For Adonai takes pleasure in God’s people (149:4)
The Yiddish word for this kind of pleasure is Nahas, coming from the Hebrew Nahat. Although this is not the Hebrew word used in the Psalm, it reminds me of the Yiddish expression, sheppen nahas fun kinder, deriving pleasure from the mere existence of children. Of course, if the children misbehave, refuse to leave the nest and get a job, or get arrested, we’re no longer sheppen nahas! But when they bring home artwork that only a mother could love, work their hardest and struggle to meet expectations, or celebrate Bar/Bat Mitzvah or graduations, the accomplishment itself is a delight.
I imagine that God takes pleasure when we try. We make mistakes and don’t always succeed and often need help. But as long as we put forth the effort, learning and growing over the course of our lives, God is proud of us because we are God’s children. A midrash imagines the questions God will ask us at the entrance to the world to come. I understand the questions as “Have you fulfilled your personal potential, have you been the best version of you, have you done the things in this world that you alone were created to do?”
We will fall short. We will leave things undone. But Pirke Avot (2:16) teaches that we don’t need to finish the work, we only need to make our contribution.
“[Rabbi Tarfon] would say, “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it.”
God establishes a law and does not violate it. (148:6)
Every morning when I read this Psalm this verse catches my attention. It suggests that God is self-limiting. God created a world in which apples predictably fall down and skilled pitchers can throw a baseball with a certain spin to make it make it curve over the plate and we can take a walk without worrying that that there will be a temporary gravity outage and we, along with our atmosphere, will drift off into space. We can rely on predicable and repeatable chemicals reactions so our medications function reliably and our bread rises and bakes golden brown. Our physical world functions according to unchanging rules because God created it that way. From the first moment after the cosmic bang or the Divine word saying “Let there be light,” time moved at a steady pace and the physical matter of the universe coalesced and cooled and condensed in order to provide energy and material for life.
Pirke Avot (5:6) teaches that God built certain miracles into the fabric of the world during the first week of creation.
Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they:
(1) the mouth of the earth [Num. 16:32]; (2) the mouth of the well [Num. 21:16-18]; (3) the mouth of the ass [Num. 22:28]; (4) the rainbow [Gen. 9:13]; (5) the manna [Ex. 16:15]; (6) the rod [Ex. 4:17]; (7) the Shamir [a worm which cut blocks of stone so iron tools were not needed, cf. Deut. 27:5, I Kings 6:7]; (8) the letters, (9) writing, (10) and tablets [of the ten commandments, Ex. 32:15f.].
Without knowing advanced physics, the ancient rabbis instinctively understood that God doesn’t interrupt the natural order willy-nilly and posited that the exceptions to natural law were pre-programmed into creation from the beginning. Assuming that God is an infinite omnipotent creator who can rewrite the code of the world at any time, the Psalmist asserts that for the sake of humanity God agrees to let the world continue to exist by the original set of rules.
If setting limits and abiding by them is a Divine trait, it is also a trait worth emulating.
Adonai, what is a human being that You should care about him, a mortal being, that You should think of him? A human being is like a breath, whose days are like a passing shadow. (144:3-4)
Every living thing has value, not matter how long or how short the life span. From a eternal God-perspective, their is no difference between a fertilized embryo which lives a matter of weeks or months and a person who lives a full life. God’s quality of caring and love applies equally to the child who died in utero and the elder who lives 102 years surrounded by three or four generations of descendants.
One way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to say that it does not ignore the embryonic life simply because it is unborn but neither does it give more weight to the woman simply because she is older. Rather, it treats the two of them as equally human, but if the embryonic life is threatening the life or health of the mother, then we take the embryonic life to spare the mother’s life. In the same way, if a mugger showed a gun and declared, “Your money or your life,” the potential victim or a bystander would be justified in taking the life of the mugger.
Another way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to see the baby as a dependent life akin to a limb of the mother. Just as one may remove a person’s limb when it threatens the health of the body, one may remove an child in utero if it threatens the mother. No matter which way one analyzes the ethics of abortion in Jewish law, midrash infuses the embryonic life with a soul. In other words, an abortion is not the killing of a soul-less child, but rather the necessary killing of a soul who is endangering another’s life.
While I have not seen a midrash which addresses what happens to the soul of a child which did not get the chance to be born, I imagine, because I believe that God cares about every soul, that the unborn soul whose life was cut off goes back to the Divine storehouse of souls. Every soul deserves a chance to live a life. A soul whose life was cut short before it could experience the trials and triumphs of a human life ought to be given a second chance to be born.
Adonai, Your name endures forever, Your fame, Adonai, through all generations.(135:13)
We hope to live our lives so as to make a difference in the world, whether it is by raising children, the work we do professionally, or changing some person’s life (or persons’ lives) through tzedakah work. In ways large and small, obvious and barely noticeable, each one of us will have made a difference through the large number of people whose lives intersected with our own.
However, the number of us who will be remembered beyond one or two generations after we die is very small. Of the 108 billion or so human beings who have lived on this world, how many of them are still remembers 100 years, 500 years, 1000 years, after their death? Think of all of the names in the Bible or other tales of ancient literature. So many are just names, about whom we know nothing.
The name of a mortal human being, his or her fame, no matter how great, does not last. While an individual human life is a brief blip on the timeline, God’s name and God’s renown echo from earliest recorded history through the present and into the future. We may be unsatisfied with the progress of human development, at each minuscule human effort to push humanity forward. However, those who believe in a Divine Power can die knowing that although we are temporary actors playing a brief part in a very long play, our life, full of sound and fury though it may be, contra Macbeth is nonetheless deeply significant because we link our name with God’s name.
Stretch forth your mighty scepter from Zion, O Adonai! (110:2)
When producing a flat map of a globe, the mapmaker has to choose how to center the world on the paper. Typically, world maps sold in the United States depict North America in the center. A similar map sold in Germany places Europe at the center just as an ancient map of China is centered on China. The most interesting projection might be a world map sold in Australia which (not surprisingly) places Australia at the center, but for a better projection of the continents, sometimes places south at the top of the map, causing the world to appear upside down!
The traditional Jewish view of the world sees Jerusalem as the center of the world, sometimes described as the navel of the world. From the point of view of the Zohar, the central Jewish work of Kabbalah, the Divine umbilical cord providing nourishment to the world is attached to the rock on the Temple Mount, Mount Zion, on which Abraham was told to offer his son Isaac.
There is no right way or wrong way to orient a map, and there is no right or wrong way to center a map. If the Biblical Israelites had produced a map, they probably would have placed east at the top and west at the bottom (see Genesis 13:9, where the Hebrew words for left and right denote north and south). The published map reflects the common world view of the expected audience.
In the same way, there is no right or wrong way to number years. The western world has chosen to use the birth of Jesus as point ‘0’ on the number line. The Jewish world has chosen a different starting point, the year of creation according to a midrash written nearly 2000 years ago.
Even though I live in the world of CE and BCE, my filing system organizes files by the Jewish year. Even though I know that there is no place devoid of God’s presence, I think of Jerusalem as God’s home base. If references to time and space are nothing more than a convention, I’m going to choose the convention that reinforces my chosen religious identity.