Saturday, July 13, 2013

Tehillim for What?

Here in America on vacation, it's strange to be back where I grew up. Things are the same, but they're not. My mother cut down the trees in front of her house. The Giant is gone, and now it's a kosher food store. The shul I grew up davening in is now named for Rabbi Anemer, zt"l, who I miss. It's the same shul, and I know some of the older members, but I look around and don't know most of the people. This is natural of course, but jarring nonetheless. In my mind, things are supposed to remain the same, which they do not.

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After davening each morning and evening in shul here in Silver Spring, they recite a chapter of Tehillim. Actually, while they used to make their way through the entire book on a rotation, now they say only one chapter each and every time: Tehillim 130  - שיר המעלות ממעמקים קראתיך ה - "A song of ascent; from the depths I called out to you, God." After davening one morning, I asked a local why they say the chapter of Tehillim.
"For Israel," he told me.
"What about Israel?" I asked.
"You know," he insisted. "The situation in Israel.
I pushed back, wondering what situation he was talking about. After all, I live in Israel, and things are pretty quiet right now. In fact, according to an opinion piece I read today in the Washington Post, things have never been quieter. In a somewhat incoherent opinion piece, Michael Gerson writes,
Israel is also protecting its “villa in the jungle” (former prime minister Ehud Barak’s description) more effectively than most thought possible. The vast security wall is ugly but effective. The Iron Dome and other missile defense systems have proved their worth. The result is the best security situation in Israel’s history.
Sure, Syria is in the midst of the civil war, and both Lebanon and Egypt seem to be tottering on the bring of one. But in Israel, life proceeds normally. Children attend day camp, parents go to work, families go to the beach; the summer vacation season is about to hit full swing. The biggest challenges: food costs too much; kids are far too bored, and we're at each others' throats about religious issues like whether women can daven at the kotel dressed as men (silly), and the identities of the next Chief Rabbis (very important). We're not saying Tehillim in Yad Binyamin for any specific "situation". Why then are they reciting one of the most desperate, pleading chapters of Tehillim twice daily?

1. The first answer relates to the recitation of Tehillim themselves. We believe in the efficacy of prayer, and will say Tehillim at will. Who doesn't get emails calling for us to drop everything (or join a group) and say Tehillim for a sick child, a friend in need, or a myriad of other causes - many of which truly are desperate? And of course, when the situation in Israel does indeed warrant Tehillim, communities around the world rally to support the Jewish State not just physically, but spiritually as well. The problem is knowing when to stop. When has the situation returned to a sufficiently normal state to stop saying that extra chapter? Once you've started saying it, can you really ever stop? (Maybe the Chief Rabbinate should have a color-coded system, so that people can know when and how many Tehillim to say. You know what I mean: Green means no additional chapters. Yellow alert=five chapters of mid-level Tehillim; Red Alert: All the Shir Ha'maalots twice a day.) I liken additional Tehillim to antibiotics. They're great on an emergency basis. But when you start using them every day, they lose their effectiveness. After all, can a person really "call out from the depths" every morning and evening? How can you really be in the depths that often? That person doesn't need prayer; she needs therapy. Thus, the Tehillim become mere words; recitation by rote with no emotional depth or meaning. That isn't prayer, and carries little meaning, if any at all. To my mind, Tehillim can and are over-prescribed. And, like overused antibiotics, when you really need them, if you've been taking them every day, they lose their effectiveness.

2. The second cause of the daily Tehillim recitation relates not to the Tehillim, but to the way Diaspora Jews relate to the Jewish State. I'll call it the Cable News Effect - but it's also about the alphabet soup of Jewish Organizations which do wonderful work on behalf of the Jewish State, and especially the Israel-related websites that most English speaking Jews read regularly.
How do they get your attention? They can't tell you that the price of cottage cheese is too high. Who would give money for that? We've all got financial problems. No, they raise the threat level. They ratchet it up high enough to get you to care, click, get involved, and most importantly, donate. There's always a terrorist threat (true enough), and they make it seem like what's happening in Syria or Lebanon are actually happening in Ashdod and Lod. This creates a real disconnect from the reality that is life in Israel. It's meaningful and challenging and sometimes infuriating, but it's also real life. Thank God, there is no "situation" right now. But too many Jews in America think that there is - always. So they recite Tehillim and donate and care, all the while sure that they could never live there either. After all, who could live in a place where they need to recite a special chapter of Tehillim for it twice a day?

Tehillim is great, and I'm all for prayer. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. When there really is a situation, Jews around the world will know it. But for now, perhaps it would be better if Jews around the world recognized that life in Israel is truly wonderful, and they should save their Tehillim for when we really need it.