Why Did I Just Notice You Now?

How an oft repeated line in psalms jumped the page into my brain

Every once and a while my spiritual clock and my physical clock align, and I am open to an insight that had been hiding in plain sight for decades. We have recently completed 9 days of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret observance, and one of those observances was saying the Hallel every day. On one of the first days for no apparent reason the clocks aligned, and my eyes were drawn to a phrase in the prayer.

The Psalmist begins by declaring his love for God who has always been there for him. He was in a life-threatening situation and thought it was all over, but he prayed to God and God saved him.

He writes, “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling”. And yet the psalm ends with what for me was a shocking twist.

“I have kept faith even when I was greatly afflicted, When, unthinking, ‘I condemned all life as vain’”.

Another translation puts it even stronger, “I said in my haste: ‘All mankind is deceitful.’”

This was the line in a prayer that I had repeated hundreds of times in my life but on that day it threw me a curve. How did someone so enamored with God ever get to such a low point? How did someone who wrote, “Gracious, just and merciful is the Lord; The Lord is the guardian of the simple. I was brought low, and the Lord saved me”, ever get so depressed as to condemn all life as vain?

Day after day I mulled over the line trying to figure out why it was bothering me so much. If he was a man of faith, how did he become so cynical about the world around him and if he wasn’t a man of faith why was he calling out to God so much?

I can’t answer for him, but I can share how I was trying to unravel the dilemma. In our time atheism is rising to unprecedented levels, with more and more of our intellectuals, philosophers and educated professionals making fun of religious belief.

When science is seen as the supreme truth and Bible thumping evangelicals and fundamentalists are trying to force their views onto the life practices of our fellow citizens, I look at this simple act of faith as naive and delusional. If God “protects the simple” why was the psalmist in so much danger in the first place?

If as a parent my job is to protect my children and I see them falling into danger my first job is to stop them from ever getting into such a dangerous situation that only my intervention might save their life. At the least we can accuse God of being slow to get into the game.

On the other hand, the psalmist did not know how to get out of his life-threatening situation and the enemies were other people more powerful than he. It was then that he realized that the source of his danger were people, who were “deceitful” and who made this world “vain”. The only source for hope that he had was God since he could never count on other people for help.

This led for me to two conclusions that though based on differing ides of God, brings help to the helpless.

When it is clear that man, science and technology cannot save us, we have only one place to turn, and that is God. If God is God and for God’s own reasons, decides to help us then praying to God makes sense. After all, we have no other option.

If we don’t believe in God or are unsure about the existence or involvement of God, then we return to the angst and hopelessness of the psalmist who declared, “all life is vain”.

In that position we not only have no help from God, but we lose all sense of hope. Without hope we can not muster our own resources to effect a positive change. Hopelessness depletes our T-cells that allow the body to fight infection. Depression shuts down our creative faculties and deprives us of our best intellect to find a way out of our crises. Believing in God whether God exists or God forbid does not exist, gives us hope and increases our chances of survival.

Even when in the grips of affliction and hitting the nadir of hopelessness the psalmist condemned all life as vain; it was only a temporary relapse because he was able to summon up his belief in God and he was able to be saved.

Does it matter if God saved him, or the belief in God saved him? What matters is that belief in God gives the believer a tool that the atheist will never have. That is why making a misheberach for a very sick person makes sense. Even with Debbie Friedman’s haunting Misheberach melody, do we know if God is going to intervene or even know what that intervention will look like?

Of course not, but I know that all the loved ones surrounding the very sick relative or friend, feel that they are contributing to the healing process and sharing that with the patient can only help.

I think the reason the passage stayed with me all week was that given all the sadness , disease and suffering that my career has and continues to expose me to, from time to time I need to refresh, recharge and remember that I want to live in a world not of vanity and deceit, but in a world that “ I love Hashem for He hears my voice..” And the prayers are the reinforcing tools for me to get there.

I hope you will join me in that world.

This blog post is dedicated to Mort Schulman, a congregant, a friend, a regular reader and a Sheina Yid, who passed away this morning (Oct 11). May God grant his Neshama an Aliyah.

Please share with friends and family and all are invited to join the blog by sending me an email at ravpp1@gmail.com with your full name and email.

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Rabbi Paul Plotkin

I am a retired Conservative Rabbi. I was a pulpit Rabbi for 40 years. I supervise a chain of kosher Delis called Ben's .