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Monday, November 1, 2010

The Psalm Commentaries Have Returned: Psalm 48

As some of you may remember, back in the spring I began commenting on the seven psalms that have traditionally been designated as "psalm for the day."  Back then, I was writing on one verse per day.  I made it through quite a few verses, but then the daily writing, coupled with many major changes in my life, got to be a little too much.  And so I dropped the project with the hope that I would continue at some point.  And so that point has arrived.

However, given the constraints on my time I have decided to take one psalm at a time and to try my best to write a commentary on the next verse on the day dedicated to that psalm.  I begin today with Psalm 48, the Psalm for Monday.  I had left off at verse 6 (verse 5 in most Christian translations) back in the spring.  So I am going to comment on verse 6 today and then next Monday, God willing, I will continue with verse 7.  The approach I have taken is to look at each verse on its own, as much as possible.  Certainly the verses, and my commentary, build on what has come before.  However, since mindfulness is about living in the present moment and not in the future (or the past) I try my best not to worry about what the next verse will be and whether or not my commentary will fit with it.  That adds a little excitement to the process for me, as I discuss in this week's commentary.

In addition, since I have not been writing these in many months, I will first reprint my commentaries on verses 1-5 and then continue with verse 6.  As always, commentaries and responses are always welcome!


Psalm 48 – The Psalm for Monday

1. A Song; a Psalm of the sons of Korah

Normally, if a psalm begins "A Psalm of ...." I would simply add vs. 2 and comment on both.  However, the phrase "a psalm of the sons of Korah" struck me.  Thirteen of the 150 psalms are attributed to b'nei Korah .  Korah was the cousin of Moses, from the tribe of Levi, who led a brief rebellion against Moses and was swallowed up by the earth as a consequence.  How is it that his descendants became not only sacred musicians, as were all the Levites, but sacred composers as well?

As Rabbi Perry Netter points out in his commentary on the Torah portion named Korah, "The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms...Korah is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope."

The sons who wrote the psalm lived generations after their namesake.  The fact that they were still very much a part of the priestly Levite tribe reminds us that the sins of the parents are not visited upon the children (or at least not for long) in the Biblical tradition.  Yet, how many of us carry the "sins" of our parents within us – and beyond - because we are unwilling to let go.  Each of our parents has acted in ways that have angered us.  Perhaps more frequently than we would have liked.  And those of us who are parents have angered or hurt our own children more times than we would like to admit.  We have made mistakes, sometimes serious ones.  I know I have.
And yet, as mindfulness teaches, we must live in the present moment and not in the past. 

Yes, we must seek forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed.  But it also our obligation to accept the amends made by parents or other who have hurt us when offered sincerely.  And if those who have hurt us do not acknowledge that they have done wrong, or do not seek to apologize, then we owe it to let go of the anger that will simply continue to gnaw at us, or even to  simply forgive them for being human.

Korah believed he was at least as holy, if not holier, than his cousin Moses and so he deserved the mantle of leadership as much as his cousin.  His hubris and ego brought violence and destruction to himself and the community.  The sons of Korah believed that they were holy because we all are holy, we are all a part of the divine.  And so they provided song, joy and comfort to the community and to themselves. Hence they are, as Rabbi Netter wrote, a "symbol of hope."  Not the hope for a future of which we can know nothing in this moment.  But hope simply as a recognition that life continues and things change from moment to moment.  Hope and belief that divinity can be found in each person and in each moment. If not now, then perhaps in the next. Hope that comes from letting go of past hurts and living in the presence.  Hope that makes us want to sing!

2. Great is the Eternal, and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God, God's holy mountain.

Here the psalmist is praising God in the city of "our God, God's holy mountain."  The city referred to here is Jerusalem.  The mountain then, is Mount Zion/Mount Moriah. 

However, I would like to view this psalm as referring not to the physical Jerusalem, over which wars have been fought for generations up until this very day.  Rather, I see it as referring to the "heavenly Jerusalem."  According to an ancient tradition, expounded upon in the Kabbalah/ mystical tradition, there is a heavenly Jerusalem that is linked to the earthly Jerusalem.  This heavenly Jerusalem is seen as the dwelling place of the Shekhinah, or indwelling Divine presence.  The Shekhinah is also viewed in Kabbalah as the feminine aspect of God as well the emanation of God with which human beings have the most direct and intimate contact.

As opposed to the earthly Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem is devoid of politics.  It is not a geographical location.  It is simply the place where the Shekhinah dwells.  In that place it is easy to praise God's greatness, because it is a place beyond the turmoil and confusion of the physical world.  In that realm, God is truly "our God".  Not the God of the Jews, but the God of all humanity.  

Looking at it through this lens, the psalm says that wherever one is at any given moment, if we are truly present and seeking connection with the Divine, then we connect ourselves on spiritual level with the Jerusalem above.  Our actual geographical location is of no matter. We can attach ourselves to the Heavenly Jerusalem, the place where God is every one's God wherever we are physically.  When we do this we are transported to a spiritual realm of eternal peace where there are no politics and no divisions between human beings.  When we are able to connect with God that way, then we can truly sing the praise of God and be aware of the greatness of the Divine.  We can feel the greatness that flows through and connects all of us and the entire universe.  Then our task is to take this spiritual experience and bring it back with us into the everyday physical world.

3. Beautiful in elevation is the joy of all the earth; Mount Zion, on the sides of the  north, is the city of the great Sovereign.

As I wrote above: "wherever one is at any given moment, if we are truly present and seeking connection with the Divine, then we connect ourselves on spiritual level with the Jerusalem above."  This verse simply states that it is the elevation of the higher Jerusalem that is the source of its beauty.  And so, the elevation of the heavenly Jerusalem would be its spiritual elevation.

That the heavenly Jerusalem knows of no distinctions between racial, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender or other identities is, in part, what makes it beautiful and what makes it holy.

In our physical world these distinctions that we create are what cause separations between human beings, and between human beings and the Divine.   I am not saying that we should ignore distinctions in our world.  On the contrary, we must acknowledge and celebrate our various differences.  But we must be careful not to allow them to serve as reasons to separate from others and from the Divine. Too often, that is what happens in the earthly Jerusalem and throughout our world.

In Biblical times Jerusalem was  referred to as  ir shalem  עיר שלם ,  city of wholeness, or ir shalom עיר שלום,  city of peace .  The Jerusalem above is the joy of all the worlds (not just this world) because it's essence is wholeness.  It is this completeness, the unity of all, that is the source of its peace and its holiness.

Mount Zion, is viewed in ancient Jewish tradition as the center of the earth; it is the mythological point where creation began.  That is why it is at the heart of the earthly Jerusalem.  But this is also the point where the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem connect.  It is as if there is a spiritual umbilical cord attached to Mt. Zion that links the two worlds to each other.  Indeed, there are places where Mt. Zion is referred to as the "navel of the world," a phrase and concept that appears in many ancient cultures.  

In psalm 48 Mount Zion is also described as being "in the north." This is its physical location in the land.  However, the Hebrew word for north tzafon/צפון is from the same root as the word for hidden tzafun/צפון.  Actually, as you can see, without vowels (which is how the Torah is written) the two words look identical.  This connection between the two words should remind us that the place that connects us with our heavenly source, with the oneness and unity of the Divine, is indeed often hidden.  Yet, it does exist within each of us. It is within the soul, the piece of God within us. When we pay attention and listen to the voice of our soul, we will find that place of connection hidden within. In each moment when this occurs, we are then able to enter the 'city of the Divine' in a spiritual sense.

Our goal in each moment is to be mindful and pay attention to our own spiritual self so that we can find the hidden place within.  That hidden place will enable us to enter that realm where there are no separations or divisions, where there is only unity.  Then the challenge is to bring that sense of oneness and unity back to the world in which we all live and to make it a reality here as well.

4. God is known in her palaces as a stronghold.

This verse speaks of the palaces of Jerusalem.  The Hebrew word used here is armon ארמון, which can also be translated as a citadel or fortified tower.  But whatever this structure is, the psalmist makes clear that its strength comes not from the bricks or stones from which it is made, but from God's presence within. 

In the heavenly Jerusalem, since there are no actual physical structures, this makes perfect sense.  But what about in the physical world in which we live?  Within this world the palace or citadel can refer to the universe itself.  Human beings, animals and all of the created world, are the bricks from which this majestic structure is made.   We are part of a structure, a unity, which is glorious as a palace and strong as a citadel.  But what gives this structure its glory and  strength?  It is the reality that we are part of the Oneness of the universe.  In that way, God, or the Divine flow in the universe, is indeed our stronghold.

But should we separate ourselves from the One, then we lose that strength that comes from the Divine.  We are like a stone that has dislodged itself from the walls of palace.  When this happens we are most vulnerable to the ego's manipulations and snares. 

That is when we are most likely to falter and become lost.  But if we remember the hidden Presence within each of us, then we will once again find that the Divine is our stronghold and we are once again part of the glorious structure that fills the Universe with beauty and holiness.

5.  For here the kings/rulers assembled; they passed together.

When we remember to connect to the Oneness of the universe, we become as 'rulers,’ for we find power and majesty within.  However, we are not rulers of others, but simply rulers of ourselves.  However, this is not totally true, for this only occurs if we realize that the ultimate source of our strength is indeed a Higher Power and not the self or the ego.  Beyond this, we must also remember that we are inextricably linked to everyone and everything else through that which we call the Divine.  Hence the final phrase "they passed together."  

When we 'pass together' through the world, with recognition of our interconnectedness, then we are truly fulfilling the concept of being created in the image of the Divine.  Hence, just as God is described as a ruler or sovereign throughout the Torah and elsewhere in Jewish tradition, so do we find a ruler's sense of power and majesty within each of us.

אחר דבר /Another possible interpretation...using a common rabbinic hermeneutical technique, if we add one letter to the word for kings/rulers מלכים we then have the word for messengers/angels מלאכים. The letter we add is simply the aleph.  This first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is silent.  As a rabbinic legend teaches, the aleph can also be viewed as the no-sound sound that begins our ongoing conversation with the Divine.  When we remember that finding the power within is about making ourselves part of this ongoing conversation, then we are not only rulers, but we become angels, messengers of the Divine to the world.

6.  As soon as they saw it they were astonished ; they were in panic, they fled.

In reading this verse it is unclear exactly what “it” was that the rulers saw.  But whatever it was, it certainly elicited an extreme reaction.   Not only were they astonished תמהו , but they were also panicked נבהלו.  And so they fled.

My initial reading of this verse was that fear was the impetus for their actions. And yet, none of the traditional biblical words for fear are to be found in the verse.  So whatever it was took them by surprise.  It shocked them. They were so unprepared that the only reaction was to flee.

Writing this commentary line by line, trying not to look ahead at the upcoming verse, provides me with many opportunities to be creative in my interpretation.  Of course, the challenge is to somehow make things fit together when I arrive at the following verse.  Yet, it is precisely that uncertainty that excites and challenges me.  Even though I know that this psalm has quite a few more verses in it, each individual verse comes upon me by surprise (or at lest I try to allow that to happen).   

There are times when I am confronted with the verse and I wonder what I am going to write.  I am totally taken by surprise with what the verse says.  In these cases, it might be easier to simply drop the project altogether.  It is not out of fear that I do this.  Rather it is out of my own sense of surprise and astonishment, when I read a verse that I feel takes the psalm, and my commentary, in a totally new and unexpected direction.  Perhaps that is the lesson behind this particular verse.

It is true that each of us has the ability to be a ruler/messenger/angel by uniting with the Divine within and around us.  We do this by  connecting with each other and our world.  So what happens when we are walking through life in this angelic state and suddenly we are confronted by something totally unexpected? Something we feel totally unable to handle? 

We may or may not feel fear.  However, we will certainly experience a shock to our system that can cause us to sever our connection with the world and with the Divine.  The ego then senses this shock and disorientation.  It then seizes the opportunity to convince each of us that how to face the challenge,  how to escape and save myself is all that really matters. Who cares about anyone else?   

If we all the voice of the ego to guide us, we flee from the unity of God and our fellow human beings in order to save ourselves (or so we think).  We are no longer messengers or rulers.  Rather, we are confused, frightened, egocentric creatures thinking only of ourselves.  In short, we are human - for better or for worse.

But look again at the verse.  What happens first?  We are astonished.  We are taken aback. We are surprised.  And the surprise of the unexpected then signals the ego that the chance it has been waiting for is now arrived.  And so the ego, the ultimate master of self-protection and self-deception, begins to fan the flames of panic within.  We don’t know what to do.  We metaphorically let go of the hands of our fellow human beings, abandon God and run for the hills.  If we would only take a moment to stop, breathe, look within and around, we might realize that, though the shock was real, there is no reason to flee.  Rather, the shock should make us draw closer to the unity with the Divine

However, as I just wrote, we are human. And our reaction is human.  It is imperfect.  Perhaps that is why Psalm 8 tells us that we were created to be “a little less than angels.”  If we were truly angels, we would stand firm and hold fast in the face of the unexpected and unknown.  We would stay connected.  But we are human, and when our world is shaken, we react as humans.  But remember, this is only in the moment.  This is only one verse out of 15.  We have the ability to change our course, change our reaction, with the next verse...the next step we take.  Will we?  That remains to be seen.

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