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The Release Valve on the Pressure Cooker of Transgressions

Delivered on Sunday, October 30, 2016 at the 1st Congregationalist Church in Stockbridge, MA. Over this Shabbat and weekend, Hevreh and the 1st Church swapped pulpits. Rev. Brent Damrow spoke from the Hevreh Bima on Friday evening.

An interpretation of Psalm 32 —

Psalm 32:L’David maskil, For David, maskil.”

We do not know what that Hebrew word maskil means in the context of the book of Psalms. In Hebrew a maskil is a wise person. We use the Hebrew term Haskalah, coming from the same root, to refer to the 19th Century Enlightenment. It was a time for the Jewish community, when the ghetto walls were broken down, when our community was given citizenship in Napoleonic France and other European countries, when we were given access to European academies. It was the time when modern Jewish life was born, a time that is marked by tremendous scholastic strides in Jewish thinking. Hence its descriptor—the Haskalah.

v. 1–2: “Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over. Happy is the man whom Adonai/the Eternal God/the Lord does not hold guilty, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”

Psalm 32 is the first of seven Psalms that have long been seen as a liturgical unit in the life of the Christian church. These seven Psalms, in Walter Brueggemann’s perspective, are about disorientation. They push us, as the readers and pray-ers of these Psalms, to consider how we contend with the disorientation or dissonance of sinning, while still remaining close to God.

Yet the opening word is Ashrei, happy. In the Jewish view, it is that word which draws connection from psalm to psalm. Ashrei is a Psalms word. 26 times it appears in this particular book of the Bible, with only a smattering of references throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible. The psalmist is first concerned with happiness. The poet proclaims: Let my prayer be about my ultimate goal. How do I get to happiness? “Happy is the man… in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Happy is the one whose conscience is clear. The Psalmist longs for contentment, to feel a sense of blessedness. “Ashrei t’mimei derech, Blessed are those who are perfect in their ways, who follow the teachings of the Eternal God,” says the Psalmist in the opening of Psalm 119. In Psalm 32, though, the poet longs for that blessed happiness because he carries guilt and shame. He has sinned. He has transgressed. He has gone astray.

This is the person who longs to be close to God, the same person who says in Psalm 143, “Adonai, sh’ma t’filati, Eternal God, hear my prayer, give ear to my plea, as You are faithful; answer me, as You are beneficent.”

The spiritual life is constructed out of the question mark, out of doubt and wonder. The Psalmist is not confident that God is present. God, I have sinned, and I feel alone. And so, I pray: be with me. Forgive me. Help return me to happiness. Let me feel Your blessings.

v. 3–4: “As long as I said nothing, my limbs wasted away from my anguished roaring all day long. For night and day Your hand lay heavy on me; my vigor waned as in the summer drought.”

As long as I silently worry, the disruption eats at me internally. I am worried. I am anxious. I roar internally, and I feel it in my limbs. At night I lay awake, racked with anxiety. At daybreak, I have no energy to do what must be done. My guilt, my shame—these parts of me are in the driver’s seat of my soul. Not faith, not confidence, certainly not happiness. As long as I said nothing, as long as I remained silent, as long as I did not give voice to these anxieties, I empowered them. When I stay silent, within me, they roar with power.

Such is the nature of guilt when we internalize it. When we do wrong, when we sin, when we transgress, if we take ownership of what has happened, we can feel it in our bones, in our limbs. It is that feeling of being wracked with guilt, but not having said anything about it. Internally, we scream and shout, we twist and turn and contort feeling the heaviness of the guilt, losing tremendous energy over it, and feeling parched like living through a summer drought. Such is the nature of guilt when we internalize it.

I recall a moment as a child, when on the playground, I called a friend a rude name. He was offended and ran off crying. That moment he took off to sooth himself is seared in my brain, because it was when the guilt set in. It tingled down my spine, tensed up my jaw, and made my stomach tie into knots. I said nothing when my mother picked me up from school. I said nothing as my father read to me before bedtime. I said nothing as I lay staring at the ceiling trying to fall asleep. Until I could not take it anymore. I ran into my parents bedroom, crying and sick to my stomach. When I was finally able to get a word out, I confessed my transgressions. I told them what I had done, and that I was very, very sorry, and that I would never do it again. What can I say, Jewish guilt is real. Such is the nature of guilt, and such is the nature of release.

v. 5 & 7: “Then I acknowledged my sin to You; I did not cover up my guilt; I resolved, “I will confess my transgressions to the Eternal,” and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah…. You are my shelter; You preserve me from distress; You surround me with the joyous shouts of deliverance. Selah.”

In our High Holy Days liturgy, over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we recite the prayer known as Avinu Malkeinu. Literally it translates to “Our Father, Our King.” We have come to understand it as “Our Parent, Our Sovereign.” Just as a parent shows love and compassion to their child, and just as a sovereign gives guidance and direction, God is there for us. When guilt roars within us like a lion, God is there to offer forgiveness and to grant us comfort, to preserve us from our own distress. God is a sacred release valve on the pressure cooker of transgressions.

Invariably, we will miss the mark. We will do the wrong thing. Contrition is a sacred lesson, because it leads us to a greater sense of wholeness. That is the entire rationale for Yom Kippur, for an entire day of atonement. The Gates are open to us, the book of life for the coming year is open and God is inscribing our names in it. On Yom Kippur, each worshiper is confronted with a choice: Will this be a year for goodness or not? Will this year be a year to strive toward holiness? What are the roadblocks keeping me from sanctity? We pray, “God, inscribe us for blessing in the book of good life, health, and happiness.” And as the gates close, as the day of Yom Kippur comes to an end, we pray that we are sealed yet again in that book of life. We are taught to not hold onto our guilt or our sins, but to confess them, to let them go, and to move forward into the next chapter of our lives. In this way, God is a sacred release valve on the pressure cooker of transgressions.

v. 10–11: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but he who trusts in the Lord shall be surrounded with favor. Rejoice in the Lord and exult, O you righteous; shout for joy, all upright men!”

When we build a spiritual practice or live a spiritual life in which we create open pathways between God and us, we surround ourselves with favor. We find rejoicing possible. Uprightness is possible. Joy is possible. Racked with guilt we roar like the lion, we feel the sins in our bones. But confessing sin creates release and lightness that allows us to walk a path toward greater wholeness and sanctity.

Then, we can be like the psalmist who proclaims “Ashrei, happy are those who; blessed are the ones who…”

Walter Brueggemann writes that this psalm is “not an invitation to a fearful moralism… The guilt to be acknowledged is not… a set of religious sins. It concerns rather the idol-making ideologies of our day, which reduce life to management and reduce the terror of God’s holiness to a set of religious niceties.” Brueggemann reads this Psalm as a call toward holiness. That the transgressions we commit are the guilts we carry within us that serve as roadblocks to communion with God, to a real and personal relationship with God. The psalmist invites us to consider the guilts we carry that block us from that relationship — what ways in our culture do we deny and suppress and cover up sacred living in the name of competence, prosperity, and success? [adapted from Brueggemann] Because in the end, the Psalmist invites us to yield control, to give in to God, to get into real and personal conversation with God, and thereby find that release and energy that drives us to say Ashrei! We are happy, we are whole, we are sacred.

May each of us untie the knots that tie us down. May we find the release we seek in order to walk a more holy path. May we each be on a path to greater wholeness and holiness. Amen.


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