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Monday, November 29, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, verse 8

ברוח קדים שברת אניות תרשיש   
With an east wind you have shattered ships of Tarshish.

At first glance this seemed to be another one of those verses that I would have difficulty finding anything interesting to write about.   After all, last week I wrote about the necessity of experiencing pain in our lives and how we can grow spiritual if we face, rather than run away, from it.  For experiencing pain, even intense pain, can eventually bring about a spiritual rebirth.  Linking these ideas with a verse about ships of Tarshish was not something that came naturally.  But those are always the most challenging verses.

What we know about these mysterious ships from various biblical sources, such as the 2nd Chronicles and Isaiah, is that they were used for along voyages.  These boats would travel to Tarshish and bring back gold, jewels and other riches.  It would seem that the verse is pointing to the power of God to shatter even the strongest of ships, regardless of what their seemingly precious cargo might be.  The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra wrote that “the psalmist compares the pain that shall take hold upon them to an east wind in the sea, which breaks the ships; for by Tarshish is meant… the sea in general.”  Biblical scholars cannot agree on the location of Tarshish, except that it is some distance from the land of Israel.  So the idea of “ships of Tarshish” meaning any ship sturdy enough for long distance voyages seems  reasonable.

Throughout the Bible, and the Torah specifically, an east wind represents divine power and often destructive force.  An east wind brought the locusts upon the land of Egypt in the 10 plagues, it split the Sea of Reeds for the Israelites, and also caused the seven healthy stalks of grain to wither and die in Pharoah’s dream, which Joseph later interpreted.

Keeping all this in mind, the verse is a logical, albeit allegorical, extension of the previous verse. For in that verse, we read of the pain that we all experience in our lives.  This pain seemingly comes from nowhere, just like a sudden, strong wind might, and leaves us writhing on the ground.  But, as I wrote above, the pain eventually leads us to rebirth, if we allow.

This allegorical verse can be seen as a mirror image of the prior.  For in this verse we read of a wind from God (again, coming out of nowhere, one might imagine) wreaking destruction on ships that may have seemed to be indestructible. 

Reading this verse as an extension of the last, it would seem to imply that the destruction and subsequent pain actually comes from God.  It is God who smashes the ships that give us protection, brings us to our knees, leaves us writhing in pain and, eventually, gives us the strength to be reborn.

I don’t usually like the images of a destructive or vengeful God.  It doesn’t fit I with my idea of what God is.  However, in this interpretation it is not vengeance, hate or a desire for destruction that is the root of God’s actions.  Rather, it is the desire to smash illusion of invincibility and self-sufficiency, aka the ego (surprise!).  We are not each our own lone ship floating on the ocean, able to travel long journeys on our own with us tucked away safely inside and away from the world.  By tearing apart the protective vessels we built for our “selves” to keep us afloat, we are left floundering in the sea.  We have two choices, we can drown or we can grab on to what is left of our ship and make our way back to shore.  Clearly, the latter is preferable.  But then once we get back to shore, once we survive the devastation, we must then decide if we are going to simply build another ship and go back to our lone journey or if we are going to instead live on land, connected to others and the world around us. 

If you take issue with this anthropomorphic the image of a God that actually causes all this to happen there is another way to look at this verse.  For ultimately,  what destroys our ships and forces us to return to shore, to life,  is the realization that we need each other.  Only through connection, through oneness, can we find wholeness.  And so, on some deep level, it is that realization within us that comes to the surface, begins the process of wreaking havoc on the ego and destroys the ship of isolation it has built around us.

Therefore, we must remember to recognize the East Wind in all of our lives that catches us unaware.  We must recognize it not in order to hide or run from it or to fight against it.  Rather, we must simply pay attention, let go and allow it to do it’s work; we must allow it to destroy that which keeps us separated, thinking that we are strong enough on our own.  Only then can we return to the One, which is found through our connections to others and the world around us.

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