Psalm 18

“Gliding on the wings of the wind.” (18:11)

In order for a kite to experience lift, it needs resistance. If you let go of the string and let it fly free, it will quickly crash into the ground (or a tree, if you’re Charlie Brown). If you pull on the string, forcing air to flow over and under the surfaces of the kite, you create a high pressure area beneath the kite and a low pressure area above the kite. The high pressure zone lifts the kite towards the low pressure zone. We, too, need some resistance, some challenges in our life, to reach our highest potential.

Psalm 17

“You have tested me and found nothing amiss.” (17:3)

I wish I could get a medical test that would confirm that I will live a long and happy life. Regrettably, such a test does not exist. A test can only confirm that at this moment I either have a disease or condition that is actively threatening my life, or I do not have such a disease or condition. A test which shows nothing wrong is no guarantee of similar future performance. Instead of asking for tests and looking for signs that we are living our lives properly, we would be better off looking for ways that we can continually improve our character and behavior.

Psalm 16

“Lovely indeed is my estate.” (16:6)

Judaism appreciates beauty. Hiddur Mitzvah is the idea that we might enhance a mitzvah by doing it in an esthetically pleasing way. While we might make kiddush on Friday nights with a plain drinking glass, we typically use a special cup dedicated to Shabbat. A Judaica collection in the home should not be a museum display of objects seen but never touched. There is joy in a Hanukkah menorah covered in wax drippings, and sadness in a menorah passed down from generation to generation in pristine condition. The greatest beauty is found in an object which a grandparent used to teach a grandchild the deepest meanings of Shabbat.

Psalm 15

“… speaks truth in his heart.” (15:2)

To lie convincingly, most people, unless they suffer from a personality disorder, need to believe the lie. If you fully acknowledge the truth in your heart and mind, it is very difficult to lie. Your body will most likely give you away. Your eyes will shift, your tongue will stutter, or your voice will drop. Your body physically resists telling what it knows to be a lie. It is possible to override your body’s impulse and teach it to lie more effectively, but it is so much easier to teach your yetzer hara (selfish inclination) to tell the truth, inside and out.

Psalm 14

“Those who devour my people [as] they devour bread.” (14:4)

One can choose to eat mindfully and treat people mindfully as well. Part of healthy eating is to pay attention to the experience, the flavor and the texture of the food, while monitoring your body’s response to it. Eat foods that energize your body in positive ways and stop eating when you have had enough. Don’t use food to compensate for something you are missing from your life. Similarly, enjoy the uniqueness of each person you encounter over the course of your day. Don’t treat them as a means to your own selfish ends. The clerk serving your needs is deserving of as much human dignity from you as you expect from him or her.

Divre Harav – February, 2017

Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says, “Be as cautious in a minor mitzvah as in a major one, for you do not know what reward comes for a mitzvah.” Pirke Avot 2:1

I suspect that few of us believe that we receive a tangible, quantifiable, reward for doing mitzvot. I’m not talking about a sense of accomplishment or a sense of satisfaction, but some actual benefit, whether it be finding a better or quicker place in heaven after we die or receiving a material benefit on earth. Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, religious leader of the rabbis of his generation and the editor of the Mishnah, alludes to a widespread believe that the performance of mitzvot carry a reward. However, he downplays this belief. The reward does not necessarily correspond to the act, he says. We should treat all religious behavior as is equally important, whether it be lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tefillin, fasting on Yom Kippur, or feeding the hungry.

The Talmud’s description of the process of conversion to Judaism describes teaching the potential convert some of the major and minor mitzvot, warning him of the punishment for disobeying and describing in general terms the reward of the world to come for the righteous. If he accepts the obligations of Torah, they circumcise him and as soon as possible, immerse him in a mikvah while teaching him some major and minor mitzvot (again). Women are taught major and minor mitzvot while standing in the mikvah, and then immerse. The Talmud never precisely defines a major mitzvah vs. a minor mitzvah, here too assumes that there is a reward for observance, but declines to define the reward.

The “Butterfly Effect,” a tem coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, is named for the idea that the path and severity of a hurricane could be influenced by minor disturbances in the air such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Lorenz discovered that when modeling weather, small actions can have very large effects. The same idea holds within the social model of a community, local, regional, national, or beyond. We never know how the smallest actions we take might effect larger consequences. Our actions on a small scale might influence others in ways we never anticipated.

Rabbi Yehudah’s message is that all of our actions have significance. We should never think of our lives as inconsequential. At the same time, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that we can manipulate events for our benefit. Ultimately, we are called upon to be holy people and bring holiness into the world through our actions, large and small; to be good, without the expectation of being recognized or rewarded.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kal – easy; light; facile

Kal has three opposites, depending on the precise meaning:

  • Kasheh – difficult
  • Kaved – heavy
  • Hamur – serious

Psalm 13

“Lest I sleep death.” (13:4)

One should never tell a young child that someone who has died is just sleeping, unless you want to teach the child to fear bedtime. However, sleep is 1/60th of death, taught the rabbis of the Talmud (Berakhot 57b). In our unconscious state, we are closer to the world of souls. Not every dream is a message from beyond, but when the veil of our ego is lifted, we expand our ability to realize things about ourselves. Whether this expanded awareness comes from within our minds or from an outside agent is less important than our openness to hearing the message.

Psalm 12

“With lips such as ours, who can be our master?” (12:5)

Politicians are great talkers. They have mastered the art of articulating their positions on issues, mustering arguments in favor, and countering arguments opposed to them. Sometimes they undermine opposing arguments by attacking the character or the motivation of their opponent. We ought to follow the example of Hillel, who gave such respect to his opponents’ positions that he would teach them even before he taught his own position on the issue. He demonstrated the ability to listen deeply to others in order to truly understand them, a trait worth emulating.

Psalm 11

“Flee, bird to your mountain.” (11:1)

Some birds, like geese, run away when perceived danger approaches. Some, like wild turkeys, will stand in the middle of a road oblivious to the danger posed by approaching cars. Most birds will fly away when a person or a vehicle gets too close. They typically retreat to a place high above the ground where they feel safe. We, however, ought to cultivate the skill of evaluating the potential threat in order to gauge our ability to stand up against it. We, unlike birds, are charged to stand up for justice.

Psalm 10

“Mischief and iniquity are under his tongue.” (10:7)

The potential for destructive language is always lurking, ready to burst forth. Sometimes it seems like the tongue has a mind of its own. No sooner have I said something than I regret what I said. I didn’t mean to say it, I wasn’t even aware that those words were about to come out of my mouth. Human beings have a yetzer hara (selfish inclination) tempting us to unleash those devilish little imps under our tongue, but we also have a yetzer hatov (good inclination) reminding us to keep them under wraps.

Psalm 9

“Let the nations know they are human.” (9:21)

To say that we are only human is sometimes used as an excuse for making mistakes and engaging in bad behavior. But to be human should not be an excuse for behaving badly. To be human is to be just a little less than Divine, according to the Psalmist (8:5). Reminding us that we are human is setting a high bar, challenging us to act in a way which reflects our creation in the image of God.

Psalm 8

“The moon and stars that You set in place …” (8:4)

I love looking at the constellations of stars and marveling at the imagination of the ancient astronomers who saw the patterns and named them. It is easy to see why the Psalmist envisioned God carefully setting each celestial object in place. How could such cosmic artistry be an accident? Surely, the magnificence of the night sky testifies to the Creator of heaven and earth. Even though I understand that it might be the case that the human brain simply looks at randomness and seeks order, I choose to look at the night sky and see God’s hand.

Psalm 7

“[He] will fall into the trap he made.” (7:16)

There is something satisfying about catching and correcting errors. Somehow, we feel like we are making the world better. But to set someone up for failure so they make a mistake that we step in to correct is another thing entirely. Not only is it a violation of “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14), but it is an action taken only to boost our own ego, not to do any kind of tikkun (repair) in the world. When our ego pushes us to act rashly, we will find ourselves taking unwise action that will eventually come back to bite us.

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