Help From the Psalms

The portion this week and its companion in Ezekiel are full of the details of constructing, furnishing, and operating the Temple. We know that these verses, fundamentally, relate to God’s calling us to “draw near,” to live in God’s presence.

Yet, as vital as doing so is to people of faith, these ancient verses may seem inaccessible to the modern reader, especially since the physical Temple no longer stands.

So, where do we go for help? I would suggest that the Psalms, one of the greatest poetic sources for a profound understanding of God’s presence, is a perfect place. Let’s give it a try.

A nice nexus with our text this week is Psalm 48. It asks us to think back on the Temple, setting our minds “to its ramparts” and “its bastions,” and commit to recounting of the Temple “to the last generation.”

What does the psalmist say we should associate most with this memory? “We witnessed, O God, Your kindness in the midst of Your Temple.” We know, too, that God’s Name extends “to the ends of the earth,” along with praise, because “with justice Your right hand is full.” In essence, it is in God’s presence that we learn of, and are guided to emulate, the Divine virtues of kindness and justice.

The psalmist, also, sees that within this presence the Divine will lead us forever. Some translate this as: “God will lead us even beyond death.”

We see these ideas extended in Psalm 62. “Only in God is my being quiet. From Him is my rescue.” There is both a deep tranquility and a sense of salvation that comes from living in God’s presence.

After all the temptations of following scoundrels who seem to succeed or, alternatively, to live purely by resisting them, the psalmist in Psalm 73 comes to realize that it was all futile “until I came to the sanctuaries of God.” There God “grasps me by the right hand” and “guides me with Divine counsel.” Wherever I am, while I “recount the Divine works,” “God’s closeness is good to me.”

In light of this psalm, we might recall that one of God’s names is HaMakom, the Place. This name suggests that God can be understood as the One-Who-Can-Always-Be-Present. So, now that the Temple no longer stands, we have the confidence that we can still experience God’s presence in our world. As Rabbi Soloveitchik taught from the Talmud: The world is not the place of God, but God is the Place of the world.

Indeed, our tradition teaches that that Place may be very near, corresponding to our souls, through our spirit, informing what we think and do. The still small voice hovers and is available to be heard at all times.

We conclude by reflecting on the very powerful Psalms 23 and 1. What might we distill from these two Psalms?

God shepherds us on the pathways of righteousness. We learn and follow God’s teaching. And, in so doing, we are blessed with lying down in grass meadows and being guided by tranquil waters.

Life brings us into the fears and pains of dark valleys, and even the darkness of death. But, as long as we remain in God’s presence, we fear no harm, whatever harm falls our way. Somehow knowing that we have a duty to serve like priests provides comfort and the feeling that we, too, are anointed. Goodness and kindness pursue us (even in the dark valleys), and we dwell in the House of the Lord for the length of our days.

The Psalms help us understand the deeper intentions of the ancient Temple. While the structure no longer stands, the Place does. And our living in God’s presence is still very much our duty as well as the source of our richest blessings.

Weaving Relationships Back Together

This week’s portion from Exodus and its companion in Ezekiel share one very powerful feature. In both, the people stray badly in their waywardness and are punished severely; yet, in time, they are brought back into the realm of God’s care and protection.

Indeed it appears in certain ways that all is better in the end than it was in the beginning. In Exodus, God says, “Behold! I will form a covenant; in the presence of all your people, I will make distinctions such as have not been created upon all the earth…” In Ezekiel, God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.”

How does God’s justifiable wrath and anger turn into greater closeness and commitment? How does punishment turn into greater blessing?

I suggest that we may get our answer by watching Moses closely as he deals with the existential challenge of the people’s apostasy with the golden calf.

My hypothesis is that Moses’ reactions and actions, reflecting the greatest sort of virtue, are precisely what turns God back to the people and restores their relationship. And, just as important for us, it is Moses’ model behavior that gives us an ideal way back to God when we stray, as well as hope for restoration with others in our lives.

Moses responds first to learning of the idolatry by pleading for Divine mercy. His advocacy is eloquent and powerful. Should the commitment to the patriarchs be tossed away by God’s annihilating the people? Would such a punishment permit the Egyptians to be able to claim victory over God?

Whether with God or others, isn’t an immediate and urgent appeal to the deepest interests of the wronged party the absolute first, right step to take? Reason then has a chance to prevail over emotions. And the emotions can begin to be swayed by admiration for the advocate and be open to the possibility of the mercy he is promoting.

Yet, Moses’ very next step must be to hold the community accountable for its wrongdoing. They must feel the leader’s wrath for what’s been done; and God must see it. The calf is destroyed, and the people have to take sides, as to right and wrong. Moses teaches that righteousness and justice are the twins of mercy and loving-kindness.

Next, Moses immediately seeks atonement with God on behalf of himself and the community. Moses understands that, even after consequences are paid, the relationship between parties to a special covenant must be restored. Here God re-establishes the relationship but only agrees that an angel, rather than the Divine self, will accompany the people forward.

Moses seeks more, however, believing that he and the people will be at a serious disadvantage if only an incomplete restoration is achieved. If a relationship is truly special and crucial to us, surely, we must seek, after a breach, nothing less than a full reconciliation. So, hoping for God’s favor in the mission that God had established for him, Moses asks to know the Divine ways and seems to be saying, “Let’s get even closer.” God, Who desires relationship, agrees to do more, to send the Divine presence with the people. This is how we weave relationships back together again.

I find Moses’ chutzpah at this stage of the process especially appealing and powerful, as certainly must have God. “I’m not done,” he seems to be saying to God, “Show me, now, Your glory!” God responds essentially by helping Moses re-craft the two stone tablets and by showing him the Divine Attributes of grace, compassion, and justice.

How is it possible that a people who were on the verge of being destroyed for apostasy can now be the beneficiary of God’s renewed and indeed heightened presence, teaching, and enlightenment?

I want to suggest that the virtuous behavior and leadership Moses displayed made a huge difference in bringing these stories to their felicitous endings. But here’s the main message for us: God is looking for the same from you and me.

Better Than the Fat of Rams

In the special text we read this week from Samuel, the prophet, directed by God, gives the newly anointed king, Saul, a very important assignment. How Saul responds will teach us a lot.

Saul is challenged to wipe out Amalek. Let’s recall that Amalek had been more than a frightening and treacherous nemesis to the Israelites on their way; they had been a major, unrelenting threat to the people’s security.

Saul achieved initial success but decided to preserve Agag, the king of Amalek. Whatever his motive, Saul not only failed the mission of taking out this great existential threat; he seemed actually to conclude that his actions were tantamount to a major accomplishment for the people. In that spirit, Saul decided to sacrifice the surviving Amalekite cattle to God, presumably as a marker of victory and gratitude.

A stunned Samuel responded: “Does God delight in burnt offerings as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than the fat of rams.”

What’s the relevance of all this to us? And what answers might we find in this week’s portion from Exodus?

Recall that we are at that place in the narrative where God had been instructing Moses on the construction and manner of operating the Tabernacle. This and later forms of sacred space are where we draw near to God to learn to live as God expects.

So, what do we find in this text? The people are taught to bring olive oil to kindle the lamps. The priests are to wear holy garments, which are, among other things, to bear stones corresponding to the tribes. There are offerings that are to be made and rituals to be performed to sanctify the service of the priests.

How does Samuel’s teaching guide our understanding of these prescriptions? Here’s my thought: it’s a preview of the profound lesson the later prophets will teach us again and again. Rituals and offerings are important, but God does not delight in our adhering to them over living true to Divine expectations of right living.

Do we do ritual by rote? Do we do it to cover over wrong we’ve done? Do we do it because “it’s what’s done?” Or, instead, as Samuel says, do we do what we do to with the fundamental purpose of fulfilling God’s direction?

Metaphorically speaking, when we “bring oil” to our sacred space, do we do so in a manner that mostly fulfills a ritual? Or do we actually contribute our time, spirit, and resources to spreading God’s light in the world?

When we “display the stones” representing our community, are we doing so politically and for self-interest, or are we rather demonstrating that we will do what’s difficult and necessary to advance the whole community’s deeper interests?

When we make an offering, are we, like Saul, hiding our selfish decisions in a show of feigned obeisance to God and community? Or, we are giving of ourselves in a way that is consistent with God’s direction, and supportive of our community’s true requirements?

May we always be responsive and true when God calls.

The Temple That We Build

Our portion from Exodus this week parallels its companion in Kings perfectly. First, we learn of the resources we must bring to build the Tabernacle as well as the glorious details of its design, construction, and furnishing. Next, we learn of the manner by which Solomon much later acquires the needed resources and then constructs the extraordinary Temple in Jerusalem.

Since we no longer have either the physical Tabernacle or Temple, what, if any, meaning, do these words have for us in our own time?

We get a wonderful hint when God tells Solomon: “This Temple that you build – if you follow My decrees, perform My statutes, and observe all My commandments, to follow them, then will I establish My word with you” and “I shall dwell” among you.

On the surface, yes, God’s words relate directly to building and operating the Tabernacle and later the Temple. But I want to set out a broader and more universal view that what is intended here at a deeper level is that the Temple we are to build is a certain sort of life we are to construct and maintain. And, to the extent that that life is lived in accord with God’s ways, God dwells among us, true to the promises of our covenant.

So, in our time, the resources we use to “build the Temple” and the ways in which we manage them may relate to our involvement in our churches and synagogues. They also may extend outward to the broader spaces of our lives – in our friendships, our families, our communities, and our engagements in the world. Indeed, they may direct how we order the operation of our bodies through the proper support and functioning of our souls.

Remembering that God’s mission for us was always to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” doesn’t it also follow that the discussion we’re having here must ultimately take us from our inner selves out into the world?

What specific features do we learn in the text that are essential to the acts of building and operating the sacred precincts of our lives?

First, we bring “gifts” of our own resources to build our lives as well as “offerings” to sustain them. We invest of ourselves to assure their construction, their beauty, and their successful operation? And we do so with gratitude, with the hope of our elevation.

Second, we come with the fundamental desire to “draw near’ in closeness to God, as well as friends, family, and community.

Third, we build and display markers of meaning in our lives that we experience continually and that we associate with God’s power and saving hand. This is especially so with respect to our ancient memory of, and reliance on, God’s guiding words, light, and sustenance.

Fourth, we learn and feel reverence about our place in these sacred precincts, with a sense of purpose and energy.

Both texts teach us much about the nature and purpose of sacred space. Why do we go there? What do we find in drawing near to God there? And what do we carry away from there that informs our mission in the world?

An especially lovely answer comes from Psalm 48:

“We witnessed, O God, Your loving-kindness in the midst of Your temple.

Like Your name, O God, so Your praise – to the ends of the earth. With righteousness Your right hand is full.

Let Mount Zion rejoice, Let Judea’s towns exult because of Your judgment.

Go around Zion, encircle it.

Counts its towers.

Set your mind to its ramparts,

scale its bastions

to recount to the last generation.

For this is God, forevermore.

He will lead us forever.”

The Moral Undoing of Slavery

On the surface of the text this week, the Bible appears to tolerate slavery. What’s the story?

The portion from Exodus and its usual companion in Prophets help us get to a deeper understanding of what – ethically – is really going on. And, if we look further at the wisdom they help generate over time, we get a powerful explanation.

Let’s understand a basic truth at the start. At the times of the Bible’s revelation and compilation, slavery was virtually a universal practice. Indeed its diminishment throughout the world since then has been a slow and uneven process.

My thesis is that while the ancient text does not set out immediately to abolish this powerful and ubiquitous institution, it establishes a historic trajectory that aims effectively at destroying it and ultimately contributes mightily to doing so.

Let’s take a look.

The verses in Torah begin with this: “Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years, and in the seventh, he shall go out to freedom without charge.” First, slavery is neither blessed nor encouraged, which, in and of itself, marks a dramatic change from the cruel custom of life-long bondage in the ancient world. Second, limits are imposed, restricting the conditions in which slaves could be held – the term, the treatment, etc.

These limits begin to ameliorate the practice by requiring humane treatment. Even greater limits in Deuteronomy, also grounded in the interest of humane treatment, add increasingly to the burden of those who keep slaves and bondsmen. They do so in ways that begin to create strong disincentives to engaging in the practice in the first place.

For example, the return of runaway slaves who escaped to Israel is forbidden. Such former slaves are to be treated equally with resident aliens.

As time passes, the different treatment of Hebrew slaves and non-Hebrew slaves appears to begin to disappear. The Talmud and later sages and rabbis go further. Slaves are to be given similar food, drink, and lodging to that the master would grant himself or his family. Severe punishment is provided for those who abuse or kill slaves.

But what interests me especially about the verses in Jeremiah is that they give us a vivid picture of the religious foundation upon which the campaign against slavery is constructed.

Here we learn that King Zedekiah had entered into a covenant with the people that bound them to release all their Hebrew bondsmen and bondswomen. Yet, presumably out of the selfishness and power that drives the slaveholder, the people reneged and brought the bondsmen and bondswomen back into servitude.

God is furious that the very people He freed from bondage and who count on His holding true to their covenant are now breaking the covenant they made to free their fellows from bondage.

It is notable that the first two verses of Chapter 33 are added to the reading. This addition makes clear that it is not just the redemption from Egypt that is on the Divine Mind; it is the whole of the covenant. “If not for My covenant day and night; had I not set up the laws of heaven and earth….” In other words, together, the commandments press us ever more expansively to live true in all of our life’s activity to the cardinal virtues of justice and righteousness, mercy and loving-kindness.

These covenant expectations are constantly at war with, and ultimately make intolerable, the practices of slavery. So, what all people found customary in the beginning and could not be changed quickly or easily by a small people’s sacred text becomes subject to perpetual attack by the profound values that that text promotes. And the trajectory of those values as they play out in history leads ineluctably to the destruction of all bases for slavery.

It’s a long road from the social ways of pre-Biblical times to the ideal end. But, one day, as Micah teaches us, all will go up to the mountain of the Lord, all will sit under their own vine and their own fig tree, and none will make them afraid.

From Meetings with God

This week the portion in Exodus and its companion in Isaiah are incomparably beautiful both in what they share and what they teach.

As we have studied, God rescues us from the “narrow places” in Egypt in order to bring us into the expansive and lovely ways of the promised life.

On the surface of the tale in Torah, the people leave the Sea and arrive at Sinai. Moses is called by God to be given direction and then recites the Divine Instruction to guide the people’s way.

In Isaiah, the prophet also is called by God to take on the mission of guiding the people.

Though the two different meetings are centuries apart, I believe they fundamentally go together. Even more, they both teach us about how, in our own time, we can best live in covenant with God and serve Divine purposes.

First, let’s look at the plot more deeply.

God tells Moses at Sinai: “If you obey Me and keep my covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure…And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

Three days later, Moses approaches God again, with the people, clean, within boundaries, and ready for next steps. Moses, then, instructed by God, offers the people the beginning of the great revelation in right living, the Ten Commandments.

The account of Isaiah’s meeting is also consequential but full of fantastic details. Isaiah sees God sitting upon a high throne, along with angels in the heavenly Temple, and witnesses the most remarkable interaction there.

Isaiah feels impure to be in such a setting, much as the Israelites surely feared they might be at Sinai. Once cleansed, he hears God’s words, in which the Divine seeks a messenger to speak to the people.

God knows that the people can hear and see, but they’d shown, from all the bad they had done, that they did not comprehend their obligations. Isaiah is told to inform them that until they see, hear, and understand in order to “repent and be healed,” their cities “will become desolate,” and “abandonment will be great amid the land.” Yet, importantly, there will be a remnant in which “the holy seed will be the vitality of the land.”

What does this teach us?

First, I believe there’s a Moses in each of us, as well as an Isaiah. We, too, are called to go to God, and we do so in our prayers, our mediation, our study, and our service. We, too, strive to be pure in our going. And God tells us when we draw near that our task is to comprehend the path forward through our eyes, ears, mouths and hearts.

Yet, it’s different after Sinai. We have the words. We’ve inherited them as perhaps our richest legacy from our faithful predecessors. As Moses teaches in his last oration: “It is not in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’…No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”

So, having been blessed with God’s words, we are expected to use our God-given capacities of sight, hearing, speech, and wisdom to keep to them.

Our way should never be one of desolation or abandonment. We can be the remnant that repents of straying and return, healed. Then, when we follow God’s direction, we become His treasure. When we become priests and a holy nation, we live to serve others and become bestowers of peace in the world.

Songs For Your Playlist

Our portion in Exodus this week bears a close resemblance to its companion text in Judges in that both contain songs that are musts for your playlist.

First, we experience the Song of the Sea. This song, celebrating deliverance from the Egyptian army across the Sea of Reeds, is begun by Moses and the Israelites and concluded by Miriam and other women.

Then, we encounter the Song of Deborah, a victory hymn which she and Barak sing in the wake of the defeat of their Canaanite adversaries.

Okay, so they’re not your typical popular songs. But why does the Bible give us song? What do these two songs share? And what do they teach?

Much has been written throughout history about the purpose of song, yet we only have time here to try briefly to understand how song might enhance meaning in our texts. I will suggest a few ideas and invite yours.

Song generally can bring emotion to the fore better than mere prose. It tends more deeply to express aspects of powerful experiences. We may taste victory and joy or loss and sadness. We may celebrate achievement, acknowledge important turns in our lives, or mourn defeat or death. The stuff of song can be love, bonding, hope, despair, etc. And the goal of song may be mostly expressive or intended to move others, by inspiring, cheering, soothing, wooing, and the like.

Let’s look at our two songs to discern how they might fit these or other patterns and explore how they affect and instruct us.

But, before we do, let’s acknowledge one wonderful and important aspect of these songs. They are sung in significant part by and about women. There is a strong feminine feeling here that spans from pain and exile to endurance and victory. It is, also, the singing of two strong women – prophetesses, one a judge and warrior and the other a preserver of life and hope. The end of Deborah’s song pays tribute, too, to the remarkable courage and decisive action of another woman, Jael.

First, these songs express powerful emotions about the experience of rescue. And, important to people of faith then and now, they acclaim enthusiastically that it is God Who is the Rescuer.

The songs are intended not just for the celebrating community; they are to be music for the whole world, where the theme of God’s saving power will one day be recognized and sung ubiquitously.

It is not only a physical redemption that God effects for us. It is also our turning to ethical, Divine ways of being. In Exodus, “with your loving-kindness, you led the people you redeemed.” In Judges, “Instead of the noise of adversaries, between the places of drawing water, there they will tell the righteous acts of the Lord.”

Second, these songs acknowledge the importance both of the individual and the group, those who lead and those who follow, in the constitution of a good community. This was so in the achievement of past victories, as it will be in successfully handling future challenges. So, the songs are sung individually and collectively, as a means of both personal and shared expression.

The songs make us appreciate leaders who assist in Divine work. Whether it’s Deborah and Barak, Moses and Miriam, the tribes who have contributed, or the “lawgivers” and “the riders of white donkeys” – they’re all distinguished.

Third, there’s a strong sense of prayer in the songs – with a special joy, a deep gratitude, and hope for the future. It is especially important that we know always that there’s a path back to God when we stray. Singing makes our gratitude for this and indeed all these extraordinary blessings more poignant.

Exodus 15:1-21 and Judges 5:1-31 – these are the lyrics of the two songs. Read them as songs in your mind, heart, and soul, and see if all this is indeed so.