Psalms II: The Divine Protector

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			These two Psalms that we have selected share a common theme, which is why they frequently ‎come together. These are Psalms 121 and 130. They don’t sound all that holy when they are ‎labeled as numbers so we shall not refer to them by their numbers. The first we shall call ‘I lift ‎my eyes’ and the second ‘From the depths’, for reasons that will become clear shortly. These ‎are short Psalms, each only 8 verses long. Yet they both cut right to the core of the Jewish ‎definition of prayer. A good argument could be made that the origins of Jewish prayer lie ‎with Psalms like this, perhaps even with these two Psalms. We will never know, but it makes ‎for an interesting possibility. ‎
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‎‘A song of ascents: I lift my eyes to the mountains, from where does my help come from? My ‎help comes Hashem, the Maker of the heavens and the earth. He will not allow your foot to ‎be moved, your Protector will not slumber. Behold, the Guardian of Israel does not slumber ‎or sleep. Hashem is your Protector, Hashem is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not ‎hurt you by day or the moon by night. Hashem will protect you from all evil; He will protect ‎your life/soul. Hashem will protect your comings and goings from now and forever’ (Psalms ‎‎121). ‎
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‎‘A song of ascents: From the depths I called out to you, Hashem. Lord, listen to my voice; let ‎Your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. If You, God, focus on iniquities, Lord ‎who can stand? For with You is forgiveness in order that You be feared. I have hoped for ‎Hashem, my soul has hoped, and I await Your word. My soul waits for the Lord more than ‎the watchmen wait for the morning, yes more than the watchmen wait for the morning. Israel ‎should hope in Hashem, for with Hashem is kindness and much redemption. He will redeem ‎Israel from all of its iniquities’ (Psalms 130). ‎
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They are simple expressions of prayer. There are examples of Jewish prayer from future ‎centuries that make these two Psalms seem downright primitive. But somehow they hit home, ‎zeroing right in on what it truly means to pray. What is their magic formula? ‎
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Analysis ‎
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For starters, there is no magic formula. This alone is important. Despite what occasionally ‎happened in the course of the next 2,500 years, Jewish prayer was really never anything more ‎than simple words expressing the human desire for the help and the longing for God, and the ‎human need to praise and thank God for everything. If there is anything magical about this, it ‎is the fact that it is simple and it works. There is no indication that prayer as we know it ‎originated with Judaism or with the Bible. For all we know, prayer was already alive and ‎kicking long before Ezra and the early Scribes, before David, before Moshe, and perhaps ‎before Abraham. Psalms like these played a pivotal role in establishing what the course of ‎Jewish prayer would become. ‎
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What is a ‘song of ascents? Why does ‘I lift my eyes’ begin with a question and not a ‎statement declaring where help comes from? Why is the source of help the ‘Maker of the ‎heavens and the earth’ and not some other more personal aspect of God? What does it mean ‎to cry out to Hashem ‘from the depths’? Why would iniquities stand in the way of God ‎listening to prayer? What are all these expressions of hope and awaiting – what is the Psalmist ‎waiting for? ‎
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With these questions on these particular Psalms we have to ask the general question of what ‎prayer really is. What is its purpose? What is it trying to achieve? How did Jewish prayer ‎develop from these simple Psalms into the multi-faceted form of worship of the Jewish ‎religion that it ultimately became? Finally what is the image of God that lies at the core of ‎these Psalms and of Jewish prayer itself? ‎
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The Psalms are the essence of prayer. The purpose of prayer as we shall explore in specific ‎essays in the next four sections, is to interact with God. There are two primary modes for this ‎interaction – the acceptance mode of praise and gratitude, and the request mode of needs and ‎desires. While this may sound like a simple explanation of what is such a complex and varied ‎method of human spirituality and thought, it really hits the nail on the head. The goal of ‎Jewish prayer and religious prayer in general, is to commune with one’s image of the deity ‎through meditative thought and spoken words in order to both understand and revere that ‎image and to appeal to it to fulfill life needs and desires. ‎
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Prayer had to have a personal element. It could not be done by proxy. This is where the ‎Psalms fit in. They enabled each individual to voice their own worship to God. It didn’t need ‎to be done in the premises of the temple. It didn’t even need a temple to be standing. ‎
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When the Jews lost their temple, the sacrifices and the priestly functions largely disappeared. ‎Personal prayer, which evolved into communal prayer, became the central feature of Jewish ‎worship. The Psalms were likely there from the beginning. They were probably the first ‎universal expressions of the Jewish method of communing with God. We don’t know the ‎exact sequence of events. Perhaps the Psalms were first. Perhaps the Shema was first. Perhaps ‎they merged at some point and simply became prayer. Eventually they were joined by the ‎Amidah and scores of blessings and assorted other forms. In the end, it resulted in the ‎Siddur, the Jewish prayer system. ‎
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‎‘I lift my eyes’ begins with a question, not with a statement. ‘I lift my eyes to the mountains, ‎from where does my help come?’ This remarkable introduction zeros us in on the inquisitive ‎nature of the human interaction with God. Ultimately, it is all a mystery. We cannot see God ‎like we see a fire. We cannot touch God like we can touch a person or an animal. But we ‎know that God is there. Where is God? To ask this question and to answer it, the Psalmist ‎says ‘I lift my eyes to the mountains’. Gazing at the mountain both forces the question and it ‎draws out the answer. When I look to the mountains I must ask myself, from where my true ‎help springs. And in asking, I know the answer – it comes from Hashem, who made the ‎heavens and the earth. Hashem made those mountains. Help ultimately only comes from the ‎Maker of everything, and who is the only real security in life. ‎
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Every other source of security will falter at some point, either due to its own weakness, or ‎because it will lose interest. Hashem never sleeps on the job. Hashem’s protection is as ‎universal as shade from the sun. Hashem’s protection, as invisible and undetectable as it may ‎be, is wider in scope than anything else. It protects not only against physical and social ‎dangers, but against the spiritual dangers associated with evil. Hashem’s protection lasts ‎forever, accompanying us wherever we go, from birth until the moment of death. ‎
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What does it mean to cry to Hashem ‘from the depths’? The Psalms are not afraid to delve ‎into the depths of human emotion. In fact, this is their very greatness, their most penetrating ‎beauty. They do not shirk at exposing the seedier sides of life – the anger, the arrogance, the ‎lust, frustration – that are really essential parts of life itself. Sadness and despair permeate the ‎Psalms, even in the middle of praise and joy. These are the depths. They are the depths that ‎the soul can reach, that the soul inevitably will reach, as it journeys through life. It is not only ‎from the lofty heights, but also from the murky depths, that a human being cries out to ‎Hashem. ‎
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It is in submerging to these depths that we are forced to confront our own fallibility. We have ‎shortcomings. We can try to change them, to repent, etc., but the bottom line is that there will ‎always be more shortcomings. These are the iniquities. They are the crooked side of our ‎personalities. They do get in the way of our relationship with God. That is an unavoidable ‎fact of spiritual life. We all sense it and there is no point in denying it. However, what we can ‎do is to ask Hashem to work around them in meeting us halfway. If the shortcomings are an ‎impenetrable obstacle, who can possibly stand? But Hashem can overlook them in interacting ‎with us, even as Hashem remembers them in bigger picture. With such a relationship, a ‎relationship of us knowing that we have problems and having to beg Hashem to temporarily ‎overlook those problems, all we can really do is hope. We wait and we hope. We wait and we ‎hope for some form of redemption, some sense of ultimate worth that makes us feel that our ‎lives have mattered. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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We all need to pray. It is possible that many will deny that need, or ignore it. It is likely ‎that many will not want to associate that need with a deity, such as the monotheistic God of ‎Judaism. They might want to pray to their own inner self, or some ‘spirit’, or the nothingness ‎that permeates all of reality, or the universal sense of meaning that we are all aware of. It ‎really doesn’t matter all that much to the basic fact that we all need to pray. It is a need that ‎has probably been around in one form or another since human beings first became aware that ‎they were human and that they were beings. It is an essential part of conscious existence. ‎
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These Psalms do more than simply lay out the core structure of Jewish prayer. They also help ‎shape the image of God that emerges from those prayers. That image is formed when we ask ‎the question after looking to the mountains. It is formed when we sink to the depths and cry ‎out in desperation. It is formed when we understand that our only true security in this ‎insecure world comes from the Maker of the heavens and the earth. It is formed when we ‎hope and wait for redemption. ‎
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It is an image of a God who is there, waiting for us as we wait for Him. It is an image of a ‎God who is willing to go down into those depths and help us climb out. It is an image of ‎something stronger than the mountains, more enduring than the heavens, more solid than the ‎earth. This is the image of the God of prayer. The God who helps when we need help, who ‎gives security when we need security, who is always ready to listen, who accompanies us not ‎matter how low we descend, and who waits for our cries to grant us some sense of ‎redemption. Perhaps the most vivid image in all of this is that of the Protector. We may think ‎of a protector as the nighttime security guard who eagerly awaits the dawn so he can catch ‎some sleep. But God is the Protector who never sleeps. The Protector never slumbers, even ‎when we do. This is the image of the divine Protector, always there to protect, always there to ‎hear the cry for help, always willing to do the job no matter how unworthy those who need ‎protection may be. We look to the mountains for help, and we rest knowing that we are ‎always being protected. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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This is a beautiful and reassuring image that we all can relate to. No matter how self-assured ‎we may be, we all need a little protection from outside. Is this a sign of strength or of ‎weakness? ‎


		


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