God Squad: Taking a look at Psalm 15, among the short Psalms for summer study
1 Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?
2 He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.
3 He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour.
4 In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the Lord. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.
5 He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved. (King James Version)
What is Psalm 15 about? This is an entry psalm that was probably chanted as the pilgrims entered the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem during the Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot holidays bringing sacrificial offerings. However, since it is a psalm of David it predates the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem and is referring to the portable tabernacle and ark that was carried by the people from Mount Sinai, through the desert wanderings and finally into Jerusalem. On the broadest and deepest spiritual level, we spend way too much time telling God what we want from God and way to little time reflecting upon what God wants from us. Psalm 15 is a rectification of that spiritual imbalance.
What is interesting to me is that nothing God wants from us is purely ritual. Everything God wants from us is purely ethical. Lighting candles is a ritual act that can be done by an evil person. Being kind to those in need is an ethical act that can only be performed by a good person. It is really that simple. Only good people, kind people, loving people, compassionate people, just people are worthy of coming close to God. The highest truth is that such people do not do good things and then come close to God. They are already close to God when they do good things.
Each verse of Psalm 15 gives us a list of good things to do. Here is the list in my own translation/commentary, starting with Verse 2:
2. Be just and be innocent and speak the truth.
3. Do not gossip, and watch what you say so that it does not cause harm to others.
4. Honor those who are morally worthy of being honored. Keep your word.
5. Be generous and charitable with your money. Don't accept a bribe.
So, the preparation for doing religious rituals properly is to live an ethical life properly. This is not a rejection of rituals. It is a rejection of rituals performed by people who live unexamined lives. This was the secret of my friendship with Father Tom Hartman. Tommy and I did not share a single ritual practice. In the springtime holidays of Passover/Easter, he ate chocolate bunnies, and I ate horseradish. Even when there were similarities between our rituals, they were still different. I ate unleavened bread, but it was just bread. In the Eucharist, he ate unleavened bread that was the body of Christ. I blessed wine that was just wine, and he blessed wine that was the blood of Christ. However, we shared in full and equal measure every ethical practice taught to us by God. Truth be told, Tommy was better than me in performing rituals and in living an ethical life, but we were on the same path up the same mountain to the same God. That was our bond. That was the secret of the God Squad. That is the meaning of Psalm 15.
One final thought. What if the abode in the tabernacle of God is not the ancient Temple of Solomon but Heaven or, in Judaism, The World To Come? There is an old rabbinic legend that when we die and our souls are brought to God, the first question God will ask us is, "Were you honest in your work?" Do you think God cares more about our moral virtue or our ritual punctiliousness? I am voting for the moral life. In fact, if God lets me, I am voting twice!
Let us study:
What ethical practices do we most need to take more seriously?
Are there some ethical commandments that psalm 15 left out?
Why do we so frequently call people who are ritually observant religious, but people who are good through and through but not religious just good?
Psalm 15 ends with a promise from God. The promise is not that moral people will be rewarded. The promise is that moral people will not be defeated or shaken, deterred or broken, or abandoned by God. Psalm 15 is not a guarantee of an easy life. It is a guarantee of a holy life.
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at email@example.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.