49. The 1945 Soncino Press edition of Psalms, edited by the "Rev. Dr. A. Cohen, M.A, PhD.," entitles pslam 49 as "Death the Leveller." I say: Who wrote that? Hank Williams? Johnny Cash? Jon Langford? "Hear this all ye peoples; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together." He doesn't need to say what. You know what's coming.
My grandma of blessed memory used to say, "Ever see a hearse with a U-Haul on back?" My dad used to see, "You can't take it with you." Death the leveler, filtered through an assessment of the material. It's easier to address it that way.
I go back in time often to my grandfather's funeral and the memory of my father, sitting low, on the edge of a window sill, head in hands, crying. His father, a great man, a generous doctor, who spent his own teen years as a Bucky Cantor figure on a Milwaukee playground, mentoring others. I saw in his sadness the death of heroism. "I will incline mine ear to a parable; I will open my dark saying upon the harp." I understood early in my life that death arrives as a teacher, not just the end of breath and life. But my dad didn't get that. He allowed his body to move toward the grave in a kind of accelerated way, dragging his soul along with it. The opposite of David's lesson: "Like sheep they are appointed for the nether-world; death shall be their shepherd; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their form shall be for the nether-world to wear away, that there be no habitation for it.
Had dad not hastened his death, I'd likely not be a rabbi; such is the sequence of events. And I wonder about that trade, my life for his. Roads taken and not taken because of an early journey to the nether-world. Lives we lead and don't lead because of the lessons of "death the teacher." I look in the mirror when I shave and see my eyes, Dad's eyes, Grandpa's eyes. "But God will redeem my soul from the power of the nether-world; for He shall receive me. Selah."
50. Get rid of the hypocrites! Away! Compare your ridiculous falsehoods to the power of day-break and sunset! "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined forth!" Ever seen that? You should, if you haven't, before you die, because it has the power to inspire you to live. Those hard stones, that bright, searing light. Truth.
51. Read 51 (prime number) and confess. Nathan's diatribe against David after the incident with Bathsheba provokes a heart-wrenching confession, filled with beautiful, ancient spiritual metaphor. It's remarkably uplifting, lofty in its aspirational reach. And yet it sorely disappoints because really, it should be dedicated to Bathsheba, for killing her husband; and to Uriah himself, for being sent to die in battle. Like Yehuda Amichai's great poem about the sacrifice of Isaac--the real hero is the ram. In this case, the confession is stirring rhetoric but David seems more like a slick TV evangelist than a sincere penitent. Sorry dude: tell your wife and say it over her dead husband's grave. Save the fireworks for another occasion.