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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Psalm for Wednesday. Psalm 94, verse 8

 Dear online community:

As you may be aware, I have not been writing about the daily psalms for quite sometime. As I am on retreat for the week, I decided to use this as an opportunity to start again.

Since I did complete my commentaries on the psalms for Monday and Tuesday, I am now continuing with psalm 94, the psalm for Wednesday.

After my commentary on verse 8, I have pasted my commentaries for verses 1-7, should you wish to refresh you memory or read some of them for the first time.


8. Understand, you senseless among the people: and, you fools, when shall you comprehend.

In my exploration of this complex psalm, the main theme is how the ego tries it’s best to make us feel separated from God, humanity and the world.  This is how the ego tries to destroy us.  The verse is simply a call to each of us, even if we do not feel that we have succumbed to the tricks of the ego.

In someway at some times each of us is senseless.  Each of us just misses what is happening around and within us.  At these moments we are called upon to wake up and understand what is happening. We are urged to be mindful, to pay attention to the moment in order to comprehend the reality of the moment. That is the only reality that exists.

When we don’t head the call and instead allow our ego to take control, or to focus on the past or the future instead of the present, then we remain senseless fools.  And, let’s face it, this happens to all of us more than we might like to admit.

But when we are mindful, living in the moment and experiencing the ultimate reality of oneness and connectedness, then we are no longer foolish. It is then that we comprehend the Truth of the universe and of existence.  This is not as simple as it might seem and yet it is much less complex than we imagine.
Since I have not posted on the psalms in such a long time, here are my commentaries on the previous verses of Psalm 94, should you wish to read or review them.   spn

1. "The Eternal is a God of vengeance; avenging God shine forth!"

We don't want to think of vengeance as part of God. Yet if the Divine is the source of all, we must grapple with what we label as being "negative," "bad," or "evil."  And so this psalm reminds us that vengeance, one of our most primal and primitive drives, also has its roots in the Divine energy that flows through us.  And so we are not asking God to shine vengeance on the world.  Rather, we are asking God that is the source of all (however you want to define that), including vengeance, to enable us to see the vengeance in the world. Only by shining light on it and acknowledging it can we then do what is necessary to avoid it.  As human beings created in God's image, and working in partnership with the Divine, this also reminds us that it is our responsibility to do the godly work of helping to rid our world of vengeance and hatred.

2. Rise up, O Judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve.

This psalm is definitely the most challenging for me.  The images are strong and often violent.  Pride is something with which I have a real love/hate relationship.  I am proud of my accomplishments in life, and yet I know that pride can easily lead to hubris.  In Christianity, pride is one of the seven deadly sins.  Judaism doesn't go quite that far.  But our tradition does give warning to those who might become too proud.  This verse is a case in point.

As I have taken to writing, teaching and performing more, I have struggled with the issue of "promoting myself." It has always felt a bit haughty and certainly not modest.  And yet I know that I have something to teach and to offer others.  I wouldn't be writing this blog if I didn't.

I began to feel more comfortable doing this the moment I realized that the talents I was “promoting” were gifts from God.  I often feel that the words I write do not come from me, but flow through me from some other source.  This is especially true when writing poetry.  Being mindful allows me to recognize and acknowledge this.  And it enables me to promote myself and be proud of myself, because I realize that it is the Divine energy that flows through me which is the source of my creativity.  We each have gifts that we are given. I am simply trying to share those that have been given to me.

I believe the pride of which this psalm speaks is the pride of hubris.  It is believing that I am the source of everything that comes from me.  It is a pride born of ego, not of humility or a connection with the Divine.  When people exhibit this kind of pride, it is almost certain that at sometime they will "get what they deserve."

This phrase usually connotes punishment.  But I'd like to turn it on its head and propose that "what they deserve" is simply to be hit over the head with the realization that it's not about them. It's not about ego.  It's about being in partnership with the Divine.  Bringing the Divine energy flow into the world.  We are the conduits.  We are not the source.

When we are ruled by ego, WE judge what is good and what is bad. We determine what is right and what is wrong.  When we let go of ego, we let go of judgment.  We leave judgment for the realm of the Divine.  And so, when we are acting from a place of ego, the wish is that somehow we can tap into the Divine energy that tells us "this is not what it's's not all about you!"  When those with excessive pride are able to hear that voice rise within them, then they will get what they - what we - all deserve.  A sense of serenity and of oneness with the Divine.

3. Until when [will the] wicked, O God, until when [will the] wicked rejoice?

In looking at this verse, I was struck by two things: the repetition of the phrase "until when" (עד מתי) and the claim that the wicked are rejoicing, and will continue to rejoice (יעלזו).

From a mindfulness perspective, the repetition of "until when" reminds us of how long we can get stuck in our narratives, even (or especially) when they might be destructive to our serenity or our relationships with God, humanity and the world.  How long will we allow our anger, hatred, pettiness, revenge, etc. to guide and control us?  From a non-judgmental point of view, I hesitate to label these emotions or thoughts as wicked, for they are not inherently so.  However, to the degree that they lead us away from unity wih God and the universe, then they are wicked.

In the Passover seder, when we read about the four children, the one who is labelled "wicked/רשע" is the one who separates themselves from the community.  It has always seemed unfair to me that child is labelled as wicked.  However, in this moment I am borrowing from the teaching of that text in order to say that I view the "wicked ones" in the psalm not as people, but the thoughts, feelings, desires, and passions within us that separate us from the world and from the Divine.  Yet, if the wicked ones are not people, how and why are they rejoicing? And how do we get them to stop?

I believe that these things that pull us away from a sense of unity and connection have their root in our ego.  The ego is that part of us that tries to prevent connection to God and others and to instead focus only on the self, or the illusion of self.  Each time the ego and its emissaries, the thoughts, feelings, etc. succeed in separating us from God and the world and convinces us to focus only on ourselves and our perceived needs, desires and passions, then it is as if they are rejoicing.  They are rejoicing because they have succeeded in their task.

But until when will the "wicked ones" exist?  Until when will they rejoice?  The words "until when" are written twice because there are different answers to each question.  They will always exist.  The ego and the thoughts and beliefs it creates are always there within us. That is why we always need to be mindful and aware of their existence.

How long will they be rejoicing?  Until the moment when we recognize them for what they are and let go of the stories they tell us.  When we turn away from the self and turn towards unity and God, they cease rejoicing.   They have failed.  But don’t forget that they are still there waiting for an opportunity to drag us into their trap again.

And what is it that helps us in our quest to avoid the pitfalls of the ego and keep ourselves connected?  The answer is simple, and it is the word that is at the center of the verse:  God.  It is the Divine within us, the source of unity and connection to all,  that gives us the clarity of mind and the strength of spirit to turn away from ego and separateness towards connection and unity.  We each may have a different definition of what God is or is not. But I believe that the essence of God is the Divine energy that flows through all of humanity and the entire created world.  This is what reminds us that all is One, and that everyone and everything is connected.  That knowledge is what enables all of us to truly rejoice in each moment.

4. They pour forth words, they speak arrogantly; All who do wickedness boast of themsleves.

In my comments on verse three I interpreted "wicked ones" as referring to the ego and the messages it gives us in order to keep us focused solely on the self and to keep us away from connecting with God, humanity and the world.

The words of the ego often pour forth in a seemingly endless stream.  These words do not spring fully formed from the ego itself.  They are the messages that we have told ourselves or that others have told us through the years and which the ego has assimilated.

Sometimes they are messages of self-deprecation or self-condemnation.  These voices, these words, can lead us to separate ourselves because we feel unworthy of others or of God.

Other times the words are of extreme praise or self-aggrandizement.  These words lead us to remain separate because we feel we are better than others or that we don't need them, or God.

This verse focuses more on the latter type of message from our ego.  These arrogant, boastful messages may originate from us or from others, either from a true sense of "superiority" or in order to mask a sense of insecurity.  But wherever the root and whatever the underlying feelings, they serve to keep us separated and alone.  And this is never good for the soul.

Ultimately, it is not good for the world either, for each person who is separated from the Oneness is another person unable to bring compassion and love in the world and unable to make the world a better place.

This boasting and arrogance, as phrased in the psalm, is a form of "doing wickedness" because it prevents goodness from manifesting itself.

I am not claiming, as some traditions and teachings might, that all forms of pride in what we do or who we are are evil.  When balanced with humility and acknowledgment of the Source of All, feeling good about ourselves can be a blessing.  But balance is the key word.  If at any time pride in our accomplishments or in who we are causes us to feel out of balance, then we need to stop and take a look at what's happening.  Chances are that the ego is trying to do its dirty work.  But with mindfulness, compassion and seeking connection to others and God, we can bring that balance back into our lives, and ultimately the world.

5. God, they may crush your people; they may oppress your inheritance.

As in my commentaries on the two preceding verses, "they"  refers to the ego and its forces that try to separate us from the Oneness of the universe.

This verse is profound in its very simplicity.  It is these  forces of the ego that try to get us to think that the I, which is merely an illusion, is more important than the One, which is the true reality. These forces, through their manipulations, can ultimately bring about destruction.

However, it is important to remember that the two verbs, translated here as forms of "crush" and "oppress," are not the  future tense as we understand it. In Biblical Hebrew there  is no future tense. There is only the imperfect form, which implies that an action MAY take place at a future time, but is in no way stating that it will.  Therefore, I have translated the verses to clearly read that the actions MAY occur and not that they WILL.

From the perspecitve of mindfulness teachings, we only have the present moment, past is a dream and future is an illusion. I believe that this is how the psalmist, at least in this case, also understands the world.  They are not predicting nor stating with certainty what will occur. They are simply implying what might happen should the wicked ones continue prevail. This crushing and oppression are the potential results should we allow the forces of the ego to prevail.

These forces have the ability not merely to injur, but to spiritually crush all of God's people, which means all people. Indeed, all of God's world.  The ego, in setting the individual above all else, ultimately brings about the downfall of that person, but not without wreaking havoc on others around them as well.

But more than that, these forces "oppress God's inheritance." Using a verb ענה,  which has also been used to describe slavery, the psalm reminds us that the ego can enslave. From that place of enslavement we become a people oppressed and a people that oppresses others. In allowing this to happen we are indeed oppressing or afflicting God's inheritance. For all of us, all of the world, is the inheritance of God.

We are from and of God and our souls also will ultimately be "inherited" by God when our body departs this world. If we allow the forces of the ego to prevail, then God receives a damaged, oppressed soul. But more than that, we must live with that damaged, oppressed soul prior to our death.

However, we must remember that the verse is not predicting any of this with certainty. Rather, it is reminding us of what may happen if we allow it to happen.

May we work together to see that this does not occur and that the ego does not prevail.  May we do this for the sake of the One of all Creation, the Source of All Life and  the good of our world.

6. They shall kill the widow and the stranger; they shall murder the orphans.

The ego can not only crush and oppress the soul, as I wrote in last week's commentary, but left unchecked the ego has the power to truly destroy.  When we let our ego take over and believe that the self is the center of existence and that I am all that I need, then our spirit can easily be annihilated.  But we can also destroy others.   Those with egos that are out of control can prey on those who are most vulnerable, represented in this verse by the widow, the stranger and the orphans.  However, the ego can also destroy the vulnerable pieces within us as well.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible we are commanded to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  In Biblical language, the stranger is not simply someone unknown to us.  Rather, the stranger is most often someone from a different nation who has come to dwell within the Israelite camp.  Even though they are technically "other" we are commanded to treat them as we would our own, even to the point where they are also commanded to observe the laws of the Sabbath and other customs.  The stranger is part of the people, yet not quite.

If we look at verse 6 as speaking not of other people, but of parts of the soul, then the three types take on a different meaning altogether.   In the community, the widow must be cared for because women were to be taken care of by the men in their lives, first father, then husband.  To be left without a man, meant being left vulnerable and reliant upon the community.  Widowhood could also be seen as representing the feeling that it was as if a piece of that person was missing.  And the missing piece was that which provided certainty, stability and security.

The orphan, or literally the fatherless, was vulnerable for similar reasons.  However, they were even more vulnerable, for they were not yet adults.  In this way, they could be seen as even more vulnerable than the widow.

However, the stranger is different.  For the stranger needed to be protected, I believe, not so much because they were without a parent or spouse, but because they were ultimately seen as 'other.'  Even though they chose to be a part of the community, they were still not truly of the community and therefore could be subject to prejudice and violence at the hands of others.

As pieces of our soul, I see the widow as that piece within us that never totally feels secure.  It is the part of us afraid that  we are ultimately alone, without support or community.  It is the part that feels partnerless in the world.

The orphan represents the part that wants to be dependent on others and then feels abandoned when they realize that you can't always be dependent. It is the piece which believed that there  is, was and will always be a person bigger and stronger to watch over us and now realizes that this is not true.  The orphan is afraid and feels alone and helpless.

The stranger is simply the part of us that feels it doesn't really belong. Even in a room full of family, friends and loved ones, the stranger within may acknowledge that we are physically present with others, but spiritually it feels separate, disconnected and vulnerable.  The stranger fears attack at any moment from hostile forces, even when everyone and everything around may feel warm and welcoming.

I believe we can all relate to these pieces within us, whether we want to or not.  However, it would be easy to label them as "negative", "bad" or "dysfunctional."  On the contrary.  For on some level they are the most functional parts of us.  When kept in balance (and that is always the key), these are the pieces of our soul which remind us that life is fleeting, that there is no true certainty and that we must live in and cherish each moment for the next one is unknown.  In balance, they are the parts that also help us realize  that what allows us to face all of these fears and uncertainty is a belief in interconnectedness and in the Oneness that we call God,  though it goes by different names in different traditions.

That is why the ego wants to rid us of these pieces of the soul.  The ego wants us to believe we are in control and that the universe is at our beck and call.  It is the existence of these vulnerable pieces within, that remind us that this is not the case.  It is also the vulnerable pieces within that allow us to be compassionate towards others, as well as ourselves.  And so the ego seeks to destroy them.

But what struck me was the fact that the verb used concerning the widow and the stranger is from the Hebrew root h-r-g    ה–ר–ג which means simply to kill, whether intentionally, murderous or otherwise. It simply means to end another's life. But the verb used regarding the orphan is r-tz-ch ר–צ–ח , which means to murder, or to intentionally take another's life.  What spiritual lesson, I wondered, could the use of these two different verbs provide?

Perhaps it is this.  The stranger and widow represents pieces within us that are vulnerable and uncertain, but they are pieces that of our "adult" selves.  Just as we have hopefully matured through the years, so too have these parts of us.  And so the ego can kill them more gently and subtly.  The ego can almost lull them into a never ending sleep by convincing them that things are really better than they are, that we are firm and secure and that the world is unchanging. It is death through a sense of complacency and a belief in the obsolescence.

However, the orphan is part the child within the soul.  This piece also feels unsafe and uncertain, but it has the energy of a child.  It is powerful, even as it feels helpless.  It can take control of the soul, just as we have all seen young children take control of their parents or all the adults in the room, by simply doing the equivalent of throwing a tantrum.  Therefore, this piece within us is much more dangerous to the ego.

The scared orphaned child within cannot so easily be lulled into complacency and then simply die a peaceful death.  No.  For it sees what the other parts do not see.  It feels what they do not feel.  It fears what they don't fear.  And it doesn't have the filters or the internal censors of the other parts.

And so, the orphan within threatens at any moment to throw a tantrum to remind us that there is danger and uncertainty in the world.  It seeks to remind us that we can't simply rely on the illusion of self-sufficiency the ego tries to create.  It knows on a primal level that we need others, we need to feel connected, we need to be at one.  And so, to rid us of this piece of the soul, the ego must not simply kill it or let it die, it must murder it.  It must be certain that it will not return.

The ego wants, with all its being, to make certain that the orphan, the scared child within is silenced.  Otherwise it could ruin the ego's entire plan of self domination.

As we look into our souls any given moment, let us remember to pay attention to these pieces within.  Let us remember the vulnerable, frightened pieces that recognize the ultimate uncertainty and ephemeral nature of existence.  For they are the parts of our soul that lead us to that place of compassion and connection.  For it is compassion and connection to the One which are keeps these pieces ultimately calm and in balance.

Then, when we start to feel a little too secure or smug, a little too certain of our own power to control ourselves and the world,  we must listen for those voices in our soul.  We must especially listen for the screams and cries of the orphaned, lonely, scared child within beginning to throw a tantrum.  For these voice are what will ultimately bring us back to reality, to each other and to the One.

7. They said, "Yah (God) shall not see and the God of Jacob (elohai Yaakov)shall not understand."

In my commentary on verse 5, I wrote of how the forces of  the ego (the "they" of which the psalmist writes, in my interpretation) tries to destroy the pieces within us that are seen as "weak" or "vulnerable." These are the compassionate, merciful caring parts of us.

In verse 6, the psalmist begins by writing that Yah יה (God) will not understand. Yah is an ancient name for God which some believe is simply the sound of breath. It is also the first two letters of the tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God י–ה–ו–ה pronounced by some as Yahweh or simply adonai (my Lord). According to a midrash (rabbinic legend or commentary) in Shemot Rabbah (a collection of rabbinic tales  on the biblical book of Exodus) this four letter name represents God's qualities of compassion and mercy.

Therefore Yah can simply be seen as breath, but it also incomplete. It is missing the last two letters. It is true that the breath is viewed in meditative practice, and elsewhere in tradition, as connecting us to the Divine within. However, if it is incomplete, if we are not fully present (ie, breathing completely), then we also cannot access the full compassion and mercy of the Divine within us, as represented by the full four-letter name. And we must be fully present to the divine quality of compassion within us all in order to resist the ego.

The name of God used in the 2nd half of this verse is elohai yaakov אלהי יעקב. This is a contraction of Elohim and the name Jacob. The midrash I cited above teaches that whenever God judges people, then god is referred to as Elohim אלהים. So, one could read this name midrashically as "the judging God of Jacob."

Now, if you go back to the Torah's stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, we find that the root of Jacob's name is the word for heel עקב, because at birth he grabbed the heal of his twin brother Esau trying to usurp his place as first born. In the end, Jacob was able to do this anyway, as he convinced Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew and then tricked their father Isaac into giving him Esau's rightful blessing.

Jacob, the heal grabber, can be seen as ego running rampant. All he cared about was himself. He manipulated, cheated and stole (sometimes with his mother's help) to get what he wanted. It wasn't until he struggled with the angel and was injured that he finally woke up to the reality that life was not all about him. When this happened, the angel bestowed upon him a second name, Israel ישראל - the one who struggled with the Divine.

But in this psalm it is the God of Jacob, not the God of Israel. It is the quality of judging within the egotistical deceiver before he discovered compassion. When we are judgmental and caught up in our own needs, desires and wishes  we don't understand that it is our duty to show compassion and to protect the caring and vulnerable parts within. All we can feel is the need to judge self and others and not to be compassionate and caring. When we are in this place it is easy for the ego to win, for it able to fulfill all of these desires.

This verse can then be read  as a warning. If we are not fully present to ourselves, God and the world, then we are unable to see the tricks the ego is trying to play. If we are only concerned with judging others or with getting what we want, then we also play right into the egos hands. In that way we are not yet the Children of Israel, but the only the children of Jacob. And Jacob without his other name, his other half, Israel, is incomplete. And so are we. And that is exactly what the ego wants us to be.  And so we must do what is necessary to present, complete, compassionate and caring to all within the Oneness of God.  If we do that, then the ego will have  a much harder time grabbing hold.

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