On the bus, the park bench, the coffee shop – these days, as it has been for millennia, when Jews are undergoing hardship or crisis, either on a personal or national level, we seek refuge and comfort in the Book of Psalms (Sefer Tehillim). I feel it is important to be able to gain a deeper appreciation of the words that are being said in order to create a more fulfilling and meaningful spiritual experience. To that end, I have decided to keep a “Psalms diary” in which I will post all or part of a psalm daily throughout this war, going in order from the start (there are 150 psalms in total), and offer some comments and reflection on the text, and try to draw some analogy to the current situation. It is my hope that this be of some small benefit to you in these enormously trying times.
“Blessed are the man and the woman who do not draw upon the counsel of the wicked; who do not stand in the path of the mistaken (lit. “the sinful”] and do not dwell among scorners/ jesters…They will be like trees planted near flowing rivers, which bear fruit when they are ready. Their leaves will not fall or wither. Everything they do will succeed.”
The Book of Psalms opens with life altering advice, that so much of what constitutes a successful life is contingent on who we spend our time with, and whether our environment is supportive and wise, or toxic and negative. We are whom we befriend or listen to, is another way of putting it. Three kinds of bad influences are listed; the first is “the wicked,” those who engage in immoral and destructive acts. The second is the “sinful”, those who may be well intentioned but have made ill-considered and impulsive choices that lead to a bad outcome both for themselves and those around them. The third category are scoffers, or jesters. Jesting [in Hebrew לָצוֹן]is the practice of turning everything into a joke. What’s so bad about that? Isn’t some levity just what we need when daily life is filled with tales of sorrow? But this practice refers to the tendency of certain people to hide through humour, to repel everything by making a joke. And what is buried beneath this propensity is a fear of intimacy, of real encounter.
Think how exasperated you may have become when you are in a relationship with someone whose every response to what you are saying is to not take it (or you) seriously. Their go-to method of communication is to deflect through humour, because they are actually deathly afraid of being real, showing vulnerability, of admitting that some things are truly serious or painful. To be a person given to לָצוֹן is not to bring the joy of laughter or humour at the times we really need that, but to use joking as a dagger to disarm every attempt to cut to the heart of a matter, and to make the other person feel like they are being “too serious”. It is to weaponize one of the sacred gifts we are given as human beings.
So a good life, suggests the Psalmist, lies not just in the actions we take, but in the pitfalls we avoid. Psalm One urges us to choose our friends and confidants and our sources of information wisely and look for people not who help to distract us, but who help us grow as human beings, who want to see us become our best selves. That is a true friend. If we surround ourselves with supportive, life affirming people who seek wisdom and emotional realness, then we will be like “be like trees planted near flowing rivers, which bear fruit when they are ready. [Our] leaves will not fall or wither. Everything we do will succeed.”
A final thought. Many people, in North America especially, have mentioned to me that they are now glued to their tv/computer and watching news 24/7. From politicians to pundits to porn stars, everyone is weighing in on Hamas and whether they are evil incarnate or the bearers of “justice for Palestine” and noble fighters for “the resistance.” If you hear this latter view expressed, and become infuriated and apoplectic, then why return to reading about or watching video of such statements again and again? It is counter- productive. The anxiety that fuels this non-stop viewing is understandable, but it is almost a kind of paralysis that must be tempered by other pursuits, especially ones that contribute to the wellbeing of others. Watching the news is passive; doing mitzvah is active, especially mitzvot which repair the world. Turn off the tv/computer for the moment and get out there and be the change you’d like to see.
Research charities carefully and make a contribution. Donate blood. Read about Israel’s history. Take some time to reflect/meditate in silence each day; perhaps you can focus on the teaching of the psalm of the day. Call a friend in need. Visit someone who is sick. Comfort a bereaved person. You have enormous power to help, and each act infinitesimally strengthens the overall wellbeing of the world.
The poet Stephen Mitchell observes: “The Hebrew word for psalm is mizmór, which means a hymn sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. But when the ancient rabbis named the anthology that we know as the Book of Psalms, they called it Séfer Tehillím, the Book of Praises. That is the dominant theme of the greatest of the Psalms: a rapturous praise, a deep, exuberant gratitude for being here.”
Mitchell’s point is that even in the midst of tragedy, we can focus on blessing, on appreciation, on gratitude, on the little things others do for us, and the opportunities we are afforded to help them. May we all be open to the joy of simply “being here,” and offer help to those in need. Together, we can make a huge difference.