31 October 2010

150 (97-99)

97.  Here the psalmist speaks of being pushed along by nature to realize that righteousness fits into, is implanted into, the garden of God's desire.  "Light is sown for the righteous, gladness for the upright in heart.  Be glad in the Eternal, ye righteous:  give thanks to the remembrance of God's holiness."

People have a hard time grasping holiness but can generally relate to righteousness.  Though not too much righteousness.  Which is why "sowing light" is an interesting idea.  Because light that blooms, to push the metaphor, from the earth, creates interesting possibilities.

98.  "Do me a favor:  get out of my way."  God saves for his own sake; he is satisfied by his own work.  "His right hand and His holy arm hath wrought salvation for Him."  Really, we're pawns in the game, a realization that requires a heavy dose of humility.  Line up, do what's right, obey. 

I always think of the Mekons song, "Authority" when I encounter this aspect of my faith:  "I obey.  I am myself.  Freedom.  Power.  Authority."  In our age, certainly among liberal believers, authority is problematic.  But this hurts the cause, creating a faith predicated on too much feeling and ego and not enough humility. 

"Ashamed be all they that serve graven images.  That boast themselves of things of nought."  Really?  That's not what I see--though it would be nice if that were true.  "Bow down to Him, all ye gods."

In a way, this really is the point, which, arguably, is why religion just isn't for everyone.

99.  "The Eternal is great in Zion.  God is high above all the peoples."  I run up the back hill in Prospect Park and I'm proud of that achievement each time.  But when I run up the back hill on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, I'm really proud.  It's a bigger hill in so many ways.

30 October 2010

150 (94-96)

94.  We can't take revenge--well, we certainly shouldn't.  But you can, God.  I mean, how long should the wicked exult?  (And how often do I get to say that?)  There is way too much exaltation of good and evil out there in the world today.  And it makes sense to me that our politics ought to concern itself with the practical while taking a break from radical good and radical evil.  Unfortunately, every shmoe with a website or a megaphone can be heard these days and there's not a whole lot of humility in the way we frame our understanding of the forces of evil that are out there.  It makes sense to me that when its on the march in the human form, we have to do our best to stop it however necessary; but here the force of the psalm grasps that its ultimate eradication is God's task, not ours.  The pleading done by the author moves me.  "He that planted the ear, shall He not hear?  He that formed the eye, shall He not see?  He that instructeth nations, shall He not correct?  Even He that teacheth man knowledge?"

It is essential to the developing faith of humankind that we question, even mock, the image of an all-powerful God we have come to rely upon, if only it awakens in us the impulse to be God's agent for good in the world.  But it is equally essential for us to have the humility to see that ultimately, revenge belongs to God.  Our faith must be animated with one hand and restrained with the other.

95.  What is so wrong with partnership?  There's strength in it, that's for sure.  It's true, for centuries, we Jews have gotten a bad rap over the chosenness idea.  It's devolved into a critique of arrogance; or entitlement; or chauvinism.  But what about looking at the other way:  we need God on our side, given our meager history as a small people up against impossible odds of survival.  Garry Wills once pointed out in his review of one of Arthur Hertzberg's last books, that if the Jews have survived this long against all odds as a result of the covenantal idea, then it may be proof enough of its worthy nature.  I buy that.

"For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the flock of His hand.  Today, if ye would but hearken to His voice."

Today, if ye would but hearken to His voice.  The Sages use this line to justify that the Messiah's arrival is that close--if we would only listen.  I'd dial it back from messianic ideas and state simply that it's enough for us to ensure our survival (which, combined with our moral and ethical tradition, three languages, great food, fascinating and rich diasporas and the greatest homeland on the face of the earth) by acknowledging that we have a partner in this enterprise.  Now it's true that our partner is God, no mere mortal but hey, to paraphrase Woody Allen in "Manhattan," you gotta model yourself after someone.

96.  Here Judaism's message of Universalism is triumphant, even redemptive.  What I find particularly striking in this psalm is how an initial self-examination of one's Particular shortcomings leads to the conclusion that Judaism's message of Universalism can be particularly redeeming.  It leads one to contemplate Hillel's famous line, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me and if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?"

One might ordinarily see the third piece, "If not now, when?" as a general call for urgency in the matter of religious response.  But here I see it somewhat differently:  Now you must be both universal and particular.  At the same time.  If not now, when?  "Let the field exult and all that is therein; then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy."

In other words, if you see the forest (universal) you can see the trees (particular) at one and the same time.

29 October 2010

150 (91-93)

91.  Lions and snakes.  Trouble.  Lots of trouble.  Mice and cockroaches in a Brooklyn apartment is bad enough.  Lions and snakes is fairly threatening, no?  One, with a bite, can fell you with its venom.  The other, with its jaws, can rip you limb from limb.  This is the root of the fear--the quick and quiet devastation; or the imperfect, asymmetrical radical violence of it all.  Take your pick?  No thanks.  The mystery of the potential terror--whether in the ancient world or our own, is a disorientation.  Today, while buying the NBA preview and a diet coke at the Amtrak station, I saw the President speaking about steps he is taking to improve the economy, while on the split screen, the news showed federal agents investigating a potential terrorist attack.  What--the economy and national hysteria isn't bad enough?  We have to remember that invisible forces seek to destroy us?  "Oh, thou that dwellest in the covert of the Most High, and abidest in the shadow of the Almighty, I will say of the Eternal who is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust, that He will deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence."  And you know what that trust will get you?  "Thou shalt tread upon the lion and the asp."

God performs in this psalm, expressing the Divine love for those who trust.  One imagines him off stage, as I did today, near the cappuccino stand at Penn Station, singing:  "Because he hath set his love upon Me, therefore will I deliver him; I will set him on high, because he hath known My name...With long life will I satisfy him, and make him to behold My salvation."  He's singing to me--I'm sure of it.  Amidst so much pushing and shoving; no eye contact or civic warmth with my fellow travelers; this cold, cold city; and terror lurking.  But God and I stand in the station, singing to one another of salvation--if not now, in the future.  Selah.

And down the electrical staircase I descend, into a train, that moves through tunnels of darkness to light.

92.  "What an ignoramus."  And, "He's really a brutish guy."  That's from Dad.  His disdain for certain types was unrestrained.  He had little tact or discipline, at least later in life, when I knew him, for foolishness.  Maybe he was more tolerant when he was younger.  But by the time he was a father, he seemed to have had fires of disappointment burning deep within and to be honest, they destroyed him.  I put those fires out in my mourning and was received into the warm embrace of a Jewish community on campus at UW, whose Hillel director,  Irv Saposnik, of blessed memory, taught me to turn my mourning into prayer.  I remember the first time I sat in the Conservative Minyan at Hillel on Langdon Street, holding the Silverman Siddur in my hands, and reading the English translation of Psalm 92.6-7, thinking of fools and dullards and brutes and ignoramuses.  And crying that Dad had died too young--why the quick jump to the Eternal rest, Pop, when a measure of relaxation in Shul each week could get you an extra breath and even some empathy from King David himself.  He didn't suffer fools gladly, either:   "How great are Thy works, O Lord!  Thy thoughts are very deep.  A brutish man knoweth not, neither doth a fool understand this:  when the wicked spring up as the grass and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish, it is that they may be destroyed forever."

You never had any patience.

Hesed in the morning--so much love when the sun is bright.  It's Emunah in the nights that we reach out for help in the darkness.  Faith comes when you are in your darkest places.  "The wicked bloom like grass."  But the righteous bloom like a palm tree, growing old like a cedar in Lebanon.  In old age, bringing forth fruit.  Grass struggles to grow in the desert; but the righteous are tried there, and with grace, emerge to see another generation.

אבא עכשו אני אבא ויש לי שלוש בנות

93.  God reigns, clothed in pride.  Here the English falls flat.  Unless Sir Patrick Stewart says it; but he just made a video for Ruth so that's enough charitable work for the Jews for one week.  So stick to the Hebrew for now.  It's generally a good policy in this context.  Again, another song.  An anthem for sure.  Because they'd be so good at it, I can definitely see Arcade Fire having a go at it.  Floods lift up; floods lift up their voices; floods lift up their roaring.  But it's still not enough noise:  "Above the voices of the water, the mighty breakers of the sea, the Eternal on high is mighty."

I love that.  I think that's so true.  This summer I only got two days at the ocean--work was busy, the holy days were early.  But I watched the sunrise both mornings and thought about this line.  That as deafening as the crash of waves can be, there's always something louder, greater, stronger.

AJWS Video by Judd Apatow

28 October 2010

Rabbi Brous: No Fear

Here's a video from Rabbi Sharon Brous, a friend and leading social activist out in LA.  Done in partnership with her friends from Reboot and the Jewish Funds for Justice:

27 October 2010

150 (88-90)

88.  "For my soul is sated with troubles, and my life draweth nigh unto the grave."  And "Wilt Thou work wonders for the dead?  Or Thy faithfulness in destruction?"  In other words, when you're dead you're dead. 

So let's get to it saving us in life--you and me both, God.

Also, Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88."  You just have to acknowledge.

89.  "I will sing of the mercies of the Eternal for ever; from generation to generation will I make known Thy faithfulness with my mouth."  How does 'my mouth' sing from generation to generation?   Unless my mouth isn't only my mouth but yours too, and others who come after us, which is hygienically grotesque but potentially poetically beautiful in the Hebrew?  Does it mean one teaches Judaism's values across the generational spectrum; or does it mean that I sing what others before me sang, and thus our collective mouth, as it were (blech!) sings of this reality?  Let's leave this topic.  Fast.

Now then:  "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Thy throne!  Mercy and Truth go before Thee!  Happy is the people that know the joyful shout!  They walk, Eternal, in the light of Your countenance."  This is nice and clean--I'll admit, more my comfort zone of principles and ideas.  Despite outside attacks and our own faltering from within, the Covenant endures, in mercy.  And in life (see above, 88.)

90.  "For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night...so teach us to number our days that we may get us a heart of wisdom." 

It's all over so fast.  It's amazing how much time we waste not making each day count.  Honestly, it makes me feel ashamed of myself, which of course is a self-indulgence and waste of time!  So what to do?  "Let the graciousness of the Eternal our God be upon us; establish Thou also upon us the work of our hands."  Let's roll up our sleeves and get it right, moment by moment.

26 October 2010

150 (85-87)

85.  The turning back of wrath.  "Love and truth meet; justice and peace kiss."  This is very hard to do.  I think of Rabin and Arafat meeting on the White House lawn.  President Clinton forces them to shake hands.  Now they're both dead--one cut down by his own people; the other in a heap of corruption.  And still no peace.  Or how about that spectacle a little over a month ago?  Netanyahu and Abbas break bread together, smile together; and yet.  God waits.  "The Eternal will give what is good; and our land shall yield its produce."  It is we who are the problem.

86.  "In the day of my trouble I call upon Thee; for Thou will answer me!"  And then, the line we sing when we take the Torah from Ark:  "There is none like unto Thee among the gods, Eternal.  There are no works like Yours!"  Seriously.  No matter where my soul resides each Shabbat morning, some days I'm happy; others I'm masking a worse mood.  Either way, my heart skips a bit and my soul is lifted when the Torah Ark doors open to reveal our entirely unique and beautiful manifestation of our people's conceptualization of God's reality.  A book!  The Book!  There it is!  Sing to it!  Walk it around the room!  Kiss it!  "Love and truth meet; justice and peace kiss."  Remember that line?  You just read it above.  Turns out it's true!  Well, certainly on Saturday mornings in Shul.

87.  You know what comes to mind for me when I read Psalm 87?  A Jerusalem Based Utopian Monotheistic Paradise, that's what.  I could build a whole conference around it.  First, activate the Pomposity Detectors.  Like a simple radar gun used to catch people speeding, this device locates and identifies them.  Once detected, they're immediately eliminated from participation.  They have heretofore been unable to build the peace of Jerusalem.  They are no longer welcome to try.  Next, each participant must agree, a fortiori, to travel around Jerusalem the first day praying in one another's house of worship.  For instance, I must don tefilin and pray in a church and a mosque.  And Christian and Muslim participants must agree to do the same.  Otherwise, they can't come to the conference.  Which I can say because it's my conference.  And I'm paying for it.  With my own money.  And I promise to be transparent about where it's coming from.  Oh, and another thing.  They also have to walk up to a microphone on the dais at the opening ceremony and say, "Women and Men are Inherently Equal and Your Sexuality is Okay with Me!"  And then have to smile and give a "thumbs-up" to the crowd. 

I'm not saying it will be a big crowd but it will be interesting to see who turns up. 

People take religion way too seriously.  They don't realize how playful God can be.

"The Eternal loveth the gates of Zion...and of Zion it shall be said: 'This man and that was born in her; and the Most High doth establish her...and whether they sing or dance, all my thoughts are in thee."

25 October 2010

150 (82-84)

82.  Maureen Dowd's column on Sunday lined up perfectly with the sentiments expressed here in this psalm.  "How long will ye judge unjustly, and respect the persons of the wicked?  Selah."  How long?  Her target was the seemingly whole cloth ownership of the political process by special interests and free-flowing, undisclosed corporate money, enabled by a Supreme Court decision that is likely to go down in history as one of the worst decisions the high court has ever made.  The language of the psalmist if prophetic, searingly harsh and true about the ill effects of corruption and the destabilizing effect of rampant self-interest being defended and pronounced from the bench.  "They know not, neither do they understand; they go about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are moved.  I said, 'ye are godlike beings, and all you sons of the Most High.  Nevertheless ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.'"  Our mortality, the awareness of our humble end, is meant to guide our ethics and our moral pronouncements.  "Do justice to the afflicted and the destitute, rescue the poor and needy." 

I for one would like to live long enough to see this change and to see future historians put this sordid era into its proper conflict.  In the meanwhile, there's comfort here in the psalm.

83.  Throughout Jewish history there have always been nations that have sought the total annihilation of the Jewish people.  This is not something you want to teach a child right away; and yet, even with Purim, there is that gruesome, macabre, masked message to convey--albeit with humor, song, and funny shaped cookies.  This hat we eat is that of the man who sought to kill us.  Eat his hat! 

But despite this psalms grim opening message, I imagine its author looking out over a horizon, searching his heart for comfort and inspiration in the face of his own feelings of powerlessness.  Another army is poised on the ridge, ready to overtake us.  Let them be scattered like wheat in the wind; let the mountains burn with fire; pursue them with a tempest, frighten them with Your storm!"  Imagine a time in history, being stateless and powerless, where only prayer--and the weather--can help you.  Alarmingly absurd; and true.

84.  Seeking sanctuary.  "My soul yearneth, yea, even pineth for the courts of the Eternal; my heart and my flesh sing for joy unto the living God."  Imagine such peace and happiness.  And then this line, so soothing:  "Yea, the sparrow hath found a house and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young; Thine altars, Eternal of hosts, my King, my God."

My grandma, whose husband was murdered in 1939, never dated or remarried for the remaining 60 years of her life.  On her maple kitchen table she kept a jar of lemondrops and outside her window were two bird feeders, busy all day, in every season, with varieties of seeds for her winged friends.  That's where I learned to watch them.  With sweet candy in my mouth, I was taught to identify finches and sparrows; swallows and thrushes; jays and cardinals; even the tufted titmouse.   One day she told me her favorite psalm (121) and I learned then that without the love of her life she transcended her grief through faith.  "Happy are they that dwell in Thy house, they are ever praising Thee.  Selah."

24 October 2010

150 (79-81)

79.  This psalm is read on Tisha B'Av.  Most Jews in the diaspora don't commemorate Tisha B'Av, the date on the calendar commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and 70 AD.  Most don't but they should, not because they should want the Temple and animal sacrifice (synagogue membership they say is one thing; can you imagine taxation in the form of sheep, goats, calves and doves?) but because we ought to know and care about history.  Our history.  In Israel Tisha B'Av grips the imagination more readily.  For the religious who yearn for a Third Temple and for many Israelis who have tasted the threat to national sovereignty.  It's what we used to feel on national holidays here in the U.S. before they were slowly but surely commercialized into gaudy expressions of cheap patriotism.  When no citizen is any longer required to serve, how is it that we define citizenship?  By voting and voting alone?  What percentage of the electorate will care enough to vote next week?  Oh, I digress.  Do I ever! 

There were other destructions of Jerusalem, of course.  My favorite moyel in New York City was born in the Old City and then was evacuated before the Jordanians conquered the Old City and expelled the Jews in 1948.  I keep close at hand John Phillips stirring photographs of this time period, to remind myself how fragile the present really is.  For Jews and Palestinians.  For all who love Jerusalem.  Every nation has known death and destruction.  Its lessons ought to last; but they tragically don't.  How do you read about holy places defiled, dead bodies left to birds of prey, decaying flesh remaindered for beasts to feast upon, blood flowing in the streets like water.  Shouldn't water flow like water?  Blood should be more modest.  Unseen.  The world would be better.

"Pour out your wrath among the nations that know thee not!"  Pour out wrath, even like water.  But don't pour out blood.  Keep the blood here, inside, circulating tightly, giving life, knowing replenishment, like verdant fields feeding flocks.  "We are your people, the flock of your pasture."  A pasture, green, nourished by falling water, not blood.

80.  God's smokey face.  "How long will you hide your face?"  the psalmist asks but the language connotes a face obscured by smoke.  Is this grief that darkens God's countenance?  Or the smokey toxicity of anger and self-abuse?  Power's inherent self-destructiveness.  Hunger, thirst and deprivation--the denialized manifestation of a punishing persona.  Yours, mine, even God's.  "Don't be so hard on yourself!" I once exclaimed to one of my kids.  "Why?" she countered.  "You're hard on yourself!"  She spoke in italics.  I hate that.  Oh, how I wished I had shown myself more kindness and mercy in front of them, if only to save them from their own hypercritical selves.  Those demanding, commanding impulses.  And then I thought back down the generations.  This habit keeps getting passed on.  You really gotta be careful with kids.

Shine your face, God.  Pick a vine.  Plant it.  Clear a place.  Take root.  Fill the land.  I dream of a house.  And a garden.  And a place to do these things:  Create mercies.  Oxygen producing mercies.  Mercies to drive away the carbon dioxide.  And the smoke.

81.  Over and over and over and over again.  The same story.  Over and over again.  Jew:  Can you answer this for yourself?  What is the importance of reciting the same texts, at the same time, each year, for the last 3000 years, over and over again?  What does it do to you as a people and as a nation?  What does it do to you as a man or woman?  How long have we been hearing the shofar blasts?  Had it had its effect?  Is its effect definitive or progressive?  Since we've been reciting the text and hearing the blast for 3000 years, what does it mean that we're not there yet?  *There* meaning the perfection of the world as we know it.  "Thou didst call in trouble and I rescued thee; I answered thee in the secret place of thunder."  Who ever said thunder was a secret?  Unless the Truth is not fully discernible by all.  Which is a distinct possibility.  Look around you:  it's dark out there.  And noisy.  The secret places of thunder wait.  To explode in truth.

23 October 2010

Pop Goes the Weasel

The delusional madness continues.  And therefore you can't really win either way.  Here's what I mean.

Over the past several years, we've opened up our pulpit to writers and thinkers who have openly criticized the policies of the Israeli government, in an effort to advance the idea that the sooner we move toward a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians, the better off we'll all be.  We've had Tom Segev, Benny Morris, Akiva Eldar, Gershom Gorenberg, Jeremy Ben-Ami, Haim Watzman--all from the Israeli left side, so that the critique would be an internal critique, attempting to model reflection and self-criticism; and in addition, invited Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian intellectual, such an aggrieved act that an editor at Commentary said I had shamed the Jewish community by inviting him into our synagogue.  The center was recently represented by Jeffrey Goldberg and in November, along with J Street & Peace Now, we'll have Aaron David Miller, the ADL and the AJC.  At least we're trying to model true dialogue as an internal Jewish value here.  (It mattered little to Commentary, which still refuses to come, sadly, when I tried to explain that Khalidi spoke about the Seder he goes to each year for the past twenty-five years.  No difference:  both left and right prefer demonization to true dialogue, it appears.)

Mondoweiss, the internet love handle for Phil Weiss, who was at the Khalidi talk with his posse (hey, that's how he rolls) has recently posted on his blog that I, along with another Brooklyn "progressive" rabbi, Rabbi Ellen Lippman of Kolot Chayeinu:  Voices of Our Lives, have caused great consternation among the progressive anti-Israel community because we don't support the Ahava Products Boycott that these crusaders for justice think will be just the right slingshot to fell the Goliath of the occupation.

I really wish I didn't have to take this stuff seriously.

First, there's the delusional aspect.  Hand lotion and mineral soaps, apparently, are the cause of grave injustice.  This is a position taken by Code Pink and Jews Say No and Brooklyn for Peace and Mondo himself, all of whom, I assume, have scrutinized the wage and health-care contracts of every single piece of clothing, household product and food (don't forget food, this is Brooklyn, afterall) that they buy.  The pure of heart are deeply concerned that the area upon which Ahava products are made is in "illegally occupied territory" that, regardless of any negotiations past, present or future, will still remain in Israel after a settlement.

Unless of course Mondo et al achieve their truly desired result which is the complete eradication of Israel as a Jewish state.  You don't even need to scratch beneath the surface of this ersatz movement to understand its motivations--the creation of a bi-national state, which demographically means the end of Israel as a Jewish state within a generation or two.  No reasonable person believes that Israel will buckle under the pressure of the refusal of John Mearsheimer's disciples to use, say, Nivea or Jergens because it's the more morally pure choice; this is a clear, strategic effort to erode Israel's legitimacy by killing through a thousand cuts.  It's a slow, relentless, I dare say, gnat-like pestering, that's designed to annoy and frustrate on one hand, but when you follow the links or the comments on their blog posts, enables the worst conspiratorial anti-Semitic thinking in American today.

Jews control the media; Jews control the banks; Jews control government.  Jews controlled Bush; Jews control Obama.  The purity of the politically correct hand-lotion movement for a Free Palestine allows into its echo-chamber that other infamous kind of purity talk--a nation free of its annoying, evil Jews.

So, yeah, I think the boycott is stupid.  And useless.  But because its tools of technological transmission allow for virulently hateful things to be said about Jews, it takes on a particularly dangerous form of political discourse--screaming at the top of its lungs while listening to its own internal soundtrack of self-righteous back-slapping.

What they'll say is:  You Jews/Zionists always bring up anti-Semitism whenever we criticize Israel.  I don't say that.  And the people I've opened my pulpit to prove that point, Mondo.  Including you, who has rested his posterior in one of our seats because "Mine House Shall Be A House of Prayer for All Peoples."  But when you lack the courage of your own convictions by allowing for the vile spread of anti-Semitism on your blog AND argue for the eradication of Israel as a Jewish state, it is you who is living inside of an "orthodox" bubble of intolerance.

By the way, speaking of bubbles bursting, I really enjoyed watching you get schooled by Stephen Colbert.


The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Philip Weiss
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

22 October 2010

What's So Funny?

Nick Lowe last night at City Winery singing his classic, "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding."

21 October 2010

150 (76-78)

76.  "There he broke the fiery shafts of the bow, the shield and the sword and the battle.  Selah."  Where?  In Shalem, which is another word for Jerusalem.  Selah.  Of course one profound tension beneath the surface (when it is peaceful there) or otherwise out in the open, is the battle for Jerusalem's "wholeness" and peace.  Whose wholeness?  Whose peace?  How do you bring about this wholeness for two people--Israelis and Palestinians?  Wholeness might mean negotiations and sharing and peace--"sharing" being the key counter-intuitive idea connected to wholeness; and wholeness might mean the maximalist position of both sides--continues expansions of settlements and apartment complexes in East Jerusalem or the slow burn of obstructionist negotiation tactics to eventually lead to the bi-national one state solution, yielding a demographic majority of Palestinians within a generation.  Both maximalist positions have only created more conflict.  That's undeniable.  The question, as smart folks like to point out, is that the maximalist positions are dangerous.  Of course, when Oslo and Camp David blew up, the maximalist side said, "Compromise is dangerous, too."  And so we remain, a month or so after President Obama brought everyone together, right back where we started.

"The stout-hearted are bereft of sense, they sleep their sleep; and none of the men of might have found their hands."  And "Thou didst cause sentence to be heard from heaven; the earth feared, and was still.  When God arose to judgment, to save all the humble of earth.  Selah."

Give voice to the humble. What will they say of peace and compromise.  It's their turn to give this a try.  Selah.

77.  The irony, the paradox, of having to shout in order to be listened to.  Not shouting to be heard--in a noisy city, we do that every day.  I'm saying--actually, the psalmist is saying--shouting to be listened to.  It's different.  "I will lift up my voice unto God and cry; I will lift up my voice unto God that He may give ear unto me."  That God will listen.  Activating listening is no easy task, especially when one is operating on the assumption that it's possible that God doesn't listen, or hasn't listened, in a very long time.  Which is to say: when teaching prayer or Jewish spirituality to a community that doesn't really believe that the prayers are heard, why do we say them?  And is there not a better way to say what we're trying to say when we're sitting together on Saturday mornings?  But if we said what we were thinking, we would lose the language of Jewish prayer, we'd be the generation cut off, cast out into the wilderness, with no map back home.  Is that even a metaphor that sticks any longer?  Do people want to go home?  Do they want to go to a Jewish home?  Is the Reform rabbi's task to teach the Jew that there IS a Jewish home and if they knew that and learned about then they'd want to go there?

"In the day of my trouble, I seek the Eternal.  With my hand uplifted, I cry all night long with no end; my soul refuses to be comforted.  When I think about it, O God, I must moan; when I muse thereon my spirit faints.  Selah.  You hold my eyelids open, I am troubled, I cannot speak."  Like, in the words of Madeline Kahn's character Lily Von Schtupp in Blazing Saddles, "Goddamnit I'm exhausted!"

But then I speak, and teach, and read and do, and pray, and speak, and teach, and read and do and pray and this goes on over and over again until we can see, maybe after a year, maybe two, maybe five, maybe ten, that there are more Jews behaving as Jews and we feel we've been heard and we've been heard, God has been heard.  And God hears this.  And listens.  Selah.

78.  Curriculum Project.  Read this psalm.  It has 72 verses.  It explains that there are Jews and that Jews have a special relationship with God and that we were slaves in Egypt but God freed us and we marched through the wilderness complaining and generally being ungrateful pains in the arse and eventually, in His mercy, God settled us in the land promised to Abraham--the Land of Israel--and there established a kingdom--that of David, who is credited with authoring these psalms.  But read it as an object lesson of our history.  We have known exile and we know exile again.  We were arrogant once, we will likely be arrogant again.  We have returned once, twice, three times, we are likely to return again.  Like a shepherd herding sheep.  They stray every day, only to return.  "From following the ewes that give suck He brought him to be a shepherd over Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance.  So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart; and led them by the skillfulness of his hands."  This is all of Jewish history in this psalm.  I'm going to try teaching this to some people.  I'll get back to you.

20 October 2010

150 (73-75)

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. 

19 October 2010

150 (70-72)

70.  who has patience?  hurry!  save me!  now!  hurry up!  we know panic.  what it looks like.  what it feels like.  quick.  urgent.  to the point.  who has time to capitalize?  "but i am poor and needy; o god, make haste unto me; thou art my help and my deliverer; o lord, tarry not."  you know what i mean?  "thou art my help and my deliverer; o lord, tarry not!"  i need to capitalize that?  (mac:  "one good minute will last me a whole year!")  srsly.

71.  "Upon Thee have I stayed myself from birth; Thou art He took me out of my mother's womb; my praise is continually of Thee."  Have I said this before?  Forgive me for repeating myself.  When I was a small boy, I used to stay awake at night, imagining an alleviation of the anxiety of darkness by becoming a small vessel, afloat on the sea, at one with the water of life.  My mother taught me to pray, bless her soul.  She came into our room at night, after washed faces and brushed teeth, and directed:  "Say your prayers."  And then we recited what she taught us.  We thanked God for the gift of sleep, for the security of morning light, the horizon of which was arrived at through the benevolent protection of the Source of Life and the Generosity of Spirit, thereof; followed by a delineation of gratitude for having all those in my life who I'd then list.

"Cast me not off in the time of old age; when my strength faileth, forsake me not (isn't that the name of a flower?)

That fear of sleep; of darkness; of old age; of death.

When Jon and Helen got married, they had a barbecue the day before the wedding.  The Sundowners played--old Southern guys, living in exile in Chicago, in Helen's driveway.  Tradition.  Music.  Men. 

"I will also give thanks unto Thee with the psaltery, even unto Thy truth, O God, I will sing praises unto Thee with the harp, O Thou Holy One of Israel."

Have you ever really listened to Johnny Cash's last recordings--the last recordings of a musical giant, knowing he was going to die, before he died?  Don't think David didn't know this.  Don't delude yourself for a minute.  He knew.

Every transition a death, accompanied by a song, a psalm. That's the point.  Selah.

72.  Every transition a death, accompanied by a song, a psalm.  That's the point.  Selah.  

The scholars say this is the last of David's psalms and here following are those of other authors.  We face, in other words, loss of a poetic voice, a personality.  The Soncino commentary in the English language hints toward the idea that this psalm is an expression about God's idea king.  Given the sad state of affairs in American democracy today, go ahead: have a party--read this psalm.  You want to compare David's last great effort to the DREK out there today?  Look at this:  righteousness, generosity, decency, compassion, concern for the oppressed--"while the sun endureth, and so long as the moon, throughout the generations."  Would that it were.

And these words:

Seventeen:  May his name endure forever; may his name be continued as long as the sun; may men also bless themselves by him; may all nations call him happy.

Eighteen:  Blessed be the Eternal God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things

Nineteen:  And blessed be His glorious name for ever; and let the whole earth be filled with His glory, Amen and Amen.

Twenty:  The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.

David's dad's name was Jesse?

See what you learn reading this stuff?

18 October 2010

150 (67-69)

67.  Last week at a Bat Mitzvah celebration, the mother of a kid at the party, who is a parent I know from public school, approached me.  She expressed gratitude at being part of our service at Shul over Shabbat, appreciation, I believe, for being invited and welcomed into a sacred communal space.  In this old world, you gotta take what you can get.  "I really liked the way you blessed the kid," she said.  "The words of prayer you used were words of prayer I remembered from my Catholic upbringing."  I started reciting the Priestly Blessing--"May God bless you and keep you..." and her eyes lit up at the recognition of the words.  "That's it--it's so familiar, so similar..." and a whimsical, satisfied look washed over her face.  The DJ's music pulsed in the background; kids feasted on sweets; we nodded at one another in quiet recognition of the reality--the reality--that the there is more that unites us than divides us.

"God be gracious unto us and bless us; may He cause His face to shine toward us.  Selah.  That Thy way may be known upon earth, Thy salvation among all nations." 

Here is one of the most sublime reflections of Judaism's universal message of Truth.  "May God bless us; and let all the ends of the earth fear Him."

Don't read the "fear."  Read "us." 

Us.

68.  My notes for this psalm are messed up.  I have written in notebook in English and Hebrew.  I have drawn letters over and over.  There are boxes; dashes; parentheses.  I seem to have had an energized and graphic reaction to this song.  "As smoke is driven away, so drive them away!  As wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God!"  But have you ever seen wax melt?  Have you ever driven away smoke?  Wax stays, its residue resides.  And smoke?  You wave it away in one direction and it shifts, eludes, evades.

Evil remains.  Therefore:  God is "a father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows...finding a home for the homeless, releasing the unjustly imprisoned," undoing what ordinarily cannot be undone.  You think smoke and wax are tough?  Try poverty, greed, injustice!

That's the point. 

One of the other ideas coursing through this powerful psalm is the tension between God and Nature.  Well, actually, I don't think they have any tension between them, like, say, two people.  But there is a tension that we bear, that we're responsible for.  We see a beautiful sunset, for example.  Where does the religious imagination go and where does the scientific mind go?  And if one settles on gratitude and the other on explanation, is there a difference?  Is there a common language any longer?  Two separate languages?  A *tension*?  That's what I'm saying.

"The earth trembled, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God; even yon Sinai trembled at the presence of God, the God of Israel."  In other words, the way I see it, there is Nature.  A given.  But there is also Revelation in Nature--Torah on the Mountain.  And here is the distinguishing characteristic of the Jewish mind, the Jewish soul.  The push against Pagan culture.  Franny's local tomatoes on her pizzas are delicious and I have gratitude to the local farmers within 50 or 75 or 100 miles or whatever for their efforts but above all, thank God.  HaMotzi Lechem Min HaAretz.  That's what I'm saying.

69.  Some religious leaders experience depression because it's in them.  They are inherently dark souls and they light their own way with their faith, animated through prayer and service in the name of God.  Other religious leaders experience depression because they're inherently optimistic people but the world, damnit, is so difficult and trying and obstinate in its inward insistence.  "Save me, God.  The waters flood me, overwhelming my own soul.  I am drowning in mud.  I have nowhere to stand!  I am in the depths, deep, deep down.  The fast flow of it all overwhelms me."

I experience depression daily.  At the corner of Flatbush and Plaza Street.  I hate the way people drive there.  Seriously.  Or as some say, "SRSLY."  The vast disregard of human life.  The haste to make the light.  The vast disregard of human life.  THE VAST DISREGARD OF HUMAN LIFE.  HUMAN LIFE.  LIFE.

"Because zeal for Thy house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproacheth Thee are fallen upon me." 

Try as I might, God, to REPRESENT.  To exemplify what ought to be...WHO CARES?!

That's frustrating.

"For God will save Zion, and build the cities of Judah; and they shall abide there, and have it in possession.  The seed also of His servants shall inherit it; and they that love His name shall dwell therein."

I want a new urban plan for my neighborhood. 

17 October 2010

150 (64-66)

64.  "From the fear of my enemy, save me!"  Walking the dog tonight, two rats crossed my path, pursued by a raccoon.  I saw the raccoon, in its own right a frightening, potentially predatory creature, to be a God-send, a heroic man of the wood, come to crush the foes of the netherworld.  I have to admit it was terrifying, and disgusting.  "Who  have whet their tongue like a sword, and have aimed their arrow, a poison word."  Blech!  Give me a Tea Party to eradicate *these* creatures--that's a platform I can get behind.  Poison, Ernest Borgnine.  Nothing seems to stop these things.

65.   The way I see it, what David is really saying here is:  "We are difficult, sinful creatures.  "The tale of our sins overwhelm me."  And so we are left to the fields, to work, to plant, sow and reap--by the sweat of our brow like Adam the First--and You, in your infinite wonder and generosity, have rewarded us with a good harvest.  There's a beauty and graciousness in this psalm, yet also a hint of Eddie Haskel sucking up to the Cleavers. 

The Hebrew here is, without question, some of the most moving and poetic Hebrew I've encountered thus far.  Its rhythm and simplicity makes it clear that this was a kind of Harvest Song.  Wonderful, both patient and urgent.  It exemplifies a tenuous gratitude to the reader, knowing how brutal a drought or famine can be.  Yet while bounty and beauty are fleeting, they are celebrated.

66.  Shir Mizmor.  Mizmor Shir.  There have been so many musical versions written to Mi Chamocha, celebrating the moment of Exodus that we sing in our prayers, none more annoying, in my mind, than the current folky bunch that are sung in the Reform camping movement but seem to have made their way across the Interstate system and remain entrenched in our liturgy year round.  I mean, it's great for the kids but let's get serious.  We need a song writing contest for a new way to sing about and celebrate the Exodus and I hereby commission a song-writing contest for Psalm 66.  If you're following along here (and God knows, I think seven people read this blog--and you're one of them!) I strongly encourage you work your way through the Hebrew.  There are some really terrific turns of phrase. 

Have a good day.

16 October 2010

150 (61-63)

61.  Sacramento, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Jerusalem, Brooklyn.  "I will live in Your tent, forever.  I will take refuge in the cover of Your wings.  Selah."  In exile one learns to take place along, as if place were not permanent and immobile but transportable, convenient, malleable.  In a neatly ordered closet in my soul is many compartmented suitcase, perfectly ordered with places I've lived, but not proportional according to days, weeks months and years.  In Sacramento, where I was born, I came into the world among parents who came from Milwaukee, with grandparents who could name Germany and Russia as home while a great-grandparent left behind writings and yearnings for Zion.  In Chicago where we lived, briefly, there were family trips north to Milwaukee, home and my parents' parental refuge, from the distances already growing between them.  Madison was mythic past, heroic teams, hearty provisions, patriotism, learning, and glory.  And Jerusalem, city of blessing and radical re-orientation.  I'll never forget my first night, lying awake in bed unable to sleep, feeling my heart race at the thought of being not only in the center of the universe but beneath the wings of All Time.  All exiles melted away and became one, and the scales shifted to two sides: here and there.

Perhaps this psalms lesson is one of understanding our soulful geographic ambiguities.  What does it mean to live neither here nor there?  Where David pleads to be understood:  I really want to live there but I'm not there!  Know that I love you and long for you!  "For Thou, O God, hast heard my vows (though I cannot fulfill them!) and Thou hast granted the heritage of those that fear Thy name  (though I may never settle there!)

The only solution I have, he seems to be saying, is this poem:  "So will I sing praise unto Thy name for ever that I may daily perform my vows."  To you, back there, in the city of blessing.

62.  And so it is there, in that unalterably perfect stillness of Jerusalem that my soul quietly waits.  Only her rock.  Only her salvation.  Her high tower.  In whose presence I stand, silent.  I shall not be moved.  "God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this."  Which part of "once" don't you understand?  Clearly the first part.  So let's try again.  Where every time the plane lands I promise myself I'll never get back on it.  But I do.

63.  "My soul thirsts for you.  My flesh longs for you.  In this dry and tired land with no water."  The question here is not what sustains you physically but how do you survive existentially?  To what degree do we build Jewish communal structures based on longing?  To what degree do we build Jewish communal structures based on the performance of mitzvot?  To what degree do we build Jewish communal structures based on neither longing nor mitzvot and what do those look like?  Moderately ethnic Jewish American Protestantism?   It's Pickle Day on the Lower East Side today and the old Forward Building is a bunch of luxury condos and there's not even a goddamn plaque outside to tell you what fights the pages of that paper fought for so American Jews could become so happily bourgeois.  And Israel with it's racist loyalty oaths keeps missing the boat on understanding that as American Jewry hurtles toward ethnic dissolution (who's gonna save us, Heeb and a kid with a Jewfro on Glee?) Israel's embrace of right-wing nuttiness will prevent the millions of American Jews from engaging with a far more meaningful and historically rooted identity project than building Glamor Judaica for display in public parks and museums. 

"But those that seek my soul to destroy it shall go into the nethermost parts of the earth; they shall be hurled to the power of the sword, they shall be a portion for foxes."  This line, it's withering ambiguity:  is both a comfort and an accusation.  A sarcastic and dismissive wave of the hand and a last line of defense.  Depending upon which side of the bed you get up on, in search of water for a thirsty soul.

15 October 2010

150 (58-60)

58.  I'll be honest with you.  This number gives me the willies.  It has significance.  This was Dad's age when the heart gave in, when the soul was extinguished, when he lay on the floor of his apartment, alone, waiting for one last breath of life he had long before expelled.  I've often wondered about those last moments--were they filled with regret and rage, the twin towers of righteousness?  Or was he like a broken-winged bird, a large fish washed ashore, panicked and gentle, lost in labored breathing?  What words were in darkening mind?  Were they "I can't fucking believe this!" or was it "I'm sorry.  I love you."  We'll never know.  By the time they got there, Elvis had left the building.  (That was for you, Pop. I know how much Elvis and Nixon bothered you.)

Fifty-eight.  This psalm is a wall for me to pass through.  On the other side is life.  This is my valley.  Here is my shadow of death.  Fifty-eight.  Fifty-eight.  Fifty-eight.  I know alot of men who live normal lives but their number rings in their head:  the number Dad was when he died.  Because a son is to exceed his father.  Amen.   Selah. 

David's heroism in part comes from his singular ability to weigh the Jewish male anger on metaphoric scales of his poetic imagination.  He'll have you laughing in disbelief at the corruption and the wild reaches of his own heart and soul stretch your own into relief.  There is comfort in the ugly picture he paints.  It takes a special person to do that.  Wickedness astray from the womb.  Like the deaf asp that stoppeth the ear.  The most cunning binder of spells.  Break their teeth O God in their mouth.  Let them melt away as water that runneth apace.  Let them be a snail.  Miscarried babies.  He will sweep it away with a whirlwind, the raw and the burning alike.  This is a torrent of language so outlandish you can't help but survive.  In its broad strokes of genius it both releases and contains.  "The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance; he shall wash his feet in blood of the wicked.  And men shall say:  'Verily there is a reward for the righteous; verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth.'  Verily.  So I needn't be consumed, to the death, by judging.  God's love eased my burden that day.  Fifty-eight, fifty-eight, fifty-eight.

59.  Dogs.  Devouring dogs.  What dreadful devouring dogs these must have been!  Pursued into the darkness of night by devouring dogs!  Those traitors:  "They return at evening, they howl like a dog.  And go round about the city.  Behold they belch out with their mouth; swords are in their lips: 'For who doth hear!'"  Dog breath!  But God (dog backwards, duh, ha, ha, ha!) laughs:  "Thou shalt have all the nations in derision."

Bucky Cantor--good name for a dog--speaks words of derision in Roth's Nemesis.  Witnessing the burial of a child during a polio outbreak, the outrageous absence of God in such lost innocence is too much for the novel's tragic hero to bear.  "Better by far to honor in prayer one's tangible daily encounter with that ubiquitous eye of gold isolated in the blue body of the sky and its immanent power to incinerate the earth--than to swallow the official lie that God is good and truckle before a cold-blooded murderer of children."  By the end, isolated, crippled, and alone, Bucky's truth is revealed as its own self-destructive lie. 

"But there's nobody less salvageable than a ruined good boy."  This is the book's greatest line.  I know this in my heart, because my devouring dog is now sleeping next to me, far from ruined.  This week he ate three cockroach traps and one container of mouse poison.  He's on a steady diet of Vitamin K for the next three weeks.  Saved by a caring mother, who took him to the doctor in a rain storm, nurturing him with love. 

60.  In the morning, when I get to Shul, I go upstairs to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.  Usually a couple of folks are in there.  One of our loyal and dedicated maintenance staff; a teacher; maybe a parent putting a child's lunchbox in the refrigerator.  A nanny (often West Indian) warming up in the microwave a morning meal.  Light streams in the window, the oven warms the room, and there is a kind of weighted anticipation of the day.  I often think, "We should be feeding people out of this kitchen.  Do a quick renovation and partner with a City Meals on Wheels program, get ourselves one of those cool vans (Hybrid, of course), a slick logo, and get on out there, feed the hungry! 

"Who will bring me into the fortified city?  Who will lead me unto Edom?  Hast not Thou, O God, cast us off?  And Thou goest not forth, O God, with our hosts.  Give us help against the adversary; for vain is the help of man.  Through God we shall do valiantly; for He it is that will tread down our adversaries."

Adversaries like hunger.

14 October 2010

150 (55-57)

55.  "My heart quakes within me; death terrors fall upon me."  If you're me, and your dad died of a heart attack and your grandpa had two and your uncles have had some as well, you're thinking:  Okay, don't smoke, exercise, try to remain calm.  But still:  "My heart quakes within me; death terrors fall upon me."  In other words, "Fear and trembling come to me, horror hath overwhelmed me."  But did it?  I'm not so sure sometimes.  I often remember my uncle coming to pick me up the day dad died.  The moment I saw him, sitting in my quiet Madison apartment, I knew.  He told me to sit down to hear the news but I stayed standing, and immediately started packing my bag for the journey I always knew I'd take.  "For it was not an enemy that taunted me, then I could have borne it; neither was it an adversary that did magnify himself against me.  Then I would have hid myself from him.  But it was thou, a man mine equal, my companion and familiar friend, we took sweet counsel together, in the house of God we walked with the throng."  Oh, I can still remember riding in my uncle's car, the Wisconsin country-side out my window, as we sped past, at 55 miles per hour, and I anticipated the arrival home to Milwaukee.  Sisters, brother, mother/ex-wife.  Watching.  Listening.  "As for me, I will call upon God and the Eternal will save me."  This heart-attack was a bomb that went off and I retreated to this place of repose.  Dad saw the heart-attacks coming but kept on smoking, eating what he wanted, neglected exercise.  These are the small lies people tell themselves.  "Men of blood and deceit shall not live out half their days; but as for me, I will trust in Thee."  I don't smoke and I exercise--but surely there are deceits I practice--even small ones, no?  And my days?  How many will they be?

56.  No fear.  Trust.  Who is man?  What is flesh?  "In the day that I am afraid, I will put my trust in Thee."  Or, "Have you seen this blue sky?  These clouds drifting past?  Who made this?  How did it happen?"  As darkness begins to descend, as days shorten, it's Clementine season.  I love that about October and early November.  Just as seasons shift and we prepare our souls for the dreaded, shortened days of Winter, this miraculous, orange sweetness arrives.  "Thou hast counted my wanderings, put thou my tears into Thy bottle.  Are they not in Thy book?"  In God I trust, what can flesh do to me?  Verse 5. In God I trust, what can man do to me? Verse 12.  For Thou hast delivered my soul from death!  Clementines are in season!

57.  Despite tremendous physical danger, posed by those who lie in wait for me, I shall not be defeated.  Translation:  Bring it on.

"My soul is among lions, I do lie down among them that are aflame (flaming lions?!) Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword."  And, "Awake my glory!"  And, "I will awake the dawn!"  The last line of Roth's Nemesis:  "Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder--and releasing it then like an explosion--he seemed to us invincible."

13 October 2010

150 (52-54)

52.  Fifty-two cards in a deck.  A house of cards.  Houses of Worship, communities, have toxicities, ways of doing business that seep into and ooze out of the fiber of their organizational structures.  I know this in my own synagogue, where certain inherited ways of doing business, of the ways people speak to one another, act toward one another, continues, over and over, killing by a thousand cuts, leaving great scars, or, quietly closing doors.  "The tongue deviseth destruction, like a sharp razor, working deceitfully."  The power of language to destroy, never made more clear by David than here.  The destructive razors of deceit.  This is powerful language, a particular strength we Jews possess.  "Thou lovest evil more than good; falsehood rather than speaking righteousnes.  Selah."

Selah.  Selah!  Stop with the deceit!  The falsehood!  The lies!  Are there not mitzvot to perform?  Mouths to feed?  Homes to build?  What exactly is going on here?  And just when you think your own House of God is dysfunctional in its own special way, you encounter something so much more comically worse than your own worst nightmares about Jewish public voices that you wonder:  how many times does history repeat itself as farce as to make us tire of, well, farce?  I mean, really?  Do I actually have to see on the same front page of the New York Times the monumentally historic rescue of 33 Chilean miners alongside some homophobic Haredi showboat ostentatiously standing in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral--without the Cardinal, I might add--spewing forth his hatred of those who dare to love those they love?  I mean, on a certain level, shut the fuck up, you know?  I beg forgiveness of the good people in my community whom I have offended by my language but incivility demands, on occasion, a dose of its own medicine.  I'm embarrassed and disgusted.  Thank God for King David.  His poetry soothes me.

"But as for me, I am like a leafy olive tree in the Beit Elohim.  I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever."  Think about that.  Whose mercy?  Where? 

53.  It begins with denial--not the pained skepticism of struggle and sorrow but the arrogant dismissal, the de-fertilizing hatred.  "The fool hath said in his heart: 'There is no God'; they have dealt corruptly, and have done abominable iniquity; there is none that doeth good."  This is the guy that disregards human life, plowing through others, seeing means, only means to a selfish, bitter end.  Seeing means but not discerning, distinguishing, thinking critically.  Mosse used to open his lectures on Jews in European history with the words, "A Jew is an outsider with a critical mind."  David said it like this, "God looked forth from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any man of understanding, that did seek after God."  Can you imagine what it means to ask, "Is God looking for me?  Do I merit being found?"

54.  "Doth David not hide himself with us?"  This is a very loaded question.  It implies complicity above all, collective guilt, even.  Or deceit.  Mendacious double-crossing; distrust; urgency; arrogance.  What knotted treachery!   Yet how does he answer?  He asks God to save him by His name.  "And right me by Thy might."  Though sheltered, he intuits no trust and therefore trusts in only He that can be truly trusted:  "Behold God is my helper; the Eternal is for me as the upholder of my soul."

12 October 2010

150 (49-51)

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.

11 October 2010

150 (46-48)

46.  "There is a river, the streams of which gladden the city of God."  It's not that the hailstones flood on Plaza Street made me think of that tonight, since I had considered this line on a plane, up in the air, piercing clouds between North Carolina and New York City but still.  As it stormed all around us and the kids noted that we had all witnessed the tornado together from the same window as well, one of them said, "Why is Hashem mad at us?"  So we went downstairs in the rain and the thunder and lightning and gathered from one of the flowing, icy streams, a container filled with hailstones, twigs and leaves which under the streetlights was gloriously beautiful.  The perception from anger to wonder shifted.  David was conflicted as well and as a reader, I'm frustrated by his own temperamental relationship to power.  Sometimes persecuted, sometimes the aggressor; rarely consistent.  Finding refuge in the earth's quakes and trembling can lead one to at least two conclusions about power and its uses.  Awe and humility are preferential to shock and awe.

47.  More musical celebration in this psalm, and in particular, a choreography of the shofar blasts.  This psalm is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah, in preparation of the shofar service.  I had a thought reading this that next year, for Rosh Hashanah, we ought to build the shofar service around the community's core values.  Have members speak about the meaning of those values to our community.  Shofar blasts for Hesed; Shofar blasts for Talmud Torah; Shofar blasts for Tikkun Olam.  It would be interesting.

48.  "Great is the Eternal and highly to be praised, in the City of our God, God's holy mountain."  That's true.  God feels bigger in Jerusalem, but also smaller.  Scorching, foot cracking heat; explosive anger and searingly pained prayer; great, heavy stones, immobile, eternal.  But also jasmine and rosemary blooms or a pomegranate tree swaying in a cool evening wind.  A meal for the poor.  A poet's reading, or graffiti, grabbing your attention, making you laugh.

"Let Zion be glad, let daughters of Judah rejoice because of Your judgments."  I like the self-confidence.  We belong here.  And there are structures that one can rely upon to live here.  And so "mark well her ramparts, traverse her palaces, so you can tell it to the next generation."  Boast of your love for her!  Which of course begs the question--is this David talking or Solomon?  How many wives can one man have?  Are her well-marked ramparts to extend to Silwan?  To Sheikh Jarrah?  Aren't the already secure borders of Jerusalem enough?  When I walk her ramparts, or take runs around the Old City, I notice that more than three-hundred thousand Palestinians live there, too, and love her as well.  Do we each love the same woman?  Or is *his* woman different from mine?  Or are we caught up in a contest for accumulating wives?  This metaphor has me caught up in the weeds of unrestrained desire when I've already been forewarned:  "Let Zion be glad, let daughters of Judah rejoice, because of Your judgments."  It's enough to follow those, no?  Why all the commotion with land-grabs, building permits, loyalty oaths?  Enough already.

10 October 2010

150 (43-45)

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. 

09 October 2010

Update

Just a quick note to say that today, as ever, was a busy day.  After dropping the kids at Yachad, I went to daven with Altshul, who was celebrating its fifth anniversary as a minyan in Brooklyn and besides the excitement at reaching this milestone of Jewish spiritual self-organization with low overhead, their prayers were particularly spirited in no small part to it being Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, and since this Hebrew months offers precious little to celebrate besides several Shabbatot with profoundly evocative Torah and Haftarah portions, the Hallel and generally musical expression was rich and enjoyable.  An afternoon break, lunch, a nap, a walk with Nathan and a quick cup of coffee and it was back to Shul for an afternoon Bar Mitzvah, a smart lad, a skeptic with an incisive mind for Torah and Tradition.  And now I'm in the JetBlue Terminal at JFK, having just eaten a spicy sardine sandwich, washed down by a Jamaican beer (it's Queens, after all) waiting to take off.

I was driven to JFK by a Yemenite man, who was behind the wheel of the car that picked me up to shuttle me here to the airport as I await a flight to North Carolina to officiate at the wedding of a former student.  How did I know he was Yemeni, you might ask?  His cellphone rang and it played an Arabic song.  "Where's the song from?" I asked.  "It's from Arabia," he said.  "That's a big place," I said.  "Which part?"  "Saudi Arabia," he said.  "Where are you from?"  I asked.  "I'm Arabic," he said.  "Dude," I countered.  "I'm okay here.  What country do you come from?"  "Yemen," he finally said and since Shabbat had just ended and we sang Yedid Nefesh last night, I thought I'd tell him about the Yemenite melodies we sometimes use at the synagogue, and besides Yedid Nefesh I told him about Dror Yikra and if you really want to know the truth, he wasn't very impressed.  Language remained a barrier, or so I realized about 15 minutes into the drive after listening to him tell me all about how "Jews are big shots" in New York and Jewish women are moral and Jewish children do well in school and finally he said, "So what are you?"  "Jewish," I told him.  And a rabbi, too.

"So let me ask you," he says.  "Why do the Jews have to live in Palestine?"  And so I told him about Abraham (see above, the smart lad's minchah bar mitzvah portion was Lech Lecha and the call) and how Jews have always lived in the land and I told him about the Babylonian Exile and the Roman Exile and about the Turks and the British and how there's enough land for two people and you know what he said?  "I got a Jewish friend from Yemen and he says the white European Jews have all the good jobs in Israel so my friend went back to Yemen."  And then he invited me to visit Yemen.

I said, "I'm going to North Carolina tonight but I'll consider it."

He told me about the gas station he works at in Flint, Michigan; how he drives cab in Brooklyn; and about his family, who he sent back home to Yemen.  "Flint and Brooklyn are not good places to live if you don't have a job or you don't have money."  I didn't argue.

My flight is boarding.  Just thought you'd want the update.

08 October 2010

150 (40-42)

40.  Sometimes a person can be so depressed they can't help themselves.  Here's where they reach for God.  King David here reaches for a simple metaphor, perhaps coming across it while scratching his own head in despair and frustration at his hire predicament.  "For innumerable evils have compassed me about, mine iniquities have overtaken so I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart hath failed me."  When you lose the head and the heart, you know you're in trouble.  There's a needlepoint totem that hangs in our kitchen, made by my grandmother, of a first grade writing assignment I brought home from school.  It was a piece of penmanship, written on wide-lined paper, in which we were asked to express what we thought was the quietest thing in the world.  I wrote, "The quietest thing in the world is my hair."  My grandmother loved that and had the assignment printed onto a needlepoint canvas and memorialized that thought, in yarn, for all time.

But now my hair makes noise!  It recedes like rocks falling from a cliff in the earthquake of trouble I consider.  It's graying temples crack and quake like icebergs yawning great pits into the surface of the frozen deep.  And its roots smolder as ill-winds in the land pant fires of destruction, a lost world, unable to see its way.

Some people see their bodies change and they treat it like taking a car into the shop for repairs.  A paint-job; oil change; switch out the plugs and filters.  Hammer out some dents.  Still others buy a new car, leaving on the heap in an unnamed yard, abandoned wheels and doors and windows, signals with no light.  The beautiful ones seem to rise above it all, don't they?  It seems to go so well for them.  "Let all those that seek Thee rejoice and be glad in Thee; let such as love Thy salvation say continually:  the Eternal be magnified!  But as for me, that am poor and needy, the Eternal will account it unto me; Thou art my help and my deliverer, O my God, tarry not!"

Quiet my head, quiet my heart.

41.  Physical suffering reaches down to the soul's depths and the suffering becomes existential.  One's perspectives shift, into a dangerously dark and irrevocable place.  David's enemies seek nothing less than the end:  the end of the family line, the end of personal integrity, the end of a reputation.  "A good name is more precious than fine oil."  But what happens when there is no more oil?  At a moment of his own cognizance of material waning, David realizes that integrity and reputation are weightless accumulations of good, stronger in sustaining his life than the bread he once shared with former friends, now enemies circling him like vultures.  The fearsome darkness he faces is alleviated by the Face of God, upholder of his integrity.  I see a magician on a stage.  A vaudevillian act.  David, the Levitating King!  Hashem in top hat and tails, his wand, the staff, parting waters, redeeming yet again.  The lights crackle with explosion and excitement.  The audience wails laughter and joy.

The Psalms editor here adds a verse, a perfect coda to trouble temporarily lifted:  "Blessed be the Eternal God of Israel, from forever to forever, amen and amen."

42.  "Like a young hart lapping at the water's edge so my soul pants after Thee."  Graceful beauty, under threat, that careful calm of self-sustenance while knowing at any moment, from any quarter, a predator waits.  The thirst of exile.  "When shall I come and appear before God?"  David is cut-off.  His exile is deep valley of shadow and death, carved into distant, rocky cliffs.  "My tears have been my food day and night."  Dreadful!  And in his hunger he remembers the old days, caught up in the throngs in Jerusalem, wandering into the courtyards of Hashem.  He himself led them to a Beit Elohim--to the House of God--and there was joy and praise, the multitudes, the festive pilgrimage.  He remembers from the land of Jordan, the Hermon, the mount Mitzar.  His soul becomes the landscape, and "deep calleth unto deep at Thy voice pouring down like a mighty waterfall.  Thy waves and billows washing over me."

During prayers tonight, I got lost in my head and went to Jerusalem, twenty-five years ago, where the fragrant, musty pungency of rosemary entered through a window of the room where I prayed.

Where did that memory come from?  How did it find its way out?  "Deep calleth unto deep."

07 October 2010

150 (37-39)

37.  This is a psalm said to be read in conjunction with the Book of Job (if you dare.)  "Trust in God and do good.  Live in the land and befriend faith."  I think we know that--inherently--and deny that--inherently.  Ever at war with ourselves, like God and the Adversary, at war over Job.  The tension, just beneath the surface, of what suffering can do to us, the erosion it can cause, is strong.  I don't know about you, but I fight the suffering.  And I get angry.  "Cease anger!  Cut off wrath! Don't fret--it all causes you to do evil."  The slippery slope.  You really gotta watch it.

The corrupting power of depression is best countered by a disciplined commitment to follow the light--however one defines it.  No, seriously.  You have to work to overcome.  "And (then) He will make thy righteousness to go forth as the light, and thy right as the noonday."  Here the abundance (which really, is just enough) teaches that better is the little the righteous has compared to the abundance of the evil ones.  Justice will, in the end, bring the balance we seek.  It's about integrity.  Uprightness.  There is the future, in the man of peace. Also:  the Eternal is the salvation of the righteous, their fortress in a time of trouble. 

Repeat.  Over and over and over again. 

Oh, I almost forgot!  "I have been young and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread."  The story the lady told on the 2 train today at 4.30 in afternoon was a real hunk of bull.  There's no way all that stuff happened to her that she said happened to her.  But I gave her money anyway.  Because I wasn't about to start choosing to forsake anyone today, I'll tell you that.  If the stories aren't true, is she no longer righteous?  And is she among the "unrighteous" begging for bread, rendering our psalm to a truthful integrity of its own?  Who am I to say?  "Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; for the Eternal upholdeth his hand."  When she walked past me she had already a few bills and comes in the palm of her hand.  I added to them, the Eternal, through me, upholding her hand.

38.  Here you're really looking at someone who is drowning in the muck of his own sin and sorrow.  These are horrible and deeply tragic situations.  "For mine iniquities are gone over my head; as a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me."  I'm reminded of the midrash about a man, covered in filth and chained to the town cemetery fence.  Rabbi Akiva inquires about his misfortune and the man describes a life of indescribable sin, which left a child, orphaned and all alone.  Akiva goes to find the child, teaches the child, and upon the child becoming Bar Mitzvah, the chained man is released, his lost son having recited Kaddish and unbinding the father from eternal death.  David seems to know this, to intuit that in certain cases, our own sin drowns us, kills us spiritually, and leaves us so that our only hope is what another may do in our name, long after we're gone. 

39.  A few months before Dad died, he and I had a big argument.  And as the embers from our argument smoldered, we looked at each other across the diminishing fires.  I saw death and he knew I saw death and though neither of us said anything, when he died three months later of a sudden heart attack, I was not surprised.  I never told anyone that story until one day a few years later I was visiting with a professor on campus in Madison and he told me about how he once prevented his father from being held up in their family store in Chicago more than 60 years ago and when his father saw that his young son had saved his life, he described his father's face as having known mortality in that very moment.  I was relieved that another had once had an experience I had; I knew I was no longer alone.  "I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, had no comfort; and my pain was held in check."  But knowing that there was another who knew and if there was one there were more, I began to grasp a kind of relief in the inexorable, unavoidable reality of death.  "Behold Thou hast made my days as hand-breadths; and mine age is as nothing before Thee; surely every man at his best estate is altogether vanity."  The cry of this prayer is the cry of certainty and humility. 

The confidence of knowing our end; and the awe before the utter powerlessness we possess in preventing it from simply finishing us off, once and for all.  "Keep not silent at my tears; for I am a stranger with Thee, a sojourner, as all my father's were."

I know that look, that sideways glance.  Head on is too unmasking.  Too much to possess.  "Look away from me, that I may take comfort, before I go hence, and no more."

150 (34-36)

34.  Rules to live by.

"Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile."
"Depart from evil and do good; seek peace, and pursue it." 

Write these words down.  Tape them to your bathroom mirror.  Dare to look at them and say them and do them every day.  See what happens.

35.  "Strive Eternal with they that strive against me; fight against them that fight against me."  Reading about Philip Roth's new character, Bucky Cantor, holding off phlegmatic thugs on a Newark playground during a 1941 polio scare, brings this text to mind.  "He wanted to teach them what his grandfather had taught them:  toughness and determination, to be physically brave and physically fit and never to allow themselves to be pushed around or, just because they knew how to use their brains, to be defamed as Jewish weaklings and sissies."

36.  Appreciation.  The exaggeration of the simplest things in order to celebrate or *appreciate* their existence.  "They are abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou makest them drink of the river of thy pleasures."  Remember when Albert Brooks has his first meal after he dies in "Defending Your Life?"  The eggs especially.  It was the greatest omelet he ever had and he meant it.  I go back to that scene over and over when I feel I'm not tasting the food, you know?