Psalm 97

“Light is sown for the righteous.” (97:11)

Goodness is its own reward – sometimes yes, sometimes no. We do get recognized, thanked, and sometimes rewarded for good behavior. But the ideal is to behave with pure, altruistic, goodness for its own sake. Because we are human beings with egos, the Psalmist plants a suggestion that a reward is sown for the righteous. We may not get the spotlight today, but someday, perhaps in the World to Come, we will reap the harvest and be rewarded for the things we have done for others.

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Psalm 95

“Come, let us bow down and kneel.” (95:6)

Judaism incorporates some bowing into daily liturgy and a little bit of symbolic not-quite-kneeling. A few times a year, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, traditional Jews take kneeling one step further into full prostration. Excessive bowing has the appearance of false, obsequious, groveling, but careful, judicious, but serious, bowing, is useful to one’s character to remind oneself that no matter how powerful we might feel, that our power is limited. We bow to show our humility before God, and we bow to remind ourselves to behave with humility before others

Psalm 54

“Adonai, who supports my life.” (54:6)

The human body, or any living system, plant or animal, is a miracle of complexity. Whether by evolution or by the word of God, life is a wonder. The individual life-form, from its cellular level functions to its large-scale interaction with its environment, has to function nearly perfectly in order to survive. I choose to express my gratitude for my existence to a God who created me and infused me with a life-force and sustaining energy. When the time comes for my life to end, I will gratefully return both my physical and metaphysical being to the Creator.

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 28

“Pay them according to their deeds.” (28:4)

Reward and punishment do not always work out perfectly. Sometimes, good people do not prosper and evil people do not suffer. However, most of the time, in the long run, goodness is recognized. People are attracted to good people. They will have better and deeper friendships. Good people will tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. Truly good people do not do good things because of recognition or reward. Goodness is not a tool to be used as a means to get something. Good deeds are an end unto themselves.