Friday, November 27, 2020

Psalm 105 In Three Takes


Take I: An Historical Perspective

The RSV describes Psalm 105 as “the story of God’s great deeds on behalf of his
people.” It is a psalm that celebrates Israel’s sacred history in a straightforward way. The opening verses are a call for thanksgiving and praise: “O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name” (v.1, RSV throughout). “Remember the wonderful works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, O offspring of Abraham, his servant, sons of Jacob, his chosen ones!” (vv.5-6). Continuing, the psalm enumerates God’s wonderful works and judgments, "The covenant which he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan’” (vv. 9-11a). The psalmist recalls the days “When they were few in number, of little account . . . wandering from nation to nation” (vv.12,13a). The narrative brings to mind the time of famine (v.16), how Joseph was sold as a slave (v.17), but then released, and made “lord of his house, and ruler of all his possessions, to instruct princes at his pleasure,” and “to teach his elders wisdom”(vv.21-.22). “Then Israel came to Egypt” (v.23).The story of the Exodus is remembered (vv.23-38), and the wandering in the wilderness--a place of miracles (vv.39-42). In the wilderness Israel is protected by “a cloud for covering,” and guided by “ fire to give light by night.” Here Israel received quail and “bread from heaven.” Here, God “opened a rock and water gushed forth; it flowed through the desert like a river.”

The closing verses of this psalm have strong verbs and few commands:“He led forth his people with joy, his chosen ones with singing. And he gave them the lands of the nations; and they took possession of the fruit of the peoples’ toil, to the end that they should keep his statutes, and observe his laws. Praise the Lord!" (vv.43-45). This is the sacred story that celebrates the birth of a nation.

Take II:  A Hero’s Journey
Drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell, Psalm 105 may also be interpreted as a
  Hero’s Journey. Campbell said that this metamyth is common to every culture.The Hero’s Journey has lots of moving parts, but basically it is a story told in three acts: (1) departure, (2) initiation or crisis, and, (3) return. Psalm 105 prepares for the departure when God makes a covenant with Israel and promises to give Israel the  land of Canaan (vv.10-11). At the time of departure Israel is few in number (v.12), wandering from nation to nation (v.13). The journey is marked by a series of crises and supernatural miracles (vv.12-40). 

When the journey ends, God’s people are singing songs of joy as they take possession of the Promised Land (v.43-44). It is a home-coming. The Hero’s Journey comes to a successful conclusion. God is the Promise-Maker and Promise-Keeper. Israel is the faithful Hero who has successfully completed the initiation period and comes home.

I can identify the following elements of the Hero’s Journey as it relates to Psalm 105. First, this metamyth gives us an image of life as a journey. This is a very powerful metaphor that lends itself to a linear view of history. There is a beginning and there is an end--a purpose. Second, this metamyth affirms that change is always possible. No matter the odds, even if we are few in number, even if princes and principalities are arrayed against us, there is cause for hope. Change is possible. The Hero can be an agent of change. Third, this metamyth creates a moral framework that validates a belief in progress that may justify the use of violence. Creative destruction is an idea closely linked to the ideology of progress. Sacrifices are called for, but ultimately they are worth it. Creative destruction is the price of progress. History, we are often told, is written by the winners.

Take III: A Postcolonial Hope
Psalm 105 may also be interpreted as a psalm that bears witness of a postcolonial
hope. The meaning of “postcolonial” has become a matter of debate. I use the term here to mean a critique of settler-colonialism--an ideology of superiority and a policy of land theft and genocide.To find hope in this settler-colonialist narrative, we must read Psalm 105 through Canaanite eyes.

I was living in Hawaii the first time I encountered this approach to the Exodus story. I was participating in a Bible study when a member of the group, a Native Hawaiian (Kanaka Maoli) said, “Wait a minute. We are the Canaanites.This was our kingdom before the United States took it from us.” 

When I moved back to the continent, I learned that many Indigenous people are reading the Exodus story in the same way. This was their land before Amer-Europeans stole it. Once we become sensitive to this history we non-Indigenous people must read Psalm 105 as a story of liberationandconquest. Must history be written by winners? What does this mean?

According to the sacred story, people who stand within the charmed circle of the covenant are “the chosen ones” (v.43). People who stand outside this magical circle are on the margins, or worse-- they are invisible--or worse--they are obstacles blocking the way of progress and promised fulfillment. Extermination of those who block progress is not too great a price to pay. Interpreted from the perspective of people on the margin, the closing verses of this psalm provide religious legitimation for land theft and genocide. Why do we have to accept this interpretation? Is there any alternative?

To answer these two questions we have to be willing to think about issues of authority, power, and community. These are political questions. Where does authority come from? How should power be exercised? What is the role of the community? There are no simple answers to these questions, but they are definitely worth discussing. In the course of the dialogue we will clarify our ideas about history, our image of the divine, and meaning of the holy.

My suggestion is that we must develop ways to interpret our traditions that do more than simply validate privilege and power and the status quo. What would it mean to the world today if faith communities stood in solidarity with marginalized and the oppressed? How would our story change? These are the questions that I wrestle with as I read Psalm 105.

Rev. David Hansen

Friday, November 20, 2020

Grounded in Time

One advantage of  being an elder and mostly retired is you have time for reading. Add a pandemic to it and there is a lot of time for reading. I realized the other day that I was going back and forth between six different books. That's never happened to me before! My usual habit is to read one at a time to the conclusion. Now, I read till the mood strikes me to move on to another. Fiction is always for just-before- bed, to escape the non-fiction and incredibly bad news of the day. With fiction on my mind, sleep might actually happen.

           Four of those six books made me start pondering the question of human origins and historical time. It's hard enough recognizing the changes on the planet in my lifetime. It's almost impossible to imagine the world 500 million years ago in the cambrian period; or the earliest reptiles in the carboniferous period, 300 million years in the past. How does one picture something like a million years when sometimes you can't remember what yesterday was like? I'm looking at the chart in The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Measuring in millions of years, humans are only the very top thread on the chart. 

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this book is an example of well researched writing on an important subject with readable prose. Kolbert travels to several sites around the globe to share her experiences with threatened and extinct species, all the while making us reflect on time, and on human origins and destiny.

A second book that made me reflect on similar issues was The Great Unknown by Peg Kingman. A novel, with an archaeologist as a main character, one is confronted with questions about times past but also with questions about timing; period! Why do things happen the way they do; is it really just coincidence, or good fortune, or destiny?

The novel made me reflect on our culture; the busyness to the point of exhaustion; the myopic orientation toward the future; the rampant materialism; the orientation toward doing big and important things; and the unexpected tragedies, like the great depression or a pandemic or climate catastrophe. How do we understand causality, or pure luck, or acts of God?

Both of these books made me recall a favorite author, Nikos Kazantzakis. One of his books made me ponder on the question of historical time and my connection to it in a new way. His Saviors of God invites the reader to savor and reverence their ancestry, all the way back to the beginning of time. And for Kazantzakis each of those ancestors is whispering to us through the ages, "climb higher, climb higher".

Elizabeth Colbert tells us something about our ancestors. Apparently, many of us have 1-4% Neanderthal DNA, some thirty thousand years after Neanderthals roamed the earth. Maybe they are whispering "climb higher" in our genetic make-up? 

The other two books making me ponder the past have more of a pronounced religious orientation. Matthew Fox believes there is one religious river that feeds many wells. His book of that title, One River, Many Wells, is a study in religious ecumenism. Looking at all of the major religious faiths, he quotes readily from their sacred texts and stories on a series of subjects, including creation. One begins to see in this volume the common historical themes that serve as the foundation for all of the various traditions. 

When God Was a Woman has been on my shelf for several years. A pandemic can free some books from their dusty cell. This 1976 title reminds us that there was an ancient time when the feminine was not alien to divinity and gives us some insight into what happened to that understanding.

          Looking at images from the Hubble telescope can remind us of how small and insignificant we are in the greater order of things. These literary trips into the past can do the same thing. They can temper our tendency toward self importance and encourage some degree of humility. They can stretch our conception of time. (They might even encourage us to live our time fully.) They can encourage our appreciation of our ancient and good planet earth, the natural world we have been given. Maybe a deeper recognition of the past will help us face the increasing challenges of living in harmony with the earth and its creatures. I'm sure that's a hope implicit in The Sixth Extinction of Elizabeth Kolbert. 

Family members recently sent pictures of them climbing in the White Mountains. I was reminded that when climbing in those mountains in my younger years, I always felt "grounded." Those mountains were likely created some 100 million years ago. There is something about connecting to the ancient, in person or in literature, that not only humbles, but grounds us as well. 

Try it! Touch something from 100 million years ago, if only a piece of literature, that grounds you in time. 

Carl Kline

Friday, November 13, 2020

To Cry Out Within the City - LET EVERYONE VOTE!


In the current climate of voting rights under attack, particularly galling to me is the cynical chipping away at the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which built on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Too young to travel south to help in efforts to register Black voters, I sought other ways to participate in the struggle. A small artifact on a shelf behind my desk tells the story. Appearing as a miniature sign or placard, it is the template for a larger sign to be held in a vigil. Formed of a business card folded around the thin slat of a tongue depressor, the block letters on the back of the card proclaim with urgency: LET EVERYONE VOTE! WRITE YOUR CONGRESSMAN NOW. The business card is that of the Protestant minister with whom I stood in a weekly vigil after school in Winthrop, Massachusetts through the school year following my Bar Mitzvah. We stood in front of the post office as the only federal building in town, the two of us alone, urging passage of what would become the Civil Rights Act.

Innocence was shattered during that year. I heard words I had never heard before, embarrassed to tell my parents, threats and taunts hurled from passing cars, the intent clear if not the meaning of each vile utterance. Barely aware of the words, I was introduced that year to the raw hate that feeds racism and antisemitism. Somehow they knew that I was Jewish, perhaps from a local newspaper article and accompanying photograph about the vigil. “Jew” and its pejorative forms that I had never heard before and the vile N-word joined with lover were for them fitting missiles with which to deliver their hate, words meant to demean entire peoples used as swear words with which to curse individuals. 

From a place of bewilderment and pain, though with an increasing sense of perseverance and pride, I struggled to understand how people could hate like that. So too, these encounters became lessons in learning to love in response to hate. I learned the role of the lone voice seeking to move others,

determined in tone and timbre to retain its own integrity and dignity, not to succumb to the seductively cathartic ways of hate and violence. Here, within the city, the public library and the town hall on the green across the street told of ideals and aspirations, of books and ideas, of civics and civility. Children made their way home from the nearby elementary school, some quizzical, the occasional one even stopping to ask why we were standing there, taking thoughtful note of our presence within the city, most simply delighting in their afterschool freedom. Younger ones walked hand in hand with parents, adults bemused or sullen as they hurried by, children wondering, asking, all inevitably touched by the swirl around them, souls imprinted with the sounds and sights of rage and witness, innocence offering no protection.

As encountered throughout life, from the first peeling away the veil, unraveling the skein of innocence, these are the questions that are meant to challenge us through the lens of Parashat Vayera (Gen. 18:1-22:24), continuing through Torah, and on into life, a portion filled with human triumph and tragedy, and in its midst a paradigm for speaking truth to power. They were questions intuited but unformed then for a young person standing in silent witness, a Torah portion that would become beloved to him, questions pulsating yet in this time - “LET EVERYONE VOTE!” - in all times: questions of justice and decency, questions of moral witness and its limits, of the one and the many, of collective responsibility and accountability, the guilt of leadership and the suffering of innocents. That we are called to act is made clear before Abraham models the way, rising to the call. Of cities consumed by violence and hate, as the text is read by the rabbis, it is the suffering of one young girl brutally tortured for showing kindness to a stranger, she whose cry rises to heaven. 

Responding to the suffering of one, even as it is one who will bear witness, in a moment of divine soliloquy, God weighs whether to confide in Abraham the contemplated destruction of the cities, needing to see what Abraham’s response will be, whether or not he will intercede, even for the sake of

the wicked. This is why God has sought out Abraham, only so that he may command his children and his house after him that they may keep the way of God/v’shamru derech ha’shem -- to do righteousness and justice/la’asot tz’dakah u’mishpat… (Gen. 18:19). Meeting the challenge, Abraham boldly steps forward and asks if the Judge of all the earth shall not do justice. Beginning with fifty, perhaps there are fifty righteous within the city/b’toch ha’ir, and God promises to forgive for the sake of fifty righteous within the city, and so the emphasis throughout, down to ten.
    We come to understand what is meant, for them and for us. There are those who are righteous at home, but who fail to raise their voices in public, b’toch ha’ir/within the city, those who fail to do righteousness and justice, who fail to resist and rebuke for the sake of the common good. In a powerful warning against the smugness that can infect religious observance, against the deceptive lure of withdrawing and seeing oneself as being above the fray, the Oznaim La’Torah, Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (Poland-Israel, 1881-1966), probes why the emphasis on b’toch ha’ir/within the city: because there are righteous people who live in the city, but not within the city; who cloister themselves only within “the four ells (cubits) of halacha,” (only within the narrow, protective parameters of their own observance); righteous people such as these don’t seek to influence the people of the city, nor to return them to the right path/v’lo yach’ziru otam l’mutav…. Reminding that God’s call to Abraham echoes through the generations and that Torah is a context in which we are to wrestle through its stories with all realms of human strife and struggle, Rabbi Sarotzkin emphasizes the duty to so teach children, our own and all of those who pass by within the city: one needs to tell in the ears of children and children’s children/tzarich l’saper b’oznai banim uv’nai banim, that stories such as these/sipurim k’eleh are designed to train them and make them wise, to turn from evil and to do righteousness and justice/la’sur mei’ra v’la’asot tz’dakah u’mishpat….

Wrestling with the efficacy of the lone voice, hope carried in the question of a child, as though of those who stand in vigil within the city, Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, weaves a midrash that reflects his own horror before the crime of silence: A person came to the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to plead with the people to turn from their violence, to stop their killing. This person walked the streets of the city day after day talking and pleading, but alas to no avail; the people continued in their violent ways. One day, as the person walked through the streets of the city, a child came up and asked, ‘why do you continue to talk to them, you see that they don’t listen to you?’ And the answer came gently to the child, ‘When I came here, I talked to them in order to change them, now I continue to talk to prevent them from changing me.’

If only for the sake of one, the one of lonely voice, the child who barely knows how to ask, God in whose image of oneness all are created, however many times we have been there with Abraham, we nevertheless still sit at the edge of our chair, hoping he will keep going, pleading all the way down to one. Ten comes to represent the collective, the critical mass; the tipping point beyond which it is too late for survival of earth, of people and place, innocence offering no protection. Extended from a gathering of ten Jews for public prayer, minyan becomes the symbolic locus of moral responsibility.


From adolescence to young adulthood, less than a decade after the vigil in front of the post office for the right of all to vote, the Vietnam War by then in full fury, I was serving a jail sentence in the Worcester County Jail in Worcester, Massachusetts for sitting in at a draft board. My beloved rabbi, Rabbi Meyer Finkelstein, of blessed memory, wrote a precious letter to me in jail, affirming my path of witness. Drawing on Parashat Vayera, he offered insight into a midrash (B’reishit Rabbah 50:5) that ends with the words not one of them protesting, and so explaining, he spoke to my soul: “Abraham argued with God to try to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Rabbis explained that destruction by posing a question and then answering it. They asked – ‘surely not all of the residents of Sodom were people of violence. Why were all the people destroyed?” Then they answer – ‘Those that were not men of violence and crime committed an even greater sin. They stood by and never raised their voices in protest. They thereby acquiesced to violence and crime and sin.’”

The painful lesson of Torah is that more than one is needed to avert destruction. Sometimes, though, it begins with the voice of one, of one and one become two, of a child asking why we stand in the face of hate, become ten, become fifty, and in the echoing voice of Pete Seeger, of blessed memory, “if one and one and fifty make a million, we’ll see that day come round….” It is the hope of a small template for a sign to be held in a long ago vigil within the city, an artifact and its message that endures, words of witness to remind, words whose urgency is no less today than it was then, proclaiming in block letters, “LET EVERYONE VOTE!”

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, November 6, 2020

Creating the Society We Want


The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed more than 230,000 lives; fires in
the West have destroyed whole towns and are burning out of control;. the unofficial unemployment rate remains stuck at 11 percent; and the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights groups are marching in the streets. Although these disparate events may seem unconnected, they teach us that we are all bound together in an unbreakable web of mutuality. At our peril we have forgotten a truth that a gifted teacher taught me long ago: Our unity is not something that we are called to create; only to recognize. The imperative of our time is learning how to be a good neighbor.  

Psalm 119 has much to teach us.  It is an acrostic poem based on the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. It has twenty-two stanzas, with eight lines in each stanza. Jews use this psalm in the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Benedictine monks include it in the Book of
Hours. The Greek Orthodox church recites it in their liturgy. Many people memorize it and incorporate it into their daily meditations. I want to focus on what this psalm can teach us about the proper ordering of power in the commonwealth of this nation.

The theme of the psalm is announced in the opening verses: "Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!”(vv.1-3, RSV throughout). The psalm is both a prayer for instruction and guidance, and a pledge of loyalty to the law--the Torah. In addition to “the law,” the word “Torah” also means “to teach. The purpose of the law is to instruct Israel in the ways of the life for the guidance and benefit of the whole of humankind.Thus, the psalmist says: “Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes; and I will keep it to the end.Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart” (vv.33-4).The law has both a personal and a social dimension.

The political order in which we live deeply affects the way we live.The psalmist pledges loyalty to the law “even though princes sit plotting against me,” (v.23); prays for protection knowing that “Godless men have dug pitfalls for me” (v.85); and, vows, “I hate double-minded men, but I love thy law.” (v.113). The psalmist suggests that greed is corrupting the system, and says plainly: “Incline my heart to thy testimonies, and not to gain!” (v.36). The psalmist understands the law is a guardian of liberty and a source of hope in an uncertain time. Thus, the psalmist declares: “I shall walk at liberty . . . I will also speak of thy testimony before kings, and shall not be put to shame; for I find delight in thy commandments, which I love.” (vv.45-7).

I suspect that the psalmist was not grateful for the trouble he was in, but in the law he found a way to not to become cynical or to despair or to surrender to the status quo. The Law’s teaching and guidance gave him the strength he needed to fight for reform.

Perhaps it is this reformation spirit that attracted the well-known British reformer William Wilberforce to this psalm. John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, and other abolitionists had a profound influence on Wilberforce, but it was his faith and particularly Psalm 119 that sustained him in his long campaign to abolish slavery. A member of the British Parliament, Wilberforce introduced anti-slavery legislation into the House of Commons 12 times before it finally became the law of the British Empire in 1833.

In our own time when the struggle for ecological justice and social justice seems daunting, there are. two images of this psalm that I find particularly helpful.The psalmist prays, “Lead me in the path of thy commandments, for I delight in it” (v.35).Thus, when we think about the valence of the law we must take into consideration both an objective criterion--the path--and a subjective criterion--delight. The path of the law provides ethical standards that are necessary for social and personal well-being.The law commands us to: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev.19:18), and, “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut.6:5). The fruit of the law is personal delight and social delight.

To bring delight to the heart the law must impose justice and inspire hope. We delight in the law when it helps us answer the question: What kind of society do we want? Let me sharpen this question. The United States today is a Neo-Feudal society.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, for the first time in our nation’s history, on August 23, 2020, the combined wealth of the 12 richest people in the United States surpassed one trillion dollars. According to Alexandre Tanzi and Michael Sasso, who wrote a story entitled “Wealth Floats” in the November 19, 2019 issues of the Bloomberg Report,the top10 percent of the nation’s households held 60 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the lower 90 percent held less than 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. Not unrelated to these stories, the real income--income compared to the costs of goods and services-- of most people has flattened since the 1970s. The rising tide does not lift all the boats.

The events mentioned in the opening paragraph are not unrelated to the maldistribution of wealth in our nation. There is an inequality pandemic that is robbing the commonwealth of vital resources. Simply put, private wealth comes from the commonwealth and a fair share of that wealth must be returned to the commonwealth through taxes. We have a choice to make. We can choose to reclaim a greater share of private wealth for the commonwealth and rebuild our society, or we can give in to cynicism, despair, and the status quo. Just as William Wilberforce had to make a choice in the nineteenth century, each of us also has a responsibility to make a choice now in the twenty-first century. We can choose the way that delights and work to make it a reality.


The Torah teaches us that laws that delight provide for the poor and welcome the sojourner (Lev.19:9-10); pay honest wages (Lev. 19:13); and accomodate the needs of the deaf and the blind so that they are not blocked in any way (Lev.19:14). Laws that

Delight ensures that people can live in decent housing in safe communities, have access to affordable healthcare, receive a good education,and can drink safe water and breathe clean air. This is what love for our neighbor looks like in the public square.

In keeping with the pattern of previous meditations on the psalms, I am ending these reflections with a poem by Langston Hughes. The following is the last stanza of a poem he entitled: Freedom’s Plow.

A long time ago,  an enslaved people heading toward freedom made up a song:

Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
That plow plowed a new furrow
Across the field of history.

Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped. From that see a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow. That tree is for everybody,

For all America, for all the world
May its branches spread and its shelter grow 

Until all races and all peoples know its shade.


--The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes Arnold Rampersad, ed. Vintage Books

Rev. David Hansen