish practice, the city is to Jewish history what Rome was to the Romans or what Babylon was to the Babylonians. Except while those ancient empires are no more, the Jewish civilization that grew up around Jerusalem thrives. I think of Jerusalem as the power source for my spiritual battery. Judaism has been powered either by the fact or by the memory of Jerusalem its Capitol city for over 3000 years, and both Judaism and Islam preserve traditions that connect Jerusalem with the site of Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac (or Ishmael, in the Moslem tradition), perhaps 3800 years ago.

The ancient etymology of the name ‘Jerusalem’ is made up of the two words “city of” and “Shalom,” peace. A vital Jerusalem is necessary for the spiritual life of Israel. A Jew who lives connected to Jewish texts and traditions cannot live in tranquility when our most sacred city is not a peace.

In ancient Jewish maps of the world, Jerusalem is in the center. In Jewish maps of the spiritual life, Jerusalem is the center. May we see the day when Isaiah’s vision comes to pass, that “… My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” and the house of worship on the Temple Mount will be a place where people of all faiths can pray in peace together.

Psalm 107

He gathered in from the lands, from east and west, from the north and from the south. (107:3)

The Psalmist’s vision is literally true. Israel is populated by Jews from Europe and Russia in the North, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa in the South, Iran, Iraq, Yemin, and Syria in the East, and North and South America in the West. Jews from those countries and more, many of whom experienced terrible persecution in their country of origin, were redeemed by God as they were able to resettle in the land promised to the earliest followers of YHWH, Adonai, God of Israel.

For me, Israel has functioned as the base station of a cordless phone. As the battery dies, the phone loses the ability to make a connection. Periodically, it needs to return to the base to recharge and renew its connection.

I had a spark of a sense of God’s presence growing up in my synagogue and going to Jewish camps, especially Ramah. But that spark grew into a flame the first time I visited Israel with the Ramah Seminar, which kindled the desire to return again to study at the Hebrew University for my junior year. I’ve been back every 5-7 years ever since, frequently enough to continue stoking the fire, not as frequently as I would ideally like.

Israel is the place where my language of prayer and study is also the language in which I order from a menu and listen to my friends’ children talk about their lives in a babble of language from which I recognize every fifth word. Israel is the place where the fundamental Jewish rituals of my life are embedded into the fabric of everyday life: Shabbat is the weekend, kosher meat is the norm sold in stores, specialty butcher shops exists to sell pork and other treif! Israel is the place where Jews can support the government, oppose the government, and ignore the government without being called self-hating Jews. In other words, while outside of Israel the Jewish commitment of Jews who vote against “Jewish interests” is questioned, within Israel, Jews can disagree with their neighbors politics and not be accused of betraying Judaism.

Israel is sometimes called “the beginning of the flowering of redemption.” When Jews can disagree about anything and everything but still doven and have Shabbat dinner together, that might be the definition of complete redemption. Israel isn’t there yet and certainly diaspora communities are not either, but we keep working on it. And that’s the Jewish way.