145. This is not just any old psalm. It's the last among the 150 that is an acrostic, an alphabetically ordered wonder that stands proud in its literary trickery (braggart!) of praise and adoration for the Source of Life. I was first introduced to its structure and beauty as a young college graduate, working as a Hebrew School teacher at the Conservative Synagogue of Madison. Twice weekly the students, teachers and rabbi would gather in a small room before afternoon classes began and from an over-head projector, we'd recite Minchah, the afternoon prayer service attributed to the patriarch Isaac, which begins each day with Ashrei, or Psalm 145. (In fact, to dial things back a few weeks, Ashrei in the prayerbook opens with a line from Psalm 84.5: "Happy are they that dwell in Thy house, they are ever praising Thee.")
I was happy to dwell in that house--having recently decided to pursue rabbinical studies, I wanted to *work* in the Jewish community and this congregation would have me. Except for one guy, a rather reactionary fellow, who made a stink out of the fact that at the time I was "patrilineally Jewish" and not matrilineally, therefore halachically, Jewish. In other words, the dude wasn't kosher. That prompted discussions with the rabbi, and my conscience, and my teachers and friends, and my sense of history, an agonizing journey of the mind and heart and soul, brought home one afternoon at shiva for my great-aunt Rose, where over a shmear and a glass of scotch, the Conservative Rabbi of Milwaukee, who presided over a synagogue, the historical antecedents of which were founded in part by my great grandfather, said to me, "Andy, you've got the neshama (soul); now you need some architecture." He may have said "scaffolding." In remembering, I've brought it "up-to-date." Made it "my own." Saints preserve us. Selah.
Good line. So good, in fact, that I agreed to have a drop of blood drawn from the skin of my, well, passport, and a dunk in the mikveh. My mentor Irv was there and I'll never forget his face at that moment. It said, to the best of my ability to interpret its quiet concern, "It's not easy to be a Jew."
I think of all this each day upon reciting this Acrostic of Blessing. How funny to read it, study it, among the other 150.
The day I read it I was riding the 4 train home after a meeting in Midtown. A tired man sat across from me, sleeping. His jeans and boots were covered in dusted dry-wall and plaster. A folded NY Post and his lunch box rested easily against his legs. I began composing my own acrostic, for him: "A Black Callous-Handed Dreaming Edifice, Forgetting Gain, His Identity-Justified Kinesis: Labor."
My mind returned to the psalm and in it my favorite line: "Thou openest Thy hand, and satisfiest every living being." Imagine that! God's hand opens and there is enough for everyone. Yet people go hungry. People remain ignorant. I find myself thinking of this line often and being reminded that there really is enough for everyone; it is we who lack generosity.
146. Look. I'll give it to you straight. Don't trust princes. There is no help in mortals. Happiness and hope are in God, Who, by the way, ONLY MADE HEAVEN AND EARTH! THE SEA AND ALL THAT'S IN IT. YOUR GUARDIAN OF TRUTH FOREVER. Brings to mind Larry David's bit about growing up next to Jonas Salk's mother.
What is that eternal truth? It executes justice for the oppressed; gives bread to the hungry; looses the prisoners' bonds; opens the eyes of the blind; raises up those bowed down; loves the righteous; preserves the stranger; supports the fatherless and the widow.
Here is Kedusha--Holiness: "The Eternal will reign for ever, Thy God O Zion, unto all generations." An overwhelmingly powerful expression of the ethical God. And man, finding himself reaching, with aspirational soulfulness, toward Zion.
147. Among God's many healing miracles is that He names each and every one of the countless stars in the sky. The naming goes on and on and on. "Great is the Eternal, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite." Among those levels of understanding is the fleeting nature of man and the Eternal reality of God. "He delighteth not in the strength of the horse; He taketh no pleasre in them that fear Him, in those that wait for His mercy."
A name is enough power. As for legs, well. There's always another set, just around the corner, ready to run. But run where exactly? The world is round; and gravity keeps us down.