Psalm 44

“Our ancestors have told us the deeds You performed in their time.” (44:2)

The sacred texts in our religious traditions are stories that have come to us from our ancestors. Archeology can confirm that there was a King David and draw maps of the city of David, but we can only learn the character of David, both good and bad, from Biblical stories. The Bible, even the Torah, is not as much a book of law (although it contains long passages of law) as it is a book of stories. We learn a set of values from the accounts of Biblical characters, God included, filtered through centuries of Israelite and Jewish life.

Psalm 42

“Why so downcast, my soul?” (42:6)

A brief conversation with the soul: “Hey soul – it’s a beautiful day and I’d like to enjoy myself. Stop dragging me down with your nagging!”

“No problem. I’ll stop when you give some attention to these issues that you’ve been ignoring.”

“Those are your issues, not mine. I just need a break! Let me enjoy myself for once and I won’t be so angry.”

“Look – your problem is not your co-workers, your spouse, your children, or the driver who doesn’t accelerate fast enough. Your problem is deeper, a spiritual problem. You are looking for ways to experience the rush of anger because it makes you feel alive.”

Listen to your soul.

Divre Harav – April, 2017

In the third and final part of the first mishnah of chapter two of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says:

“And watch out for three things, so you will not come into the clutches of transgression – know what is above you: (1) An eye which sees, and (2) an ear which hears, and (3) a book, in which all your actions are written down.” Pirke Avot 2:1

Above our ark in the sanctuary we have the words, Da lifnei mi ata omed, “Know Before Whom You Stand.” While the source for this statement in Talmudic source is in the plural (B’rachot 28b), as if speaking to the congregation as a whole, it is commonly found at the front of Sanctuaries in the singular, parallel to the grammar of Rabbi Yehudah’s warning, “know what is above you.”

Is God really continually spying on us? Are our private lives being monitored by someone other than the NSA?

I don’t have a definitive answer to this, because it depends on whether we are speaking about the world of literal truth or metaphorical truth. Literally, God has no eyes, no ears, and no hands with which to write down our every error, sin, and transgression. Metaphorically, God has all of those sensory organs and appendages. Literally, God is not monitoring and recording our every action. Metaphorically, God is doing just that.

Why has our tradition created such a metaphor? In what way it is useful in helping us to become a faithful people of God and Torah? The answer is obvious, but problematic. If we live our lives as if we are being graded — and the grades count — then we will be careful to behave in better ways. If we believe that God is paying attention, then we will communicate with each other kindly, gently, and with empathy.

What is problematic about behaving ourselves and acting like good people, you might ask However useful this metaphor might be, we should remember that it is only a metaphor, not literal truth, because our goal ought to be higher than just behaving like good people. My High School science teacher had a poster on his walls, which said something like, “The mark of a truly good person is what he does when he knows no one is watching.” When we reach the level of character development of which we can say, I know that no one, including God, will know if I take this ethical shortcut, post this anonymous unkind comment, sneak into this movie, but I am not going to do it anyway, then we will have become true mensches.

Now, regarding the question of whether the NSA is actually spying on us or just metaphorically spying on us, that I can’t answer either. I’ve already said too much, and they might be listening!

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • • ayin – eye
  • • ozen – ear
  • • peh – mouth
  • • af – nose
  • • mah’shava – thought
  • • da’at – awareness

Psalm 38

“I walk about in gloom all day long.” (38:7)

Winnie the Pooh’s friend Eeyore is a poster child, as it were, for depression. He is sometimes portrayed, in the spirit of the Li’l Abner character Joe Btfsplk, going about with a rain cloud over his head. Normal dips of unhappiness can be banished by adopting a smile or a good attitude and perhaps by devoting yourself to service of others. The rain cloud of clinical depression, however, can’t be chased away simply by pretending it isn’t there. There is no shame in seeking help in dispersing clouds of gloom that linger, week after week, and that interfere with your ability to engage in normal living activities.

Psalm 37

“The humble shall inherit the earth.” (37:11)

In the short run, the kind of assertiveness that edges towards arrogance gets results, but one can get the same results from being confidently humble. An example: An arrogant person will push his way to the front of a group of people to get what he wants before someone else who has been waiting longer. A confidently humble person will recognize those who have been waiting and let them go first and insert himself into the queue in the proper order. The arrogant person cultivates resentment and fear; the humble person cultivates love and respect.