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Monday, December 6, 2010

Psalm for Monday: Psalm 48, verse 9

           כאשר שמענו כן ראינו בעיר יהוה צבאות בעיר אלהינו אלהים יכוננה עד עולם סלה׃
As we have seen, so have we heard in the city of YHWH of hosts, in the city of our God; God shall establish for eternity. Selah.

When last we visited our psalm, the ‘self’ was in the process of being destroyed. That which we believed to be strong, secure, protecting us, is finally seen for what it is: a façade. We could not see that when we were in the land of the ego, as represented in the previous verse by the mysterious “ships of Tarshish” (see commentary from 11/19/10 on 48:8).  We can only see that when ego is diminished and we are able to connect to the divine energy flowing through all existence.  We can only experience the Truth in the “city of YHWH tzeva’ot, in the city of the God of Hosts.”

The psalmist uses two different names for God.  YHWH is the tetragrammton, or four-letter name of God.   This name was to be pronounced once a year by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.  It is the name of God that, since biblical times, we do not know how to pronounce.  Even if we did, we are forbidden to say it. And so, traditionally, most Jews us the inadequate (and patriarchal) substitute Adonai, or my Lord. 

Though we do not know how the name was pronounced, we do know from the combination of letters that it is a form of the verb “to be.”  The name connotes the essence of God’s existence.  As the medieval philosopher Yehuda ha’Levi wrote in his book Kuzari, YHWH is “God’s personal name.”  It is God’s essence, which can only be experienced by “those who have been brought in contact with angelic beings.”  He contrasts this with אלהים elohim, but which ha’Levi viewed as the abstract belief in the existence of divinity, but which does not refer to God. 

Maimonides (12th century) presents us with a slightly different dichotomy.  For him, elohim represents God’s acts, whereas YHWH is God’s true essence.  Though not identical to what ha’Levi wrote, YHWH again is seen as the true essence of God, which is unknowable.  Elohim represents, instead, something we can intuit or observe even if we have not “experienced” God.  That which is observable and comprehensible and that which is an essence beyond comprehension are both parts of our experience of God. 

In today’s verse, we read, “we have heard and we shall see in the city of…” This is followed by two references to God using the names YHWH tzeva’ot יהוה צבאות, usually translated as “Lord of hosts” and eloheinu אלהינו our God, which is a variation of the name elohim.  And so there seems to be a connection between the idea of seeing that which before was heard and the different cities, or realms, of the Divine. In other words, we have been told about God, but now we are going to see what God’s existence is.  It would seem that seeing is given preference over hearing, but I would read it differently.  It is as if the psalmist is saying that we are going to be able to experience God in all ways, and in the way that is best for each individual.  This is done by experiencing both of these divine identities, as explained above. 

As the ego is being destroyed and the self negated, we are finally able to both hear and see our connection to the God.  We are not dwelling in the realm of the theoretical, philosophical presence of God (elohim), but also the essence of God (YHWH). We are now able to both hear and see on a deep level using our soul and spirit, not simply our ears and eyes. 

In the phrase YHWH tzeva’ot, God of hosts, the tzeva’ot is usually understood as the ‘host of angels.’  And so, as ha’Levi wrote, the way we come to know the essence of God is through contact with angelic beings.

In Jewish tradition, one way to view angels is as messengers representing God’s attributes.  Mercy, truth, love, and even death, each has an angel, not to mention every other quality or act attributed to God.  And so, YHWH tzeva’ot is the essence of God as represented by these divine attributes.  The way we come to truly “see” to experience God’s essence by experiencing the divine attributes, as they are made manifest by human action.  By experiencing love, compassion, mercy, and even death, in the human realm, we come to know the essence of the Divine.  And by experiencing these emotions and participating in these actions ourselves, we allow others to know God as well. 

In the world where ego and self are primary, we may think we know or connect with God, but what we believe to be God is actually the ego in disguise. It is an ersatz God at our beck and call in order to meet our needs and desires.   When the ego starts to disintegrate, we can then begin to experience God in “the city of elohim.”  We begin to understand that there is a Divine Presence in the universe that is greater than the self.  But we are only part way there.  It is only when the ego and self are totally negated that we can finally connect with God’s essence through the divine actions of human beings, including what we formerly viewed as our “self.”

It is then that we are also dwelling in the city of YHWH tzeva’ot.  This city or realm is eternal, for God’s true essence is eternal.  However, our experience of it may not be so.  For we know too well that the self, though seemingly destroyed, still exists.  To borrow a phrase, the self/ego can be neither created nor destroyed.  For better or worse, it is part of us. It is a part of human existence.  We may negate it, but it will try to rebuild and renew itself.  And on some level, it will most likely succeed. At least for a while.

And so, the struggle is ongoing and cyclical.  What enables us to continue is the knowledge deep within that there is something beyond the self.  When we remember that God’s true essence is eternal and that the “city of God” – the realm where we are beyond ego and connected to the One, is waiting for us to enter it once again.  We simply need to do the spiritual work necessary to break down the self and the ego yet again.

Selah.  We are not sure what this word means.  However, we believe it was a musical notation for the Levites, the priestly orchestra and choir.   It represents some kind of a pause.

And so, the journey is not over.  We are simply taking a moment to pause.  We take time to experience the essence of God in this moment.  We don’t know what the next moment will bring.  The ego may quickly spring back into action and we may forget all that we now know and experience.  And so let us acknowledge what we are experiencing now. Selah, let us celebrate this moment.  Selah, let us pause.  Selah, let us then take the next step in our journey.

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