Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Psalm 16:8: Always Having G-d Before Us

I was on the bus today, and my mind could not help but to be fixated on a certain Biblical verse: Psalms 16:8. I was specifically focused on the first half, which says שויתי יהוה לנגדי תמיד, or "I have set G-d before me always." This verse actually shows up on a meditative plaque known as the shiviti (שויתי). I was surprised at how four words in Hebrew could cause so much meditative thought and angst. What sort of message(s) is the שויתי supposed to convey? After contemplating for a while, I came up with a few ideas. 

If we are to look at the verse in context of the entirety of Psalm 16, the overall theme is that of total commitment, which is established within the first four verses. The first verse is peculiar because the speaker is requesting that אל (El) protect the speaker. While אל means G-d in Hebrew, it can also be referring to the Canaanite deity El. This can allude that the speaker in this psalm is actually a convert to Judaism. Regardless of whether the speaker is a convert or King David himself, it is evident that the speaker has rejected the idols and has declared his allegiance to G-d (יהוה) by the fourth verse. 

The theme of commitment resonates through the rest of the psalm and is present in the eighth verse. Asking the question of "What does G-d want" is made clear with the word לנגדי (before me), meaning that what G-d wants supersedes what I want. The notion is echoed in Pirke Avot 2:4. Rabbi Gamliel said "that you are to do the will of G-d as if it were your own so that He will do your will as if it were His will." Per Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on Pirke Avot 2:4, one should do the will of G-d with the same energy and zeal of his own desires, which is another way of saying "set G-d before you." Rashi's commentary on the Pirke Avot verse suggests that one is to go as far as to sustain a personal loss in order to perform a mitzvah (i.e., His will). 

The Ba'al Shem Tov pointed something of interest out regarding the first word, שויתי. The word שויתי comes from the root שוה, which means "equal" or "even." What has been made equal? Everything in life. Whether we are having a good day or a terrible day, we are to serve G-d with the same alacrity, whose totality is confirmed with the psalm's usage of the word תמיד (always). 

A couple of alternatives arise by using juxtaposition, a sine qua non of Jewish interpretation. The seventh verse mentions kidneys. In the Bible, the kidneys figuratively act as a symbol of emotiveness. In this instance, the kidneys represent the biblical seat of conscience, which is another way of saying "judgement." The verse can be interpreted as a reminder of His omnipresence. By being omnipresent, it reminds us that we should always be "on our best behavior." Looking at the second half of the eight verse, G-d is "at my right hand, and I shall not be moved." Not being moved (בל אמוט) shows that G-d in turn hold us constant. It is a sign of encouragement because G-d is here to hold us steady, even when we're going through turbulent times. 

Postscript: My biggest kvetch here has to be the all-or-nothing mentality. The speaker has what the Chasidim call דבקות, which is cleaving to G-d, 24-7. That is why it is important to take the context of the speaker in mind. The speaker of this Psalm (most likely King David) is an exceptional human being. The human condition makes us imperfect, doubtful, and at times fragile. Especially when the going gets tough, it becomes very difficult to "give it your all." Much like with any goal setting, you have to know where you are right now and the destination (i.e., the goal). Not only that, you have to be aware of the obstacles in the way. There are times in which they can be overcome and times where they cannot. The ideal in Judaism is to be able to have דבקות. However, most of us cannot realistically obtain such a rapport with G-d. Does this mean we give up before even beginning? Absolutely not! Setting G-d before us always does not mean acting 100% perfectly 100% of the time. Such perfection is not human. What we are meant to do is love G-d with our heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). It would be fantastic to achieve perfection, but G-d didn't create us to pull it off, and G-d knows it. That's what makes G-d's mercy so wonderful. He understands and He forgives. So what does "setting G-d before us always" mean? Just be humble enough to realize you're only human and give it your best shot. G-d wouldn't want any less and couldn't expect any more than that.

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