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Learning From Psalms by Rabbi Yaakov Bieler

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While Jewish liturgy very much emphasizes God’s various attributes, in the spirit of “imitateo Dei” (learning from God’s macro example to embody, as best we can, Godly behavior on our micro level), every so often biblical verses are quoted or Rabbinic interpolations cited that squarely place responsibility upon the pray-er to aspire to “raising his/her game” with respect to his ethics and values.
One such verse from the book of Psalms is recited every Sunday morning as the Psalm of the day, and on Monday and Thursday mornings, as well as Shabbat afternoons, when the beginning of the coming week’s Torah reading is presented publicly. The Sefer Torah is the most holy artifact in the Jewish tradition, and there is great pomp and circumstance when it is first removed from the Ark, and then again when it is brought back and secured within it. Psalm 24 is recited while the Tora is being returned, and verse 4 of that Psalm presents four qualities that the Psalmist feels that a developed spiritual personality should try as much as possible to consistently represent. In response to the previous verse’s rhetorical question, “Who shall ascend into the mountain of the LORD? And who shall stand in His holy place?”  four criteria are listed:
 Psalms 24:4
1) He that hath clean hands,
 and 2) a pure heart; 
3) who hath not taken My Name in vain,
 and 4) hath not sworn deceitfully.
Prior to taking the measure of the “gestalt” of these four elements, it is befitting to consider them individually:
  1. “He that hath clean hands”—obviously the reference is not only to physical purity, but also to spiritual cleanliness. It is notable that various forms of cleanliness constitute, according to this verse, the prerequisite to attaining a high quality of spiritual awareness. In the words of another verse from Psalms: (Ibid. 34:15) “Separate from evil and do good…”, i.e., to avoid hypocrisy, every individual has to first make sure that he is not involved in questionable activities. Only then is he deemed prepared to attempt to enter more rarified areas of holiness.
  1. “A pure heart”—one biblical commentator defines this concept as referring to one’s thoughts as well as his/her beliefs. While Judaism is very much about actions, and doing the “right thing” is of great importance, if the intent informing a particular behavior is negative (as opposed to simply neutral), i.e., one is charitable in order to impress others, pious so that he can feel superior, etc., some contend that it would be better if s/he never embarked on such a course of action in the first place. Consequently, “cleanliness” is not just a matter of external hygiene and avoidance of improper behavior, it is also an internal dimension that requires constant introspection and serious reflection.
  1. “Hath not taken My Name in vain”—when someone has respect for another, he will not do things that might imply his disdain for that individual, e.g., uselessly invoking his name, commanding his attention unnecessarily, or citing him improperly as a reference. The fact that God is conceptually abstract, should not make one think that He can be more easily taken advantage of than a flesh-and-blood human being. Therefore, how we relate to others, whose existences are very tangible and who share this world with us, should certainly be respectful and proper.  

(An individual who does not believe in God's existence, or at least has his doubts regarding whether there is a God, should still be able to take this standard to heart, in terms of what it might mean with regard to how s/he treats others. And as for someone who does believe in God, the manner in which he fulfills Commandments between man and God should positively impact the manner in which he relates to Commandments between man and man.)

  1. “Hath not sworn deceitfully”—oaths and vows reveal a great deal about people, both from the perspective of what is said in the heat of the moment, and then whether the individual is careful to follow through on the commitment he has made, or the sentiment he expressed. In Judaism, there is a mechanism for absolving oneself of utterances that were invoked without thinking through what one is saying. It involves having a conversation with Torah scholars who will investigate the situation and determine what the individual ought to do. Swearing falsely is clearly problematic since it appears that doing so is intended to mislead another, something that is clearly prohibited; the verse in question, however, appears to focus upon someone who vows in vein, i.e., there is no need for him to do so. Perhaps it is similar to the Aesop’s fable of “the boy who cried wolf.” ( Words of all kinds are powerful, and by randomly and needlessly saying things in the form of vows and oaths, what one says becomes meaningless and no one will take them seriously.
There remains the question of why these particular four values/behaviors constitute for the Psalmist the quintessential description of someone who has become a truly spiritual personality. While there may be many different interpretations, what occurs to me is that they are all evidence of a kind of “mindfulness” which is very necessary in order to achieve a modicum of holiness. It is expected that 1) + 2) one pay attention to the state of his inner and outer reality, 3) that he evidences deep respect for everyone with whom he interacts, and 4) he pays great attention to what he says and how he says such things. Combining these four emphases seems to serve as a prescription for a more meaningful, spiritual existence for all.
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993.
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
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