73. Bar Mitzvah. Son of the Commandment. Bar Lev. Pure Hearted. "A psalm of Asaph, surely God is good to the pure of heart." What liberal Jew defines his or her "becoming" a Bar or Bat Mitzvah based on their developing sense of religious obligation? I'm not sure if that is the principle motivator for why they strive to complete this moment of their young lives. Besides the party and the money blahblahblah there is the matter of watching a kid mature before your eyes. It *does* happen. But what I am suggesting is that it happens as a matter of moral and even spiritual clarification of values more than it does for the sake of observing *mitzvot* as mitzvot. On one level, I wish that mitzvah-based motivation were more evident; but it isn't so we work with what we've got. Which is the desire to develop an outlook of personal integrity, decency, and goodness in the world, or, in the language of the psalmist, "pure-heartedness."
I want the synagogue community I lead to observe and fulfill with joy more mitzvot. But I think the majority of members are more motivated to lead lives of goodness, or pure-heartedness. And sometimes, even in my efforts at leading the way, I step on toes, push too hard, and get caught up in the effort to achieve which can occasionally cause pain or anger in others.
This is one of those deeply psychological psalms, where the writer looks into himself, his own motivations of leadership, and notices that at times when his own doubts and frustrations plague him, it negatively effects those around him. "What if all I'm trying to do is for naught? What if what I think they should want of their Jewish lives they don't really want?" By fully expressing certain things he knows to be true, he undermines the faith and confidence of those around him. He takes note. "If I had said, 'I will speak thus,' behold, I had been faithless to the generation of my children. And when I pondered how I might know this, it was wearisome in my eyes."
Our own truths, like mighty rivers, at times require a damming up. An excellent teaching.
74. "Lift up your steps because of your perpetual ruins." The psalmist expresses exasperation and trouble in the historical context of Jerusalem's defeat; I know this feeling, too. Frankly, I am tired of walking down 8th Avenue and seeing the scaffolding and the black, mournful protective tarp over our slate dome. And in expressing this feeling, I am discovering that other people feel that way, too. Here in the psalm, the writer says to God his prayer--Step it up!--and what we're seeing is that after a year of fits and starts, the community is coalescing around action steps, some increased giving and generosity, and broader interest throughout the city in hopefully, lending a hand. The repairs and many and expensive. We're going to need all the help we can get. "Look upon the covenant; for the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence. O let not the oppressed turn back in confusion; let the poor and needy praise Thy name." Crying out for help; reminding ourselves of our core covenantal promises to one another and our God. Help can actually arrive, it seems.
75. This is so obviously a song. And a good one, I bet, back in the day. It's Hebrew bursts forth--fast, proud, loud. It could make a great and happy rock anthem. I'm not just saying that because I'm seeing Nick Lowe tonight--the last one of the founders of the New Wave that for whatever reason, I never saw perform when I was 16. Go figure.
I like the confidence of opening with repetition: "We give thanks unto Thee, O God, we give thanks and Thy name is near; people tell stories of Thy wondrous works!" Its rhythm is relentless and optimistic and grateful. It's a kind of call and response where God sings verses: "When I take the appointed time, I Myself will judge with equity. When the earth and all the inhabitants thereof are dissolved, I Myself establish the pillars of it. Selah!"
But it's a surprising pride-- a pride in doing what's right, in being a partner with the Eternal, not in the vain achievements of man but in the humbling beat of the drums of justice. In false pride the head is lifted high; in the humbling pride of this song, it's pointed downward, toward the people. In our world, we're forever living inside this paradox. I sat in a coffee shop this morning, catching up with someone I hadn't seen in awhile, hearing about a parent's cancer and the train of suffering and anguish that leaves the station when the destination of death is announced over the loudspeaker in the station. Around us the sweet smell of the bakery, well-dressed and well-positioned denizens of the neighborhood moving about, the immediacy of death and the loftiness of life all mixed up together. So much wealth concentrated in certain spots here in New York City, steps from poverty and despair. What alchemy must one concoct from such ingredients? "But as for me I will declare forever, I will sing praises to the God of Jacob. All the horns of the wicked also will I cut off; but the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up." Music, in its glory, has that leveling power.