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.

Psalm 87

Indeed, it shall be said of Zion, “Every person was born there.” (87:5)

For every person to be born in Zion either means that the world population shrinks dramatically or the boundaries of Zion, literally or metaphorically, expand to encompass the whole world. Let’s think of a messianic world in which we are citizens of planet earth whose capital is Zion.

If we lived in a truly messianic world in which there were no national conflicts and no meaningful borders between nations, in which people of all religions treated each other with absolute love and respect — wouldn’t that feel as if the messianic City of Jerusalem had expanded  to encompass the entire world?  The whole world would be Israel, a city/land of God.

In this messianic world any Jew living anywhere in the world could claim our birthright – Israeli citizenship and an Israeli passport, fulfilling the Psalmist’s vision, “Every person was born there.” For a host of reasons, this will have to wait until we are significantly closer to peace and stability in the Middle East, but I have a dream! I dream of an expanded Birthright Israel in which Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return is offered to any Jew on the condition that he or she visit Israel once every 5 years and participate in some kind of Israel service program. How many diaspora Jews would make a commitment to participating in the life and development of the Jewish state in exchange for Israeli citizenship? In my dreams, at least, the number is significant.

Psalm 80

You plucked up a vine from Egypt; You expelled nations and planted it. You cleared a place for it; it took deep root and filled the land. (80:9-10)

The theology of this verse reminds me of the comment on the first verse of Genesis by the medieval French commentator Rashi, in which he explains that the purpose of beginning Torah with creation, rather than with the first mitzvah given to Israel in Exodus 12, is to remind us that the world belongs to God. In this Psalm, God is a gardener and the world is God’s garden.

I know some transplanted species do very well in a new location, taking over the land and crowding out the native species. Typically, we call those kinds of plants “invasive.” This does not seem to be the image that the Psalmist is drawing. Rather, he is describing a Gardener who very carefully prepares the soil by clearing away the plants currently growing in the new location as if they were weeds. Only when the area is empty and ready for a new planting does the gardener take the vine that had been growing in Egypt and transplant it to its new location.

The vine takes to the new location as its native habitat, flourishing, sending its roots deep into the ground and spreading out to fill the land. The vine doesn’t own the land any more than the plants who preceded it owned the land. The vine lives off the land, depending on the owner of the land to sustain it. This Gardener is not typical of those who take care of small farms and landscapes. This Gardener not only fertilizes the soil and trims the vine, but also controls the water and the sunshine that nourish the vine.

Although the Psalmist speaks as if the vine is the only thing growing, we know that a healthy ecosystem supports a variety of plants. To conclude on a messianic note: just as the vine shares the land with a different kinds of fruit trees, vegetables, grains and and flowering plants, so too may the people Israel someday share the land in peace with a diversity of other peoples.