Priests guarded and served in the Temple in around-the-clock shifts, called mishmarot. In Psalm 63, the psalmist declares, “In the night watches, I meditate on you.” And then the words turn decidedly romantic, “my spirit thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, as in a land parched and thirsty, without water.” Such imagery echoes the Biblical book of Song of Songs, Maimonides the philosopher self-describing a constancy of thought of God; and the Yedid Nefesh prayer that we recite each Friday night, “Beautiful, splendrous light of the world, my soul is sick with love. God please heal her by bathing her in Your serene light” (Lev Shalem translation).
At the end of the last class, a Holocaust-survivor participant, Jack Pariser asked what the Psalmist’s addresses to God mean to me. Let me respond. Each Psalm is a letter to God. As a teacher of prayer, I have developed the exercise of writing letters to and from God as a way to access the power of prayer. The letter to God, like a Psalm, allows for unfiltered emotion and thought. For if God knows us and does not tell our secrets, we speak in an unguarded way. We may often surprise ourselves with what emerges, offering insight and catharsis, enabling direction and hope. At its best, prayer may change how we see the world, rather than change the world itself. In speaking to God, I bring to mind a caring Presence. All words naming God are but metaphors, such as Strength, Truth, Supreme One, YHVH (breath-like). I do not consciously pray to God to supernaturally change nature or to intervene in human cruelty. Rather as I pray to God, I invoke the core goodness that flows through me and is imbedded in creation as loving consciousness. I hear the words of the Psalmists as words of the past that ripple forward and become my expressions of longing and seeing the world as ultimately governed by kindness and truth through a flowing Divine love. Such a faith is a choice and is for me a genuine reality.
At the same time, the words of the Torah are sometimes jarringly extreme. So back to Psalm 63:10-11, the Psalmist also declares, “…they who seek my spirit…let them be gutted by the sword; may they become prey for the jackals.” In a world of immediate violence and pervasive vulnerability, the Psalmist’s words go beyond my normal orientation. And yet, as the child of Holocaust survivors, I too acknowledge the reality of evil and the need to eradicate it. Mostly, when the words of the Psalmist are extreme, I read them as more metaphor than a call to extreme violence. And I do not see God as intervening against a foe other than by evoking our own strength, faith, and determination to do what is right.
There is great power in writing a letter to God as a vehicle for self-expression, discovery, and engaging a perspective that transcends our own immediate needs. Psalms offer God-talk that is consistently uplifting toward my best self, coupled with owning the challenges of life. A fuller description of a theology with which I am identified, is offered by listening to the three, recent lectures (provided below) by my dear friend, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.
Lectures by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Almighty? No Way! Embracing the God You Already Love-click to watch
Renewing the Process of Creation: Integrating Science and Religion-click to watch
Revelation & Redemption in Process Theology-Click to watch