Psalm 16

“Lovely indeed is my estate.” (16:6)

Judaism appreciates beauty. Hiddur Mitzvah is the idea that we might enhance a mitzvah by doing it in an esthetically pleasing way. While we might make kiddush on Friday nights with a plain drinking glass, we typically use a special cup dedicated to Shabbat. A Judaica collection in the home should not be a museum display of objects seen but never touched. There is joy in a Hanukkah menorah covered in wax drippings, and sadness in a menorah passed down from generation to generation in pristine condition. The greatest beauty is found in an object which a grandparent used to teach a grandchild the deepest meanings of Shabbat.

Psalm 112

October 5

Happy is one … who is ardently devoted to God’s commandments. (112:1)

There are no guarantees of happiness in this world. Making the most money or acquiring the best ‘toys’ won’t do it, but studies have shown that those who spend time serving others tend to be happier than those who live self-centered lives.

God has many commandments and they have a variety of functions, although the Torah generally does not describe a purpose for the commandments. Living a life of participation in public prayer, Sabbath and holiday observance (including the communal aspects of such holy days), tzedakah and service towards others tends to creates the conditions for greater happiness. However, it is not an automatic response, like dropping a quarter into a parking meter. Showing up for a minyan now and then when you feel like it does not show devotion. Showing up consistently, even when you are tired and would rather be doing something else, does. Being physically present because you were asked to make a minyan but mentally zoning out, or rushing through your prayers and leaving the service early so your can get to your next activity doesn’t show devotion. The former is minimally doing someone a favor and the latter is selfishness – devotion to your prayer, not devotion to being a part of a community serving God.

Devotion to God’s commandments requires a high degree of selflessness. I have to be willing to give something up for God and it is precisely in setting aside my ego and my needs in favor of something else that satisfaction and happiness may be found.

Psalm 92

A righteous person flowers like a date-palm, grows like a cedar in Lebanon. (92:13)

Good behavior is contagious. Unfortunately, so is bad behavior, but the Psalmist and I would rather focus on the power of goodness to multiply. The metaphor in our verse has at multiple layers of meaning.

First, just as a date-palm produces many dates and a cedar tree produces many branches and leaves, a righteous person will have many children. This layer of meaning may not always prove itself to be true. Either because of infertility or by choice, some wonderful and giving people might not have children, or might only have one or two.

Second, just as both a date-palm and a cedar tree grow straight and tall, so too a righteous person stands tall and walks a straight path. By definition a righteous person follows a straight path as long as we define this to mean that such a person lives according to their principles. Great practitioners of civil disobedience like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks lived precisely according to their sense of justice, even when it meant disobeying the law. Humility is also a significant value, so one can proudly stand up for one’s convictions while also avoiding the sin of arrogance.

Third, the fruit, branches, and leaves on the trees can also be understood as the good deeds of the righteous person. Just as the trees sweeten the world with the smell and taste of their products, so too do the actions of a good person make the world a sweeter place.

Psalm 92, with its focus on the victory of joy, faithfulness, and righteousness, is also known as the Psalm for Shabbat. The actions of righteous people bring the world closer to “a day which is all Shabbat,” one of the Jewish expressions for the messianic era.