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Monday, December 20, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, verse 11

כשמך אלהים כן תהלתך על־קצוי־ארץ צדק מלאה ימינך׃
Like Your name, God, so is Your praise unto the ends of the earth; Your right hand is full of righteousness.

In my commentary on verse 9 (Monday Dec. 6, 2010) I discussed the difference between two of the primary names of God, according to the great 12th century scholar Maimonides.  According to him, the four-letter name of God (Y-H-V-H) represents God’s unknowable essence, and the name Elohim, represents that which we can intuit or observe of God through human experience.

In this verse, God is referred to as elohim.  Hence, following Maimonides’ distinction, the Psalmist is writing about that aspect of God, which we intuit or observe in the world, even if we do not feel like we have actually “experienced” God’s essence.

Truth be told, this experience of God is much more common than any sense of a truly transformational, mystical experience where we feel the essence of God’s being – at least as much as a human being can. 

What does it mean to say that God’s praise is like God’s name, Elohim?  It would seem that the logical conclusion is that we can only praise God insofar as we can experience or intuit God’s existence.  Our observation of goodness, kindness and compassion in the world is how we experience God.  And so, according to that which we observe, so it is that we praise.

However, what of the suffering and pain in the world?  What about evil?  When good things happen to bad people, can we still praise God?  I asked myself that question this week when I heard of a tragedy that befell a family that has known more than it’s share of tragedy over the past few years.

In hearing the news, my reaction was to become furious that this could happen.  However, at what or who was my anger directed?  I am still not certain of the answer.  However, t was clearly not directed at God, as I do not believe that God causes suffering.  Rather, God is the source of the love, goodness, compassion and kindness that is being shown to this family and to others who suffer.  As I observe and experience this godly behavior in the world, so too do I praise God as the source of this compassion, love and kindness.

Therefore, I do not find it difficult to praise God in times of crisis and tragedy, for I do not associate that tragedy with God.  Perhaps this understanding of God is at the root of the final phrase “your right hand is full of tzedek/righteousness.”  With apologies to those who are left-handed, the phrase right hand represents the strength of God. In anthropomorphic images of God, it is with the right hand that God acts in the world.

In viewing human leaders, we also use phrases such as “right hand man” to designate a primary aid or the place from which a ruler’s strength comes. Unfortunately, too often that strength is about power, control and ego.  This is the opposite of God’s right hand, which is full of tzedek/righteousness.  However, I find it interesting that the Psalmist does not speak of God’s right hand as full of compassion or hesed/unending love, especially since hesed was a prominent concept in the previous verse.

Hesed is essential to improving our world and our lives. For God’s hesed is the source of human love and compassion.  However, the Psalmist is saying here that tzedek/righteousness is where God’s power lies.  Therefore, it is also where our power lies. 

Life is not merely about being kind, gentle and loving; it is about doing the right thing.  Sometimes what is right may seem to be the opposite of love and compassion.  The concept of “tough love” is perhaps the extreme of this idea. Yet, ultimately, all of our actions must be about bringing tzedek into the world, rather than about exercising one’s power or one’s ego.  If we are operating from the place of tzedek and of acting in a godly way, then even that which might seem harsh or strict, is ultimately about compassion and bringing righteousness and wholeness into the world. 

Finally, I would like to focus on the middle phrase of the verse “unto the ends of the earth.”  For the verse can be read in two ways:  1) According to your name, God, your praise is unto the ends of the earth; your right hand is full of righteousness or 2) According to your name, God, is your praise.  Your right hand is full of righteousness to the ends of the earth.

Does the praise of God extend to the ends of the earth or is it God’s righteousness?  For me, it is both, because they are inextricably linked.  The praise we offer God is in response to how we recognize God’s actions and humanity’s godly actions, in our world.  If we recognize that God’s righteousness extends to the ends of the earth, that it is part of the entirety of existence far beyond any one individual, then our praise of God will also reach the ends of the earth.

However, if we believe that God’s righteousness exists only when things go our way or when there is an absence of sorrow, suffering and pain in the world – if our experience of God’s tzedek is finite and egocentric – then our so called “praise of God” will be the same.  Neither will reach beyond us, let alone to the ends of the earth!

Ultimately, how we experience God and how we praise God is connected to how much we realize that God is within all and all is within God, unto the “ends of the earth.”  We may not understand while things are unfolding, but knowing that God’s tzedek and God’s hesed are both there wherever we go – even when there is suffering – then we will be able to praise God throughout the world and in every moment.

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