Psalm 62

“Like a leaning wall, a tottering fence?” (62:4)

The concept of a fence around the Torah is meant to protect and honor the Torah by not letting get too close to a violation of its restrictions. An example — light Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sunset, so if you are a few minutes late, you have not kindled fire on the Sabbath.

A fence which is not well maintained or which is routinely breached does not honor the property which it surrounds. The solution is not to build a wider fence or higher wall, but rather to repair the current boundary marker and make sure people understand why it is there.

Divre Harav – January, 2017

The Mishnah of Pirke Avot is often translated as “Ethics of our Fathers” which describes the content of the Mishnah, but has nothing to do with its Hebrew title. A Perek is a chapter, and Avot are “fathers,” but the word is used in Rabbinic literature to refer to primary or fundamental categories. Thus, my teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Zahavy, translated the title of this tractate as “Chapters of Principles.” Most of Pirke Avot is a list of rabbis from the period of the Mishnah and Gemarah and a favorite saying of each one, naming a fundamental principle in which they believe.

Chapter two begins with the editor of the Mishnah, Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi]. He says, “What is the upright path which a person should choose for oneself? Whatever brings honor to one’s maker and honor from one’s fellow human beings.” Pirke Avot 2:1

Rabbi Yehudah’s question is the fundamental question we should think about when we get up in the morning and before we engage in any behavior that affects other people. If you are known to be Jewish, a person of faith, then you need to be aware that anything you do, good or bad, will be associated with Judaism and the “Jewish God.“ How am I going to behave today, what am I going to do that which will reflects well on God, what can I do today to increase people’s respect for Jews and Judaism? How will my behavior cause other people to respond to me? Will their respect and admiration for me increase or decrease if I take this action?

For example, before sending an email, or before speaking your mind in public, ask yourself – will this honor God, and how will this make people think of me. We live in a world today in which communication is lightning fast and this creates an expectation of an equally speedy response. This may means that we answer with very little thought, without having thoroughly read or carefully considered the question. Rabbi Yehudah’s question encourages us to slow down and think before answering, and consider whether our response brings honor to our maker and enhances our reputation among our fellow human beings.

Another example: I deal weekly with a set of people who read my Mlive.com Ethics and Religion Talk column and post comments. Some of them use a real name, some have corresponded with me privately so I know who they are, but most are anonymous. Perhaps this increases their inclination to use insulting or degrading language, or make outlandishly false claims against a position they disagree with. I have noticed that websites which require registration and verified real names tend to have a higher level of discourse than those who permit anonymity. If I don’t know who you are, you are able to cast insults without worrying that your reputation will be damaged. Rabbi Yehudah’s question should encourage each of us to pause before hitting the ‘submit’ button when we post on social media, and consider whether our response brings honor to our maker and enhances our reputation among our fellow human beings, whether they know our name or not.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mishnah – A second century Rabbinic expansion of the Jewish law and ethics of Torah.
  • Gemarah – a third to sixth century discussion and expansion of the Mishnah.
  • Talmud – The volumes in which Mishnah and Gemarah are published together.
  • Masekhet – One of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah.

Divre Harav, November 2016

For those of you who were out of town or unable to be at Ahavas Israel for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I encourage you to download my sermons from our website or contact the synagogue office and ask Deb to mail them to you. I hope you will find the messages both inspiring and challenging.

Now that a very busy month of holidays has passed we return to a normal 6 day rhythm punctuated by a Sabbath break. It has been about six months since we instituted our “Torah Study Shabbat” service schedule. The early morning Torah study has attracted about a dozen or so serious participants so when we begin our service at 10:30, we begin with more energy then then the other weeks of the month. We have not yet noticed that many of the people who said that they wanted a shorter service have been coming on the second Shabbat of the month, but there are still six months left in the initial stage of the experiment. Our Junior Congregation will also meet on the second Shabbat of the month so that will give greater incentive for another population to join together.

Perhaps the Torah study or the shortened service will be a gateway that will help you feel more comfortable in the Ahavas Israel community. Shabbat can be a social or a religious or even an educational anchor of a Jewish community. I love seeing people hanging around the meeting room or the library, not wanting to leave after services. With several more volunteers to shop, prepare kiddush, and clean up, we could prepare enough Kiddush food for a light lunch. This would enable those who wanted to stick around to study in the library or bring board games or just socialize. This community can be whatever you want it to you, as long as you are willing to put the time into it.

As Theodor Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream – im tirtzu, ein zo agada!”

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • agada – story
  • halom – dream
  • midrash – story, typically a commentary

Psalm 119

I have understood more than all my teachers … (119:99)

Psalm 119 is not only the longest Psalm in the book of Psalms, but also the longest Psalm in the Hebrew Bible. It is an alphabetical acrostic, eight verses for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Do the math – that’s a whopping 176 verses!

These Psalm reflections are based on the practice of reading over the Psalm and finding a single verse or phrase that resonates with me. This Psalm presents difficulties because of its length. I am trying to imagine the setting of Psalm 119, who wrote it, how it was used, and why it took so many words to make his point. It is an extended essay on studying and keeping God’s laws as a path to happiness. After a while, the words and images repeat themselves and blur together. While I found a number of beautifully expressed lines, I found the Psalm as a whole to be tedious. My philosophy is that if you have something to say, you should say it clearly and concisely. Don’t use three words when one will do or 176 verses when 22 will do.

The verse I chose speaks directly to the theme of the importance of learning. On the surface, though, it does not embody the typical Jewish reverence for teachers. However, it is possible to read the verse hyper-literally as “from all of those who taught me, I gained understanding.” This may have inspired Rabbi Chanina’s teaching, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.” (Ta’anit 7a)

If the overall message of the Psalm praises those who are always seeking ways to gain knowledge then the my reading of the verse fits well. There is an opportunity to learn from every interaction with another person. Every encounter is a chance to see the face of God.

Psalm 98

Sing to Adonai a new song, for God has worked wonders; God’s right hand, God’s holy arm, has won victory.  Adonai has announced victory, God has revealed triumph in the sight of the nations. (98:1-2)

This is the fourth Psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat, corresponding to the fourth day of the week and to the fourth sefirah (mystical aspect of God) known as Netzah – victory or triumph. In Kabbalah, Netzah implied endurance and patience. It’s opposite, which we’ll address next week, is Hod, majesty or splendor, and represents submission.

On the fourth day of creation, God made the lights in the heavens: the sun, moon, and stars. The brightness of the sun may be seen as a symbol of victory in the Biblical story of Joshua calling upon the sun to stand still (ch. 10).

And now for something completely different …

According to the Zohar (1:123a, page 209 in Daniel Matt’s Pritzker Edition) Psalm 98 was sung by cows!

A passage from the Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 24b) brings up the verse “The cows went straight ahead along the road to Beit Shemesh” (1Sa. 6:12). Since the word “straight ahead” uses letters that also can mean “sing,” the Talmud suggests that the cows sang a song: “The cows sang along the road to Beit Shemesh.” A number of Biblical passages are suggested that might have been sung by cows, but the Zohar chooses Psalm 98. Let’s also note that the story of Joshua calling upon the sun to stand still is described (according to the book of Joshua) in the Book of Yashar (a book which has not be preserved in the Biblical canon). The name Yashar is based on the same word that means “straight ahead.” The name “Beit Shemesh” might be translated, “House of Sun.” The linguistic connections multiply!

The sun is also a metaphor for enlightenment in an intellectual sense. As we recite this Psalm in Kabbalat Shabbat, our meditative kavanah, intention, might focus on the possibility that all of God’s creation, from cows to stars, is part of a glorious song of praise to the Creator. Recall that the mystical aspect of Netzah is patience. We might focus on Wednesday as “hump-day,” the middle of the week when it seems that Shabbat and the weekend will never arrive, and encourage ourselves to patiently work through and appreciate each day of the week for what it brings us.