43. How powerless one must be in order to need God to plead one's case before an unjust nation. That is either the height of a persecution complex or a complete debasement of one's political situation or both. And it runs the risk of leading to reckless or total despair or both. "For Thou art the God of my strength; why hast Thou cast me off? Why do I go mourning under the oppression of the enemy?" Here David gives voice to powerlessness and the classical, ancient notion that if things are going wrong, God must be punishing us. But rather than singularly speculate on ways to change one's ways, here David asks God to not only intercede, but take over the process. Clearly we've lost the ability to help ourselves, he seems to be saying. "Sound out Thy light and Thy truth; let them lead me!" Insight allows David to say to himself, realizing his depression and despair, "Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why moanest thou within me? Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the salvation of my countenance and my God."
I thought about this line for a while. Meditated on it. The salvation of my countenance and my God. Saving ourselves for our sake and in turning saving God. I read in this line the radical responsibility of life, the internal yearnings of our souls excavated, brought into the light and in so doing giving the light, as it were, someone to shine upon. Waiting without hope is despair; waiting with hope is salvation. But hope is ours, not Hashem's.
44. We heard, we heard. Our fathers told us. Our mothers told us. We know you made them victorious. Each year at Yom Kippur, one of the honors of being called to the Torah goes to Veterans of the U.S. Armed Service. There are fewer in the Shul these days, the result of the cessation of required national service, an unfortunate American policy initiative that, I believe, has damaged the core ethic of our country and only encouraged the forces of selfishness and individuality to remain ascendant. This year four men climbed to the bima for one of the aliyot on Yom Kippur afternoon and all four men were veterans of the Second World War. I stood looking at them as they recited the blessings before and after the Torah reading and I thought about how in their day, a certain corrosive irony had not yet worn away their sense of faith, duty and patriotism. It's not to say there wasn't skepticism, the great poets of the both World Wars are an ample indication of that; it's merely to say that a kind of straight-backed valor and bravery were on hand. "O God we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us; a work Thou didst in their days, in the days of old."
This is classically understood to be a prayer for national intercession. I read the words somewhat differently, though perhaps not. "Thou hast given us like sheep to be eaten; and hast scattered us among the nations." I was having dinner with some friends and went off on one of my annoying monologues about how it seems that precisely at a time when we're all so connected through the web and all its social networking tools, greater forces of intolerance and evil seem to be running amok in the land. Why is that? Could it be that despite our connections, we are in fact more passive? Lured into a web, a net, a trap, of narcissistic, solipsistic, self-referential nothingness, all the while making money for others by how we surf and click our way to oblivion? "Thou makest us a taunt to our neighbors, a scorn and derision to them that are round about us. Thou makest us a byword among the nations, a shaking of the head among the peoples," as in, would you get a load of these kids today? Productivity measured in clicks, not the steady bang of the hammer and nail. "Awake! Why sleepest Thou? Why hide Thy face? For our soul is bowed down to the dust," the sand, melted into glass, this screen, where I turn my face every day, lost in its glow. "Arise for our help! And redeem us for Thy mercy's sake." Like the redemption from Egypt, then. Or the victory over fascism, then. And what about now? Whose victorious blessings will future generations recount?
45. At Ben and Philissa's wedding in Chapel Hill today, at an old school house with a Confederate uniform in a display case, I listened to Ben's sisters sing a song of love to the bride and groom. This is actually an old tradition, the wedding song, and scholars say that David's number 45 is one such song. I love this line: "My heart overflows with a goodly matter; I say, 'My work is concerning a king!' My tongue is the pen of a ready writer." Rich in allegory and sensuality, the psalm is playful, earnest, proud, glad, unrestrained. "Myrrh and aloes, and cassia are all thy garments; out of ivory palaces stringed instruments have made thee glad."
Who lives in ivory palaces? We do. We build them when we're glad.